David Lister: These authors' musings should be treasured, not thrown away

The Week in Arts

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The BBC is well known to have carelessly wiped or lost some of its best-loved work – most of the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore shows from the Sixties, for example. But this week, in the first episode of a BBC4 series on novelists talking, an even more startling example of carelessness was pointed out. George Orwell made radio broadcasts for the corporation for two years, but not a single second of his voice survives.

Not so much careless as criminal. The programme did, though, contain some remarkable radio and TV archive interviews. From Virginia Woolf on the need to keep beauty in the English language, to E M Forster trying to explain why he "dried up" after A Passage to India, to Christopher Isherwood describing the cigarette-stained hands and white powdered face of the real Sally Bowles, it was utterly absorbing.

We love hearing authors talk. That is why, in a swift move from one sort of author to very much another, it is so wrong of Tony Blair to have a set of restrictions at his London book signings which forbid anyone to converse with him. The pleasure of a book signing is not so much the signature as that snatch of conversation with the writer.

It is also why, of all the different festivals taking place in Edinburgh at the moment, the most memorable often turns out to be the book festival. Often the memories are of unpredictable moments. Roy Hattersley one year spoke of his friendship with Gordon Brown and his start in politics under the eye of the then Labour deputy leader George Brown. After an increasingly confused dialogue with a member of the audience, the penny dropped with Hattersley that they were talking about different Browns. "You mustn't confuse the two," he chided the questioner. "One is a son of the manse. The other was a fur salesman."

At Hay-on-Wye this year, the historian Niall Ferguson talked about the need for a different sort of history teaching in schools, after which a member of the audience stood up, said he had made a note of this and would take it on board. It was the Government's education secretary, Michael Gove, who happened to be visiting.

There are always surprises, but there should also be rules. I felt slightly cheated once by Ian McEwan, who spent almost the whole hour reading from his book rather than taking questions. Keep readings to a quarter of an hour maximum. Authors reading their own work bring few new insights and often not much of a voice. (It was a very good move by one author at Edinburgh this week to employ professional actors to do the reading.)

The real joy of a book festival is not the reading. Nor is it solely learning more about characters and their motivations, enriching as this is. It is discovering the personality and views of the author, those often being as well concealed now (beyond the few well-known media stars) as they were in Forster's day. That discovery can stay in the memory much longer than a host of stand-ups on the Fringe.

Bad reviews can lead to good material

Simon Amstell chairing the pop quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks was one of the more watchable turns on TV. He had charm, acerbic wit and an anarchic tendency. Now he has co-written and stars in a new sitcom, Grandma's House, which is about Simon Amstell and his angst over giving up showbiz and spending time with his extended Jewish family. It is almost a British version of the great American sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. Almost.

The reviews for Grandma's House have been mixed, as they say. Amstell has been accused of not being able to act, the script clichéd and the characters stereotyped. But with the sort of persona Amstell has on screen and off, I wonder whether poor reviews are necessarily a bad thing. They might add to his angst, produce better comedy and even provide script material. Will the next series start with the angst-ridden Amstell poring over the reviews of the first series and retreating further into his shell? At least by then it might be a better-acted shell.

Same band, different singer – doesn't work

Sooner or later they all come back. The bands from the Sixties and Seventies re-form in one guise or another. With a re-formed band the odd change of line-up is par for the course. But it can get a little silly when the vocalist changes. Bands rightly or wrongly are usually identified with the vocalist, and if the new voice is completely different from the one on the records, it jars, even if the lead guitar is identical.

It would be hard to think of a more ridiculous example of this than the Seventies band the Faces re-forming without their front man Rod Stewart. But there they are, back playing gigs with Mick Hucknall, quite a different prospect and certainly a different timbre, doing the vocals. Like him or loathe him, Rod Stewart with his distinctive, gravelly voice was the sound of that particular band. Paying to see the new set-up makes about as much sense as paying to see the Stones without Mick Jagger or Arctic Monkeys without Alex Turner.

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