Telling it like it isn't

'Film people can never bring themselves to say that anything they do is rubbish; whereas we know that most of what they do is rubbish'
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The Independent Online

If you are in the theatre world at all, you'll know that compliments have to be heavily upgraded before they can be uttered. In other words, if you see a play, and it's quite good, and you go round afterwards to see your friend who was acting in it, it's no good saying it was quite good. She won't understand what you mean. What you say is that it was marvellous and she was marvellous and it was all marvellous. If the play really was marvellous, you have problems, because then you have to go stratospheric. If the play was dire, then you can at least say it was extraordinary, or like nothing you have ever seen, but what you mustn't do is say it was dire. Theatrical people are very superstitious, which means they think that telling the truth brings bad luck.

If you are in the theatre world at all, you'll know that compliments have to be heavily upgraded before they can be uttered. In other words, if you see a play, and it's quite good, and you go round afterwards to see your friend who was acting in it, it's no good saying it was quite good. She won't understand what you mean. What you say is that it was marvellous and she was marvellous and it was all marvellous. If the play really was marvellous, you have problems, because then you have to go stratospheric. If the play was dire, then you can at least say it was extraordinary, or like nothing you have ever seen, but what you mustn't do is say it was dire. Theatrical people are very superstitious, which means they think that telling the truth brings bad luck.

Except that theatre people are not the only ones to operate a false set of weights and measures.

Film people do it, too. You know the system of stars given to films in film guides? Starting at five stars and going on down? That's just as bad.

If you don't believe me, consider the official scoring system in the Radio Times as just one example. Every week, the Radio Times has pocket reviews of hundreds of films, and to grade these films they offer a ration of stars for each one.

This is its official rate of exchange:

***** Outstanding

**** Very Good

*** Good

** Average

* Poor

This looks all right as long as you don't think about it. If you do think about it, it falls to pieces. Because if bottom score is one star and top score is five stars, then it stands to reason that three stars is the average score, doesn't it?

But the Radio Times doesn't think three stars is "average". It thinks three stars is "good". It's two stars that the Radio Times thinks is "average".

That means there are four possible scores that are average or better, and only one that is less than average.

Whoever is doing the Radio Times film scoring had better not be doing the financial accounts as well, or the magazine could be in trouble.

It also means that there is no room for films that are "bad" or "rubbish" or "awful". Because film people, like theatre people, can never, ever bring themselves to say that anything they do is rubbish, whereas we know that most of what they do is rubbish.

They shouldn't worry about this. Most of everything is rubbish. Almost all rock music is rubbish, and most jazz is rubbish, and 90 per cent of all football and rugby games are a waste of time, and almost every TV quiz show is dire, etc, etc. It just needs courage to say so.

In which case, people can draw courage from the second-hand book trade. I quite often visit a website which links you to hundreds of dealers in second-hand books, and the other day I spotted a book that I was looking for on the individual website belonging to a London book dealer called Peter Ellis. I haven't asked Peter Ellis's permission to quote from his blurb, but I am going to do so anyway, as there is something magical about the way he explains his grading system.



A NOTE ABOUT THE DESCRIPTIONS OF BOOKS

Every effort is made to give a full and accurate picture of the condition of each book. After a run-through of any blemishes a book might have, there is an overall assessment of its condition ("fine", "very good", "good", etc), followed by a description of the dustwrapper, where one is present.

The grade of condition accorded to any book is, of course, a matter of the cataloguer's opinion, but I will try here to give an idea of my methods.

"Fine", for instance, can be taken to mean that the book in question looks virtually as it did when first published (please note that the word "mint" is avoided, for reasons which once seemed compelling but are now forgotten).

"Very good" is a notch down from "fine" and usually denotes that the book has been read by one careful owner over the age of fifty-five.

"Good" means "not very good".

"Good" means "not very good".

I think that's wonderful. I think that takes the English language into corners it normally doesn't get into.

Thank you, Mr Ellis.

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