A friend came up with what I thought was an excellent idea for a television series the other day – and since he doesn't work in the television industry he was perfectly happy for me to mention it in print. Had he worked in the television industry he would probably have sworn me to secrecy until he'd managed to pitch it to a commissioning editor. Even if that had been the case, though, he'd probably have been safe. I reckoned it was a pretty long shot against anyone buying it, partly because of the logistical difficulties it involved but mostly because it was a peg that didn't fit any existing holes.
We were talking about television history at the time and his point was as follows. No decent historian thinks that the writing of history is a value-free exercise. They know that they approach a subject from a particular perspective and that perspectives can sometimes contradict each other quite sharply. While agreeing about the essential facts of an event two historians might disagree completely about its causes and consequences. So mightn't it be enlivening to have a big series with dual controls? Two presenters, trying to convince each other – and us by proxy – that their particular version of a historical narrative made more sense. It would illuminate the subjectivity of historical interpretation, give a more rounded account of the subject and, incidentally, treat the audience as if they didn't need spoon-feeding.
Right away there are practical reasons why any commissioning editor might suck his or her teeth. Two sets of diaries to combine, for one thing, not to mention the question of how you actually frame and film such a peripatetic debate. They might have legitimate doubts about the size of the audience for what would be a relatively sophisticated way of treating the historical record. They might object that it would push producers towards particularly disputatious historians (though that's never really been particularly off-putting to commissioners). But I think the argument that would clinch all the others is that there's no real precedent for such a thing. Siskel and Ebert used to do a famous movie review show in which their divergent opinions supplied the seasoning – but that was a long time ago and in another country.
It's surely a pity though, isn't it, that an original idea could founder precisely because of its originality? And yet that's all too possible in a television culture which has become over-reliant on pre-existing formats. I think this idea would have every chance of becoming a cliche itself – there's an arena for vigorous argument (a commodity television already loves) which hasn't been fully explored yet. But to do that you'd first have to overcome the deep conservatism of contemporary British television and its dogged adherence to the already done thing.
I found myself thinking too of punk and the sclerotic conventions that provoked it into being. Fewer helicopter shots and less CGI – the equivalent of pomp-rock synths – more raw ideas. But it needs a bit of raw newness too.
I'm not suggesting everything's terrible. All sorts of good stuff bubbles up around the edges. Comedy, which depends less on novelty of format anyway, is in pretty good shape. But there's a definite staleness about many of the forms we encounter now, with their well-defined ways of delivering certain kinds of subject matter and their entirely predictable forms of titillation. It's time for a bit of rough instead and for a bit of reckless three-chord invention. Not everything will work – but then who could claim that it does now?
A truly moving production
The other night I went to see Enquirer (above), the National Theatre of Scotland's somewhat gloomy investigation into the state of British journalism. The production was ingenious. The only people who didn't really perform were the audience, repeatedly exhorted to look sharp and move to a new venue, but who put a brake on the pace of the thing by taking ages. It wasn't really our fault. In an unfamiliar, dimly-lit space it's not easy. Add in the fluid mechanics of a crowd and maximum speed is going to be a shuffle at best. There are advantages to knowing your place in the theatre and staying in it till the lights come up.
A good word for an audiobook
I found myself wondering the other day if mispronunciations are on the increase. I was listening to the Moby Dick Big Read at the time, a brilliant scheme which lets you download all of Melville's classic as an audiobook, delivered by a range of readers. It being a labour of love, there doesn't seem to have been much money for aural proofreading. An American reader talks of the London district of "Whapping" for instance, not Wapping. And yesterday someone pronounced indefatigably as "indy-fateegubbly". This can happen to all of us, of course, called upon to utter a word aloud that we've only ever encountered in print. But might it just be happening more in an age of texts and emails and tweets, when so much goes unspoken?