Television criticism has been an important part of my working life and I have never really stopped writing it in one way or another. The main way was the weekly television column I wrote in the decade 1972-1982 for the Observer in London. There was a prelude when I wrote once a month on the same subject for the Listener, but those pieces were never preserved in book form in the first place, so it would be straining the reader’s tolerance to preserve them now. The Observer column, on the other hand, I did preserve in book form: three successive collections and a final compendium. The compendium, published last, was called On Television and contained the complete text of the three earlier collections, namely Visions Before Midnight, The Crystal Bucket and Glued to the Box. As with the books of literary essays, scanning the column-length component pieces of each television book can’t be done all at once, but in the course of time, I hope, everything will be there, in which case this sentence will be deleted.
When I began my Observer television column in 1972, the idea of collecting the weekly instalments would have been in my mind more often if anybody had thought it a commercial proposition. But in the early days, nobody did. Theatre critics were the ones who wrote for posterity: television critics wrote for the stipend. I always wrote the piece, however, as if anybody reading it this week would remember what I had written last week. A large assumption, perhaps. The story of how I composed the column is told in some detail in my fourth volume of autobiography, North Face of Soho. The story of how I compiled the volumes is somewhat simpler. When Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape asked me to put a collection together covering the years 1972-1976, all I had to do was throw out the pieces I no longer liked. The collection was called Visions Before Midnight and actually contrived to put its nose into the best-seller list, partly because I hit on the wheeze of selling it direct through the Observer’s discount scheme.
The second collection, covering 1976-1979, was called The Crystal Bucket, a phrase I stole from Sir Walter Raleigh, who never objected. The third and last individual collection, covering 1979-1982, was less romantically entitled Glued to the Box. Later on, in 1990, Picador kindly published the omnibus edition referred to above. Simply but accurately called On Television, enchantingly tubby to the eyes of its proud author, it contained all three individual collections plus a specially written long introduction, which I reproduce here in a link to the book’s title, together with the other preliminary pages to the same volume. Most of the valedictory conclusions drawn in that introduction I stand by, but it should be remembered that even the year 1990 was a bit early in the game for predicting technical and artistic developments in the television medium, so some of my confident pronouncements sound a bit dated now. I preserve them here in order to show just how thoroughly time can make a monkey of the pontificator. That the USA’s effort as an exporter of quality television would continue to be weak seemed a safe guess. As things have turned out, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, The Sopranos and Band of Brothers have overwhelmed the world with their artistry. Another sure bet was that even the best of television would be forgotten. Instead, thanks to VHS, DVD and the web, almost nothing else is remembered. So it turned out that I was in the right business after all. But I never doubted it, even when the evidence seemed all to the contrary. When I called television a curate’s cornucopia, I meant that although the abundance was good only in parts, the bits that were good were good like nothing else.