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 books paid their way, but all four have been out of print for some years. Since I still meet people in the new generation who say they would like to see what I did, however, I had the thought of re-presenting all that material here. Under the heading “Television Criticism” are links to the three individual collections of my critical writings for the Observer. Another link, “Speeches About Television”, covers links that lead to writings on the subject at greater than column length. It might be thought that these more extended writings took television more seriously, but their author persists in believing that the weekly column was seriously meant even at its least solemn. I might have gone on reviewing television forever, if I hadn’t got to the point of appearing on it so frequently that I would have had to review myself, thereby evoking a BBC nature programme (commentary by Sir David Attenborough) about the legendary bird, high in the cold air between the peaks of the Andes, that flies in ever diminishing circles until it disappears with a sad cry.
When I began my Observer television column in 1982, the idea of collecting the weekly instalments would have been in my thoughts 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 composed the piece, however, as if anybody reading it this week would remember what I had written last week. It seemed a fair assumption, after the column caught on. So my unfolding chronicle managed to avoid sounding repetitive or disjointed — the two chief hazards facing the columnist with aspirations to permanency. 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 a compendium edition, 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 introduction, which I reproduce below. 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, 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 and The Sopranos 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.
For ten years, between 1972 and 1982, I wrote a television column for the Observer every Sunday of the year except for an annual holiday spent trying to readjust my eyes and skin to sunlight. I was inhabiting a strange, half-lit world in which nothing happened except watching television. Often I had two sets running at once. Elsewhere on earth, they were inventing the VCR machine, but too late to help me out. Every night I watched everything that mattered, and a lot more that was not supposed to, on three channels, which eventually grew to four. If somebody said something interesting I had to write it down from memory. I was good training, but only, I thought then, for pursuing more of the weird activity I was already engaged in. It was not like learning to play the piano, which at the start you can’t, and then later you can. With television criticism you already can at the start, but if you are still going to be able to later on, you have to develop some sort of philosophy about what you are up to. Otherwise an occupation which has the initial appearance of money for jam will end up in mental breakdown.
Perhaps it did, and I didn’t realise. My own impression, however; is that I emerged from the experience a wiser man. If this impression is correct, it had a lot to do with the quality of British television. One of my daughters is now training to be a scientist because of the science programmes she saw on television. Admittedly my other daughter still only ever studies at all when threatened with being denied access to the next re-run of Inspector Morse, but on balance the influence of television on the next generation has been good — in my house, at any rate. Whatever was coming out of the tube wasn’t hurting the young ones I knew.
So what was coming out of the tube? Was television really the incitement to cultural suicide that the pundits said it was? In the prefaces to the three individual volumes -- and especially in the preface to the last one, Glued to the Box — I tried to touch on these questions explicitly. But my answers were always implicit in the columns themselves, the product of what I am now inclined to look back on, with some fondness, as my Mushroom Years. The conclusions I came to are, I like to think, too complex and subtle to be summarized in any shorter space than this fat book. But if I had to sum up my Position in a sentence, it would be this: I began with the suspicion, and ended with the conviction, that popular entertainment is well worth doing.
Since then I have been engaged in trying to do it. Working for television is far more demanding of time and energy than just watching. Performing has its own requirements which criticism can only guess at. Yet the two activities, I grow ever more sure, are so closely linked as to be inseparable. With deregulation on the way, the great age of television, when there was a national audience instead of niche marketing, is on its way out, perhaps never to return. It is a good moment, then, to remember the good moments. If, at first, I was slow to realise just how good they were, at least I got excited by instinct — thereby demonstrating, not for the first time in history or the last in my own life, that the secret of knowing what you think is to admit what you feel.