Monday, 2 November 2015

Book review: A History of Television in 100 Programmes

You know those lists you get of TV programmes, in (really annoying) TV programmes? This isn’t that sort of list.

It’s a list of TV programmes in a book and it’s much better.

First there are no talking heads and secondly this is someone who really knows their stuff. And author Phil Norman is so good at describing the programmes that you almost don’t need to see any clips. (Although it did make me want to see Heimat and Boys from the Blackstuff and Our Friends in the North again. Not to mention Tiswas.)

There’s an introduction, and then three pages each on the 100 programmes he has chosen (and lots of footnotes). The programmes are partly there because they’re memorable, and partly because they have something to say about how television has evolved.

I learnt that the first celebrity chef – complete with merchandise – set the tone for all the others when he appeared on British televisions in 1946. That Was The Week That Was began the “smutty path of least resistance” that has tarnished topical comedy ever since.  And the concept of the “story arc” pre-dates Doctor Who.

It’s both erudite and enthusiastic and, for such a long book, admirably economical. You can get a lot into three pages when you write this well: context, description, wit and a very nice turn of phrase. “Pavlovian faff” (audience participation comedy), “pious ennui” (Sundays).

And this description of Jonathan Meades, my favourite line in the book because it says so much in so little space about what’s wrong with documentaries: “the boy least likely to ‘go on a journey’ or be filmed studying archive footage on an iPad”.

There’s loads more good stuff I’d love to quote, but why don’t you just read it yourself? You’ll like it.

Music television is represented, as you might expect, by Six-Five Special and The Tube and, as you might not, by Kingsley Amis Goes Pop.

There’s also Supersonic, The Oxford Road Show, The Tube and The Max Headroom Show – all very much of their time, as their chapters remind us.  And who can forget Antoine de Caunes in Rapido: “a Max Headroom routine as retold by an espresso-fuelled Jacques Derrida”.  The X Factor gets a mention in passing (“treating a random MOR singing contest as if it were a war crimes tribunal”).

You can read this on a nostalgia level (I was delighted to find out I hadn’t hallucinated The Adventures of Twizzle), but you can also read it to get an education. I found out a lot. There’s even something about “retro punditry”. Turns out it’s not a symptom of 21st century dumbing down at all: it started in 1969.

Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of this book.

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