Big Read, small vision

Who needs another 'best of' list?

Sandy Starr

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One used to have to wait until the end of the year for those interminable ‘best-of’ lists, ranking people’s favourite books, films and so on, but they now seem to pop up week-in, week-out. The BBC devoted considerable time and resources in 2003 to what was effectively one big, tarted-up ‘best-of’ list: The Big Read, an attempt to find ‘the nation’s favourite book’.

A public vote resulted in an initial list of 100 titles; another public vote narrowed it down to 21 titles; a BBC2 film was made corresponding to each of these 21 books, in which a minor celebrity extolled the book’s virtues; another public vote narrowed the list down to five titles; a final programme was broadcast from London’s Royal Opera House, extolling once again the virtues of each of these five books; and then a final public vote selected a single, favourite book – which turned out to be JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

If the aim of this exercise was to sell books, then it was undoubtedly successful. The Bookseller magazine describes The Big Read as ‘possibly the largest ever book promotion in the UK’. Penguin’s chief executive, delighted at the BBC’s decision to do his marketing department’s work for him, said: ‘We have to ask ourselves what can we learn from The Big Read for other markets. Is this something we can stimulate in other countries like the US or Australia?’ (1)

In fact, The Big Read had a more beneficial effect upon DVD sales of literary adaptations than it did upon actual book sales – which is somewhat embarrassing, for an initiative ostensibly intended to promote reading (2). But leaving that aside – were there any more lofty intentions behind The Big Read?

According to Jane Root, controller of BBC2, ‘The Big Read‘s job is to try and excite people about the idea of reading’ (3). Implicit in this is that a) people aren’t excited about reading already; b) it would be a good thing if people were more excited about reading; and c) the best way to get people more excited about reading is to ask them what their favourite books are, and then get celebrities to agree with their choices on national TV.

These are all questionable assumptions. Reading is clearly a popular pastime among a significant proportion of the population, which is what keeps bookshops in business. It would certainly be good if children were more excited about reading – and children’s books dominated The Big Read, making up one-third of the initial list of 100 books, one-third of the subsequent list of 21 books, and at least two-fifths of the final list of five (more, if you believe The Lord of the Rings to be a children’s book). But in the case of adults, surely this question depends upon what precisely adults are excited about reading. And if you want to get people more excited about reading, then why not champion wonderful books they may never have read, rather than deliberately looking for ‘the nation’s favourite’?

The resulting TV programmes were often excruciating, and commentators did not hesitate to say so. The Guardian pointed out that ‘to make independent reading sound dull and great books look stupid, to transform literature into a vehicle for celebrities, polls, lists, voting opportunities and confected rivalries, to get books confidently debated by experts who have never read them, to set up a competition between Winnie the Pooh and War and Peace: that takes a kind of genius’. The Scotsman was similarly scathing: ‘It is possible to make programmes promoting books that are so demeaning they do more harm than good. Far from easy, but possible – and The Big Read has pulled off this amazing feat of debasement.’ (4)

To be fair, there were some enjoyable moments on The Big Read, and the enthusiasm of a few of the celebrities on the programme was infectious. If anything, though, these moments left you wishing that the BBC had either commissioned a set of top-notch new literary adaptations, or commissioned a smaller number of commentators to speak about their favourite books. Instead, The Big Read gave you rushed fragments of dramatisation, interspersed by people begging you to phone up and vote for a particular book.

Any tension that the BBC intended to cultivate around the question of which book would win was somewhat undermined, by the fact that the result was obvious from the outset. The Lord of the Rings has a dedicated cult following; it won the high-profile1997 Waterstone’s poll to find ‘the book of the century’; and the fact that it has been adapted into three blockbuster films with gargantuan marketing budgets, the last of which had its UK premiere in the same week as the Big Read final, didn’t hurt. Bookmaker Ladbrokes actually closed betting on the result back in October 2003, saying: ‘We cannot continue betting on a one-horse race. We will open the market again if we believe that The Big Read is a contest.’ (5)

I’m a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, but I took no pleasure in its Big Read victory (6). The book obviously already enjoys popular acclaim, and there is no need to heap yet another accolade upon it. There are doubtless many other books, possibly superior to The Lord of the Rings and certainly not as well known, which would benefit far more from being celebrated in an inventive piece of TV programming.

As part of The Big Read, one copy of The Lord of the Rings will be sent to every secondary school in the UK (7). This is a terrific waste of money, since any secondary school student who wants to read the book has either already done so, or can easily get hold of a copy.

Explaining the rationale behind The Big Read, Jane Root says: ‘There is something about suggesting to people that they might really enjoy something they hadn’t otherwise thought they’d enjoy, suggesting to people to look a bit outside their boundaries.’ (8) If she really thinks this, why on earth did she commission a series of programmes trying to find out what people already believe to be their favourite book? And if she really thought that the celebrities making the case for each book would sway the public’s opinion and introduce people to new reading experiences, then why was the result such a foregone conclusion?

Hannah Beckerman, producer of The Big Read, boasts that the initiative was ‘unique’ because ‘you’re actually saying to the people who pay the licence fee, “you tell us the books that you love most and we’ll make a whole series about it”’ (9). But we do not pay a license fee in order to be asked what books we love – we know the answer to that question already. We pay a license fee in order to experience something worthwhile or entertaining that we would not otherwise have come into contact with.

There is a place on TV for celebrating achievements in the arts. It lies in inspiring, knowledgeable people making programmes about what they believe to be the best that has been thought and said. We can always disagree with such programmes, but the point is that some thought and effort goes into them – and that we are responding to an intellectual argument about the value of a book, rather than an emotional appeal to call it our ‘favourite’.

It may be predictable to wheel out Kenneth Clark’s landmark TV series Civilisation, shown on BBC2 in 1969, as an example of this kind of programming, but that is because we have yet to surpass it. And if The Big Read is anything to judge by, we have given up trying. Perhaps it is Jane Root, Hannah Beckerman and their colleagues, not the British public, who should ‘look a bit outside their boundaries’.

Read on:

Grate Britons, by Rob Lyons

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Big Read section of the Bookseller website; TV turns on the publishers, Damian Reece, Sunday Telegraph, 12 October 2003

(2) See DVD sales soar in TV books drive, Rebecca Ellinor, Guardian, 13 December 2003; Big Read? I’d rather sit down and watch my favourite book, Nick Britten, Daily Telegraph, 13 December 2003

(3) Analysis, BBC Radio 4, 4 December 2003

(4) The Root of Britain’s culture problem, Catherine Bennett, Guardian, 23 October 2003; It is all just a great big deception, David Sexton, Scotsman, 17 December 2003

(5) Rings is ‘dead cert’ for Big Read, BBC News, 31 October 2003

(6) See A Tolkien fan talks, by Sandy Starr

(7) Lord of the Rings revealed as nation’s favourite book, BBC, 13 December 2003

(8) Analysis, BBC Radio 4, 4 December 2003

(9) Author O’Hagan attacks Big Read, BBC News, 27 October 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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