What’s the point of TV reviewers?

Our TV critic suffers an existential crisis - but satellite documentary channels, all war heroes and weird tribes, come to the rescue.

Patrick West
Columnist

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It is customary for reviewers to tell you on a daily basis what’s new in the cathode ray tube/LCD-powered world of TV. But, as I’ve stressed before, current, contemporary, terrestrial television is largely a bore, and a repository for losers.

I don’t mean to hark back to some mystical, non-existent halcyon age when an alleged billion people watched the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in which newsreader Angela Rippon showed her legs (wow, amazing). Nor do I want to dismiss the great television that is around these days. But the fact is that cable and satellite television – not to mention YouTube – has rendered the whole idea of linear, chronological television viewing an anachronism. There is no ‘now’ anymore in television. No one talks on Monday morning, sharing jokes about the same programme they had watched on Saturday or Sunday night.

Just observe the viewing figures of the most popular programmes of the 1980s such as EastEnders or Coronation Street, which could each muster an audience of almost 20million; today they both solicit half that. The FA Cup Final has long since stopped being a national occasion. Little Britain, source of many a shared ‘comic’ catchphrase, is on the wane (in fact, it should die horribly). No one watches the same programmes anymore. Indeed, as a consequence, the role of the television reviewer is moribund, which is bad news for the likes of me, but as the late Kurt Vonnegut would say, ‘so it goes’.

One of my favourite methods of bypassing the tedium of terrestrial television late at night is to veer towards the documentary channels. They are a guilty pleasure for repressed males like myself who have never really emotionally emerged from adolescence. Their programmes are mostly about war, tanks, aircraft carriers, bazookas, U-boats, heroism in the skies, Winston Churchill doing his early impressions of Marlon Brando, loveable Cockneys reminiscing about sleeping on the platform of Bethnal Green underground station and stealing from their neighbours’ house that had just been bombed, incendiary bombing of German cities, and nuclear attacks on Japan.

The best incarnation of this genre is The World at War, currently being replayed on UKTV History, with Laurence Olivier’s masterful, yet emotive, narrative. These war programmes really are the stuff for boys who have refused to grow up, the ones who used to put together Airfix models of Stukas, Heinkels, Hurricanes and Me-262s (and sniff the remainder of the glue while no one was looking).

Elsewhere, there is more teenage-minded indulgence in repeats of Bruce Parry’s Tribe (UKTV Documentary), in which this former Royal Marine instructor visits various indigenous tribes in the Third World and fights alongside them, kills pigs with them, and then takes drugs with them. Cynics would say that it’s a rather old-fashioned format, an anachronism worthy only of late nineteenth-century anthropology, in which the white Westerner goes to discover the exotic Other, such as the Babongo people of Gabon, and comes to the conclusion that the tribe is beastly and charming all at the same time. Like Top Gear, it may well be slightly dubious in its conception, but it is charming in its delivery. Parry genuinely wants to discover the ways of the people he visits and he ingratiates himself immaculately. It is a programme full of warmth and laughter and reminds you that, contrary to what postmodernists assert, there is such a thing as human nature, and that cultures can be transcended.

There’s more ‘Boy’s Own’ adventures with The Deadliest Catch, currently being rerun on Discovery. This programme charts the life of crab fishermen in the Bering Sea, men who participate in what is the world’s most dangerous job. It is a real salute to heroism and the ingenuity of the human spirit. What is more, the pilots of the boats are about as close as you can get to the stereotype of the old sea-dog, like Captain Haddock from the Tintin series, or Tom Baker’s Captain Redbeard Rum from Blackadder. They are gruff, loveable characters with parched voices, who evidently drink and smoke a lot. The only disappointment was that I have never heard them say ‘a-hargh’ yet.

Then there are programmes that have question marks at the end of their titles. These programmes, such as Was Napoleon Murdered? or Who Shot JFK?, are always dubious. In newspapers, whenever you see a headline with a question mark at the end, you know the answer is always ‘no’. ‘Was Diana murdered by the British secret service?’, ‘Was Elvis killed by the Vikings?’, ‘Are Only Fools and Horses Christmas specials still funny?’. Beware question marks.

But documentary channels are still endearing. They can be crass and sensationalist, but they can also be educational, even if they are mostly about D-Day or the Battle for Berlin. And they may be juvenile, militarist and cater for our most retarded impulses, but they can also celebrate heroism and courage. They can celebrate human endeavour. Which is why, when compared to the miserable old so-and-sos on terrestrial soap operas, I salute the cult of the crass documentary.

Read on:

spiked issue: TV

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