TV, try telling me something I don’t know

Dan Snow’s flawed A History of Syria was still a rare bright spot in a week of superficial factual television.

David Bowden

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Excuse me a moan, but a TV critic’s lot is often not a happy one. Sure, as many people I meet enthusiastically tell me, it can be a great one: whether it’s getting your teeth stuck into a piece of great drama, or being able to deliver a real stinker of a review to the patronising crap served up to us at home, it can sometimes be fulfilling. Yet it’s not even that the bad so frequently outstrips the good which is the hardest aspect: attempting to sift critically through mass to find the truthful and the beautiful is the critic’s task, after all.

The challenge for the critical TV reviewer is more that – once you’ve worked out you can’t just write about your favourite show every week (whether it’s early evening fluff Don’t Tell the Bride or documentary series Storyville) – is the sheer banality of it all. Sometimes the idealist in you gazes upon the humble idiot box and marvels at the riches of human drama it produces; much more often you want to spit blood at how far it falls short of its possibilities.

Yet sometimes you can only gaze upon a week’s worth of multi-channel televisual output and just shrug. ‘Whatever takes my mind off of my life’, was how Homer Simpson once described his perfect night in front of the telly. Which is fair enough, of course, until you have to serve up a good few hundred words on a weekly basis on that theme. No wonder the majority of the US cultural press seems to have become a running commentary on HBO’s Girls.

Okay, as struggles go, it’s hardly up there with Sisyphus. In a week where by far the most eye-catching offering across the main broadcasters was BBC3’s Oscar Pistorious: What Really Happened?, then hopefully you can find a small bit of empathy. According to the makers of this programme, what this horribly tragic case – which involves a young woman either being murdered or accidentally killed by her Olympian boyfriend – needs is not a robust investigation into reasonable doubt and the veracity of evidence which we may hope for when it actually goes to trial. No, the situation demands Rick Edwards using those kind of barmy 3D re-enactments we normally giggle at kooky Asians for watching.

The problem with this programme wasn’t merely that it was opportunistic or prurient: shorn of UK-style reporting restrictions on ongoing court cases, the shocking death of Reeva Steenkamp has already become something of a circus for every media hack with an agenda to grind. Nor was it the familiar, but no less deserved, complaint of licence-fee money going to something so lowest common denominator. No, Oscar Pistorious: What Really Happened? was actually tastefully made, with plenty of focus on Steenkamp as the somewhat overlooked human being whose life was tragically cut short, and reiteration of some of the more gaudy details – like Pistorious’ well-documented paranoia and the controversies around the South African police’s handling of the investigation.

Edwards, more familiar clowning around as a yoof TV presenter on T4, did a very passable job of looking like a Serious Proper Journalist when interviewing friends, family and the occasional enemy of Pistorious and Steenkamp.

Shorn of any definitive legal outcome, however, the programme could never do more than repeat the gossip and tittle-tattle around this shocking case. A documentary on how the Pistorious case has been received in South Africa, rapidly losing its sense of post-Apartheid optimism as it faces deep internal problems, would have been extremely enlightening; instead we got a couple of minutes of college students discussing it among themselves. This was a programme which somehow contrived to be both tacky and blandly responsible; tabloid telly stripped of the hard-hitting journalistic impulses which the red-tops used to specialise in. I suspect we can expect to see plenty more of this in the post-Leveson media landscape. The bigwigs at BBC3 were probably happy that the programme attracted a bigger audience than Robson’s Extreme Fishing Challenge (with Robson Green) over on Channel 5, which hardly felt like a success for anyone involved in this tawdry affair.

In a similar vein, BBC1’s Panorama did very much what it said on the tin in America’s Gun Addiction: it concluded that America is addicted to guns. Not exactly an iconoclastic statement to European ears. Then again, maybe America really is addicted to guns. Suffice to say that, in 30 minutes, you won’t really get much nuance or hard-hitting reportage. We got a repetition of America’s recent shooting tragedies; a loony Tea Party-type was wheeled out to defend the right to bear arms (even the NRA was reluctant to give comment); and we were left to assume that the third of Americans opposed to gun control were all like that. Not much ventured, not much learned except to confirm your initial prejudices.

A much more heartening attempt to inform was made by Dan Snow in A History of Syria, which offered a brief overview of the religious and political make-up of one of the world’s oldest centres of civilisation. Snow has taken some criticism in the past for being symbolic of a modern generation of presenters who spend their time running around, but this was an impressively crisp and clear-eyed attempt to understand how ethnic and tribal tensions were fostered under French colonial rule and then exploited by the Assad regimes (and their opponents).

It was certainly not without its flaws in attempting to understand Syria’s present political situation purely in terms of its history (Middle East blogger Karl Sharro has made some thoughtful criticisms of its more pernicious contemporary political overtones); but this was a programme which stood head-and-shoulders above its rivals in attempting to give you information and arguments that the general viewer may not already possess.

That this should be notable for praise, rather than the mere starting point for any self-respecting documentary, is a depressing thought; but despite its harrowing subject matter it provided at least some succour in a dire week for intelligent television.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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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