I have been watching TV for half a century. When I first started watching it, there were three channels. When there were four, I was 17. When there were five, I was 32. The first time I appeared on TV was in 1980, a guest along with my schoolfriend Paul Garner on regional news magazine show Look East. (We were invited on after having some caricatures of film stars printed in the local newspaper; we drew caricatures of the two main presenters, Ian Masters and Tony Scase.) At this time, we only knew one person who had a video recorder, my friend Craig, who recorded our appearance, and allowed us to watch it back. Our next next door neighbour, John, was a keen photographer and was able to take photos of us off the telly, otherwise there would be no recorded proof that we were ever on Look East. (It seems rather amusing now that we travelled to Norwich for our appearance, a city now synonymous with TV’s hinterland thanks to Alan Partridge.)
I started collecting the covers off the Radio Times in 1977 around the time of Radio 1’s tenth birthday. I wish I still had my collection, but alas, I do not. But this marked a sort of above-the-line obsession with TV and radio, the collector’s kind. In those prehistoric days before widespread home recording, if you missed something, you missed it. (Interestingly, the first things we taped when the Phillips VCR arrived in 1981 were films: Chinatown, Death Wish, On The Waterfront.) I loved films from an early age, and a trip to the cinema was a treat, but most of my films were devoured on TV, and later, on VHS. The small screen has always been my friend. I remain glued to it. But my relationship with it has changed over the years. It’s complicated.
In the picture at the top of this entry, you can see me (right), laughing heartily at a comment made by either Stephen Mangan or Maxine Peake earlier this year at a Bafta screening and Q&A for the latest Comic Strip meta-parody Red Top, which aired on a channel unthought-of in 1981, Gold (which, ironically, is quite likely to air programmes made in 1981, as well as new ones it has commissioned, in a fresh twist). I first met Maxine Peake when I interviewed her on 6 Music. I first met Stephen Mangan when he and I were both recording Radio 4 shows in the same studio complex in 2011. The second time I met him, we were both on the same Bafta TV Awards jury, judging Best International Programme. When you skirt the world of TV as I do, you bump into people. What I’m doing in the Red Top picture is facilitating. It’s a job that’s closest to presenter, in that you’re the host, but also journalistic, in that you ask the questions. But your job is not to catch anybody out, it’s to allow them to say the things that they want to say and what the broadcaster wants them to say, to an audience. It gets interesting when unexpected things are said, and when funny things are said. I love doing this particular job as you get to meet talented creative people, writers, actors, producers and directors, and often laugh with them. As the host, you must subjugate yourself. It’s not about you. That is a valuable thing to remember.
It was once about me. The first TV show I presented was Collins & Maconie’s Movie Club in 1997, a low-budget film review slot, shot in the cinema at the Hammersmith Riverside, with my great friend Stuart Maconie. Made by Clive James’ production company, it ran in the middle of the night on ITV for two years without a break, with a small crew, and our runner went on to become the Director of Commissioning at UKTV (the company who booked me to host the event pictured at the top with Maxine Peake and Stephen Mangan.) A couple of years before that, Stuart and I made our TV debut as a double-act (forged on Radio 5, honed on Radio 1), on the music and comedy show Naked City on Channel 4. It’s always fun to break out the cast photo from 1994, as it shows how long my hair was in the aftermath of grunge, and maps the illustrious nature of the rest of the presenting line-up (from left to right: me, Caitlin Moran, Johnny Vaughan, Stuart, Michael Smiley). How young we all looked. Where are we now?
Stuart and I have both done better on radio than TV in the ensuing years, and it clearly suits us both. The same goes for Johnny. (Smiley is ubiquitous on our screens as a fine, gritty actor; Caitlin, though higher profile now than ever, and an autobiographical TV scriptwriter, decided not to pursue being a TV presenter – for it is not always the Holy Grail.) My proudest incursions into TV in the ensuing 20 years have been as a scriptwriter and script editor, and this continues to be the case. (I was recently on another TV awards jury and had to declare an interest, having script edited one shortlisted show but not the series put forward for consideration, and another was made by the TV production company who also represent me. Told you it was complicated.) The big question remains: does my experience behind the camera (and occasionally in front of it) make me a better TV critic, or a worse one?
After all, I understand how TV works, and that prevents me from slagging TV shows off willy nilly, a cavalier approach that is far more entertaining than the considered, fair-minded, informed assessment of someone who’s worked on sitcoms that have tanked (The Persuasionists), as well as sitcoms that have been hits (Not Going Out). My curse is empathy, which prevents me from bandying about wild, headline-grabbing opinions such as: that was shit. If a drama is not good, I can make an educated guess as to why. If a comedy is not funny, likewise. For five years, I have managed to maintain a gig reviewing TV for the Guardian – ironically, one that’s filmed by a TV camera in a TV studio! In all of that time, I have essentially been reasonable. Charlie Brooker without the things that make Charlie Brooker famous. I am often obliged to review TV shows made by and featuring people I have met in the course of professional duty. Some of my friends work in TV. Some of the people I have met in TV have become my friends. I can still say that I don’t like The Night Manager or Vinyl or Call The Midwife, but I am able to explain why, and take no pleasure in being negative. I’m afraid I will always name the writer, and the director, and sometimes the casting director. Get used to it.
Adapting Telly Addict into a blog seems natural enough. After all, it began as a written monthly column in Word magazine. I would prefer to be paid to write, but right now, it’s a user-friendly, fuss-free, potentially instant outlet f0r my thoughts. Without the pressures of a commission or a line manager, I can at least write about TV at any length, and at any time. You won’t be able to see my mouth moving. But do you need to, really?
I was asked to host a corporate conference for a large, multinational TV production house and I explained my poacher-gamekeeper role to the assembled delegates thus:
“If a TV critic slags off something I’ve had a hand in writing or editing, at least I’ll know why they’re wrong.”