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On, or in, the box?

01 July 2016


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ONE purpose of the art of criticism, a friend tells me, should be to enthuse the reader to pay attention to something — a book, a play, a film — or to avoid it like the plague. But since, several years ago, the TV companies gave up the practice of sending out preview tapes, everything I write about has to be retrospective.

Of course, iPlayer and the like modify this situation, although, even with so artificial an art-form as television, there is still a frisson about watching a programme at the time when it is first broadcast, together with everyone else, rather than in solitary retrospective. But perhaps all this is about to change. The BBC is now releasing some programmes on iPlayer in what the Corporation calls “box set” format, in advance of their screening. Hooray! This now means that I can tell you about forthcoming broadcasts, so that you can cancel such things as PCC meetings, to stay at home and tune in.

As far as the first of such offerings is concerned, however, there are two problems. First, production deadlines mean that, although The Living And The Dead (BBC1, Tuesday) has not been shown at the time that I am writing this, it will have been broadcast by the time you get the paper (Friday). Second, it is awful.

Somerset in 1894 is a battleground between competing forces: an open-minded vicar officially ranged against, but half in thrall himself to, the pagan customs of the place; traditional agricultural practices against new-fangled machinery; matter-of-fact health care against the young master, down from London to revive his family farm, who is a leading practitioner of the new-fangled art of psychology.

The vicar’s daughter is in the grip of demonic possession — or does she simply need a course of psychotherapy? Imagine a mash-up between Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Exorcist and you get the general idea. Actually, you have to throw in The Joy of Sex, because the doctor is impossibly handsome and his dashing wife a saucy minx who never lets us forget the centrality of the physical side of their marriage. Like Versailles, it could develop into a series so frightful as to become compulsive viewing.

Television news gives us all a grandstand view on momentous events as they happen — although, curiously, the constant news channels contain few nuggets of actual events (clips repeated over and over again), padded out with meaningless chit-chat. Often the better bet is to turn to the more considered discussion-and-comment programmes.

Andrew Marr (BBC1, Sunday) felt as if it was so much in the heart of history being made that there was hardly time to comment: Hilary Benn just hours from being sacked by Jeremy Corbyn; Iain Duncan Smith refusing to say so but confirming that the Brexit pledges would be ignored now that they had won; Nicola Sturgeon clear-headed and passionate about where Scotland now stood: it was all happening before our eyes.

Marr himself made so good an analysis of the reasons for the referendum result, so acute a setting-out of where we stand, that I wonder if there is any chance of him standing as Prime Minister?

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