HOW — in the sense of where does it fit in with your day, your lifestyle — do you watch television? The issue presents itself to me as I assess the transfer from radio to TV of Front Row (BBC2, Saturday). On Radio 4, this arts magazine is broadcast nightly at 7.15; the new TV manifestation is weekly, at 7.30 p.m.
The “how” of my question refers to what we’re doing as it is broadcast. With the radio version, we’re scoffing supper before rushing off to the PCC or the night’s interfaith study session, hoping to pick up a few interesting facts to impress our neighbours. Because it is daily, it doesn’t matter too much if you miss one: there’s another tomorrow.
This encourages a relaxed relationship between listener and production team, and the magic of radio is that you really can do something else at the same time: it is, in this sense, companionable. But TV requires a different kind of covenant. Engaging the eyes as well as the ears, it promises a far more total experience, and we have to make space for it, pausing whatever else we might be doing.
This sets a higher bar for the programme: it has to be worth the sacrifice. Requiring more focused attention, it makes greater demands, and, paradoxically, can be jilted far sooner: it is less satisfactory keeping TV on in the background in case it starts to become more interesting.
Of course, all this assumes that we are engaging with the media in a way that is now almost incomprehensible to the young: that is, in real time rather than downloading or saving it for future delight. I think that the programmers still hope that we will follow their carefully constructed diurnal sequences and link this or that show to the time of day or night for which God clearly intended it, with the concomitant activity or inactivity.
So TV’s Front Row requires a different compact: it cannot afford the occasional dud. On this, the jury is still out. Giles Coren is an engaging host, and the interviews with artists, film-makers, authors, and musicians are greatly enhanced by the fact that we can see as well as hear them. So far, it’s 50/50.
W1A (BBC 2, Monday of last week) is the BBC’s lacerating self-examination: an excruciating farce that depicts the incompetence and despair of any modern corporation. Pointless committees exercise power which they were never meant to wield, because everyone is too anxious for his own future to point out the emperor’s nakedness. Of course, it bears no resemblance to the management of the C of E.
The new curate arrived without anyone expecting her; the vicar decided to stay away without handing on any arrangements for absence; the young priest had never taken a wedding before (her personal problems so overwhelm her that she collapses mid-liturgy).
Doc Martin (ITV, Wednesday of last week) has a splendid central character — a brusque country GP — but good comedy needs to be set in believable scenarios, and here it falls flat on its face.