Monday, January 18, 2010

TV Book Club & other Herculean tasks

Like many other members of the Twittering classes, I took time out to watch the first episode of the TV Book Club on More 4 last night. There seems to be a consensus among authors and publishers (i.e. not exactly the most representative of audiences) that the balance felt wrong – too much time on Chris Evans’ autobiography, too little on the book of the week, The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. Plus the fact that gorgeous Laila Rouass barely got a word in, while Gok Wan’s joke about the fact he was still learning to read seemed to undermine the purpose of the show. Oh, and then there were Jo Brand’s distracting two-tone spectacles. I don’t have much to add to the reviews (though, glasses aside, I think Jo is a good choice of host – not only is she an author in her own right, she’s also been a judge for numerous literary prizes). But I do have a slightly different perspective in that as well as being an author, I worked for three years as a TV Development Producer – and, because I adore books, I spent a fair amount of my time trying to develop shows that would celebrate or capitalise on the popularity of book clubs, not to mention the widespread ambition to ‘do a JK Rowling.’

I remember a fairly thankless time pitching a host of ideas, including:
  • A competition for new children’s authors, in a programme that also celebrated the history of children's fiction, and profiled possible candidates as the next ‘JK’
  • A boot camp style write-a-thon where celebrities and members of the public would be kept prisoner over a fortnight to try to write the best book/story
  • A romance writing show, to tie in with Valentine’s Day, where famous writing mentors/famous lovers would help new writers produce the most romantic story – and in the process, discover more about how we love in the 21st century/what men and women really want.
  • A show that contrasted the real lives of authors – their dalliances, problems, crises – with those in their books.

Hmm. OK, so none of them are exactly threats to Big Brother... I left the BBC in 2006 – since then, similar shows to these have cropped up across the networks –not because they were copied but because, as in fiction, certain ideas are out there in the ether. Have any of them become big hits? I haven’t studied the figures, but I don’t think any of them have been outstanding successes.

Well, duh. Forgive me if I am stating the bloody obvious, but the problems with featuring books and writers on TV is that a) writing is excruciatingly dull to watch and therefore film and b) reading is a solitary experience, and one where taste is incredibly individual. In contrast, telly relies on engaging mass audiences by giving them a shared experience or appealing to a shared interest.

The Richard and Judy Book Club worked because we already had a relationship with our hosts – we felt we knew them and their quirks, that made us prepared to listen to their views on books and subjects we hadn’t heard of. And, most important of all, we knew that the book club spot didn’t last forever and if we never read anything apart from Take a Break, we could put the dinner on while we waited for the next item on Stephen Fry or Posh and Becks or on a woman who had survived four months in the Gobi desert on only a can of Diet Coke and a slab of Kendal Mint Cake.

Of course, the publishing industry loved the R&J Book Club because it made it easy to sell books – the adoration wasn’t unconditional, because if you were publishing a R&J style book at the same time that the club aired, it risked sinking without trace. But broadly the book trade liked it, the viewers enjoyed it, and everyone was happy-ish.

But basing an entire show on books is a much bigger challenge. There are three options: the talent show/competition route, the profile/genre route and the magazine/celeb route. Unlike some of the commentators within publishing, I don’t think that last route is wrong in itself. After all, whatever publishers think, More4 and its advertisers care about bums on seats, which means putting the audience before vested interests. OK, some of the book choices seemed a little obvious – by no stretch of the imagination are Nick Hornby or Sarah Waters ‘new talent’ – but perhaps if the show delivers an audience, the choices will become more diverse.

The issue for me is the result – even though it’s not completely fair to judge a show on its first episode. My worry is that it won’t become anyone’s ‘must watch’ – if you’d read The Little Stranger in anticipation of the Book Club experience, you would have felt very short-changed by the superficial and rather snarky discussion. If you tuned in hoping for ideas to widen your reading, last night’s show offered nothing new. If you’re a casual channel-hopper, then a brief and rather fawning panel interview with Chris Evans offers you nothing you can’t find elsewhere.
I honestly hope the show develops and succeeds, perhaps with more coherent discussion of the book, and some clearer format moments - an ‘if you like this, try these books’ slot might be fun, or a ‘what are they reading on the Number 7 bus vox pop,’ for example. And I think there’s scope to develop what seemed to me the best part of the show, when Sarah Waters discussing her novel and her work.

Maybe there’s something to be learned from what, for my money, were the two best shows on books and writing in the last decade or so. For mainstream appeal, The Big Read is the clear winner. It worked because even if you hadn’t read a book, most of the titles were famous enough that you might have seen the adaptation or at least known a little of the story, and so you were interested invest time in finding out more. It used celebrities who did genuinely seem passionate about the books, and the voting element gave it momentum, too.

The other success for me was the brilliant Scribbling, a documentary series which profiled interesting, eccentric authors (the episode on Rob Newman was fascinating because he was struggling, while those on Geoff Ryman and Minette Walters were also compelling).



Personally, I think there could be mileage in newer versions of both of those – the Big Gory Crime Read or the Big Love Story or Big Smart Read to Help You Pull the Opposite Sex, maybe.

And who knows? Maybe now that we’re so weary of 'reality', we might enjoy documentaries featuring talented, peculiar writers with fat bottoms and silicon-free cleavages who can’t afford to give up the day job, but still write into the night, or between shifts or nappy-changes, because it’s what they were born to do...

PS: interesting blogs on the same show here, here and here.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Lizzy Siddal said...

Good grief - is it really 7 years since the Big Read? As you say, it was the show against which I measure all others now and the beginning of my online presence to boot!

P.S My thoughts on C4 #1 - for what they're worth- at

http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/sinking-like-a-lead-balloon-channel-4-tv-book-group-1/

9:19 pm  
Blogger litlove said...

How interesting that you were involved in trying to get book-related programmes on the telly. Yup, losing battle, I'd have thought. And yet surely there must be a wonderful magazine-type programme possible, that featured super-brief reviews of new publications, deeper discussions of familiar classics, had celebrities (if you must have them) describing their favourite/most influential reads, news or information items about the publishing industry, profiles of writers and how they work/got in the business. I mean - you wouldn't think it impossible to stitch something exciting together.

I did watch Scribbling when it was on and thought that was fascinating. Alas, the new programme felt like a tired rehash of ideas that only worked with other subject matter - it felt like no one had made an effort to understand how books could be transferred interestingly to the screen.

9:21 pm  
Blogger Captain Black said...

I've never really understood the point of, nor enjoyed the content of, these book discussion shows. A bunch of people sitting around and giving their opinions; what's that got to do with me?

I would much prefer factual documentaries about particular authors.

12:11 pm  
Blogger Amanda Mann said...

What a waste of a book prog having Chris Evans on at all, it's just all too pathetic programming for words. I like him a lot, as a DJ and TV personality, but this was supposed to be books. I used to work on a TV programme called Bookmark, we did proper long docs about writers - mine were Philip Larkin, Alice Thomas-Ellis & Keith Waterhouse. It was completely wonderful to work on and great to watch as well.

12:45 pm  
Anonymous Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

The TV Book Club will never acheive the popularity of Richard and Judy, for the reasons you mention, but there is space for a programme like this - if done correctly. So many of us were really excited about it starting - we really do want to see what people think of books we've read. All it needed was more time and some structure to the discussion. I hope that they improve things soon.

12:31 pm  

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