Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

Table of Contents

Iwrote a monthly television column for Saturday Night for seven years. Although it never stopped being hard work — I write slowly even at the best of times — it was fun. I learned an enormous amount, not least of all about myself. When the column stopped being fun, I quit. I’d said everything I’d wanted to in that context and it was time to move on to other things. In any case, I’m not sure that critics and columnists have a useful lifespan of more than half a dozen years or so. By that time you’ve seen it all before. You’ve said it all before. And you probably said it better the first time.

Although television is now well into its fourth decade, it has yet to produce a major critic. There is no one writing about television (at least in English) with the knowledge and love George Bernard Shaw had for music and Kenneth Tynan for theatre or that Pauline Kael shows toward film. By the time the movies were as old as television is now, there were already a number of major film critics on the scene, men and women who believed that film deserved the same serious treatment that books and plays were given. Happily, they found editors and readers who agreed with them. There hasn’t been a time since then when we’ve been without at least half a few first-rate film critics writing in English.

But serious criticism of anything — sports, politics, music, whatever, depends on the tacit understanding between critic and audience that the subject matters. Such an understanding still doesn’t exist when it comes to television. Although on average we spend something like twenty-five hours in front of our TV sets, we continue to think of television as something we can’t take seriously. That’s partly because its offerings come to us without our having to do anything other than push a button. Good capitalists that we are, we value only what we have to go into the marketplace and pay for. I’d hoped our attitude would change with the advent of Pay-TV, but there’s no indication that that’s the case.

Most of us use reviews of other things — books, movies, plays, restaurants — as consumer guides for choosing what we read, see or eat. Until recently, reviews of TV programmes couldn’t be used that way because they appeared after a programme had been aired or just before a programme that didn’t fit into one’s viewing schedule. The videocassette machine may change that. Unlike books and movies which have always been available long after they were reviewed, making it possible to compare one’s own reactions to those of the critics, television programmes have been ephemeral, with a lifespan of a half hour or an hour. If they continued to exist, it was in archives inaccessible to the general public.

Books, movies and plays are finite; they have clear beginnings and endings. We speak of reading a book, seeing a movie, going to a play; but we watch not a television, but television. TV is never-ending. Thus, the TV critic who prescreens a single program in a network viewing room in order to write about it before it’s broadcast is in a sense cheating; he or she is taking the programme out of the busy context in which almost everyone else sees it — a context of people talking and moving about. As Clive James, former television critic of the Observer , puts it, “One of the chief functions of the television critic is to stay at home and watch the programmes on an ordinary domestic receiver, just as his readers do. If he goes to official previews, he will meet producers and directors, start understanding their problems, and find himself paying the inevitable price for free sandwiches.”

Those who write about television can have their own problems accepting the role. Take me, for instance. When Robert Fulford, the editor of Saturday Night, asked me in 1973 if I would like to write a monthly television column for the magazine, I felt hurt. I wondered if maybe he was telling me in his kindly way that he wasn’t happy with my work as a book reviewer. I thought of myself as a serious person and that writing about television was beneath me. What would my friends think?

Writing about television, I discovered, was far more difficult than writing about books. A book reviewer often specializes — in first novels, say. A drama critic watches perhaps five or six plays a week. A television critic can’t function that way. He or she has to be interested in, and knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects — from sports to drama, from soap opera to grand opera, and from the politics and economics of broadcasting to the differences between tape and film. Kenneth Tynan, commmenting on the impossibility of TV criticism, once said, “A television critic would have to know everything, and who knows everything?”

I was lucky in being able to work with an editor who believed that it was worth paying someone to try to write serious television crticism. Most TV critics aren’t so lucky; other editors assume that anyone who owns a TV set can handle the job. That attitude is partly a function of condescension, partly of fear. The print media continue to be wary of TV, which, after all, competes with them for advertising revenue.

The TV Critic, continued > 

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