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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Joining the unprofessionals

On Friday night we watched "My Life In Verse" in which comedian Robert Webb "went on a journey" in search of e.e.cummings. This search brought him to the feet of Clive James, who used to present this kind of thing himself. Webb is no doubt a talented guy but he suffers from the same affliction as all funny guys when called upon to present a TV programme; he's not comfortable sitting and listening.

On Saturday afternoon former jockey Willie Carson was sent into the weighing room to interview the jockeys before the Derby. Clearly heartsick that he was no longer competing himself, he struck an uncomfortably chippy note so pronounced that one of his interviewees asked why he was shouting at him.

On Saturday evening former footballer Steve Claridge had the job of anchoring Five Live's football phone-in "606" and experienced such difficulty managing the callers that in the last fifteen minutes of the programme the switchboard was jammed with people having a go at him.

Are we living through an experimental period when nothing is presented by anyone who knows about; a) the subject; b) presentation; c) ideally, both?

Or is this the shape of the BBC to come?


  1. It's turned "Down the Line" into a documentary.

  2. it's a shame about that robert webb programme because the other poetry films in the series have been really good and have benefited from having people in the know on them

  3. It's the 'chasing the ratings' game innit.

    They seem to think that having a 'name' presenting something that would noramlly be presented by a professional presenter will pull in more viewers.

    It seems, unfortunately, that people want that kind of thing; otherwise why keep doing it.

    I turned off what might have been a reasonably interesting programme on Jack the Ripper the other night because it had Vic Reeves presenting it. I found him distracting what with his gurning and general manner.

    The programme couldn't make its mind up whether it was a documentary or the Vic Reeves show, or so it seemed to me.

    I'll watch him doing what he is good at but I would not want to watch him presenting a documentary any more than I would pay to have him cook a meal for me.

  4. Paul K9:39 am

    The temptation to play devil's advocate here is overwhelming - so...

    We are in an era now in which so many subjects are impossibly media-savvy that a presenter/interviewer is unlikely to get much of interest or value out of them. In those circumstances, could it not, sometimes, be interesting to put TWO such subjects together? Effectively eavesdropping on a conversation between two footballers/musicians/PR-conscious celebrities could be more revealing than an interview between a technologically-able presenter, wary of upsetting a guest, and a cautious, self-protective celeb.

    Couldn't it?

  5. To play the devil's advocate to the devil's advocate, that's the theory behind Jools Holland's interviews. And Gary Lineker's interviews.

  6. You can carbon date the moment BBC decided to use presenters with puff instead of substance. The day Philipa Forester was brought in to present Tomorrow's World - clearly a subject she had no interest or apptitude in. Would she be able to have expanded on any of the items without a script?

    Comedians presenting 'fish out of water' type travelogues always seemed a bit too forced to be funny

  7. I caught some of that 606 phone-in and found the shouty, contrary American (I presume) panelist infinitely more annoying than anything Steve Claridge said or didn't say.

  8. I think when Philipa Forester came in to Tomorrow's World it was because she was fairly well known, had an interest in environmental issues, could present live and worked well with Peter Snow. I think she could have expanded on some of the issues without a script (the presenters were involved in writing and researching them, occasionally) although the format never asked for it.

  9. Broadcast magazine is doing a survey amongst indie production folk about the effect of the ad downturn, and one of their first questions is "has it made commissioning editors more reliant on celebrity presenters?" I'm guessing that 99% of respondents will agree.

    If you offer a commissioner two programme ideas about the science of weight loss, one presented by a scientist, and one presented by Matt Lucas, they will interrogate the subject matter of the former to death but rubber-stamp the latter. It's a much easier decision to make - nobody got fired for buying IBM & all that. Whether or not there's an hour of telly in it (there isn't, as Horizon proved last week) is less important.

  10. The only area where this does seem to work, to a point, is cricket and rugby as the commentators / interviewers know their subjects inside out, ask difficult (ish) questions and can present in an engaging way.

  11. I would have slightly more faith in your argument if you knew that Robert Webb was enthusing about T S Eliot, and NOT e e cummings....It may well be true that dullard commissioning editors will insist on celebrities to host inappropriate programmes, but this particular series of four 'celebrities' talking about the poetry which has meant something to them throughout their lives was not one of them. They are all quite different are all thoughtful enough to make them work, IMHO. They are only one strand in the whole poetry season, which has already thrown up some good and varied programming on poetry. So your argument about celebrities may well be true across TV in general, but this case isn't an example of it.

  12. It's funny you should say that. I didn't see all of the programme. In my original post I said he was talking about T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings. Then it occurred to me that I didn't remember him talking about Eliot so I edited the entry to take him out. I did however *clearly* remember him talking to Clive James about e.e. cummings in a ten minute segment of the programme that began with a poem his wife had read at their wedding. My memory isn't perfect. How's yours?

  13. Yep, both Eliot and cummings featured.

    Perhaps the age of the specialist presenter is dead - but isn't it equally noteworthy that consumers are (or can be) more specialised than ever? For instance, if I'm interested in (say) TS Eliot I can watch 2 programmes about him on iPlayer (at a time of my leisure, without having to set the VCR or plan my evening around the schedule); then I can follow that up by entering "TS Eliot" into Google or YouTube - and while away an entire evening in the process.
    Because of the wealth of choice, it seems that I spend less and less time encountering TV programmes on subjects that I wasn't already interested in.

    Does this mean that TV viewers will soon know more about what they're watching than the presenter?

  14. It's fine, thankyou. Yes, he does talk about other poets too, but his passion is for Eliot. But that's beside the point I was trying to make regarding whether Webb was a useful way into poetry for an audience who may or may not be familiar with much poetry. Which I reckon he was, as part of an overall effort to stimulate some interest in poetry. However, if you didn't watch it all, I take it that you disagree. Maybe you should've have given him more of a chance.

  15. Sorry to backtrack but just to stick up for Philippa Forrester for a second she has got a degrees in both English and a First Class Honours degree in Ecology and Conservation. I dont think she is perhaps as fluffy as was inferred earlier. And yes, I did fancy her 15 years ago in my youth.

  16. @Dan_W

    I agree that ex cricketers and rugby platers generally seem to be more eloquent than their footballing cousins and do make better pundits & interviewers & presenters. I wish someone would grab Match of the Day by the scruff of its neck and get presenters to tell me things I didnt know rather than churn out cliches I can hear down the pub. Dont get me started on Lineker and Shearer.

  17. which cricketers and rugby player are more eloquent don't they just speak in the same cliches but with better accent. Even the ones who went to Peterhouse etc seem to do a good line in waffle.

  18. The series is called, 'My Life in Verse'.

    Surely Webb is uniquely equipped to talk about how poetry has featured in his own life? I mean if he was talking about how poetry had touched the life of, say, Sylvia Syms then maybe it'd be a bit presumptuous of him.

    That said, it was uncomfortable to watch his twitchiness at times, which seemed to be a thing of nervousness rather than impatience on his part.

  19. Cerys Matthews' programme on Celtic verse was extraordinarily good and her empathy with the subject shone throughout. The key poems were used and there was some interrogation of the subject at hand rather than Cerys going on a spiritual journey - which she of course had to physically. Allied to the fact that the interviewees were excellent, I think this showed that getting a 'sleb' with an enthusiasm is much more important than Jimmy Carr ironically narrating a retrospective of the Top 50 gypsy jazz guitarists.