Books on the BBC

Its whole raison d’etre is to be satirical-critical, but I thought Private Eye‘s recent swipe at Sebastian Faulks’ series, “Faulks on Fiction”, and by extension the BBC’s ‘Year of Books’ promotion, was slightly unfair. The Faulks series lacks real cohesion and seems more than a little partial at times, but it has been an entertaining look at some of the pivotal characters of British fiction. Rather than being tucked away on BBC4 it has had a decent slot on one of the main BBC channels: this is rare enough these days to warrant praise, no matter some of the deficiencies of the programme itself. Private Eye’s main gripe is that the ‘Year of Books’ is a token gesture though, and that the majority of programmes linked to the season are in fact hidden from sight on the digital channels. In addition, it claims the BBC is using this season to deflect indisputable criticism (mainly from Private Eye) that it still lacks a dedicated books programme, even on BBC4 (the very remit of which is arts and cultural broadcasting). I remember about 12 years ago David Aaronovitch presented a series on Channel 4 called ‘Booked’, broadcast on Friday nights, featuring interviews with major writers and round-table reviews of new releases (kind of like The Review Show, but good). To this day it remains my template of what a general books programme can be. I don’t believe for a moment that such a set-up would be prohibitively expensive for the corporation. Any claims that licence payers’ money shouldn’t be spent on programming that no one would watch can be countered with the simple fact that the BBC was designed from day one to, in Lord Reith’s patrician formulation, “Educate, Inform, and Entertain”, in that order; and this claim would presuppose that no audience exists for such programming in the first place. If this were true, then why have a ‘Year of Books’ at all?

‘Faulks on Fiction’, along with ‘The Birth of the British Novel’ (which I blogged about earlier) has been a good start to the season. I’m particularly looking forward to the adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s ‘Christopher and His Kind’ later this month, and last night’s adaptation of ‘South Riding’ (which I haven’t watched yet) shows the BBC at least trying to move out of its Jane Austen and Charles Dickens comfort zone. I don’t know what else is lined up for the year, but if it culminated in a regular slot for a books discussion programme on the ‘Booked’ model, it would be a great achievement.

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