The glories of John Betjeman. And why we need more English eccentrics – eg me – on TV – James Delingpole

September 4, 2014

Is it just me or are almost all TV documentaries completely unwatchable these days? I remember when I first started this job I’d review one almost every fortnight. Always there’d be something worth watching: on the horrors of the Pacific or the Eastern Front, say; or castles; or Churchill; or medieval sword techniques. But now it’s all crap like The Hidden World of Georgian Needlecraft or In The Footsteps of Twelve Forgotten South American Civilisations Which All Look The Same or A Brooding, Long-Haired Scottish Geographer Shouts From Inside A Volcano Why Climate Change Is Worse Than Ever.

The presenters have got more annoying too. I mean, I’m not saying some of the old ones weren’t infuriating with their hand-waving and tics and mannerisms and wheezings. But the new ones are just vacuous, unformed squits. They make you yearn for a reverse Logan’s Run world, where everyone under 30 is executed for being so tiresome. A lot of them are women, obviously, chosen mainly for their simpering looks and charming speech impediments and unerring knack for fronting the dullest imaginable subject matter.

No doubt the people responsible for commissioning this drivel think they’re redressing the balance, in much the same way progressive historians do when they demand we empathise with medieval peasants rather than learning about what Edward I did to the Welsh and the Scots. Well, I can’t speak for all oppressed women here, but I think I can for my wife. They’re not going, ‘Oh, good. Finally a documentary with my name on it, about what it was like to be a woman’s maidservant in Elizabethan York.’ They’re going, ‘Who is that irritating little cow? Why is she on the screen putting on that little-girl-lost voice for my husband? And why the hell isn’t this documentary about something actually interesting, like, say, castles, or Churchill or medieval sword techniques?’

Then, of course, there’s the worst thing of all: the journey. All presenters in all documentaries, as we know, have to begin by telling us they’re going on a journey. But as anyone who has ever worked in TV knows, this is a total lie. You know even before your first day’s filming exactly what you’re going to say, what your interviewees are going to say, what your line is going to be. You’re not discovering anything. Even the scenes where you pretend to be meeting someone for the first time are faked.

Something needs to change — and I know exactly what the solution is. We need documentaries to be presented by real enthusiasts, rather than by talking heads who’ve just mugged up on the subject. That way the subject matter will take care of itself because, regardless of what it is, a true enthusiast will make it interesting.

A.N. Wilson showed us the way this week in Return to Betjemanland (BBC4), a shamelessly eccentric, puckish but deeply insightful homage to the poet, architectural evangelist and clown with his ‘infectious toothy grin, the slightly seedy air of a defrocked clergyman, the sharp knowledge and the ready wit’.

Read the rest at The Spectator

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