spoilers like Albion Market rarely work

Books One of the less desirable inconsistencies of broadsheet arts coverage (or at least the arts coverage in the broadsheet I read) is in the treatment of television. While theatre, film, music and even comedy is granted serious consideration and muscular debate even when the source material is relatively light, television is hived off and most often considered using a format akin to a synopsis with jokes or in the case of serious material a synopsis. Drama in particular is ill served; typically the writer is rarely mentioned, the director never, both key components of a theatre review.

Which isn’t to say that such coverage isn’t available elsewhere and is especially available on-line if you know where to look, and for just over a decade, Off The Telly was the place to look. A mature sibling to TV Cream, OTT served a mix of contemporary reviews of new shows and retrospectives on a range of nostalgia with lengthy reports considering Christmas and Saturday night television past. It was a fanzine that embraced all of the medium from The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club to GBH, considering that medium with the intellectual respect it often deserves but rarely receives.

And now it’s a book. Edited by Mark Jones of BrokenTV (arguably a successor), the self explanatory titled Off The Telly: The Best Bits of the British TV Website 1999-2009 gathers together writing from its most prominent (or contactable) authors from across the years on topics big (The Simpsons) and small (Hippies) perfectly the capturing the haphazard yet comprehensive editorial policy. To open at one of the six hundred odd pages, is to plunge headlong into the televisual heritage of the country, surf the channels of our collective memory.

Of course, this unlikely to be an entirely unbiased review since I was invited to write for the website during that decade and ultimately turned in some of the writing I’m most proud of. Arguably their most incongruous essay, on Clerks: The Animated Series of all things, was the one piece of writing I submitted with my application to study a film MA and the whole process of writing in OTT’s house style was the perfect mental training for the many essays that would follow. Apart from the week I was asked to review The Apprentice which just drove me mental.

What Off The Telly had which other websites could learn from was patience. Only very latterly embracing the blog format, OTT would instead publish just three long form essays at the beginning of each month (surrounded by contemporary reviews) and there was a professional commissioning process the editorial hand of a professional editor crafting the writing before it appeared on-site. It’s that which led to the high quality of the text, proper consideration given to the flow of facts, words and opinions rather than a reliance on some cheap jokes (though on occasion there were enough of those too).

All of which pays dividends here. This book is gold. I’m yet to find as incisive a discussion of Have I Got News For You as Matthew Rudd’s, from its humble beginnings as a topical new quiz through Merton’s absence to its trouble post-Deyton period and beyond. Shorter but no less fascinating is Ian Jones’s investigation into failed soap operas in which the general impression is one of intent: spoilers like Albion Market rarely work and Brookside arguably dragged on unloved by its channel for too long.

Over and over we’re confronted with surprising subject matter. The Show was a shortlived experiment on Channel 4 featuring Bob Mills which attempted to transfer the Larry Sanders docu-chatshow format to the UK but with the added metaficitonal twist that everything was real. But as reviewer Steve Williams notes, the problem was that people were more interested in the backstage material than the chat show at its core leaving the enterprise as brilliant but hollow. Phil Cool is treated equally as thoughtfully by TJ Worthington reminding us of the fickle nature of television and those who attempt to sustain a career therein.

The articles are mostly split into genres (comedy, drama, light entertainment) but three televisual behemoths have dedicated sections. A retrospective of Alan Bleasdale’s work covers Blackstuff, Mutineer, GBH and Jake’s Progress (which is gifted with an essay by Jack Kibble-White on the press reaction which is useful primer on the kinds of flippant or self indulgent reactions OTT, it always seemed to me was fighting against) and another forty pages chart the slow decline of The Simpsons both in episode quality and the BBC’s scheduling.

Then there’s Doctor Who. Introduced by Graham Kibble-White who now reviews the broadcasts for the party newsletter, these articles along with the McGann audios were instrumental in dragging me back to the franchise during the wilderness years, from Ian’s investigation into the politics of the series, to Graham’s exploration of fandom and Jack’s look at how the show influenced later productions, including Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere which has nice circular logic to it. Andrew Collins brings things bang up to date (well, 2005) with a description of his day recording a Big Finish audio.

In selecting the content, Mark says that he consciously ignored the contemporary reviews and part works, preferring to preserve these longer articles, hoping that the book should make sense in and of itself should it be picked up in a couple of decades which is probably the right decision. Already, the records of the early days of Big Brother and The Apprentice look ephemeral, such is the way of television. We don’t have enough perspective yet. Perhaps that’s a job best left to enthusiast of the future to come to terms with the phenomena that was and still is John Tickle.

 Off The Telly: The Best Bits of the British TV Website 1999-2009 can be purchased from Lulu.

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