Books on the BBC

‘Oh my god, you’ve got to use that in your blog,’ a friend said to me on Saturday night, once I’d told her the extraordinary and rather shocking thing that had happened to me in the bookshop a few hours earlier.

Sadly, despite racking my brains, I’ve been unable to find a literary parallel to being propositioned for a foursome by someone who I thought might have been a thief.

So I am left with something slightly less intriguing to write about. ‘Books on the BBC’.

Now before you groan, I have to say that, as a rather bookish young woman, who’s always keep to espouse the brilliance of books over other media, such as television, for instance, I feel really pretty excited about this (albeit rather unimaginatively titled) BBC initiative.

‘We are delighted to champion the power of books,’ they say in their press release. Yessssss, I hiss to myself. Is this victory at last? Is television (and radio) finally admitting defeat to the ongoing glory of the printed page?

Trying to put aside my gloating, I decided to see what literary delights BBC iPlayer has to offer.

First, let it be said, that there are lots more bookish television programmes to come from the BBC. From the (rather unlikely) Anne Robinson to the (rather obvious) Stephen Fry, via Richard E Grant and Adam Nicholson, our screens are going to play host to all sorts of bookish activities. Not to mention the inevitable, gloriously cheesy, costume dramas.

But I ended up watching two documentaries.

The first was an episode of the much-hyped Faulks on Fiction. Ironically, there is a book that goes with this TV series. The reviews of the book have been quite a chuckle. Faulks takes an incredibly unfashionable, unacademic approach to literature. Rather than thinking about biographical or theoretical interpretations of novels, he looks at individual characters and treats them as real people. It’s the first thing one is told not to do at university. Or even, come to think of it, at GCSE. Never forget the author, I was told again and again. This person – Robinson Crusoe or Becky Sharp, or whoever it is that you feel an affinity with in the book – is not really a person, it’s a character, constructed by the author. Rather than thinking – oh, I like this about this person – one is supposed to think: Why the author has chosen to put that trait into the character. What is achieved? What does it mean? How is it balanced or echoed by a trait in another character? How does it reflect upon contemporary society? How would a post-structuralist read it? And blah blah blah …

So turning round and saying, essentially, ‘Sod that, I want to talk about all my favourite heroes,’ to the buttoned-up academics, is a bit of a coup.

And good for Sebastian Faulks! I bet his publishers were somewhat peeved that rather than putting the effort into writing yet another bestselling novel, he’s put all this time into a volume of literary criticism. Sales will be good – his name is such a recognised brand that anything by him will sell, and he has a TV series as backup – but sales won’t be nearly as good as they were for A Week in December or Birdsong or any other novel by him.

But as I watched the programme, I realised the first – and almost insurmountable – problem with a television programme about books: What will make up the visual content?

When reading a novel, all you see are the words on the page. (Plus, of course, the brilliantly-imagined world that the author has created, existing for the moment in your mind’s eye.) But just showing pages of books on television is of limited appeal. Yes there are several interviews with today’s literati, such as Martin Amis and Robert Harris, but what about the rest of the time? What can serve as a backdrop while Sebastian Faulks witters on about his hero-of-choice?

The BBC appears to have decided to use a setting that reflects the content of the book. A discussion of Robinson Crusoe, for instance, sees Faulks clambering, pink-shirted, red-faced, over a desert island. Tom Jones is discussed from a leafy English woodland, and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp is given the context of a cab-journey through Soho. All this is interspersed with clips from screen adaptations, with music to provide an atmosphere of excitement or adventure. Yes, it is unspeakably naf. The all-time low is Faulk’s discussion of 1984’s Winston Smith while loitering around post-war social housing.

But how can one possibly get around this problem? Books are written to be read. Discussions of them may work the radio, but on screen the need for images can surely only interfere with the reader/viewer’s own imagination, their own thoughts about the books?

The other documentary I watched managed to side-step this problem with slightly more panache. As Henry Hitchings’s The Birth of the British Novel got underway, I could almost hear the sigh of relief echo down from ivory towers. Hitchings looks at eighteenth-century literature as the beginning of the novel. He picks out a few of the most seminal works (not characters) and describes how the novel comes into being, how it changes, and what authors are trying to do with this exciting new form of writing.

Yes there are the same talking heads, and similar slightly tiresome shots of the presenter wandering through London. But rather than resorting to screen adaptations, old illustrations from the books and contemporary portraits of the authors fill the screen. With Fielding, we get a whole aside on Hogarth and the Foundling Museum – much more enlightening than the sword fights and heaving bosoms of the screen adaptation excerpted on Faulks on Fiction.

Perhaps it was lack of budget that prevented Henry Hitchings from jetting off to a desert island for his discussion of Robinson Crusoe, but I was much more fascinated to see a very old etching of Crusoe’s animal-skin ‘great cap for my head with the hair on the outside to shoot of the rain’, and even his umbrella!

The camera is quieter, less flash, allowing the viewer to listen to the readings from the novels, to take in the detail of the illustration, to ponder the strange luminous gleam of Sterne’s forehead in Reynolds’s portrait, for instance. Although, this thoughtfulness is somewhat unbalanced by the numerous snappy street shots of London, and all its tenuous links, such as close-ups of flat whites while talking about eighteenth-century London’s coffee-house culture.

It does seem a bit peculiar that in the five or so books discussed in each of these documentaries, two are the same. It invites comparison. And while I felt slightly irritated in moments of each of them, I felt that Henry Hitchings was the overall winner. Faulks on Fiction is so jazzed up, so daring, so different in its approach, that I felt it lost the power of the novel on the way. Books speak for themselves. They don’t need to be ventriloquised by adaptations, and gratuitous desert island shots. I even found it slightly patronising, as though I were being ushered into an appreciation of a novel but through a side-door that only showed a narrow, dumbed-down version. Henry Hitchings’s discussion of each novel may be similarly brief, but by bringing in context, ideas, the author’s background, he makes the novels accessible while keeping their integrity intact.

But really with each programme, I came away thinking it was time to read and reread some of those classics. I want to remind myself of the painstakingly-detailed island life in Robinson Crusoe, and I want to finally get round to reading Tom Jones. Even Faulks on Fiction made me joyfully reminisce about reading Vanity Fair and think that perhaps it’s time to allow myself another squizz at it. Both programmes whet my appetite for literature and, I suppose, that’s really the point.

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