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The Big Read

Friday, October 24, 2003 by

With predictable bitchiness, I noted that a columnist in my local rag, The Herald, opined that he “hated the public’s opinion in these programmes”. Clearly, our opinion counts for nothing. We plebs know nothing. Our betters know better and, as such, we should leave this type of revisionism to them and thank them for it.

Bollocks. I’ve yet to agree with any of the various Hundred Best or Britain’s Favourite shows that I’ve watched but if the viewers of Channel 4 (or was it readers of The Observer?) feel that the spectacle of Michael Portillo’s election defeat is more memorable than the sight of the “Labour Isn’t Working” poster in the opening credits of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet then who am I to argue? I can laugh at their, as I see it, baleful immaturity but, bottom line, more of them voted for it, ergo, it’s more memorable.

As writer after writer bitterly (and snobbishly) rails against the general public for having more interest in Harry Potter than David Copperfield (and I’m with the general public on that one – after 50 pages of Charles Dickens I’m slipping into a coma. Does that make me an ignoramus? Who cares?) and multiple dummies are spat out of literary prams due to Bridget Jones kicking Simone de Beauvoir’s bony ass, we are left with the inescapable but undeniably salient fact that this is the settled will of the people. So, to the carping critics, insufferable snobs and over-educated egoists I say; bite me. There’s plenty in the top 21 that I don’t rate never mind the top 100 but, the clich├ęd bottom line is that Joe Public has voted and made his (and her) choice.

The premise of the programme is wonderfully simple. Three celebrities are given around 20 minutes or so in which to provide us with what amounts to an election broadcast in which they advocate their book of choice. This week, given the characters and sensibilities of those involved, it proved to be a worthwhile and interesting edition of the show. Meera Syal tackled Jane Austen with typical gusto, some posh explorer bloke whom I’ve never heard of championed His Dark Materials and William Hague eulogised Birdsong. Three very different books, three very different personalities – none of whom I have the least bit of time for – who each managed to make an entertaining and convincing case for their beloved piece of literature.

Out of the three, Hague came across as the most passionate and animated. He seemed to invest far more emotion in his choice than either Syal or Posh Explorer Bloke and, as such, he perhaps will have swayed more viewers to his book. Ah, Willie, if only you had shown this kind of enthusiasm across the dispatch box. The explorer bloke couldn’t help shoehorning in the fact that he too went to Oxford which came across as insufferably priggish when it wasn’t meant as such. He overdid his praise of Pullman’s wonderful trilogy and centred too heavily on the themes of the book forgetting that, essentially, His Dark Materials is that beauteous rarity – an adventure in which the most important character is a girl. Syal’s take on Jane Austen was as wry, dry and caustically witty as you would expect. I surprised myself by enjoying her contribution (I consider her comedic body of work to be uniformly awful – and while we’re here can I once again reiterate that Charlie Williams was doing the whole “going for an English” routine almost 30 years before Goodness Gracious Me appeared) and, occasionally, chuckling at it.

Where the programme falls slightly flat is Clive Anderson. Bright and experienced host though he is, I’d rather have had someone along the lines of Jeremy Paxman, Mark Lawson or (honestly!) Angus Deayton doing this. Clive is too needy as a host, too unctuous and he manages to detract from the overall ambience of the programme. Plus he just can’t pitch the “this weeks movers” segment of the show, which also suffers from hideous graphics, while we’re at it.

Those two points aside, this is a programme that has been well put together and, on the whole, very satisfying. I care not a jot that my preferred pieces of literature are conspicuous by their absence (The Rocket Boys, The Brentford Triangle, Summerland, Aberystwyth Mon Amour and The Eyre Affair for the record) and I’m warmed by those books that I do like which have made it into the final list of 21. Perhaps the columnist on my local rag should reflect on the fact that sales and library lending for the books that have featured thus far are markedly on the increase. Besides, where else would you see the likes of Phil Jupitus championing Winnie The Pooh?

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