I judge newspaper TV reviewers by a very high standard indeed. Why the hell shouldn’t I? Let’s face it, this is the dream job any human being can have. Sitting, scratching your mardy arse whilst staring out the flickers that would bombard your face anyway and getting paid for it. Jesus! They have to be very entertaining indeed to offset the sickening pang of envy I get while reading one. They rarely live up.
For a few years Jim Shelley aka Tapehead in the Guardian Guide managed to fit the bill. He was witty, acerbic, mostly accurate, and excreted his metaphysical bile duct in a pleasingly over-the-top manner. When he left in 2000 I was deeply worried (what a dangerous existence I lead!) Which safe trendoid would cast their yawnsome “wry eye” over events now? But thankfully they didn’t choose the safe option, they chose Charlie Brooker. And he made Shelley look like an amalgam of Dennis Norden and Jenny Bond.
Put aside any justifiable lit-snobbery you may have in thinking that a collection of TV reviews cannot make a great book. In 99% of cases you’d be right, but not here. Brooker’s is a glorious, venomous vision which blasts acidly over modern society with TV as its launch-pad.
Brooker’s writing persona is self-deprecating, neurotic, unpretentious, and above all seriously pissed off at the televisual shite shovelled his way. He has a real genius for brief, cutting description which highlights its victim as expertly as it destroys them.
In the main, his scatological, violent epigrams simply speak for themselves. Rarely as gut-churningly offensive as his XXX rated old web site TV Go Home they are probably more effective and hilarious for their relative subtlety (we’re talking very relative here.) Try these for size
On The Generation Game:
“Jim scampers onstage, winking and twitching like a man with a fish-hook stuck in his glans, and immediately launches into a comic pantomime of such awkward, ill-conceived clunkiness, you can’t help but wonder if its been scripted by a human with a lap-top or a dog with a Fisher Price Activity Centre.”
On Davina McCall:
“It’s like her brain’s been spooned out and replaced by a rotating glitter-ball.”
On a “Steps” TV Special:
“Ho ho ho, we all love Steps really don’t we? No. They’re not harmless fun; they’re slapdash trash. “H” is not a lovable scamp: he’s a blank eyed glove puppet with half the charisma of a discarded ping-pong bat rotating slowly in a pig trough full of rainwater. This represents untertainment at its finest and will be warmly welcome by anyone who regularly sits in front of the box with a loaded shotgun in their mouth, trying to pluck up the courage.”
And, more obscurely, on finding a DVD boxed set of Planet of The Apes with Charlton Heston disconsolate before the Statue of Liberty on the cover:
“What next? A special edition of Seven in a commemorative case mocked up to resemble Gwynneth Paltrow’s severed head?”
Childish? Yes. Hilarious? Well I think so. If it was all fantasy disembowelling of nob-ends in colourful language Brooker could be dismissed as a one-trick pony, even if that trick is astonishingly amusing. But there’s a real vision at work here; stinging, jaded eyes surveying a Boschean hellscape of demonic coke-crazed execs ladling poisonous gruel down the mouths of uncomplaining dribble-mouthed buffoons.
And yet for all the apparent misanthropy there’s a cornered and bruised altruism at work here too. Brooker recently wrote Nathan Barley with the immortal Chris Morris (the best thing on telly despite what the nay-sayers nay-say) but while the latter is the greater comedic and satirical talent (not just of Brooker, but of everyone) Brooker actually has a humanity about him seemingly absent in our latter-day Swift. For all his violent imagery, a longstanding vein in his work is a contempt for the kind of sniggering nihilists who watch genuine suffering for kicks. This can perhaps be seen best in his dissection of some feeble “comedy awards” programme door-stepping Les Dennis about his break-up with his wife.
“Perhaps I’m a wuss but I think harassing the heartbroken for funnies is disgraceful. Clearly the producer, Dan Clapton, believes that human suffering equals big guffaws, so if anyone has any first-hand accounts of him having his heart broken, send me the juicy details and I’ll reprint them here so we can have a good hearty ho-ho together. After all, it’s just a bit of fun, right Dan? Right?”
Of course it helps that I agree with most of what he says but even when describing his affection for David Dickinson (ugh!), Monarch of the Glen (gah!) and, worst of all Friends (arrrggghhhhhhhhh!) he’s still funny. I dare say he’d have a few words to say about my soft spot for Judge John Deed too. We’re all entitled to like some shite in our lives. Indeed, it’s Brooker’s recognition of this, the simultaneous fascination and revulsion he has for the likes of Pop Idol and Big Brother that makes it very far from some highbrow denunciation of TV as a whole. This is a guy who loves the possibilities of what television has to offer, and an enjoyment for even the more throwaway aspects of the medium. The Hulkish anger at so much of what he sees is akin to that of a neglected lover. How dare his great love try to fob him of with such crap, not well made crap but the likes of The Generation Game which “drops off the low end of the stupidity spectrum, to a point where the human brain is incapable of interpreting its signal”?
I have only two criticisms of this excellent book. One: unlike the columns from which they are taken they are each headed by one of the most memorable phrases from the piece; “A fascist chorus line”, “An aging thundercat”, “A pastel sketch of a lonely duckling” “Do spiders live alone?” This has the effect of spoiling the surprise within and is uncalled for, like trailers that spell out the plot of a film. Two: I’ve read all of them before and remember them all anyway. But unless you’re a sad bastard Guardian reader who has stored all your old Guides together in a handy binder; you should still get this to have the brilliance of the writing to hand. And if you’ve not read him before; just buy it; you’re missing out.