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Nothing makes me want to break fingers more than a dud television show

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Sunday evening and I am packing the kids off quickly because I want to get back home in time for the new Blandings series on the telly. We don’t watch much television at the Hovel – Laurie is actually under the impression that we don’t have one but it’s there, right in the corner of the living room, gathering dust when it is not being pressed into service as a vehicle for watching DVDs on.

It’s not a matter of ethical principle – it’s just that there’s no point in turning it on to see if anything good’s on, because there won’t be. Such stuff as I do watch I tend to catch up with on iPlayer, which rules out all the commercial channels, of course, and then I only watch University Challenge and Doctor Who, even though the latter is beginning to try my patience. I mean, we all know their Christmas specials are rubbish but the latest one was rubbish in the extreme. When Stephen Moffat signed the contract to help with the script to the appalling Tintinmovie, was one of the conditions of payment that he would have his brain removed? It’s the only explanation I can think of, for he used to be wonderful.

Anyway, the list of shows that I don’t watch is a long one. Clive James said he gave up on 24 once he realised that every time Jack Bauer’s phone went off it meant his daughter had been kidnapped again, and I think episode 12 of the second series of 24was when I thought to myself: You know what? I don’t actually have to watch any more of this at all. This epiphany applied across the board and across every part of the schedules.

It is a truism that freelance journalists spend their days eating biscuits and watching daytime TV but we don’t really; if we did our brains would turn to mush and we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs. You might not think those jobs are that demanding in the first place but they do require us to be able to put one word after another, and the last time I checked, daytime TV put you in a place where even that was impossible.

The worry is that evening TV is starting to go the same way. I started watching the latest series of I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! on the grounds that (a) everyone’s allowed one guilty pleasure, (b) watching Nadine Dorries’s political career go down the dunny was a civic duty and (c) there was little harm in watching a bunch of self-selected freaks demean themselves for publicity. In the end I only managed about four or five days of it – I was wrong about (c) after all. I do not think the producers of the show would be that offended if I said that there was little more they could do with the format to make it look original. Even Ant and Dec were making jokes about that and it wasn’t really a good sign.

But there is a time when TV is an innocent balm and, what with one thing and another, it had been a trying week and I had pleasant memories of Fry and Laurie as Jeeves and Wooster. One look at the publicity pictures for the new series, though, had given me cause for misgivings – as far as I recalled, Lord Emsworth was a rangy, scraggy figure of an earl and not even the most flattering members of Timothy Spall’s entourage would call him that. Still, he is a fine actor and I have a soft spot for Jennifer Saunders. Above all, though, I have a soft spot for P G Wodehouse and his Blandings stories, which is what should have kept me away from the television that Sunday evening.

The curious thing when TV people muck something up is not that they do it at all, for we have come to expect this of them, but that they do it so spectacularly. I have never wanted to work in TV – and even when I’ve stepped in to do a spot of TV reviewing when a critic has been away, I’ve ended my stint feeling as if I had walked though a bemerded field in plimsolls – but how it manages to summon up such contempt for the creative process and the public is quite impressive.

We have a perfectly good television critic of our own who can explain just why and how bad the show was, and my job is only to pass on to the reader my sense of rage and bitterness, but I really would like someone to tell me what goes on in the meetings where travesties like this are commissioned. I would also like to find the people responsible and break their fingers, so they can’t sign anything off, or write any more scripts again. The bastards ruined Sunday for millions. And me.


Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.