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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

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.