Ever wondered why you never see billiards on TV? It's all Brian Walden's fault

I won't be taking up BSkyB's offer of a "free digital dish and decoder box". If ever I get short of something to watch on TV, there's always the TV version of Peter Hall's production of The Oresteia which I taped in 1983 - unless the tape has decayed or been eaten by rats. And there's also the TV version of Peter Brook's The Mahabharata, or however it's spelled, which I taped in about 1988.

I have all these riches and more in my video collection and yet last week, in a semi-drunk stupor, I sat in bed and watched most of The Breakfast Club, which I've already seen about three times. It seemed quite good when it first came out and gets steadily worse with each new viewing. Maybe it's the spectacle of an entire generation of young actors - the Brat Pack, remember them? - who were younger than me and are now all middle-aged and washed-up.

The other thing I saw was the last of the series in which Brian Walden talked about villains. This one was Joseph Stalin. The famous thing about these programmes is that Walden delivers them unscripted, straight to camera in a single take. So my wife and I spent almost the entire programme ignoring the content and arguing about whether he was "really" doing it, in the way that one argues about whether they are "really" doing it in certain movie sex scenes. This latter question will doubtless be a subject for an entire future column, but as for the former it involved much scrutinising of his eyeballs, to see if they were moving back and forwards reading an autocue, and his language, to see if we could tell whether it was spoken or written - or very cleverly written to sound spoken, or even more cleverly spoken to sound written.

The problem is that Walden is actually too good at it. The prototypes for these talks were the similarly unscripted ones given by A J P Taylor on television in the sixties and seventies. But he was much more ragged. He would correct himself on dates, stumble over words, express uncertainty about some detail. In the Stalin talk, Walden didn't stumble over a word, didn't hesitate over a date, didn't lose his thread. It was too good.

Do you ever wonder why there's so much snooker on television but you never see billiards? Probably not, but I'm going to tell you anyway. The top billiard players became so good that they could position the three balls along one cushion and play shots along the table and back, scoring breaks of thousands of points. In the process they destroyed the game as a spectator sport. (In my opinion, the serve and volley game has likewise killed tennis as a spectator sport, but the spectators don't agree with me.)

Walden is so freakishly articulate that he misses the point of talking without a script. Part of the excitement of watching a tightrope walker is the feeling that he might end up being scraped off the pavement into a jam jar. If you speak in complete sentences and finish exactly on time, then you might as well read from an autocue. I'm going to put forward a proposal to BBC2 that the next series should feature people who are hopelessly inarticulate, such as John Prescott and me, talking about the major issues of the day for half an hour straight to camera. And furthermore that the programme should go out live. That'll make the viewers sweat.

In fact, I could practise by doing the same thing with this column. I could solemnly promise the reader that I won't make any connections - I mean, corrections - and I'll just type it all out in one go and not allow myself any second chances or rewriting. For example, I had thought this week I might write about one of the few things I know about the late Dirk Bogarde, which is that he didn't allow women to use his lavatory. This was enforced strictly even at his villa in the south of France, which involved some long and painful treks.

I was trying to work out whether this was better or worse than Kenneth Williams, who didn't allow anybody to use his lavatory. The good news is that he lived in a flat next to Baker Street Tube station, so people only needed to go down a few flights of stairs, out and round the corner to use the public conveniences.

Is my time up? What? More? And he had his cooker wrapped in cellophane as well. Kenneth Williams, that is. Good evening.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - A culture of pretence