TV got better when I stopped reviewing it

That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. Once I left BBC Ceefax and when my Radio Times work became more news and less reviews, I felt that television drama and comedy took a lurch upwards.

Just saying this to you now makes me think of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle where if you measure something’s location, you affect its speed and vice versa.

But really all that happened, all that changed was that I no longer had to watch to the end of rubbish shows. So now I was only seeing series that I enjoyed.

Still, there is a thing about being required to watch TV and specifically to be required to watch to the end. Usually it’s a good thing, too, although again as my fingers type this to you my head has just flashed back to Harbour Lights. That was a 1999/2000 BBC drama by many good writers but you didn’t watch it. You can now: it’s on YouTube.

I watched it back before YouTube was imaginable. I remember this night so particularly clearly because I was trying to get ahead one week and this was the big launch, this was the big new show, clearly it was going to be the one reviewed and I had the tape right there. What I don’t remember is exactly what happened next but some other show get that night’s review slot and you are now reading the first words I’ve ever written about Harbour Lights.

But then there are the shows I probably wouldn’t have watched, might not have got around to watching, or wouldn’t have caught until years later.

I’m thinking of three of them.

Some time around 2003, I think it was, two DVDs with the Battlestar Galactica mini series came in to the Radio Times office. This is a TV show but it was funded by Sky and that broadcaster decided to put it out first on its movie channels. So RT wasn’t going to review it as television and the film team had already written a dismissive 50-word description broadly saying how rubbish television is compared to movies.

Then for some other reason I never knew, Sky delayed airing the movie. So those disks lay there on a desk for a week or more until one night when I was coming home to Birmingham by coach and had nothing to watch. You’re thinking I took those disks and loved them, but you’d be wrong.

I took one of the disks and was furious at myself because it was going to be a week before I could get the second.

Then let me take you back again to VHS tapes. I used to get piles of VHS tapes from the broadcasters and I particularly enjoyed going to collect them from the BBC Previews Department. Great people, I liked them tremendously, and on the supremely circuitous route you had to walk from Ceefax to their office, you went through the scenery bay where they kept the TARDIS.

This was long before Doctor Who came back and the new show built its own police box so this old one was just left there from affection. Plus you could store so much inside it.

I definitely got the Harbour Lights tape from them and just looking up air dates now, I think it’s possible that in the same week Channel 4 sent me Queer as Folk.

I don’t remember if I watched them on the same night. I do remember staying over in London in some B&B that had a TV set and a video. I remember being dog-tired. I remember being rather hungry. And I can see something like six VHS tapes in a pile that felt like the most enormous slog to get through.

Until I popped Queer as Folk in.

There’s a story that the first scene of Queer as Folk was coming across as a bit serious, that its tone was setting up the show to not feel the way it should. So an extra scene was written, shot and inserted at the start of the episode. It’s Craig Kelly as Vince talking to camera about one night out on Manchester’s gay scene and concludes with a description of a man who “has every episode of Juliet Bravo on tape”.

It’s fast and funny and booms you into the series – and I didn’t need a word of it because I was already grabbed. I tell you, I can vividly recall sitting up as the title sequence started. I just watched it again now and there is a verve, a call to action, a delighted energy in the music and that was it. A dog-tired, hungry slog of an evening was now great.

The music was by Murray Gold, the series was written by Russell T Davies, produced by Nicola Schindler and the first episode directed by Charles McDougall.

Can I tell you one more? Because it’s the reason I’m remembering all of these shows this week. For twenty years ago on 6 June 1998, Sex and the City began.

That’s the original US air date and apparently Channel 4 first aired it here in 1999. I know it’s not from the same night’s reviewing as Harbour Lights and Queer as Folk because I can remember the different hotel room.

And I can remember having only it to watch. If I hadn’t, if I’d got other shows to get through, I’d have got through them. Because I didn’t think episode 1 of Sex and the City was good at all.

Whereas episode 2, Models and Mortals, was great. Both the first two were written by series creator Darren Star but I thought then that pilot was heavy handed and this next one flew. There’s got to be an issue of how I knew the characters going in to episode 2 but still, pilots are hugely difficult and I don’t think this one worked.

So there’s a lesson for us both. Watch every episode of everything because it might turn out to be brilliant. There you go.

What four stars really means

The reason I stopped being a TV critic – well, it’s because I got kicked out of Radio Times. But there was also the very big pull that I wanted to make drama rather than analyse other people’s. And unfortunately there was also the pretty big push that I was getting ever more unhappy with how reviews and reviewers worked.

When you write for one magazine you obviously read all of them and this was my thing, this is what I enjoyed, this was drama, so I read them all with gusto. Except I’d keep reading a competitor’s review of a show and realise that out of the two of us, only I had actually watched the drama.

Then, too, in researching various books and looking back across archives, I would see that some reviewers were writing at best what they thought the reader wanted to have and at worst what the drama producers insisted. The same reviewer would praise a series to the heavens and then next year in the archive he or she would be praising the show’s second series by saying how much better it was than the rubbish first one.

You get the idea. I got kicked out for unrelated crimes (aka budget cuts) and reviewing is one thing I’ve not looked back at once. Except that it has tickled me how over the last couple of years I’ve done a great deal of reviewing of software.

And I love it. There is some tremendous work being done in software and the tools I’ve relished the most have become part of my daily work. I wouldn’t be producing what I’m producing if it weren’t for this stuff.

I’ve just not seen this enjoyment of reviewing as being incompatible with my previous fretting. An app says it is for X and that it does Y. You use it and find out. I’m not saying it’s easy but the nuances of drama aren’t there: I do think about why I like and enjoy one app over another and that’s important. It’s also as indefinable as reviewing drama: if you can explain to me why I enjoy writing in an app called Drafts and I don’t enjoy writing in Word, well, I’ll be grateful.

But someone else’s review came out this week of a particular piece of software and between that reviewer and me, I am honestly wondering whether only I actually launched the app.

I won’t name the app or the reviewer for a combination of reasons from how this is about the overall issue instead of one specific case, and also because of legality.

But I filed my review the other day and before it came out, there was this other website covering this same thing. I read it to see if I’d missed anything, I read it from curiosity. This other reviewer gives this app four stars. Understand this: it’s not an issue of opinion, this thing factually does not do what it says.

Nothing in this is opinion, it’s straight reporting so you report it. Or I did, anyway.

This particular software is free and these days no software is expensive but your time is valuable to me. I wouldn’t recommend an hour-long episode of a show if I didn’t mean it; equally I won’t recommend a tool that will take you a time to discover it doesn’t do what it claims. Or rather that maybe yes, strictly speaking, it’s possible to get a feature to do a thing if you’re of an engineering persuasion and aren’t actually trying to use it to do something. Oh, that’s why I don’t like Word.

I know I sound like I think I’m a paragon here and I can remember reviews where I’ve been wrong or later changed my mind so radically that I was effectively wrong. But reviewers have one job and one advantage: they’ve used the software or they’ve watched the show before you.

We can’t tell you not to buy or not to watch but we can give you our opinion and present a case for you to judge. And I say ‘we’ there because this is more than about one review. Maybe that four-star reviewer is a very technical German speaker and the bugs I found were peculiar to my Mac. I don’t mind stopping reading a site or a magazine because I’ve found that the reviews just aren’t for me, but when you stop because you can’t trust them, that makes me doubt all reviews.

There’s a big element here that as a reviewer I might think my reviewing is a small thing yet I don’t like it being undermined or not taken seriously. There’s a big element here that I use an awful lot of software and I have relied on reviews to help me find the tools I need.

So if I’m a paragon, I’m an unhappy one. Besides, I can’t claim to be virtuous because I also used four stars in my review of this app, although only to cover up an unpublishable word.

Reviewing the situation

One of the benefits of having written an awful lot of reviews is that I have a fast idea of when I should pay attention to people reviewing me and when I shouldn’t. It is astonishing how many reviewers haven’t read the book, heard the audio, seen the play or whatever that they are either decrying or praising. It is also surprising just how rapidly you can tell this.

You’ve got be thinking that I’ve just had a stinker of a bad review but no. I haven’t had reviews in a while now, good or bad, and I do miss them a little. But I’ve also waited until now to discuss this with you specifically because I haven’t had a bad review and I know you haven’t either.

I know you’ve seen bad reviews – bad as in just not well done, not bad as in unfavourable – because you use the Internet. An author mentioned recently that she came close to crying over a 1-star review someone had given her novel because they hadn’t received it yet. They have some delay in the post from Amazon and they’re off leaving 1-star reviews.

Then look on App Stores: you can’t go by the five-star reviews as they may have been posted by the developer’s mom and you can’t go by one-star reviews as they were probably left by the competition. So you’re left looking at the mid-range three-star apps and there’s no ready way to differentiate between them.

Then you get the nutters who buy a book about birdseed and complain that they would give this a zero-star rating if they could because it didn’t also cover Formula 1 motor racing.

You can argue that people are dumb and you have plenty of evidence but I’m going to be generous and assume that it’s a different type of ignorance. People who do not know that they cause damage to sales through pratting about trying to look good. The thing is, you can say that about some professional reviewers as well as Numpty99 on Amazon.

I have been a professional drama reviewer and while I hope the emphasis was on the word professional I have got to have made mistakes and misunderstood and leapt to fast conclusions. I’m not proud of that, of course, and it’ll keep me awake now thinking of it, except for one thing.

That eejit one-star book reviewer may do some damage today. The Formula 1 fan may not have seven brain cells to rub together today. And I may be just a stupid man today. But none of us matter.

This is really why I picked this topic today. I read a thing about Marie Curie and how apparently she was so reviled and decried over some trivial scandal that Albert Einstein wrote her a fan letter in support. I can barely hold the detail of the scandal in my head, but I still recommend you have a read about it. That’s chiefly because I read it on Brain Pickings which is a simply fascinating site.

But it’s also because of the last line on that site, which concludes: “She endures as one of humanity’s most visionary and beloved minds. The journalists who showered her with bile are known to none and deplored by all.”

Damn right. I’m not knocking how much you learn from reviewing, but I am knocking people who only review. Go make something.