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.

Just one more thing…

There’s good and bad in this. On the one hand, this is the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Columbo and we’re still watching, we’re still talking about it. Isn’t it astonishing that something written half a century ago still thrives? I’d kill to write something you remember for half a minute.

But because it’s the anniversary, people are also tweeting about Columbo and if you don’t happen to have seen the show, this is probably the time you’re going to give it a go.

Only, there’s Columbo and there’s Columbo.

If you pick an episode made in its original run from 1968 to 1978 then you’re fine. There are some episodes that don’t particularly work, there are many that are very good and there are a startling number that are superb.

It’s just that in 1989 the show came back and as it limped on to 2003, there was a contractual requirement that every episode be unutterable crap. Really, there’s one called Columbo Goes to College that seems to be great until a totally dreadful ending. Otherwise, no. Not a one.

Whereas that original run… I think you know the show. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. But you at least have an idea of Lt Columbo as played by Peter Falk and even if you don’t happen to know the term ‘open book mystery’, you know that every episode began with the crime being committed. Columbo was almost never a whodunnit, it was a how’s-he-going-to-catch-the-murderer.

Columbo wasn’t the first to use the open book format but it remains the most famous example and easily the best.

But what makes all this so good, what makes it all so very satisfying is the consequence of our knowing who committed the crime. The average murder mystery keeps us guessing and keeps us watching only because it manages to make us want to know whodunit. When we do, it’s over, we’re gone.

The average murder mystery has no repeat value: when you know the answer to the puzzle, so many crime and mystery shows are empty. So many detectives are walking police procedural plot exposition and so many murders are the biggest name in the cast list and nothing else.

Murder, actually, becomes nothing. Someone is killed and then the killer is caught, somehow all is right with the world. I remember Veronica Mars being very good at how it resisted that, how it conveyed the real impact of death.

Whereas with Columbo, the show has to hold us for at least an hour after we’ve seen whodunit. So you never get a case where the butler did it, you never get anything where it could be one of several suspects. Instead, you get a fantastic villain and a murder that was done for a reason.

We get to see why they’ve done it, we get to understand why they’ve killed. Sometimes we’re even on their side.

Invariably, though, at least in 1968-1978, the richness of that guest character was matched by Columbo himself. Two characters, two actors, toe to toe for a feature-length story. Columbo had tremendous performances and its scripts demanded them.

So go on, watch one. You could get the entire run on DVD, for one thing. Or if you spot an episode coming up on TV, check its title against an episode guide to see whether it’s Good Columbo 1968-1978 or Unbearably Embarrassing Columbo 1989-2003. You won’t thank me if you end up watching, god help us, 1991’s Murder Can be Hazardous to Your Health. But you will if you catch Prescription: Murder, Ransom for a Dead Man, Murder by the Book… wait, I’m just starting to list episodes now.

Oh, one more thing.

No, two. If you recognise “one more thing” then you’re either a Steve Jobs fan or you’ve seen Columbo. In every single episode of the detective show, the Lieutenant will leave a scene and then immediately come back in saying “Oh, just one more thing”. It became something you looked forward to because his one more thing was always a fantastically loaded little question and, what’s more, it was always what he had planned to ask from the start. He did this one-more-thing lark to catch people off guard and there are few more satisfying moments in the show.

But the one more thing I want to tell you is that it’s a lie that Columbo is 50 years old.

It was 20 February 1968 when a one-off TV movie called Prescription: Murder aired and it’s true that this was the first proper Columbo on television. But it was based on a stage play that had successfully toured for some time from 1962 with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo.

Only, one more one more thing. The stage play Prescription: Murder was developed from a 1960 play called Enough Rope which aired as an episode of the TV series The Chevy Mystery Show and featured Bert Freed as Columbo.

If that show still exists then it isn’t available anywhere but you can watch Columbo co-creator and co-writer William Link on how fortunate they were to eventually get Peter Falk.

So it’s 50 years since Falk first played Columbo and it’s almost 60 since the character was invented. Six decades and still going. I tell you, I’m not kidding: I’d love you to remember something I’ve written 60 seconds after you read it.

Restored to life

Confession: I backup everything I write, everything that lands on my Mac, everything. But I rarely go into the backups to restore anything. Until this week when my arm was twisted into powering up my last computer again and doing some work with it. I’m going to claim that it doesn’t matter what the work was but really, I just cannot remember – because of what I found instead.

Every five or six years I buy a new Mac and take a minute or two to bring over all my current documents. I also promise to sort out the pile of hard drives I have inside some of these Macs and outside all of them but I never do.

This week I did and it’s been like data archaeology. Let me just tell you this first: here on my old Mac Pro I found I’d got 44 feature films. They appear to have been ripped from my DVDs but I don’t remember doing that.

Then there are 279 whole episodes of TV series. Some DVD rips, some iTunes purchases, I don’t know.

And 15,768 radio or other audio tracks.

I do understand that one because I used to have my Mac Pro automatically switch itself on to record the Afternoon Drama on BBC Radio 4 every day so there’s a pile of those. It’s a pile with titles like ‘Afternoon Play -ep723.m4a’ and no other way to work out what each is but to listen.

Then, too, I’ve made a lot of radio on my Macs so there’s surely a thousand or more tracks to do with that.

One more thing. Somewhere in that Mac Pro’s folders there were also 3,336 scripts. A thousand or more movie scripts plus entire series of television ones. Oddly few radio, for some reason.

All of this is now on a drive connected to my iMac and Backblaze, my online backup service, is sweating as it uploads the lot to cloud storage to make sure it is never lost, that it is always available to me wherever I am.

And that would be where I’d stop. Look at this, I could say: I’ve found all this glorious material and that it will of course occupy me, enthral me, distract me.

Only, this digging into a massive personal archive turns out to be a delicate dig into the past. It’s delicate because at first you see a photograph and alongside it there’s the date. It’s a file on your Mac, there’s the name and there’s the the Date Modified. It’s putting a pin in a memory – but then opening that image, looking at that document, just glancing at it changes the Date Modified to today. It’s like grasping at something that crumbles in your hand.

Now, if you dig slightly to the left and down a bit there is way to show the Date Created. But I didn’t think of that until I’d go into paroxysms about the ephemeral nature of even digital memories.

And as I write this to you, I’m actually back by that old Mac Pro because I wanted to get that screen grab of its display looking whitewashed. (When did I take that whitewash photo? Apparently Sunday, 8 September 2013 at 11:12.)

But I’m looking for that date and the drives inside this Mac Pro began giving out a little scream.

They’re going to die. And I’ve already plugged in one ancient external drive that I pointlessly struggled to find the right cables for because it’s dead.

We use these machines to do our work and to do everything, but along the way we are inadvertently documenting our entire lives in sometimes minute-by-minute detail. It’s not always great detail. It’s sometimes scraping when you find an old email and the text comes along with a tsunami of upset.

It’s not great detail when you learn what open wounds you still have. But it is great detail, it is the greatest of all details, when you a To Do list from 2003 that has hopes for the future that you’ve since achieved.

I’m not saying you should dig through your old computer documents and I’m definitely not saying you should do it without a strong mug of tea beside you. But I am saying you should backup everything. I’ve said that for years and meant it in very practical terms but today I mean it in emotional ones too.