Andrew Collins: Everyone’s a critic

Meeting the good readers of Radio Times in a tent and discussing star ratings

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Radio Times went to the Cheltenham Literature Festival last week. And what an entirely pleasant, genteel experience it turned out to be. Basically, loads of people who like books and reading in general, milling around some massive tents wherein people who write talk about writing. We’re a magazine about television, but most television is written, and people who write are always on it, and anyway, it’s a magazine: it’s also written.

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I went down for the day on Wednesday and spent some pleasant hours in the RT marquee, meeting our readers. They are decent sorts, as you’d rather expect. I was particularly taken with a lovely woman from Glasgow called June, who’s “taken” Radio Times all her life – as did her mother before her, and as does her son now. Once she’d finished buying everything in the RT shop – Christmas cards, teatowels, a subscription – she engaged me in lively conversation about the film section and made this telling comment:

“I read your reviews every week. I don’t always agree with them, but I enjoy reading them.”

June hit the nail on the head. Reviews of anything are ultimately subjective. We – that is, the population of the planet – can’t expect to reach a consensus on everything. As I always say when it comes to films, one man’s Meet The Parents is another man’s Poison Ivy. (I’ll give you a couple of seconds to take that in and fully appreciate its cleverness.)

The crack team of critics who review films for RT are hardened professionals and are also a) movie fans, and b) human. We do our best in the film section to present a reasonable view, always keeping the reader in mind when we hand down our judgements on tablets of stone.

This is particularly true for the star ratings, which act as a shorthand for criticism all the way across our media now. We are very careful with the extreme ratings: one star and five stars. When a film is showing on telly, and you turn to RT before making your decision about spending the evening with it or not, we don’t wish to dissuade you from giving it a punt if it has any merit at all. Sometimes, an undemanding romantic comedy that might not be the best in its class is just what the doctor ordered.

You’d be amazed how often, as the man with his grinning face at the top of the page, I am called to account on behalf of our star ratings. I’m all for it. Clearly, if one of our reviewers awards a film the hallowed five stars, he or she is saying: definitely watch this film, you won’t be disappointed. However, someone, somewhere is bound to be.

Equally, if – and this is a purely hypothetical example plucked from the air – I give Christopher Nolan’s Batman film The Dark Knight three stars and you are one of those people who consider it a modern classic, I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that, in context, and with what I consider to be its shortcomings taken into account, I believe that three stars (which means “good” according to our rating system) is a fair mark. It is a good film. Nobody’s saying it’s bad.

It’s not hypothetical, of course. I did give The Dark Knight three stars, and I stand by it. And although not all of my colleagues here agree with it, I’ve dug my heels in and at least they haven’t gone into the database and changed it while I’m not here yet! (Its predecessor Batman Begins is in our system as a four-star film, reviewed by another writer, and I personally believe that Batman Begins is superior to The Dark Knight, which is why I went for three. Good heavens, it’s a minefield.) 

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I’m going to remember what June said to me in the Radio Times tent in Cheltenham and quote it the next time I am challenged on a star rating. We hope you enjoy our reviews, but you are not duty bound to agree with them! Indeed, we welcome a heated debate. Everyone really is a critic.