Brian Sewell: Television has become a creature of cliché and custom

"Every programme must be made to fit – either by chopping off its feet and shanks so that it bleeds to death, or by stretching it, as on a rack, until every joint is dislocated"

Television has become a creature of cliché and custom, convention and conformity. It is a bed of Procrustes on which every programme must be made to fit – either by chopping off its feet and shanks so that it bleeds to death, or by stretching it, as on a rack, until every joint is dislocated.


Every programme must then have an irrelevant leitmotif – the white line in the middle of the road, the blur of the landscape from a train, the train itself, the car, bicycle or horse, approaching, passing or departing, because, as one director put it, “the audience must know how you got here”. Such shots take half a day to set up and achieve – time better spent contributing more to argument or narrative, or even to shortening the programme.

I have contributed very little to television. But a decade ago a programme called The Naked Pilgrim, in which I took part, won the premier award at the Sandford St Martin Trust Awards for religious broadcasting. Was that really experience enough to qualify me to sit in judgement on other programmes as the chair of the judges for this year’s awards?

Perhaps not to judge, but at least to understand that the intentions of other presenters, writers and researchers, even the research itself, are too often subverted by the machinery of television, and to understand that what eventually reaches the screen is an etiolated ghost of the original intention, the victim of martyrdom in the editing suite. Cut and shaped by editors, genre commissioners and channel controllers who may well know nothing and care nothing for the subject and who, when they’re not perusing the overnights or the demographic trends, are the slave-masters of writers, directors and cameramen.

There is a dread sameness in television, no matter whether the presenter is following the Silk Route or popularising the Italian Renaissance, and the religious programme is not immune – put a camel within sight of Michael Palin and he must ride it; say “tentmaker” to David Suchet and he must at once start weaving canvas. And does it never occur to directors that we see too much of presenters and that too often they become the programme?

The BBC, untrammelled by commercial factors, is the only broadcaster that can afford to make serious programmes on the basis of subject, argument and intellectual necessity – among them, programmes that deal with religion. We live in times much troubled by religion. It forms the politics of modern nation states from Burma and Indonesia in the Far East to the shores of the Mediterranean in the Near, torn apart by the divisions of Islam, menaced Christian minorities, and Jews prepared to do battle for the Holy Land.

Christians might better understand if we knew more of other faiths. Those who are not Christian should know more of Christianity, for not only does it lie at the core of British culture, history, law and social attitudes, it is politically important in the Hispanic Americas, and in extreme Protestant forms is a vital force in the politics of the United States. Religion still affects the future of humanity worldwide. It is too important to be neglected by broadcasters.

I believe that television is capable of being the greatest of educational and cultural forces, but that its panjandrums are utterly seduced by the audience numbers that they believe can only be achieved by ever-increasing vulgarity and ever-lower intellectual levels.

This is an edited extract of a speech given by Brian Sewell at this year’s Sandford St Martin Trust Awards.


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