I always want to pat the BBC’s head when it presents themed seasons. Not in thanks but as one patronising gesture acknowledging another patronising gesture. Take the current #LovetoRead (with its modish and indeed possibly required-by-law hashtag) season of documentaries. It feels as if the BBC has only just discovered that, yes, people do love to read, and what’s more, this is a discovery all of its own; no one else knows this. So look what we are giving you, viewers! Aren’t you lucky? Because did you know that people love to read? I know! Isn’t it amazing? Who had any idea?
Every single one of us who’s loved to read (or #lovedtoread) without the BBC’s help since, oh I don’t know, we were five years old, can be forgiven for sighing as we open the latest of the paperbacks we have piled on our bedside table. Though I’m currently reading Alan Bennett’s latest diary-drop, Keeping On Keeping On, which is so enormous it’s like balancing a breeze block on my stomach.
None of us needs the BBC to tell us this, and we don’t particularly need one-off documentaries about writers or regional programmes focusing on books and writers heavily identified with a particular town. (On Sunday BBC4, The Books That Made Britain visits Whitby, so we get Dracula again. As if there’s no one left in the world who doesn’t know the story.)
What we do need, however, is a weekly books programme on a major channel reviewing new releases and books on the bestseller lists. Radio listeners who read are well served by Open Book (Sunday Radio 4) and its monthly Bookclub. But on telly? Nothing, apart from the occasional author interview on a Saturday afternoon on the BBC News channel. Come on, readers aren’t being looked after properly. The BBC throws enormous resources at Glastonbury every year (and surely the whole point about Glastonbury is that you have to be there?).
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Yet up and down the country there are book festivals in towns and cities attended by huge, engaged, interested audiences. I hosted events at both the Hay and Cheltenham festivals this year and was thrilled by the keenness of sell-out crowds (who weren’t there for me, I hasten to add). Every year I help to judge the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award and visit the accompanying crime fiction festival. It’s great – lively, good-natured and packed with crime readers who really know their stuff.
Though books are routinely adapted for TV (Zadie Smith’s NW starts on Monday BBC1) and there’s always a high-fallutin’ hoo-hah about the Booker Prize shortlist, where the winner is even revealed and interviewed on BBC News, as for popular fiction – nothing. This hasn’t always been the case. When I was a teenager, I developed a hopeless crush on Melvyn Bragg when he hosted Read All about It on BBC1. It was a smashing programme with Paperbacks of the Week and author interviews. And Melvyn… ah, Melvyn, with your lovely hair and Northern accent.
Er, where was I? Yes, books. RT now has a books section (page 152), by popular demand; the country has some fabulous, imaginative independent bookshops; there are informal book groups in households across the land; and sit in any train carriage, take out your book and you’ll doubtless see lots of your neighbours doing the same, either with e-readers or actual proper books.
There’s nothing like the delightful absorption of reading a book, so it’s time that TV caught up with readers everywhere.