The doyen of film critics, David Thomson, takes a trip across the television universe.
Since the 1970s, David Thomson has been acknowledged as one of the great authorities on cinema, having written more than 20 books of film history, biography and criticism. He has been described as “the greatest living writer on the movies”.
Now, Thomson turns his attention to the small screen with Television: A Biography. In this generously-stuffed volume, he takes a magisterial overview of the weird, wonderful, ludicrous and incredible world of TV, from ancient American sitcoms like I Love Lucy or legendary crime series such as Hill Street Blues or Miami Vice to documentaries, soaps, the news and recent innovations in long-form drama such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The book teems with insights and interconnections, and Thomson confesses that “by the time I finished the book I was much more interested and excited by television than I am now by movies.”
However, not even Thomson could claim to have encompassed the entire universe of TV within his pages. “Television is the best model of the enormous profuse untidiness of the world that we have,” he says. “Somehow you have to review the programmes you’re not seeing as well as the ones you are. It’s the totality of what you could be doing with television that is almost more important than the achievement of any particular programme.”
Lending particular acuity to his perspective is the fact that Thomson was born in London and lived in Britain until he moved to the USA in 1975, when he was in his mid-thirties. This has left him with a keen appreciation of the virtues of the public service broadcasting model pioneered by the BBC, as well as the wild-frontier dynamism of the best American television.
“I’ve now spent more of my life living in America, and if anyone asked me I would say I’m both British and American,” he says. “What amazed me about American TV was that even in 1975 I could get 50 or 60 channels, when in Britain you could only get three. But for someone of my age the BBC, odd and paternalistic as it has been, was an absolutely vital guiding force, and I think the example of what British TV has done is still very valuable as a corrective to America.”
He traces the lingering British influence back to the BBC’s ground-breaking Wednesday Plays from the 1960s, which introduced writers and directors including Peter Watkins, Dennis Potter and Ken Loach and delivered such benchmark productions as Cathy Come Home and Up The Junction.
“It was where really important social ideas could be discussed dramatically for a large audience,” Thomson points out. “That’s something that the movies have given up on, but today most filmmakers are every bit as interested in getting into television as they are working in film. The best American movies of the last 15 years have really all been made for TV, and I’m thinking of things like The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and many others. And of course some very good ones have come out of England too – I’m very fond of The Fall, and I love Peaky Blinders.”
But when he’s not watching heavyweight dramas, surely Thomson must (as we all do) have some guilty televisual pleasures? “Yes I do! I’m still drawn to really stupid game shows. I disapprove of adverts, but some of them are so brilliant and so much the best thing on TV that I can really get into those. Shopping channels can be quite addictive too.”
And finally, an impossible question. On the whole, has television been good or bad for us?
“I think it has been both,” Thomson ponders, “and I think the truth is it’s pointless to ask the question because there is no way of reforming it. I think there’s a lot of bad but there really is some good, and sometimes the good and the bad are the same. When Donald Trump was working some of his election rallies, what you were seeing on TV was ugly, it was a horrible revelation of human nature, but it was telling you something profound about the nature of America at the moment. You have to say that for several generations we have been formed by television more than by any other medium.”