We need more opinionated English eccentrics making documentaries like, ahem, me...

… and A.N. Wilson, whose Return to Betjemanland (BBC4) was a lesson on how to make great TV

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

Is it just me or are almost all TV documentaries completely unwatchable these days? I remember when I first started this job I’d review one almost every fortnight. Always there’d be something worth watching: on the horrors of the Pacific or the Eastern Front, say; or castles; or Churchill; or medieval sword techniques. But now it’s all crap like The Hidden World of Georgian Needlecraft or In The Footsteps of Twelve Forgotten South American Civilisations Which All Look The Same or A Brooding, Long-Haired Scottish Geographer Shouts From Inside A Volcano Why Climate Change Is Worse Than Ever.

The presenters have got more annoying too. I mean, I’m not saying some of the old ones weren’t infuriating with their hand-waving and tics and mannerisms and wheezings. But the new ones are just vacuous, unformed squits. They make you yearn for a reverse Logan’s Run world, where everyone under 30 is executed for being so tiresome. A lot of them are women, obviously, chosen mainly for their simpering looks and charming speech impediments and unerring knack for fronting the dullest imaginable subject matter.

No doubt the people responsible for commissioning this drivel think they’re redressing the balance, in much the same way progressive historians do when they demand we empathise with medieval peasants rather than learning about what Edward I did to the Welsh and the Scots. Well, I can’t speak for all oppressed women here, but I think I can for my wife. They’re not going, ‘Oh, good. Finally a documentary with my name on it, about what it was like to be a woman’s maidservant in Elizabethan York.’ They’re going, ‘Who is that irritating little cow? Why is she on the screen putting on that little-girl-lost voice for my husband? And why the hell isn’t this documentary about something actually interesting, like, say, castles, or Churchill or medieval sword techniques?’

Then, of course, there’s the worst thing of all: the journey. All presenters in all documentaries, as we know, have to begin by telling us they’re going on a journey. But as anyone who has ever worked in TV knows, this is a total lie. You know even before your first day’s filming exactly what you’re going to say, what your interviewees are going to say, what your line is going to be. You’re not discovering anything. Even the scenes where you pretend to be meeting someone for the first time are faked.

Something needs to change — and I know exactly what the solution is. We need documentaries to be presented by real enthusiasts, rather than by talking heads who’ve just mugged up on the subject. That way the subject matter will take care of itself because, regardless of what it is, a true enthusiast will make it interesting.

A.N. Wilson showed us the way this week in Return to Betjemanland (BBC4), a shamelessly eccentric, puckish but deeply insightful homage to the poet, architectural evangelist and clown with his ‘infectious toothy grin, the slightly seedy air of a defrocked clergyman, the sharp knowledge and the ready wit’.

It travelled all over the place, from Betjeman’s Cornish grave in St Enodoc’s churchyard to Highgate (where he grew up), the Dragon School (where he developed his buffoonish amiability as a defence mechanism against the tyranny of organised games), via Marlborough to Magdalen, Oxford (Brideshead fantasy), thence to the neo-Mughal splendours of Sezincote (social climbing; great houses), Clevedon Pier (his love of the English seaside offsetting his crashing snobbery), to the remnants of the Euston Arch (which he failed to save for the nation), to the neo-Gothic glories of the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station (where, thank God, he had better luck), to the Wiltshire home he shared with his socially superior wife Penelope (whose father deigned to allow Betjeman to address him by the familiar term ‘Field Marshal’). But at no point did Wilson employ the dreaded ‘J’ word.

Wilson’s approach — the right one, I’m sure — was to flatter the viewer’s intelligence rather than demean it. In this he found the perfect role model: Betjeman himself. Watching excerpts from Betjeman’s 1960s TV documentaries, you were reminded — as with his views on conservation — how oddly ahead of his time, postmodern even, this lovably shambolic reactionary actually was.

There was a scene from his documentary on Weston-super-Mare where Betjeman read from a guidebook, describing how parents could relax in deckchairs while the ‘kiddies’ built their sandcastles. The accompanying footage showed the opposite: kids snoozing in deckchairs; grown-ups making sandcastles. But the joke wasn’t laboured. Another showed Betjeman fluently playing an organ fugue in a church, before telling the viewer that this was ‘a trick of television’: ‘I can’t play a note.’

Where are the Betjemans de nos jours? A.N. Wilson is one, obviously. But we need more English eccentrics unafraid to venture off the beaten track, sod the fake journey and deliver an actual opinion. Modesty forbids me from suggesting who.

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Show comments
  • Mark Chambers

    James thanks. I have now just watched this recommendation and although I am only 46 it brings back delicious memories of all the things British, my grandparents and images of Terry Thomas and old movies. Kind Regards Mark in Malaysia

  • Jingleballix

    Not forgetting his favorite English sea-side town – where I live……….which I’m not naming, because I don’t want any more crowds to come down and spoil it!

    • progzz

      But you must! You are depriving peasants like us an escape route from the dreadful south – Londonistan. Haven’t Labour teach you anything?

      • terence patrick hewett

        Farewell, seductive Sidmouth by the sea,
        Older and more exclusive than Torquay,
        Sidmouth in Devon, you’re the town for me!

        • Kitty MLB

          Ah we love visiting Dittisham in Devon and Cley salt marshes
          in Norfolk.. lots of obscure and very eccentric English people
          in those places.

    • Livia

      Do you imagine the crowds are waiting on your every word, Jingleballix? That the very mention of your home town would bring them swooping down in droves? Silly goose.

    • Kitty MLB

      Yes indeed those tourists peeking though your window
      can be a pain…answer: Go abroad during the holiday season.

  • binks webelf

    I must say that Beeb presenter Michael Wood (whose older & endlessly rewatchable ‘In Search Of’ vids are mostly on YouTube, and accompanying books on Amazon) had the freshness, enthusiasm, and unconventional eye for history, landscape and people which has made him one of my favourites. Sadly, if you get pre-biased talk-down-to-you smarmy types who are Secretly On About Something, they come across as clever and tiresome college students, not interesting people of the world who are on a lark and attractively in love with life and interesting stuff.

  • Steve Phillips

    My all time favourite is ‘The Ascent of Man’ by Brunowski. I discovered it on the net and spent 13 hrs watching his amazing idiosyncratic presentation.

  • willshome

    Sorry, I love Betjeman but only got halfway through this (though I hope to persevere thorugh the rest before it disappears off iPlayer). The occasions on which I wish to hear A. N. Wilson speaking instead of John Betjeman speaking, or watch A. N. Wilson walking about instead of John Betjeman walking about are sadly few. So while I enjoy a bit of gossip as much as the next chap, I would have happily sacrificed it for a reshowing in full of, say, Betjeman’s two London Sundays programmes. Or, indeed, anything of his.

  • Robertus Maximus

    I would like to mention the man who directed some of those Betjeman programmes, Jonathan Stedall. He was, like Betjeman, from a bygone age: softly spoken, extremely gentle and kind, sensitive, attentive, and educated in the classical tradition, with those components combining to make a true gentleman. I knew him at the BBC, by the way.

  • souptonuts

    James, why don’t you do one on John Clare? You could trail round Westminster Abbey, Helpston, telling us about how he ended up in Northampton General lunatic asylum, lingering shots of the countryside, that sort of thing.
    With your looks you could be a big star.

    • Livia

      He should stay the hell away from Clare

  • rtj1211

    If you think this is a subtle pitch for work, then clearly your most sophisticated chat up line is ‘Fancy a shag, then?’ (well, really I mean, fancy a f***, but that won’t get past the censor, will it?)

    If you are needed on TV, go talk to TV commissioners with a pitch and ask for a pilot. Pitch yourself as a 21st century Bernard Manning without the racist jokes or the swearing.

    How about ‘Promote world peace: kill a jihadi today!’ I suspect you’d better steer clear of the BBC with that one……

    Then you can sing puerile songs like:

    ‘We hate Vladimir Putin
    We hate Francois Hollande.
    We hate Bashar al Ass-ad
    Bomb them all a-way!!’

    ‘And did those tweets in modern times
    Call UK Muslims to Jihad?
    And did the awful Mosque I-mam
    Support Bashar Ass-ad?
    We do not want Islam at home
    And burn Shar-i-a law in Rome!
    We built Jerusalem, not Gaza’s pad

    With Mossad’s potent friendly dad….’

    Time for a ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ of the Right, isn’t it??

    Won’t be on BBC, probably have to do it on ITV……..

    Clearly you will be relying on the general populace’s ability to detect wry humour, slapdash use of inflammatory language and an ability to laugh at themselves and their kind.

    Not sure that UK policies since 1997 have really promoted that have they?

    Still, at least you could go out on a blaze of glory, millions in ratings before some crazed fundamentalist decides unilaterally to bump you off………

    • Kennie

      Sweet-talking ba****d.

  • Kitty MLB

    Yes indeed we need more eccentrics like you dear James, in life not just television.
    For that makes us English and individual instead of cloned pc correct empty shells.

  • CraigET

    It is also very annoying when they stand in the middle of a crowd and speak through a microphone, whilst the camera stands on a tripod fifty yards away. You cannot watch a history docu without seeing some plank being given the “is he crazy eyes” by confused onlookers.

  • Liz

    Be quiet, Jim, your lot have had their day. It’s our turn now.

    The world has seen enough of men talking about themselves, every deed regarded as portentous, nothing going uncelebrated, unmarked by ugly follies holding up the traffic, statue or extended BBC documentary series made by your chums who’ve ensconced themselves in your televised self-promotions service.

    Who wants to hear anymore about your boring battles, doodlings and scribblings? Get used to doing things without accolades and special hats.

  • Liz

    I think your wife might have been self-selecting.

  • Liz

    Professor Mary Beard
    Professor Amanda Vickery
    Dr Joann Fletcher
    Dr Lucy Worsley

    Don’t be coy, who do you think is vacuous and uninformed with simpering looks, irritating cow with a little girl lost voice (just for you)?

    • pedestrianblogger

      All of them. Women shouldn’t be allowed to present programmes on the television. It is a job for a man, and a heterosexual one at that.

      • Kitty MLB

        Are you tormenting lizzie. Dr Lucy Worsley is on a different intellectual
        level to most.

        • pedestrianblogger

          Hello, Kitty. Yes, I quite like her, much more, anyway, than that idiot on “Coast” who always carries a brolly in his silly rucksack but never uses it and doesn’t look where he is going but talks constantly over his shoulder to the camera. The long-haired Scotsman isn’t too bad either, even if he does walk as if he is recovering from an operation on his haemorrhoids.

          • Kitty MLB

            Agree with you.I also think the Scottish one looks as if he’s escaped another time .

    • Kitty MLB

      Hope we are all eccentric Lizzie, one should always stand out from the crowd.

  • ohforheavensake

    Hi James- I can help: the answer to your first sentence is, yes, it’s just you.

    Which pretty much makes the rest of the article redundant. You’re welcome.

  • Baron

    What annoys Baron intensely, and was the reason he’s given up watching the crap, is that whatever the subject is one sees far more of the presenter, walking, standing, looking over the horizon, or the hedge, or something totally irrelevant, his shoes, his back, his hand pointing over the horizon, the hedge ….rather the the subject that’s supposed to be covered.

    And yes, James, you would be prefect if only we could see less of you (talking), more of the dying polar bears, drowning villages, burning cities, all because of (non-existent) global warming.

    • Kitty MLB

      Baron might also remember the BBC programme about polar bears on melting icecaps..I believe from Manchester!

      Television is full of vainglorious buffoons without that spark
      of originality..we watch the odd programme of choice but not very often as amusement can be found elsewhere.

  • Livia

    Modern documentaries are always journey based, as in ‘I’m fulfilling a life long dream and going to a library’. No one cares, it’s boring. It’s a fad though and it’ll die. Not sure replacing it with immodest twits who think they’re the second coming is the way forward, but we’ll see.

  • Owen Milner

    Instead of showing us some dimwit on a rigged journey find a f*&king presenter who knows about the topic!!! Kenneth Clarke, Robert Hughes…

  • Roy

    Perhaps a little truth telling wouldn’t go amiss, say a modern political history, with its possible consequences to the English nation.

  • jaz

    The thought of watching Delingpole on TV is too unbelievably gruesome to contemplate. If ever there were a face for radio it his scrawny, cadaverous mug, spouting the egotistical nonsense he does. Bad enough that he appears in print, but on TV? No thank you.

  • dms0001

    I’ve given up watching television, it’s absolutely hopeless & full of propaganda, deceit, i can watch a movie & get that.

  • Roger van der Velde

    Who wants another documentary about Churchill? Well, maybe if it outlines the truth about what a vainglorious, imperialist old bore he was. Personally I AM interested in social history and the history of peasants etc.