28 August 2007

Loving and hating Alison Graham

I have a peculiar love/hate relationship with the TV Editor for the British listings magazine Radio Times, Alison Graham. Not that I have ever met her: this is, I hasten to add, an entirely author/reader relationship. Ms Graham writes two types of content in the magazine: reviews of selected television programmes, and freestanding opinion pieces.

In the second type, I greatly respect her courage and incisiveness. She writes in a passionate but lucid way about important aspects of mass entertainment in ways which are too often degraded by hysteria or vested interest. Her expressed views cannot endear her to those who control the industry: for instance, her insistence that too much lazy reliance is placed, in television drama, on a restricted range of exploitative clichés such as pædophilia, serial killing, violence against women, child murder. I also usually (not always) agree with her viewpoint; but even when I do not, my respect is undiminished.

On reading one of these opinion pieces, my reactions range from "I agree; well said!" to "Hmmm ... can't agree, but you've made me think seriously and hard about the issue."

In the reviews, as part of the "Today's choices" pages, her approach is very different - and so is my level of agreement. I usually (not always) enjoy reading these, but I do so because her writing is very, very funny. I don't watch very much TV, but I do read her reviews just for the fun of them.

When I've stopped laughing, though, if I watch the programme about which she is writing I usually disagree with her review. So high is the level of disagreement that, if I think something may be worth trying, I see what Alison Graham has to say about it ... if she rubbishes it, I give it a go. Childish of me, but true. Of course, such reviews are very much a matter of individual personal perception. If I were to stick my head above the parapet as she does and review a TV programme everyday, I'm sure I would be deluged with letters and emails (from sad gits like me!) telling me how wrong I was about everything. More problematic is the nature, and apparent dissonance, of her criticisms.

Tonight, for example, I watched the first half of a new Silent Witness - which, if you are not familiar with it, is a long running drama series based around a freelance team of forensic pathologists. In the opening minutes of this episode two members of the team, Harry and Nikki, witness the crash of a large helicopter into an inhabited area. Surrounded by multiple casualties, they do what they can - first as medically trained bystanders, then later as pathologists.

My own opinion of the episode, for what it's worth, is that the initial incident is handled well but that the aftermath is a bit "ho hum" and unconvincing. Ms Graham's review is not favourable, so it may seem as if we are in agreement ... but no. She seems to think it unreasonable that the two pathologists, since they "work with death every day", should be traumatised by the experience.

I confess that pathology, dissecting defunct human beings for a living, isn't my ideal career dream; nevertheless, I can see that with time I would get used to it. To take a very pale analogy (without in any way suggesting equivalence) I, like most of my generation, learnt biology at high school and college levels by dissecting worms, frogs, rats, rabbits, the hearts and eyes of larger animals like sheep or ox. Most people also handle livers, kidneys, sections of muscle, in the kitchen. We become used to this impersonal handling of dead flesh - but that doesn't make most of us indifferent to the suffering of (say) a live sheep. Having dissected a sheep's heart yesterday in a biology lesson, then cooked lambs liver last night for dinner, would not innure most meat eaters I know to distress if they were, this morning, to see a sheep hit by a car then left injured but alive and in pain. Pathologists are, I imagine, human beings like you and me; and they probably see less of the suffering which recedes death than most branches of the medical profession.

I find Ms Graham's viewpoint particularly perplexing since she was, in a previous life, a crime reporter and might be expected to have some familiarity with the effects of sudden psychological shock.

But then ... I get a lot of email expressing astonishment at my own views as expressed here or in print. It's an occupational hazard. Perhaps the important thing is not whether Alison Graham is arousing my respect, my sense of humour or my furious annoyance, but the fact that she is always doing at least one one of those things, often two at the same time. For a wordsmith, any effect is better than none.

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