So, that was the first series of The TV Book Club, and it has been rather a mixed bag. The series was notable, partly for being a programme about books (of which there are very few on British television), but also for being a continuation of the highly influential Richard & Judy Book Club. Although it improved as it went along (certainly compared to the first episode, which, let’s be honest, was a mess), I don’t think the show ever quite lived up to what it could have been.
The format stayed essentially the same throughout the series: a short interview with the guest celebrity panellist; a filmed ‘non-fiction’ item; an interview with the author of a title chosen in previous years, examining what has happened to them since; and discussion of the week’s choice, after a short filmed interview with the writer. All these elements have had their ups and downs: the panellist interviews were better when the guest was talking about the books they liked, rather than their own book, or something else entirely (a more diverse range of guests would also have been welcome). The ‘book club stories’ always struck me as rather too much like trumpet-blowing (though some of the authors’ comments were interesting), and the non-fiction items were often just too frivolous for their own good.
The discussion of the weekly choice is the centrepiece of the programme, yet even this has been variable – indeed, for the first week or so, it seemed almost an afterthought to the interview with the guest panellist. Some, however, have been rather good (taking into account that there’s obviously a limit to what can be covered in eight or ten minutes): for example, I thought this week’s discussion of The Silver Linings Play Book was quite robust, with some lively debate.
But I think the greatest weakness of The TV Book Club – something which was carried through to the very end – is an apparent reluctance to engage seriously with its material. Whether it was generally superficial discussion, or a tendency to undercut serious points with a quip, it seemed to me that the show was uncomfortable with saying substantial things about books. And it needn’t be – discussion can be intelligent without being forbidding or abstruse, and, in my view, book programmes should assume that’s what their audience wants. The TV Book Club was at its best when it was making substantial points.
I like the idea of a reader-focused book programme, but, for all its improvements, The TV Book Club still has some way to go. I hope its creases can be ironed out in time for its return in the summer.