It would be understandable enough if anyone who saw the very first episode of The TV Book Club, this time last year, decided not to tune in again; back then, it was a superficial mess of a programme that spent more time talking about its guest’s autobiography than the actual chosen book. However, a new series began last night, and the show seems to have turned a corner – though still flawed, this latest episode was leaps and bounds ahead of what The TV Book Club used to be.
First of all, we were introduced to the new personnel: Dave Spikey and Jo Brand have been joined as regulars by Meera Syal and Adrian Edmondson (Laila Rouass didn’t feature in the studio, but her voice was heard in the compilation introducing the books for this series, so perhaps the presenting team will rotate week by week), both of whom proved very worthwhile additions who were engaged with the discussion. This week’s special guest was Cherie Lunghi, who – hurrah – didn’t have a book of her own to promote; after an interview with her that was noticeably briefer than has been the case in the past, we moved on to the next item.
Every episode of The TV Book Club has had some sort of filmed insert, but these have tended to be frivolous items of little value, which made Kirsten O’Brien’s report on A.A. Milne such a refreshing change – no gimmicks, just a straightforward, informative piece about an author. That’s the sort of thing I want to see from this programme.
After the break, attention turned straightaway to the week’s book choice, Room by Emma Donoghue (great to see the format streamlined in this way, too). Room strikes me as a good choice for a book club, with plenty to discuss; and the panel made a good job of it in the time they had, even suggesting a couple of things that hadn’t occurred to me when I read the book. Lunghi didn’t seem to contribute much to the discussion, but Edmondson and Syal were both insightful, which bodes well for the rest of the series.
In the midst of all this improvement, then, Jo Brand’s continued tendency to undercut discussions with a droll remark is becoming increasingly tiresome. Two instances stood out to me this week: after the A.A. Milne item, Brand asked drily, ‘Are we Pooh fans, then?’ – and, after some thoughtful comments from other panellists, brought the whole discussion crashing to a halt with, ‘Well, I hated him!’
Later, in the Room discussion, Brand said that, even though she thought it was well-written, she found Room hard going because she likes books to be escapist; Meera Syal responded by asking, ‘Shouldn’t books reflect the darker side of life as well, though?’ It was refreshing to see Brand being challenged in this way and made to justify her position (which she did, though not very convincingly: reading with a particular aim in mind is fine, marking a book down just because it has a different aim is a poor way to respond to that book).
Mostly, though, my impression of this episode was of a programme seeking to raise its game, and that makes me optimistic for the rest of the series. The TV Book Club is one of the few places on British television where one can find discussion of books (and possibly the only one that’s reader-focused), so it’s a great pleasure to see it stepping up to the mark.