Impact through poetry or surprise

Simon, Hector and Irwin: Lessons on TV

I went on way too long yesterday.  1405 words explaining that television is like a window for viewers, and how TV is more effective when it sets itself up as a gateway, rather than an as educator.

There’s a new Alan Bennett play at the National Theatre and I’m seeing it on Monday.  If it’s half as good as The History Boys it’ll be very good indeed.  It has something very special to say about inspiration.

But first, let me show you some wise words about inspiration

I once had a job as an English teacher, and made the same mistake which I imagine many beginners in that profession make:  I started out with the assumption that teaching was all about me, the teacher, possessing a certain body of data which my students needed to share, and finding ways of passing that data on to them. I soon realised that this isn’t the point at all:  the quantity of information is simply too great for it to be handed over piece by piece, from teacher to pupil, and in any case, it is enormously hard to digest information given in this way.

No, real teaching is making people want to learn.  Teaching is about having a passion for your subject, and knowing how to make that passion contagious.

Simon Anholt:  Another One Bites the Grass.  P 93

Simon Anholt. Knows a lot about nation branding, and inspiration through passion


It’s like this with TV too.  The mistake made by people who follow the ‘TV is passive’ line is their idea that unless an audience member clicks on something they aren’t taking something in. But TV works whenever it communicates with passion.  The contagion isn’t always visible.

So, The History Boys… It tells the story about a group of 6th form students at a comprehensive school trying to get into Oxford. The ambitious head master brings in a new teacher called Irwin to fine-tune their preparation for the rigorous entrance exams and interviews. His methods compete with those of their existing teacher, Mr Hector.  How can these students be inspired so that they emerge from the crowd of applicants?


Hector (front), Irwin (back). Fro  The History Boys film: Two methods. One moped.

So, two methods.

Hector’s method

Inspire an audience with beauty, and a focus on personal stories.  Throw away the curriculum and learn something deep for the pleasure of learning.

History through poetry or art.

If Hector was a news editor, he’d spend less time reporting geo-politics and more time on culture or real lives – looking for wisdom below the surface and in unusual places.  The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a song, Hysteric, with a chorus ‘Flow sweetly, hang heavy’ – sometimes you get the biggest impact when you deliver the message softly.

Lovely, that.

Irwin’s method:

Impress an audience with originality.  Rather than repeat the same facts parrot-fashion – like everyone else –  grab people’s attention by saying something new and controversial (even if you don’t believe it).  We hear the same things repeated over and over again that we need the occasional jolt of something different.

If Irwin was a news editor, he would strive for new ways to tell the stories.  The interruptive model of marketing may not work any more – it’s better just to get people talking than trying to disturb them. But still, a nice surprise can work well

History through iconoclasm.

So, how does this play-out in TV programmes we know and love?

X Factor:  has now front-loaded all the beauty and all the originality to the early weeks. That’s why its audience is now falling.  Still has moments of beauty, but needs more originality through the series.

Strictly Come Dancing: It works because it looks so attractive, especially with normal looking people, mixing it up with stunning professionals. The judges are odd enough to provide surprise.

Great British Bake Off: Took something traditional (baking) and made it feel modern. Humorous presenters.  Like the best cooking programmes, it looks sumptuous

Question Time:  At its best when at its boldest. Needs more original voices, more controversy and surprise.

Later with Jools Holland: Undercuts the beauty of some of the music with its spasmodic nature (nothing lasts more than 4 minutes…). Surprising mixtures of artists, but you never feel comfortable.

The Apprentice: Stunning shots of London, the dreamy lyricism of the cab and the music… and there’s the weekly shock of the eviction. Hector and Irwin in one.

Wonderland: Walking With Dogs – Brilliant one-off documentary in Hampstead Heath – odd mixture in a beautiful setting. We’re ready for more of these.  Very Hector.

Homeland (Channel 4) and Hunted (BBC1) – Two spy-related dramas with satisfying twists and turns. But Homeland has the more poetic style. Which is why I prefer it.

House: Brilliant Sherlock Holmes inspired medical drama. Formulaic at times, but always with the gorgeous music when you least expect it.  And an angry medic – that always surprises.

Late night TV – here’s the problem… late night TV is where we want to see something stunning or something surprising. We don’t get it often enough.


Overall:  It’s the thing about TV though. We don’t always want beauty or surprise – with breakfast TV, or the weather report.  But generally, TV is inherently beautiful – the faces and the characters, the stories and images and the music.  It’s deeply personal.  And whether it works through poetry or through surprise, one things clear.  It works for viewers.

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