Category Archives: Adaptation

Books on Television: Good or Bad?

Recently, there was a petition circulating on-line bewailing the lack of television coverage in the UK on the subject of books. In particular, the petition called on the BBC to consider a regular television programme that would be dedicated to books and reading.

I signed the petition, but I did wonder what the point of this programme might be. ‘To promote books and reading’ is the obvious answer, but I don’t know if a television programme could actually deliver that. Worse, I fear it might do the opposite, and give the impression that reading is a minority activity that needs to be shuffled off to its own little niche in the broadcast schedules, well out of the way of normal folk.

My fear stems from the fact that, as far as I can imagine, there are only four things that a television programme about books can provide. These are:

  • Reviews of books

  • Interviews with authors

  • Readings of extracts from books

  • ‘Round-table’ discussions on literary subjects

For the life of me, I can’t think of anything else that a book programme could do beyond those four themes.

That’s fine, you might say, that’s all a book program needs—but wouldn’t a programme that consists almost exclusively of a round of reviews, interviews, readings and discussions be—let’s not beat around the bush—a bit dull? Dull in terms of being poor television, I mean. Book reviews, I believe, are better served by the written media—either print or on-line—rather than someone delivering a ‘piece to camera’. Listening to the author read his own work is great, but that can be done with better effect on the radio. So what is there in that earnest parade of talking heads praising the books they’ve read to make the non-reading public think ‘Gosh, that looks interesting. I must read more books’? Very little, as far as I can see.

Television is primarily a visual medium, but the only overtly visual aspect to a book is the cover—everything else happens in the imagination. It’s quite likely that dramatic adaptations of novels—like the current BBC production of Wolf Hall—will sell more books and get more people reading than a dedicated book programme. Not everyone’s novel can receive the big budget treatment (more’s the pity), but it is surely a step in the right direction.

I’m not against the BBC providing more programmes about books (I did sign the petition, after all) but I do wonder what good such a programme would do. Unless someone can devise the equivalent of a ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for books, I fear that any book programme on television will struggle with a tiny production budget, shunted away to a graveyard slot in the schedules, and consequently watched by a tiny audience.

After all, most book lovers prefer to read books, not watch television.


Filed under Adaptation, Book Reviews, Drama, Fiction, Publishing

Before They Were Famous

I’ve been thinking recently about crime in the theatre—no, not the price of tickets for West End shows, but the reasons why crime stories and ‘whodunits’ in general seem to be so well suited for adaptation to stage and screen. That made me cast my mind back to 1976, when I was a student in Birmingham, and went to see a revival of William Gillette’s version of Sherlock Holmes at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. William Gillette was an American who was one of the first actors to portray Sherlock Holmes either on stage or screen (in an early silent movie, now sadly lost). This is a publicity photograph of Gillette as Holmes from the first production (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Gillette was not quite the first to portray Holmes on stage—there were one or two ‘unofficial’ (i.e. pirated) versions of the stories dramatised before that—but he was the first to receive Arthur Conan Doyle’s blessing and support; although at that stage of his career, Conan Doyle was losing interest in Holmes and effectively allowed Gillette carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with the character. It was Gillette who was most instrumental in developing the dramatic persona of Sherlock Holmes that is most familiar to us today, including the deerstalker hat and the curved pipe. Gillette wrote a new story for his stage play, based largely on A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem, and it is Gillette who gave Holmes the line ‘Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow,’ which (in a later film version of the play) was transmogrified into the most famous Sherlock Holmes quotation that Conan Doyle never wrote.

Anyway, back to the version that I saw, way back in the seventies. It had a cast of young (and ‘youngish’) actors, many of them fresh from drama school. One or two had started to make a name for themselves in the theatre, and some had already had small parts in television, perhaps in soap operas or supporting characters in dramas, but there were certainly no ‘stars’ in the cast. It was very much your typical, provincial repertory company.

Now, the thing about watching a play with young, unknown actors in it is that (if they are any good) you can pretty much guarantee that they won’t remain unknown for long. Although I’ve been unable to trace many of the names in the cast, and have to assume that they left the profession for one reason or another, several of the actors are now very famous indeed. Not just the actor who plays Mike Tucker in long running radio serial The Archers, nor the actress who played Fitz’s long suffering wife in the excellent Cracker and a leading role in The Beiderbecke Affair and its sequels.

Here’s the full cast list from my programme:


Curious how the actor who played Holmes later became famous for playing villains in Hollywood movies, and the actor playing Moriarty went on to play another famous detective on television. But at least I can say ‘I remember seeing them before they were famous…’


Filed under Adaptation, Drama