How not to review a TV programme


The other night I watched the first episode of Sanjeev Bhaskar’s series on India, part of the BBC’s big sprawling strand to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence. It wasn’t bad, either, although I could have done with a bit less on the entrepreneurs and a bit more on street-level India. That’s just my taste, though, and given Sanjeev’s self-imposed brief to look at what’s changing in today’s India, his biases were understandable. Judged on its own terms, this was quite an enjoyable programme.

It wasn’t until after I’d seen the programme that I came across this splenetic preview from Yuri Prasad in Socialist Worker. Let me say, first, that my disagreement with Yuri is not ideological. What I want to take issue with is the underlying assumption of what a review should do. The SWP, and they aren’t alone on the left in doing this, have a deeply annoying tendency to review TV shows, films, novels, you name it, according to how far they approach or depart from SWP politics. This is what you might term the “here’s what Sanjeev should have said” approach.

Now as far as I know Sanjeev Bhaskar is one of the few comedians in Britain who isn’t in the SWP, so I fail to see the point of berating him for not making the documentary Yuri seems to have wanted to see. If I understand Yuri correctly, a documentary on India should in all circumstances be an earnest affair addressing poverty in the slums, the status of women, maybe the rise of political Hindutva, and inspiring stories of how peasants are resisting multinationals. But what we have here is not a John Pilger documentary, but a Sanjeev Bhaskar documentary. It’s a bit like attacking Mean Girls for not being The Seventh Seal. Apart from giving the unfortunate impression that Yuri is chronically lacking in a sense of humour, it all seems rather beside the point.

There is also an opaque reference to “Sanjeev judging a beauty contest for wealthy housewives”, which I suppose falls foul of the SWP’s adoption of MacKinnonite puritanism as its cultural politic.

Repeat after me, Yuri. If you’re reviewing something, particularly something that isn’t an earnest political polemic, you first look at the object and see if it succeeds or fails in its own terms, then if you like you can add some points that you think should have been addressed. You do not set up an ideal of “what this programme/film/book should have been like” (with an unstated subtext of “if the artist was in the SWP”) and then attack the object for not living up to your ideal. That just leads to Yuri Prasad, or whoever the reviewer might be, sounding like Karl Radek at the 1935 Congress of Soviet Writers. And it makes the left look like a bunch of doctrinaire dullards.


  1. ejh said,

    August 1, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    they aren’t alone on the left in doing this, have a deeply annoying tendency to review TV shows, films, novels, you name it, according to how far they approach or depart from SWP politics

    God yes. Of course there is a fair argument, which they will make, that a socialist newspaper should be commenting on the politics of any given item it reviews, and that’s fair enough as far as it goes. But it does have the demerit of, as you say, making the reviews seem rather one-dimensional – as well as enabling the experience reader to know what the review will say before actually reading it.

    It should be said that there are a fair few SWPers, often old lags, who do not do this – I’ve been to some splendid Marxism meetings about matters cultural, something they sometimes do very well.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 1, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    That’s true. I’m not a great fan of Lindsey, but I often think her review of Grosse Pointe Blank should be given out to the comrades for instructional purposes. She managed to be political, but not preachy, and without giving a totally distorted view of the film.

  3. Frank Little said,

    August 1, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    You wouldn’t have a copy of that review anywhere?

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 1, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    I used to have… it was in Socialist Review 211, September 1997. The SWP have archived a huge amount of this stuff online, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be up yet.

  5. Mr. P said,

    August 1, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    I actually enjoyed the first episode exactly because it was a personal view of India, and not pushing any particular agenda. Sanjeev’s discomfort with aspects of the married beauty content where palpable, as was his shock at some of the changes to Bombay.
    Making a critical analysis of the show from the angle that the makers aren’t you, and don’t share your ‘unique’ perspective is a fairly pointless exercise. That’s like saying 2001 a Space Odyssey could be have been a comedy classic if I’d of made it!
    Yes, as documentaries go it was pretty by-the-numbers, but it didn’t make me think anything less of Sanjeev Bhaskar.

  6. ejh said,

    August 1, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    #211 is here but I can’t find that review.

  7. Andy Newman said,

    August 1, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    Actually this is one area where the SWP have got better. In the 1980s almost every review included something about not being clear enough on the need for a revolutionary party. Which might be an understandable but possibly incorrect criticism of Ralph Milliband’s “Divided Societies”, but as a critique of Flashdance, rather misses the point.

    At least next week Yuri’s documentary is from pakistan, a country that must almost be the modern SWP’s ideal, what with all those Madrassas, and devout Muslims.

  8. ejh said,

    August 1, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    Ah, Andy being witty about the SWP again. How I would miss it if he stopped.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 2, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Well, Andy is right about the identikit model for reviewing. It wouldn’t be half as bad if the party line was left to the end, instead of opening with “this film should say X, Y and Z” and then berating it for not doing so. Rees on Boogie Nights is a bit of a nadir IMO, and then there were all the earnest discussions of whether it was all right to laugh at Ali G, then there was that dopey “New Laddism” campaign that even got exported to the German group!

    The most annoying thing is that you can predict the line a mile off. If BBC2 got Ardal O’Hanlon to do a personal journey through modern Ireland (and I’d watch that) I guarantee Begbie would complain that Ardal spent too much time sipping coffee with David McWilliams that could have been spent on the plight of Dublin’s heroin addicts. You know, people like Cardew or even Cliff Slaughter were much less crude than this.

  10. ejh said,

    August 2, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    One thing to observe is that the short magazine review is very rarely going to be insightful anyway: it doesn’t give the reviewer any room and in that light it’s no surprise if the party line tends to elbow out other considerations. Of course one can say that other reviewers manage, but then again they don’t need to bother about how they’re going to get the political message in.

    In a way it echoes the problem with political art, which is that if you’re going to do it, you actually have to do it a lot better than you would if the message weren’t there, because the politics tend to be intrusive. A great political pop song is far harder to achieve than a great pop song, and not just because far fewer people are trying to achieve it.

    Similarly with political reviewing. If you actually get it right, you’re adding something, an extra layer of insight if you will. You can do that with Marxism, if you’re good and know where you’re at: it become a way of shedding more light, of giving a wider and perhaps more complete perspective than is possible without it (one thinks obviously of John Berger: Ways of Seeing is, apart from anything else, a lovely and explanatory title.) But it’s really hard to do on the cheap.

    I can also see that, to be fair, young comrades buying their Socailist Worker are going to be rather more interested in some pop star who’s said something of political interest (Kanye West, for instance, he proffered hopefully) than they are in Mr and Mrs Andrews. Thy’re wrong of course but that’s the young people for you.

  11. ejh said,

    August 2, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    The most annoying thing is that you can predict the line a mile off

    This is probably the reason I stopped buying SW a fair number of years ago. It’s one thing knowing how La Traviata goes but SW hasn’t really got quite so much to offer.

  12. John said,

    August 7, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Second edition last night was dreadful. It had no depth at all. It was just another gig. He came over shallow as hell, condesending and missing the whole point of the exercise. More interested in being a joker to his film crew than paying serious attention to the story. what a dissapointment

  13. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 7, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    OTOH, I’m really liking Saira Khan on Pakistan. Much more than I expected.

  14. August 20, 2007 at 9:13 am

    […] again, we’re having a good week for searches. Having briefly commented on the Beeb’s India-Pakistan season is bringing searches for the travelogues fronted by Sanjeev […]

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