There has been an outpouring of support in the trade for Robert Harris's public call for a dedicated BBC TV books programme.
The novelist dubbed it a "disgrace" that BBC television had no such programme, as he spoke on Tuesday night (27th January) at the Costa Book of the Year awards ceremony, comparing the contemporary era with the early 1970s when there two TV book programmes on the air.
"I do wish the BBC would fulfil that part of the Charter remit," Harris complained, saying the BBC should support the books industry which provided it with so many storylines for adaptations.
Publishers, authors and agents have echoed his call, arguing that the BBC's focus on radio coverage for books is inadequate. "I'm so pleased someone with Robert Harris's profile has taken up the ball and run with it," commented author and critic Amanda Craig. "It's critical that there is a proper books programme and why the BBC thinks it is only suitable for radio, I don't know. Millions of people never listen to the radio, TV is so much more powerful a medium, any advertiser knows this."
Vintage publicity director Christian Lewis affirmed: "We do need a dedicated book show – it's fantastic to have the opportunity to give books a full slot. Radios 4, 3 and 2 are brilliant – the BBC have shown really great commitment to books, they were at Hay last year, and gave it a huge amount of coverage, while Books at the BBC on the website is starting to get really good traction. But I did a lot with 'Newsnight Review', with Ian McEwan and other names, it was part of the campaign, and a big disappointment when that moved to BBC4. It was a lovely platform. I was half expecting when it came to an end there would be plans to replace it, but that was a year and a half ago." For slots in the 'Imagine' and 'Culture Show' series, publishers had to compete with music, architecture and other arts, she added.
Jonny Geller, joint c.e.o. of Curtis Brown, said: "A lot of us have been tweeting about it for years… The BBC says there is 'Open Book', 'Night Waves', but they don't get it. It's almost as though books don't deserve their own programme – what's BBC4 there for other than a moment of reprieve to sit down and have two or three people talking seriously?"
However opinion is divided about what format would work best for the trade's ideal wishlist programme. Suzanne Baboneau, adult publishing m.d. at Simon & Schuster, said there were arguments for having a segment in a magazine show, as when Richard and Judy's Book Club originally started. "Sometimes a solus programme is so dependent on people switching on, but with a segment you can hook in an audience," she noted. "As publishers we would love more airtime. The awkwardness is having people in the studio slightly statically, talking earnestly about books." However she remembered positively episodes of 'The South Bank Show', when presenter Melvyn Bragg "would spend time with big American names like Norman Mailer, walk the streets with them, take them out and about", adding: "You try to think of some way to take the viewer into the author's inspiration – where they work, how they work – taking you into the heart of the author."
Sara Lloyd, communications and digital director at Pan Macmillan, also favoured books being part of general programming. "We would love to see more in-depth interviews such as the Mark Lawson series, more of the in-depth interviews on the 'Culture Show' but importantly we’d love to see books being part of more general programming – our authors being interviewed as experts across a variety of news, culture and lifestyle topcis, more dramatizations in the vein of 'Wolf Hall' or 'Death Comes to Pemberley', and more contemporary settings as well,"she said. "We would like the subjects and contemporary arguments of books to be seen as central to programmes addressing politics, arts and the cultural life of the country." Pan Mac's own BookBreak web TV show and the associated online strategy was devised as "a way of experimenting with audience engagement on this broader canvas", Lloyd noted.
But Patsy Irwin, publicity director at Transworld, commented: "They say it's very difficult to make books compelling on TV. I would say go back to the good old days of John Freeman interviewing Evelyn Waugh (in 'Face to Face' in 1960) - no-one could say that was not good TV. It was very personal, like interviews from 'In the Psychiatrist's Chair', he'd get right under the skin, it wasn't just Tell us about your latest book'… In-depth interview about books I personally would find very interesting. We have endless film stars talking about stuff, and what's interesting about them?" Lewis said that most book programmes had adopted a similar format – a one-on-one interview with an author, or a panel discussion review. "Those have worked, there's nothing wrong with that format," she noted. "One could also use films – the Samuel Johnson prize was really interesting in its use of films [last year]. It's not reinventing the wheel but some things work for a reason."
Geller said he would "love a dedicated show – there's no outlet for serious work", but also favoured other approaches. "Italy had an X-Factor books programme launched – their way of trying to address how do you get books on TV.. And we worked with ITV's 'This Morning' on their 10-day competition to send in the first 3,000 words of an unpublished novel."
Craig dismissed the argument that books don't work on television as "total rot", saying: "Most authors if skilfully interviewed have enormous personalities – we are entertainers, that's what we do for a living. The Costa book awards themselves show how easy it is to make short films that give us a good visual idea of what a book is like. [Films of all the Book of the Year candidates were shown at the prize ceremony]." She wanted a primetime spot, and a programme "properly shot, by a proper team, not just one poor person with a camera." However she maintained there hadn't been a "new charismatic figure [to handle TV books interviewing], like the sainted Melvyn Bragg, but of the new generation." Others singled out journalist Nick Higham for praise for his 15-minute programme on the BBC News Channel, "Meet the Author": "He really brings the book alive, he's brilliant and very engaging," said Baboneau.
In a statement, the BBC said: “No broadcaster does more than the BBC to promote reading: books and authors are at the heart of the BBC, from dedicated strands like 'Meet The Author' and 'Talking Books' on the News Channel to Radio 4’s 'Open Book' and Radio 2’s 'Simon Mayo’s Book Club'. We show documentaries throughout the year like 'Imagine: Colm Toibin' on BBC One and BBC Four’s 'Secret Life of Books' and have recently launched our new online service, Books at the BBC. We also run the BBC National Short Story Award and children’s writing competition 500 Words on Radio 2 and cover major literary prizes such as Costa, Man Booker and the Samuel Johnson Prize; our coverage of the Hay Festival last year reached 20 million people in the UK and we introduce millions to new books through adaptations like 'Wolf Hall', 'The Casual Vacancy' and Radio 4's 'Book at Bedtime'.”