Nice to See it, to See it, Nice by Brian Viner

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Nice to See it, to See it, Nice by Brian Viner

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: In an account of how it was to grow up during British telly's golden age, critic Brian Viner draws on his 1970s adolescence and later career to comic and nostalgic effect.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-0743295857

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One of the most popular TV shows of the past couple of years has been Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes. Given that the programmes lovingly re-create 1970s series like The Sweeney, the time is surely ripe for a book that revisits such fertile sources of 40-something nostalgia. Nice to See it, to See it Nice, does just that. Primarily a memoir of television critic Brian Viner's childhood and adolescence, it affectionately recalls how his formative years were shaped as much by television as by anything else – even the premature death of his father.

Of course, it has been done before. A few years ago fellow critic Stuart Jeffries, in Mrs Slocombe's Pussy, covered exactly the same territory. Viner is however more personal in his approach, more self-deprecating about his own skills, and less prone to tiresome theorising.

Which doesn't stop him recounting some of the flimsier clichés about the changing place of TV – the main one being that it is allegedly no longer the collective experience that it was when the whole nation shared the same two or three channels. I hear just as many conversations nowadays about current shows (Life on Mars being one such example) as I did when playground discussions centred around the previous night's episode of Minder.

And I don't think anyone need remind us that everybody's dad seemed statutorily obliged to question the gender of Top of the Pops performers. Not that he claims any sort of uniqueness in such observations. The book is, as he says, A collaborative exercise in nostalgia. And it is all the better in its preference for laboured puns over social commentary.

If Viner has a thesis, it is that the 1970s was television's golden age. Even this, he implies, is sometimes hard to sustain, especially when trying to convince his own children of such claims. One only has to cite, as he does, shows like Yus my Dear (starring Arthur Mullard), The Golden Shot or On the Buses to undermine one's argument. However, the mention of classics like Dad's Army, Upstairs, Downstairs and Fawlty Towers helps redress the balance.

It might be more accurate to say it was the time when TV as a medium came of age, with new colour sets and a slew of classic shows. Concurrently, the first TV generation was maturing, in a climate of post-60s liberalism. His implicit theme is that the output of the time had greater influence on those of an impressionable age than any broadcasting before or since. In this I tend to agree. I cannot overstate the effect that shows like Monty Python had on me.

Viner was sadly a couple of years too young for Python to have had a great impression upon him. He was also slightly odd in that his own identity centred around the box and not around tribal affinities to rock bands or football teams. But he is spot-on when he cites the amount that we were able to learn from such shows.

He was also fortunate to grow up in Southport, a town blessed with numerous televisual associations (not least Tom O'Connor's mum, who hands out business cards stating her relationship to the TV host) and schoolmates who went into the media. It seems the young Brian was fated to become a TV critic. And, inspired by Clive James's witty and literate columns, his own reviews duly later appeared in the Mail on Sunday and The Independent.

The book leans heavily on his previously-published interviews with stars of the 70s such as Ronnie Corbett and Quentin Crisp and, extensively, on the poignant rise and fall of Simon Dee. In one interview, Bruce Forsyth perceptively points out that his Generation Game was the first 'people' show, a trend which mercifully killed variety but which, for better or for worse, thrives to this day. As, of course, does Brucie.

Brian Viner makes no claims to a comprehensive overview of TV at the time. In his self-styled 'epilog' (sic) he admits that his view of the era was refracted entirely through the sensibility of a teenage boy. Thus he acknowledges that he ignored televisual landmarks like The Ascent of Man or Alastair Cook's America in favour of The Banana Splits.

Which perhaps is how it should it be. While the worthy documentaries gather dust, popular culture still recycles the likes of Starsky and Hutch, and less successfully, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Which suggests that, like it or not, the TV of that time, and those who were steeped in its cheesy pleasures, will be with us for some time to come.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For similar nostalgic autobiographies of the period, you may like to try Toast: the Story of a Boy's Hunger by Nigel Slater (which gets a mention in this book) or Semi-Detached by Griff Rhys Jones.

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