Did we like it?
A rather merciless vision of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in which those without the intellectual capacity to devour the very best in (English) literature are culled from society as worthless vagabonds while the illuminated elite rejoice in their ivory tower of pomposity. But as permanent residents in such an ivory tower we rather enjoyed it.
What was good about it?
• Host and writer David Baddiel, who seems to have recovered from mourning that his celebrity heyday has faded into the same blurred grey morass as his sporadic beard, and now appears happy lording it on an obscure channel in the same way as Napoleon was once waited on hand and foot in exile after his catastrophic defeats.
• And with Frank Skinner burning in the Hell of ITV’s capricious schedulers, David, when not taking it upon himself to overwhelm the audience with Jewish jokes with references to pogroms, Virginia Woolf and Jackie Mason, holds court with a dry if somewhat wearied wit.
• The ‘shriek of intellectual recognition’, an alarm similar to QI’s Luvvie Alert that sounds whenever a remark is made that might attract one those haughty snorts of laughter with all the authenticity of a glass eye simply in order to broadcast that they recognise the reference and therefore establish a deluded sense of intellectual superiority over everyone else. Sadly this was rather half-hearted in practice as the audience recoiled from such exhibitionism fearful of the ridicule, and so it was left to Baddiel himself to make the only ‘shriek’ (rather a muffled acknowledgement) that a book about rats wouldn’t be a favourite of Winston Smith’s.
• The panellists were all engaging and Richard Herring assumed the Alan Davies-thick-as-pig shit role to add the necessary village idiot garnish to the immaculately brainy smoked salmon main course of the show. The other jolly panellists were the cataclysmically intelligent Joan Bakewell, who would defend her personal library with the same teeth-baring ferocity as a wolf defending her pups; John Simpson, who employed his trademarked pose of thoughtful thoughtlessness he often employs to lament the ravages of the Middle East for questions about Thomas Hardy; and India Knight, who was very pleasant and erudite but who we had to look up on Wikipedia.
• The rounds of ‘first lines’, akin to Buzzcocks’ intros round, and authors reading aloud from their own works, both worked well.
What was bad about it?
• The way host and panellists slouch in their thrones like slovenly guests at a bacchanalian orgy waiting for the next act of rehearsed debauchery to be thrust before their addled eyes.
• It’s very BBC4 in that it doesn’t suffer not only fools, but also people who didn’t bury their heads in English literature from about the age of 14 until they lie on their deathbeds getting their anxious relatives to turn over the last few pages of Finnegans Wake. This alienates the casual viewer who wants a chance to answer some of the questions, and while offering a piquant antidote to the moron viewer that Big Brother now exclusively caters for many people without a degree in English will be put off pretty quickly.
• And because of this almost indulgent approach in does invoke that Proustian sensation of when as a small child you walk into a room of strange people, at a wedding for instance, and they’re talking about things that are utterly foreign to your ears causing you to pine for the comfort of something and someone more familiar.
• The round in which one person on the team has read a worthy novel while the other has merely read the study guide, and then the opposing team has to guess which is which is a good idea in theory but in practice it was impossible to discern who had read the whole thing in just a minute of jumbled conversation between each pair.