‘It can unite a nation’: Guardian TV writers on why the small screen has prevailed

Lanre Bakare, arts and culture correspondent

TV has traditionally been seen as one of the poorer arts. Derided as something that’s on in between adverts, the prestige of the big screen simply didn’t apply to its smaller cousin. But those boundaries and prejudices – already beginning to fragment before the pandemic – have been shattered during Covid-19.

The line between film and TV has completely blurred. Think of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe: was it a TV show or a series of films? Does that categorisation even matter to anyone other than those deciding which awards to put it up for? The small screen is the most accessible and creative area of the arts at the moment, partly because of the restraints of the pandemic but also because there has never been so much focus on making television.

It also helps that last year was such a strong 12 months for TV. James Graham’s Quiz, Lucy Prebble’s I Hate Suzie, McQueen’s Small Axe, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Adult Material, The Crown, The Last Dance, The Queen’s Gambit and Normal People ensured Guardian readers were spoiled for choice during lockdown(s).

Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page in Bridgerton. Photograph: Liam Daniel/Netflix

The number of scripted shows continues to rise year-on-year, with new streaming competitors meaning viewers, if anything, have too much choice. Peak TV, the Golden Age, call it what you like – a few years ago when I worked on the Guide I genuinely thought it couldn’t last and there would be a reset. That hasn’t happened. In fact, the cultural moments that regularly generate the strongest response from our readership are increasingly found on our TV screens or laptop: just look at Bridgerton or speculation over who might occupy the Tardis after Jodie Whittaker. So much for being the poor relation.

Toby Moses, acting TV editor

TV has been one of the least impacted of the arts during the pandemic. Shooting was delayed, schedules shuffled around – but by and large television has been what has kept many of us informed, entertained and sane during repeated lockdowns. What has been missing for many, though, is that sense of communal viewing, whether it be because flatmates have fled back to their parents’ house for the duration, or because you can’t have friends over to enjoy the week’s episode of Strictly.

Our liveblogs have thus taken on an even greater importance. We experimented with our first retro-liveblog, when Sarah Hughes guided us all through a rewatch of the still impressive first season of Spooks, and the interaction between our readers and our regular liveblogs (the superlative Heidi Stephens on Strictly duty and the dream team of Scott Bryan and Michael Chakraverty on Bake Off) has been incredibly gratifying – both professionally and personally.

Oti Mabuse and Bill Bailey in action on Strictly Come Dancing.
Oti Mabuse and Bill Bailey in action on Strictly Come Dancing. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA

Liveblogs may seem like a relatively time-efficient way of producing content, but both the writers and editors involved prepare diligently to deliver bon mots in the moment and prepare for any technical mishaps that may occur. Nobody noticed, but it took a couple of weeks to work out why the start of every entry in the Bake Off liveblog began with a giant capital letter. And it’s all worth it when hundreds of readers get involved, cheering on Bill Bailey or bemoaning Bake Off’s mango obsession.

And it provided a sense of community for us too. I started on the TV desk just a few days before lockdown 1.0 started, and have been mostly working with a new team remotely ever since. The WhatsApp group between writers and editors that sprang up around the Bake Off liveblog was an absolute joy to be a part of, adding some of that “office gossip” vibe that has been sorely missing from our lives, and bringing me closer to my new colleagues.

One of the great things about TV is the way it can bring people together in a way unsurpassed by almost any other art form – it can unite a nation in horror as we huddle to watch the prime minister’s latest press conference, or in laughter at the antics of Ant and Dec on I’m a Celebrity. It’s been a joy to see that feed down into my working life too.

Hannah J Davies, deputy TV editor

Working on the Guardian TV desk during the pandemic has been like no other time in my professional life. I spent several years freelancing so I quickly adjusted to working from home, but if you’d told me this time last year that I would have interviewed Samuel L Jackson from my kitchen table, pyjama-clad from the waist down (it was rather late in the evening, to be fair) I would have been very bemused indeed.

I also got a new boss, the Guardian’s TV editor, Toby Moses, and we spent a single day together in the office before going our separate ways (though luckily we catch up most days on Google Hangouts and, of course, via email).

TV has been a huge part of the Guardian’s cultural output over lockdown, and we’ve balanced our coverage of landmark shows like I May Destroy You and Small Axe with recaps and watchalongs, and pieces on the escapist comfort TV we’ve all desperately clung to, from Jonathan Creek to Schitt’s Creek. We’ve covered TV’s best attempts at representing pandemic-era life and the surge in interest around Black Lives Matter, while also balancing reality with the huge worlds our readers want – and need right now – to escape into (for me that’s Masterchef: The Professionals).

This balancing act might sound challenging, and it was, but our TV output is extremely varied, even in “normal” times. This past year we’ve looked at everything from why The Sopranos is still so relatable, to whether colour-blind casting is always a good idea, to the end of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and interviewed everyone from Tom Hanks to the cast of the BBC’s gently ambling crime drama Death in Paradise. One of the best things about working at a newspaper like the Guardian is that we do have so much scope to do different things, both serious and frivolous, and to work with different sections; I’ve just got off the phone with Today in Focus, the Guardian’s daily podcast, about a TV story.

Robert Iler, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco in The Sopranos.
Robert Iler, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco in The Sopranos. Photograph: c HBO/Everett/Rex Features

It’s been a thrilling, exciting, tiring, at times challenging period to be working in culture journalism, but our aims haven’t really changed all that much. I still spend a good chunk of time each day catching up with what our competitors have been up to, checking what shows people are raving about on Twitter, and trying to commission and write exciting pieces that express how important TV is to all of us. The only difference is that I’m doing it from my kitchen table and, being at home all year, I finally stopped watching iPlayer on my laptop and treated myself to a TV. It’s definitely come in handy.

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