Shiny Shelf

The Big Read Grand Final

By Eddie Robson on 15 December 2003

Since I normally moan about the illogic and arrogance of British TV scheduling, it’s only fair that I give credit when it’s done well. So, congratulations to BBC2 for running the grand final of ‘The Big Read’ at nine o’clock on a Saturday night.

Why was this a good thing? Simple – it means that ‘Harry Potter’ didn’t win. The vote for Britain’s favourite book has been open for most of this year, running from an initial stage of open nominations to a top 100 and, over the last eight weeks, a top 21. The BBC delightedly reported that schools had shown a keen interest in the poll, permitting children to vote for their favourite via the programme’s website. At the final hurdle, however, the kids were largely cut out of the process: whilst they were being tucked up in bed, the ‘Big Read’ field was reduced to a top five and voting thrown open once more for the competition’s final hour-and-a-half.

Pundits predicted that the competition would end with a race between the young wizard’s most popular adventure (‘The Goblet of Fire’, as it turned out) and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, and this probably would have been the case had the BBC not suddenly levelled the playing field so late in the evening. In the event, not only did Harry fail to seriously challenge his fantasy-based rivals (Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ was also in the running), he came in last on the night. He didn’t even muster as many votes as ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – a surprising appearance in the top five (and one for which I was grateful, since I hadn’t read any of the other four books).

Doubtless this was not what motivated the BBC to do things this way, since the main advantage for them was that the more votes were held, the more cash they got from the phone lines. Nevertheless I’m grateful that ‘The Big Read’ has not provided yet more fuel to the ‘Harry Potter’ hype machine.

The reason for the Potter books’ massive success has always escaped me: having read about forty pages of the first one when I had half an hour to kill a few months back, and having picked up an awful lot of what they are about by sheer osmosis, they seem to me to be no more than competently written but essentially derivative children’s books, working at just the right level for a child of about twelve to engage with. I’m not sure why so many adults – including, inevitably, several friends of mine – have been so captivated by them, but I’m not going to have a pop at the phenomenon just because I don’t understand it. It’s nice that people can get so excited about a book in these days when more immediately accessible media clamour for our attention.

I am, however, deeply irritated by the assumption that everybody loves the books, and that if you don’t love them then you’re clearly some kind of bitter churl. I’m irritated by extension of this adulation to the film adaptations, which have been hailed as though they represent an outpost of British resistance to Hollywood despite the fact that they are made by Warner Bros. and every penny of profit rolls back into Hollywood coffers. I’m irritated by the non-stories about it that appear in the media for the sake of having a bit of Potter content.

I’m also irritated by the assumption (which was repeated during the ‘Big Read’ final) that before these books came along, children had stopped reading altogether and spent all their time playing video games. This is nonsense – there are always kids who read and kids who don’t read. It’s just more visible now because they’re all reading the same book. Naturally, the unprecedented success of ‘Harry Potter’ means that a lot of kids will read it who might otherwise not have picked up a book, which is great – but it’s only really a positive force if they go on to read other things as well, and continue the habit into adulthood. Only time will tell if this is the case.

Anyway, ‘Lord of the Rings’ won ‘The Big Read’ in the end by a substantial margin over ‘Pride and Prejudice’, despite Tolkien’s book having the weakest argument posited in its favour (from survivalist Ray Mears, who should stick to the day job). It’s the ‘Star Wars’ of the book world – despite its flaws it has a large fanbase who treat it almost as a way of life, and when lumped together with the ‘casual’ vote it can cruise to the top of any wide-ranging survey. The winner isn’t really the important thing, though: it’s the way that the BBC has managed to capture the public imagination with a programme about books. Many critics have sneered at it but I’m not going to. It has boosted book sales significantly, including the sales of some very good books (‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ entered the UK bestseller lists for the first time ever), and I see no way in which this can be a bad thing.

What I would like to see the BBC do now is to carry the momentum through to new projects about literature. It wouldn’t be as big as ‘The Big Read’ because the competition element is what has driven this series, but having proved that you can get people to watch a programme about books the BBC should really make some more: it could put some of the cash raised by its phone lines towards them. And don’t put them on BBC4 where nobody will see them, because such things need to be aimed at people who might not have realised that they are interested in such things. If the effect of ‘The Big Read’ is only temporary then it’s all been a bit of a waste of time.

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By Eddie Robson

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