The OTT Book Tower

Ian Jones, Steve Williams and Graham Kibble-White with OTT’s guide to TV-related books

First published February 2004

The TV-related section of any bookshop is generally an odd selection by anyone’s standards. From glossy say-nothing picture books detailing 20 years of this show or 30 years of that, to low-fi unauthorised sitcom/sci-fi guides, to beautifully-researched small press endeavours tackling an arcane offshoot of the TV industry – the variance can be both uplifting and deeply depressing. Want a comprehensive guide to The Goodies? There’s one on hand in the form of Robert Ross’ indispensable The “Goodies”: The Official Goodie Handbook. But if you’re looking for something similar on Fawlty Towers you’ll find the same author staking his name to the perfunctory “will this do?” effort Fawlty Towers: Fully Booked.

Ignoring the possibility of “pot” and “kettle black” accusations rightfully winging our way upon commencement of this project, OTT has decided to take a stroll around its own book tower, passing judgement on those who also write about telly, but in print. We’re going to identify the 10 key genres you can find in that TV-related section and highlight the best and worst from each, thereby simultaneously compiling both a definitive OTT endorsed reading list and a handy pile of props you can draw upon next time your kitchen table goes a bit wonky.

1. “My introducation to the sex act”

Classification: Celebrity autobiography

Required reading: Crying with Laughter by Bob Monkhouse

Bargain bin: Fools Rush In by Anthea Turner

Be it right to reply, a grand settling of scores, a breathtaking exercise in historical revisionism or an excuse to indulge in good-natured gossip, the celebrity memoir is the unequivocal foundation for any discerning TV library. Rarely can you go wrong with anything claiming to come from the horse’s mouth, even if it’s an obscure ghostwriter who’s selflessly sewn together a lively, readable text from a stream of foggy, rambling reminiscences.

At the heart of all memoirs is one eternal struggle: to reconcile a desire to indulge in authoritative-sounding bon mots on great social and cultural topics with a desperate need to poke a few eyes and right a few wrongs. These twin characteristics – the wildly pompous and the outrageously unprofessional – are what make these testimonies so addictive. You know you’ll get memorable put-downs, insights and tittle-tattle; you’ll also see an author valiantly tussling with a medium – the printed word – with which they have next to no experience. The results are sometimes shockingly off-kilter, or ridiculously self-centred, but always joyously entertaining and never ever dull.

It’s a niche that’s blossomed in the last 10 years or so, thanks to an entire generation of big names – mostly popular showbusiness luminaries who represented the first flowering of TV entertainment in the 1950s and 60s – seeking to commit their life to print and stake a place in history before it’s too late. There’s no finer example of this than the flawless and impeccable Crying With Laughter by Bob Monkhouse. From the off Bob combines a diligent eye for names and places with cracking anecdotes, self-deprecating revelations and above all an unrestrained love and respect for his profession and all who practice it. Much fuss was made at the time of its publication, but its juggling of the public acclaim and the private confessional has now become something of the norm (though rarely bettered in terms of finesse or sincerity).

In contrast, Michael Aspel’s Polly Wants a Zebra is a textbook example of the pre-warts and all school of autobiography, where everyone is a darling and amusing things happen but the author’s private life is completely ignored. Frank Bough scored a double whammy, first with the sublime Cue Frank wherein the titular legend goes behind the scenes of Nationwide and Grandstand and then appears to have a nervous breakdown at the end – “Is it too late? What should we all do next?” This was followed, however, by the even more impressive Frank Bough’s Breakfast Book, full of tales about launching Breakfast Time, being responsible for altering the presentation style of every programme on television (“I knew we were on to something when The Big Match started being presented from a sofa!”), extracts from Frank’s postbag (“Has Francis Wilson got nits? Is that why he is always scratching his head?”) and breakfast recipes including Debbie Rix’s Special Brunch.

News and current affairs has always delivered the goods, notably Robert Dougall’s In and Out of the Box: the story of a man who worked at the BBC so long he doesn’t even reach television until page 200, and colour TV until page 300. Grand Inquisitor by Robin Day often reads as a somewhat protracted exercise in comical ego-exercising with the author seeking to forever insist he only got anywhere in spite of rather than because of virtually everyone else in broadcast journalism from 1945 onwards. It’s in stark contrast to Reginald Bosanquet’s breathless Let’s Get Through Wednesday, a boisterous account of endless foreign jollies, newsroom bust-ups and outwitting Fleet Street’s finest. Its only drawback is promising to reveal “frank” details of the man’s “much-publicised private life”, then doing nothing of the sort.

A Kentish Lad by Frank Muir is a wonderfully avuncular testimony, topped off with endless evocative turns-of-phrase: “I thought that now was the time for me to move my life forward a large notch. I decided to get married. But to whom?” Les Dawson’s A Clown Too Many mixes flawless comedy and great gags with unexpectedly honest and downbeat confessions, to quite remarkable effect. There’s little such subtlety in Richard Whiteley’s splendid Himoff!, but that’s all to the better when you’re dealing with obsessions about BBC OB vans, dizzying delusions of grandeur (“Finally, I could see that he had written ‘New Presenter’. This was underlined twice with a couple of question marks. ‘Oh, dear, poor Carol,’ I thought”), a legendary beano to France (“Monsieur Twatly”) and cost-cutting PAs at WI coffee-mornings (“Mr Whiteley has generously waived his fee … So you know what that means Madam Treasurer. Next year we will be able to afford David Jacobs”) Kenneths Williams’ astonishing Diaries must get a mention here as well – a grim read, often deeply depressing, but an intricately documented account of a TV landscape long forgotten.

In Terry Wogan’s Is It Me? diary entries of the 12-year old subbuteo-playing author are a highlight, while side-swipes at the Beeb are not; Jimmy Savile’s As It Happens is typically idiosyncratic, unstructured and plain repulsive (“My introduction to the sex act …”); and then there’s Kenny Everett’s amazing The Custard Stops at Hatfield: accounts of tripping on a golf course with Freddie Mercury, a Cadbury’s Picnic commercial doomed to failure by gravity, the titular musing on the north-south pudding sauce divide, and, if you come across the hardback edition, a different illustrator for every chapter.

Frank Skinner by Frank Skinner deserves commendation too, for Frank announcing at the start he dislikes most celebrity autobiographies as he spends too much time waiting for the writers to become famous, and so he leaps straight into stories about his TV and comedy career. There’s genuine honesty in the book too, and Frank takes care to detail what went on behind the scenes as opposed to simply trotting out stories of what anyone can see on screen. That’s one of the flaws with Bruce by Bruce Forsyth, who spends too much time rehashing already well-known stories. Des O’Connor’s Bananas Can’t Fly is as likeable and unassuming as the man himself, and includes a wonderfully old-school set of photo captions (“Barry Manilow is always welcome on the show”).

As far as notable misses are concerned, Paul Daniels’ Under No Illusion resembles a kind of gritty manifesto for national betterment, enthusiastically helmed by the eponymous magician in deeply vengeful mood. Want the truth about his “sacking” from the BBC, or his oft-misquoted comment about the Labour Party? It’s all here, together with a round up of the man’s best put down lines, and some decidedly un-Des picture captions (“The rarest photograph in our collection: me in the kitchen. Debbie had to show me where it was, but look at her. Aren’t I a lucky guy?”). Watch Out! by Jeremy Beadle comes close to snaffling the wooden spoon, thanks to Beadlebum’s recollections of days spent breaking into cars in Hamburg (“Another bit of mischief … I’m not proud of”), berating the Rusty Lee-era Game For a Laugh production team (“You are fucking killing the golden goose”) and creating the “best” comedy ever (You’ve Been Framed!). Cannon and Ball go into great detail about appearing on “Brucie’s Big Night Out” (sic) in 1982 (the show was broadcast in 1978) in Rock On Tommy, while recollections of The Little And Large Show – which is what you want – barely get a mention in A Little Goes a Long Way, with author Syd Little preferring to detail endless foibles of his mundane real life (“Just before Christmas when the car broke down, some kindly stranger gave us a lift to his house”). But thudding squarely in the worst-ever category is Fools Rush In by Anthea Turner: a resolutely pointless publication telling the reader too much information on things about which nobody cares, and chock full of incorrect dates, facts and elementary inaccuracies. It’s both boring and banal, which is some achievement.

2. “He knew then his career had reached a crossroads”

Classification: Celebrity biography

Required reading: Richard Dimbleby by Jonathan Dimbleby

Bargain bin: Freak or Unique?: The Chris Evans Story by David Jones

A much-diminished range of motives is at work here. Pen portraits written by a third party mostly fall into one of two categories. Firstly, there’s the official memoir, sanctioned by the subject themselves as an way of exorcising a giant stockpile of secrets and transgressions, or else pieced together posthumously by a close family friend or relative. These are usually defiantly plaintive, sincere and worthy documents, their revered tone symptomatic of an orchestrated cleansing of the soul, a wiping clean of the slate, or a careful sanctification of someone’s life and work for posterity.

Then there’s the second category: the unofficial, unauthorised biography, usually the product of a jobbing hack or an embittered individual who’s fallen out of favour with the subject and is now seeking to put their side of the story on record. These are far earthier, trashier and more swaggering kinds of book, often deeply aggressive and vindictive, with an eye on tabloid serialisation or generating a bit of easy controversy. Because they’re often the work of people on the inside, however, they still have some merit as historical curios, and tributes to the kinds of extreme reactions once inspired by the celebrity in question.

A good example of the former kind is Jonathan Dimbleby’s exhaustive salute to his father, Richard Dimbleby. Intriguing samples of private family papers, correspondence and diaries sit awkwardly alongside treacly descriptions of the author frolicking with dad and other offspring on numerous summer holidays and celebrating Christmas on the Dimbleby farm. Despite many lively anecdotes and plenty of valuable facts and insights, given the text was published after its subject’s death the entire book often feels like one giant eulogy. Opening with an intricate account of the man’s funeral is also perhaps not the wisest of approaches.

Bruce Dessau’s biography of Reeves and Mortimer is a decent enough effort, though, as Dessau is clearly a fan of the duo – hence the book, while critical of some below-par projects from Vic and Bob, is largely positive and all the more welcome and entertaining for it. He also manages to interview many people who have actually known and worked with the duo in recent years.

While not strictly fitting into this category, a book with similar aims to many of these publications is TV Babylon by Paul Donnelley – a romp through some of the seedier sides of television, majoring on stories of celebrity misfortune, excess and rivalry. It’s really the sort of book anyone could write given a few days in a cuttings library, and exactly what a list of celebrity homosexuals achieves is beyond us.

Of course, there are dozens of the archetypal unofficial biography released every year. Particularly extravagant and salacious is Alison Bowyer’s Noel Edmonds: The Unauthorised Biography, packed with supposedly true titbits exposing the man’s curt attitude to business deals (“I have no problem about saying goodbye to people who don’t pull their weight”) and even more brusque treatment of female companions (“Helen is mine – I’ve got a bit of paper to say I bought her.”) Bowyer struck again with Graham Norton: The Unofficial Biography, an equally candid and unrestrained hatchet job. Even more lurid and indiscreet is Barrymore: A Man Possesed, an unrelenting account of the subject’s decline and fall by Phil Taylor and Paul Nicholas. Then there’s David Jones’ Freak Or Unique?: The Chris Evans Story, your classic cut-and-paste biography, with entire chapters constructed out of press clippings and interviews with people who once knew someone who once worked with Evans 20 years ago. Why bother?

3. “At last, the full story can be told”

Classification: Media mogul autobiography

Required reading: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time by Michael Grade

Bargain bin: One in Four by Michael Kustow

The number of texts with a genuinely viable claim to lift the lid on the workings of TV has always been small, but the past few years has seen the quantity of media professionals walking out of the industry and into a generous book deal pick up pace. The generation currently retiring from British television is the one who presided over and nurtured one of its most fulsome, expansive and protected eras: the 1960s and 70s. It’s also the generation who weathered the battles and backstabbings of the 1980s, and who are now, almost without fail, using their respective memoirs to trace the state of today’s telly back to the ruptures of that turbulent decade.

The best of these publications are those where the writer doesn’t feel compelled to pre-empt any accusations of indulging in earnest tales of anonymous backstairs chicanery by embarking on a mammoth exercise in namedropping. When the author is already a demonstrably larger-than-life, well-known public figure, the story can tell itself; there’s no need for gratuitous and often clumsy references to rubbing shoulders with celebrities in the BBC canteen. The prime example of the perfect balance between recollections of working with well-known personalities and shining a light behind closed boardroom doors is Michael Grade’s It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. Accounts of his dealings with people like Chris Morris (“not to be trusted, and therefore unemployable”) or cancelling Doctor Who (“Why beat about the bush? I hated it”) sit perfectly comfortably alongside expositions on his falling out with John Birt (“I was looking into the eyes of a stranger”), all thanks to the strength of Grade’s writing style. His reputation as a raconteur and conversationalist support the text no end and carry the reader through even the most complex episodes of industry wheeler dealing.

Bill Cotton’s Double Bill and Will Wyatt’s The Fun Factory: A Life in the BBC both fall into the same category; Jeremy Isaacs’ Storm Over 4 does not, thanks to its distractingly pompous tone and the author’s reluctance to never completely hold his hands up when he did something wrong. Even when he does attempt an apology, it’s impossible to take him seriously. Three former Director-Generals of the BBC have published their autobiographies, each different in scope and attitude. Ian Trethowan’s Split Screen is a straightforward love letter to the Corporation, resembling a marathon after-dinner speech. Alasdair Milne’s DG: The Memoirs of a British Broadcaster is far more emotional and angry, somewhat unsurprising given it was written during the 12 months following his sacking. John Birt’s The Harder Path, on the other hand, is about as cold and clinical as you can get, more akin to a mission statement or business report than a personal testimony.

Roger Bolton’s Death on the Rock and Other Stories is atypical in its focus more on the day to day business of making television programmes and the battles of the shop floor; its author has no stories of working in management either at BBC or ITV, and therefore confines his attention to controversies of a more everyday nature (albeit ones with himself completely at the centre). However it’s still a hundred times more engaging and entertaining than the dismal One In Four, Michael Kustow’s “diary” of a year in the life of a Channel 4 arts commissioning editor. Close to a vast exercise in referencing every single mover and shaker in the contemporary cultural world of the mid-’80s, it’s the most preposterous and impenetrable document of its kind (“Spotlights focus on Rostropovich, lens-tongues clatter. The mind’s ear blanks them out. The burnished sound outrides everything.”) It’s also nothing to do with television whatsoever.

4. Trouble at the top

Classification: Narrative histories of the TV industry

Required reading: The Last Days of the Beeb by Michael Leapman

Bargain bin: Live TV – Tellybrats and Topless Darts by Chris Horrie and Adam Nathan

The flip side of number 3 (see above), with the same behind-the-scenes antics and conflicts told from an outsider’s perspective and augmented – usually – by a host of interviews from an assortment of featured players.

There have been some outstanding publications in this field, chiefly concentrating on various periods from the last 20 years, all of which are highly readable, frequently hilarious and wonderfully indiscreet. Andrew Davidson manages to render all the endless bluffs, double bluffs and financial shenanigans that took place during the ITV franchise auction in 1991 remarkably entertaining in Under the Hammer; while Chris Horrie and Steve Clarke have great fun at John Birt and Marmaduke Hussey’s expense in the fabulous Fuzzy Monsters: Fear and Loathing at the BBC. David Docherty turns what is supposed to be an official, fully-authorised history of the first 21 years of LWT, Running the Show, into a surprisingly candid and critical account; while Michael Leapman’s take on the disastrous birth of TV-am, Treachery, combines both painstaking day-by-day chronology and dry wit to extremely good effect.

Leapman is also responsible for what we’re choosing as the one truly essential narrative history of the television industry: his chronicle of events inside the BBC during the late 1970s and first half of the 1980s, The Last Days of the Beeb. Pre-dating Fuzzy Monsters and the memoirs of all the key figures of the time, it contrives to be both shamelessly knockabout yet deeply serious in its assessment of what was taking place within the Corporation during one of the most uncertain chapters in its history. Uncannily accurate in some of its predictions, it’s also got the best ever back cover for a TV-related history book: a list of eye-catching quotations from within the text including “All right – I’ll take it” (Michael Grade), “I knew that it was an offer you couldn’t refuse” (Bill Cotton) and “There are some pompous, boring men at the BBC. Steer well clear of them” (Paul Fox).

Despite delivering the goods with Fuzzy Monsters, Chris Horrie’s collaboration with Adam Nathan on the birth and death of LIVE TV is a far less satisfactory effort, chiefly because the authors adopt such a chummy, overly informal and sometimes hysterical style – presumably to match the subject matter. The writers’ affectations and mannerisms end up getting in the way of a good story: never a good thing.

5. As seen on screen

Classification: TV adaptations

Required reading: Bad Boyes by Jim and Duncan Eldridge

Bargain bin: Doctor Who and the Crusaders by David Whitaker

The sole reason for many a childhood journey to the local library, never mind the books section of WH Smiths, the TV adaptation remains the most obvious, immediate and above all cheap means of pursuing an interest in your favourite telly programme. Perhaps not the boom market it once was, certainly amongst kids, it has remained your best chance to literally “own” a bit of what you’d previously only been able to see once a week on screen.

Novelisations have always represented a crude but unassuming logical extension in branding and promotion, at the same time affording their readers the opportunity to return to the world of their preferred show when and however many times they like. They also supply depth and extra dimension to the lives and worlds of TV characters, extending and exploring their personalities beyond that permitted by the confines of the small screen. A great example is the adaptation of the 1980s BBC children’s comedy drama Bad Boyes, turning a competent yarn into a genuinely witty and perceptive account of life through the eyes of young teenager, told – crucially – in the first person (“I got accosted by two separate Poppy collectors, but fortunately I was able to fend one off with, ‘I disapprove of your symbol because opium comes from poppies. Do your realise that you are promoting drug addiction?’ and the other with, ‘I lost my grandfather in the War and all our money goes into keeping his grave.’”)

Phil Redmond, it seems, has always been conscious of the potential offered by the TV novelisation, and as early as 1979 he was penning books based around Grange Hill – the series having only started the previous year. In 1982 he was even quicker off the mark to establish a footing in the book world for his latest format when Brookside: Moving In, written by former Fleet Street Features Editor Colin Northway, hit the shelves a mere fortnight after the transmission of the soap’s first episode. Some 12 years later, Brookside again lent itself to a slight variation in the novelisation genre with The Journal of Beth Jordache. Written from the point-of-view of the titular Beth, the book was more than just a straight retelling of events seen on screen. Rather it offered a more personal perspective, filling in blanks and backstory unaddressed in the programme, providing another canonical layer for fans to enjoy. A series of similar efforts followed, all penned by Rachel Braverman, and revealing the inside track from David Crosbie, Jimmy Corkhill and Beth Jordache again. A planned Barry Grant story, however, was never completed.

As opposed to spin-offs (see below), adaptations do remain, first and foremost, print versions of episodes or editions of programmes – but not necessarily drama. Fine additions to any shelves are the book version of Clive Doig’s fondly-remembered Puzzle Trail (replete with various do-it-yourself treasure hunts and cryptic clues) and Johnny Ball’s Think Box plus its follow-up volume, Johnny Ball’s Second Thinks. Browsing the latter two is akin to having your own private tutoring session with the great man, covering everything from how to make a hexahexaflexagon to finding out where the UK’s centre of gravity is. Along similar lines John Craven’s And Finally, a collection of stories from past Newsround bulletins, was a fun publication, made all the better by the great man signing off the introduction with “John Craven, Ethiopia, 1984″.

The Doctor Who fan was always effectively served by the Target range of novelisations. Well over 100 titles offered pre-video and DVD glimpses of old episodes besides keeping Terrance Dicks in pocket long after his scriptwriting pen ran dry. The quality of the books themselves, however, were laughably inconsistent, regularly veering from the doggedly faithful (every single Dicks adaptation of a Peter Davison adventure containing variations on the phrase “pleasant, open face”) to the ludicrously over-the-top. Doctor Who and The Crusaders by David Whitaker is a particularly apt example: full of purple prose, endless paragraphs of boring scene-setting, and even a stab at a love scene between two of the Doctor’s companions. But is that canon?

6. Facts amazing

Classification: Encyclopaedias

Required reading: The Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy by Mark Lewisohn

Bargain bin: The Ultimate TV Guide by Jon E Lewis and Penny Stempel

The category of armchair reference work is perhaps the most hit-and-miss in all TV-related literature. The impeccably researched often sits alongside the breathtakingly lazy, and in only a few cases do you find factual accuracy meeting up with illuminating prose to deliver the kind of truly definitive encyclopaedia that will have you thumbing its pages again and again.

Mark Lewisohn’s Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy lands first place here thanks to its at-the-time groundbreaking approach to its subject matter. Here is a completist’s dream: every single comedy programme ever shown on British television exhaustively filed, catalogued, annotated and appraised, and all blessed with the writer’s trademark style of learned-sage-meets-obsessive-telly-fan. The book is still unrivalled in its breadth and ambition, its humour and willingness to pull no punches, and above all its promotion of defiantly constructive criticism – one attribute in particular that is sorely lacking in many similarly-structured tomes.

Similar in scope, if not quite in sheer readability, comes The Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction by Roger Fulton. Although not the definitive last word that Lewisohn’s book remains on its subject, it’s nonetheless a useful and hefty tome cataloguing 40 years of science fiction programming on British television. Better still, when appropriate it’s unafraid of showing its critical claws – as such SeaQuest DSV gets a rightful rubbishing.

Concurrent with the TV nostalgia boom at the end of the 1990s came a heady rush of other list-based alphabetised works, all preoccupied with the same celebration of the recent past as the preponderance of likeminded series busy flowering all over the TV schedules. Some remain extremely worthwhile investments; Jeff Evans’ The Penguin TV Companion is an extremely laudable attempt at compacting the entire history of television into one catch-all volume, which rightly gives just as much space to people and organisations off screen as those in front of the camera. 40 Years of British Television by Jane Harbord and Jeff Wright, originally a spin-off from TVS’ TV Weekly before being updated as a TV Times spin-off, holds a wealth of fascinating information and opinion plus, appealingly, a selection of old Radio Times and TV Times covers. Paul Gambaccini’s TV’s Greatest Hits is a reliable source for all sorts of statistics, data, insight and wit – just what you’d expect from its author, really. The most recent addition to this field, Alistair McGown and Mark Docherty’s The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama, forms a neat companion to Lewisohn’s efforts: another catch-all inventory of a TV genre, replete with series-by-series breakdowns, a clutch of context-setting essays, more of those Radio Times covers and a fund of knowledge. Like Lewisohn, you can tell a lot of love has gone into pulling it all together, and that’s all for the better.

Just Keep Talking by Steve Wright and Peter Compton is, despite the presence of the unlikeable DJ, a surprisingly entertaining romp through the history of the chat show, with chapters on all the genre’s most notable exponents – the section on Simon Dee is particularly fascinating and informative, and it’s all the more welcome for covering a genre of TV that hasn’t been well documented in the past.

In contrast, a slew of resolutely workmanlike books are also out there, some worse than others, but all boasting something of an impression of simply going through the motions. Richard Lewis’ Encyclopaedia of Cult Children’s TV is the least objectionable thanks to its author showing a demonstrable enthusiasm for the subject matter. The Golden Age of Children’s Television by Geoff Tibballs, however, is appalling: chock full of bizarre and ill-formed opinions about programmes you suspect the writer might not have watched, in lieu of actual substance and information (“Newsround was a Janet-and-John version of the news without the scary bits”). Later editions also had to have an addendum pasted inside apologising for blithely repeating Victor Lewis-Smith’s fabrication about character names in Captain Pugwash. Bottom of the pile, though, comes Jon E Lewis and Penny Stempel’s The Ultimate TV Guide: utterly empty of any love or interest in the medium they are purporting to celebrate, and smacking from start to finish of being written purely for the sake of it.

7. “At least one viewer agreed with him”

Classification: TV criticism

Required reading: Television Criticism from the Observer 1972-1982 by Clive James

Bargain bin: Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy by Stuart Jeffries

Informed and genuinely insightful television criticism is something to which many aspire but few actually master. While every newspaper now boasts often two or three different TV critics, and a plethora of lifestyle-based magazines now find room for listings as well as plentiful previews and reviews, it’s rare to read something that sums up the point or agenda of a programme in a single memorable turn of phrase or witty epithet. It’s even more unusual for a paragraph or sentence, never mind a genuinely laugh-out-loud gag, to stay in the brain well beyond the time it takes you to finish reading the review, and to then rattle round your head for weeks afterwards.

Clive James produced just such masterful, hilarious and enduring prose throughout his ten years writing for The Observer, and as such remains the godfather of contemporary TV criticism. His collected works remain the model for all would-be writers obsessed with the small screen. His most instructive quality was expertly judging the need to balance critiquing television programmes with critiquing what television programmes are about. Being the first to really nail the business of distinguishing between what and how TV is showing you things, and then doing it in a fresh, instantly appealing and wickedly amusing way, James set the template for the best television journalism. His effortless poise and humour have never been bettered.

Both Jim Shelley and Victor Lewis-Smith have published excellent collections of their TV reviews (Interference and Inside the Magic Rectangle respectively), and in their heyday were the best exponents of their craft. In particular Shelley’s accounts of long-running feuds with various stars and programme-makers constitute wonderfully caustic and refreshingly honest reading. Giles Smith’s brilliant anthology of columns from The Independent On Sunday and The Daily Telegraph, Midnight in the Garden Of Evil Knievel, apply the same standards to the world of sport on television, with equally winning results. Then there’s The Guinness Book of Classic British TV, a much-respected cornerstone of extended TV criticism, jointly penned by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping. It’s still the best place to go for lengthy insights into everything from The Troubleshooters and Shoestring to Between the Lines and Secret Army – although it does have a slight preoccupation with logging sightings of Doctor Who actors in other productions.

More protracted, tortured and therefore often less readable than the above examples, comes the selection of critical TV essays written for academia. British Television Drama in the 1980′s edited by George Brandt is probably the most accessible and entertaining of the lot, however, boasting a particularly strong chapter on Edge of Darkness which labours less under discussion of semiotics and content-analysis and more on the actual making and content of the programme. It also benefits from a particularly fine section detailing the furore over The Falklands Play and Tumbledown. At the other end of the scale comes the works of John Tulloch whose text is often so densely constructed and jam-packed with media-studies jargon as to prove unreadable. His co-authored Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text is rightfully held up as the epitome of its type (and indeed was even parodied in the programme itself with the Doctor becoming baffled by tortured intellectual musings about “semiotic thickness of a performed text”) although Science Fiction Audiences: Watching “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who” (written with Henry Jenkins) is an equally dense and perplexing tome. The paperback does have a nice cover though.

Back into more mainstream territory, however, and another avoid is Stuart Jeffries’ Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy: mistaking rambling repetitive passages about what he used to eat in front of the telly for something a reader will find interesting, the book is at heart a long, dry litany of the author’s pet obsessions mixed in with deeply self-centred confessions. He makes watching TV sound like it should be a pained exercise in applying cultural theory – the complete antithesis to James’ universal celebration of everything and anything on the box.

8. Words apart

Classification: Script anthologies

Required reading: Father Ted: The Complete Scripts by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews

Bargain bin: Blackadder: The Whole Damn Dynasty by Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson, John Lloyd and Ben Elton

Far more blatant than the adaptation (see above) but more faithful than the tie-in (see below), printed collections of TV scripts only have merit when they are more than simply dull verbatim transcripts of everything that is said on screen. Anyone could do that with a video, or look up the relevant episode on the internet. No, the best script anthologies are those where the words are merely the basis for an assortment of programme-related paraphernalia, most commonly shepherded into order by the writers themselves.

The best example is the collected Father Ted scripts by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews. Here the authors supplement their original work with numerous comments, asides and notes elaborating upon this or that particular scene or episode, in the process giving valuable insight into the business of transferring a script to screen. Simon Nye’s Men Behaving Badly anthology adopts a similar tactic, but loses points for only being a selection of episodes, and a decidedly odd one at that. The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer boasts amongst other things Vic Reeves’ splendid original drawings for the BBC props department, while the various A Bit of Fry And Laurie collections contain numerous sketches that never made the final edit and special introductions by Stephen and Hugh “live” from a bookshop. Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Just The Words pre-dates virtually all comedy show anthologies. First published in 1989, it paved the way for all (both good and bad) that followed, and while it contains no alternative or extra material it does feature an incredibly useful and comprehensive index of every single “sketch”, such as they are.

Lesser entries in this field include The Vicar of Dibley: The Great Big Companion to Dibley, symptomatic of anything to do with Comic Relief in its irritating obsession with “great big” this and “stonking” that; and Phoenix Nights: The Scripts, which, depressingly, is exactly what it says it is, no more, no less. Our nomination for the worst script book, however, is Blackadder: The Whole Damn Dynasty for its desperate and shameless attempt to flog a once-great concept into the ground and its reliance on tokenistic “new” passages of half-hearted narrative linking each series together.

9. Hello there!

Classification: TV tie-ins

Required reading: Lee & Herring’s Fist of Fun by Stewart Lee and Richard Herring

Bargain bin: Gary and Tony’s A-Z of Behaving Badly by Simon Nye

The healthy tradition of TV shows inspiring numerous kinds of tie-in produce dates right back to the 1960s, but the bedrock of all merchandise has always been – and undoubtedly will remain – the book. A multitude of offerings continue to pour out of printing houses every month, including annuals, comics, “continuing adventures”, spoof novels, programme guides, behind-the-scenes exposes and historical tributes. As diverse in quality as they are plentiful in quantity, these offerings form a vast repository for information, facts, opinions, profiles and punditry that gains hugely in value as the years pass. Indeed, second hand bookshops remain thankfully cluttered with increasingly sought after testaments to legendary programmes long gone.

Despite the enduring currency of the Blue Peter books, never mind the groundbreaking comedy tie-ins of the 1970s such as the Brand New Monty Python Bok and The Goodies File, we’ve gone for a more recent endeavour as our pick of the bunch: Lee & Herring’s Fist Of Fun, published by the BBC in 1995. Not only is it plentifully stocked with new material, it’s full of imaginative re-workings of previous sketches and ideas transferring the essence of the titular TV show onto the printed page. It’s also got a spoof listings page, which is absolutely essential for all top grade comedy tie-ins. Father Ted: The Craggy Island Parish Magazines also deserves credit for consisting of 100% new material by Linehan and Mathews which is well up to standard – in the tradition of the many books spun off from Not The Nine O’clock News.

Other notable publications within this category include: Roy Bottomley’s account of making This Is Your Life, including a long list of all the code names the production team devised for each subject; The Daytime Live Book, a valiant tribute to the short lived Pebble Mill At One replacement featuring a day in the life of Andy Craig and published a few weeks before the show was axed; John Motson’s Match Of The Day – The Complete Record which simply does exactly what it says – a list of all the matches ever covered by the programme in its first three decades, which, unsurprisingly given Motson’s involvement, is superbly researched; The Young OnesBachelor Boys, which – as a matter of public record – an elderly female Glasgow-based bookseller once mistook for a biography about The Bachelors; the many Look-In television annuals with their snapshots of pop culture favourites from down the years; Alan Read’s Doctor Who: The Making of a Television Series, a genuinely interesting account of the problems in producing a primetime children’s show that’s been on the air for 20 years; and, not quite a tie-in but still of inestimable value to the long-term TV fan, Jonathan Meades’ A-Z collection of whimsical self-penned star profiles This Is Their Life.

There are very few tie-ins not worth investing some money in. Those you should steer clear of, however, are any publication comprising hackneyed old material with pictures of famous people stuck in for no reason. Of which The A-Z of Behaving Badly is, unfortunately, a prime example.

10. “The past year has been a testing one for the BBC”

Classification: Corporate publications

Required reading: BBC Annual Report and Handbooks

Bargain bin: BBC TV Presents: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration by Nicholas Moss

Once seen as the epitome of the British broadcasting establishment’s accountability, the corporate guide or handbook persisted for countless decades right up to the late 1980s and the arrival of the professional PR consultant within media organisations. All of the BBC’s Annual Report and Handbooks retain the piquancy of a distant age, where countless lists of transmitter information and breakdowns of departmental budgets could nestle happily alongside jovial thinkpieces by Ian Trethowan or Alasdair Milne. They actually date right back to pre-World War II times, but ceased in January 1988 when Michael Checkland and Marmaduke Hussey introduced the long-discontinued and ridiculously flimsy brochure See For Yourself. More recently the Annual Report has resurfaced online, still boasting core constituent parts of the old Handbooks.

The IBA went in for a similar practice, and its own Handbooks, especially those from the late 1970s and 1980s, are equally evocative documents, and actually make far more judicious use of photographs and picture spreads than their colleagues at Broadcasting House. In 1980 ITV Books and TV Times were jointly responsible for a different kind of in-house tribute, 25 Years on ITV – a glossy year-by-year portfolio of the network’s greatest achievements, running to an impressive 280 pages. Radio Times’ own Yearbooks from the 1990s also form a useful record of both over-exposed and obscure faces and shows from recent memory.

Not all these corporate offspring are worth tracking down, however: it’s best to give a wide berth to Nicholas Moss’ slipshod BBC TV Presents, penned to tie in with the TV50 season of programmes commemorating the Corporation’s half century in 1986. About the only worthwhile thing in the whole book is Bill Cotton’s cheery introduction; the rest is a patchwork of archive photos and stills padded out with the thinnest of captions and supporting text, each chapter concentrating on one decade at a time up to the final one, which is titled somewhat bizarrely “The Sixties To Date”. There’s also, as writer Tony Currie identified, rather too much “sloppy research” on the part of someone billed as Chief Assistant to the Managing Director, BBC Television.