Some Thoughts on First Tuesday Book Club

As previously mentioned, ABC Television has bitten the bullet and started a monthly book program. As Sir Humphrey Appleby might have said, this is a very brave decision. Such programs do not have a glorious history on Australian television, generally being relegated to graveyard timeslots, or unimaginative in their approach. But with First Tuesday Book Club I think they might just be on a winner.

The ABC was rather restrained in their pre-publicity of the 30-minute show leading up to the first night. There were a couple of judiciously placed news drops in "The Age" newspaper, and a few (say, one or two a night) small promos between programs in the week before the event. If the promotional push extended beyond that I was blissfully ignorant of it. So ABC management were looking optimistic without attempting to be over-confident. Prudent I would have thought.

Luckily enough the program has, as its host, one of Australia's better television performers. Jennifer Byrne has a long history on Australian television, as journalist and presenter, and comes across as informed and enthusiastic. I can forgive a lot of things of people appearing on television but if they don't have either of those attributes then they lose my interest pretty fast. Appearing with Jennifer Byrne were Jason Steger (literary editor of "The Age"), Jacki Weaver (actor and author), Peter Cundall (presenter of ABC TV's Gardening Australia program) and Marieke Hardy (screenwriter,
blogger and grand-daughter of Frank Hardy - about the last of which she seemed quite defensive). It's a good mix of ages and literary backgrounds, though it might be criticised as being overly homogenous in its cultural diversity.

The first thing we notice about the program is the set and the seating arrangements of the participants. Most previous attempts at this have utilised the tried and true, but now tired, approach of putting all panelists in a line behind a straight or slightly curved desk with a fixed camera out front. The problem with this is that the host, who generally sits in the middle, spends the entire program bouncing their head backwards and forwards, making eye-contact with the panellists on each end of the desk, who lean forward attempting to stay in the conversation, producing a weird effect like four people sitting around a noddy-head dog. The dynamic has to be just right or the whole thing falls apart. First Tuesday Book Club gets around this problem by seating all
participants in a circle, just like a normal book club. A simple solution, so simple you wonder why no-one has done it before; until you start wondering how the guy on the middle left is ever going to get into shot if his back is to the camera facing the main talent. That is, of course, until they all come into center screen, one after the other, and you realise the answer is to have one camera focused on each person - five in all. It's a good ploy, just so long as you can hide the cameras in the background. And that's where the second part of the set-up comes in.

The program is presented with five people sitting in a circle in armchairs surrounded by bookshelves. But bookshelves of a specific type. They have been designed in such a way that they complement the light airy nature of the program. The shelves are of light-coloured wood, without backing boards, which carry a number of book-like objects in a general sense of order - standing upright or stacked in short piles on the shelves. I say "book-like" because the objects are book sized and shaped but are covered in what appears to be brown wrapping paper. I'm not doing the set justice here. It sounds awful rom my description, yet the overall effect is one of bookishness without the distractions of a multi-coloured background that draws the eye to the titles and away from the discussion in the centre of the set. So another win there.

As a side-point: I didn't see any of the cameras in the background during the program
so I can only suppose they were cleverly hidden amongst the bookshelves and books. It worked for me.

The choice of the books under discussion each week is going to be the telling point, determining whether or not the programs succeed. This week we had the 2006 Miles Franklin Award winner, The Ballad of Desmond Kale by Roger McDonald, and, as Jennifer Byrne's "classic" choice, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. And if argument, discontent, and enthusiasm are your criteria for success on programs such as this then you got it in bucketloads. The McDonald novel was generally considered to be a worthy read. There were a few dissensions - Peter Cundall found what he thought was a factual error on the first page - which were mainly to do with the style employed and the length. But all things considered it received a positive response.

Not so the Ellis. Byrne picked the book for discussion and she introduced it as "modern classic". Weaver agreed, Steger and Hardy thought it would have made for a good short story and Cundall just about went apoplectic. For a while there I thought he was going to burst a boiler. His final verdict: he had a good use for the novel - chopped up as mulch for his plants. Each book brought out a lively discussion, curtailed somewhat by the program's length, but energetic and relatively free-flowing. Thirty minutes seemed a tad short to me, although sixty might just be stretching the bounds of interest.

All in all it's a good start. I didn't see anything in this first episode that might scuttle it too early in its run. Its continued success will depend largely on the choice of books and whether or not the participants become too repetitive. The books under discussion will hange from week to week, it might be an idea to introduce some guest commentators from time to time as well.

The September program will discuss Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and one other, yet to be announced.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 3, 2006 9:52 AM.

Literary Reflections #5 by Will Dyson was the previous entry in this blog.

Literary Gatherings #2 - George Johnston and Charmian Clift is the next entry in this blog.

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