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Recent Recommendations

How do you know what to read next, or which radio programmes to listen to, or what to watch on TV? Whose recommendations do you follow, if any? How much randomness or serendipity is there in your choices?

TV and radio were very straightforward when I was growing up. We had three TV channels, no multichannel options, no VCR or DVD player; we watched whatever was on. The kitchen radio was always set to Radio 1, and then sometime in the 1970s my brother and I started listening to London’s Capital Radio as well, in the room that we shared. I wrote earlier this month about a Teenage Reading List and this (and later similar lists, and set texts at school) formed the basis of my reading throughout my teenage years.

I don’t recall too many disagreements about our TV viewing habits as a family, can’t recall many times when one of us wanted to watch one thing while everyone else wanted to watch something else. The only programme from the 1970s that I recall watching on my own (on the small TV in my parents’ bedroom) while something else was on in the living-room was the American comedy “Chico and the man”. I was into it but the rest of the family weren’t, at least not enough to switch over from “Nationwide” or whatever was on BBC1. I looked it up recently and learnt that Chico was played by Freddie Prinze. He killed himself when his son (the more famous Freddie Prinze Junior) was less than a year old. (And I also learnt that Prinze Junior is married to Sarah Michelle “Buffy” Gellar. That was news to me.)

These days there is so much available to watch, hear or read that I often find it hard to make up my mind about what to do next, and end up watching live sport or an episode of “Pointless” instead. Over the last week I have made decisions based on recently-heard episodes of “Desert Island Discs” and a friend’s recommendation by email.

John Sutherland, Professor of English at University College London, chose Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” as his book when he appeared on “Desert Island Discs” in 2006, a recording that I have only recently heard. He describes it as “the greatest novel in the English language”. Sue Lawley asks, “Better than “Middlemarch”?” and he replies, “More fun than Middlemarch, and you don’t feel like you’re being lectured”. I have downloaded it and started reading it, the first Victorian novel I have attempted since yet another failed attempt at “Jane Eyre” about five years ago. I dug out the hardback copy of “Vanity Fair” that I bought in a second-hand bookshop over 30 years ago but it weighs more than my Kindle and just holding it makes me feel itchy. It doesn’t appear to be crawling with book mites (I used some advice on the internet to check) but on our next sunny day I’ll leave it in the garden to make sure. (Book mites hate the sun, apparently.) Or maybe I’ll just get rid of it. My head is still itching from picking it up a few minutes ago.

Over the last week I have also listened to both “Desert Island Discs” episodes featuring the late Victoria Wood, and prompted by her choice of Noel Coward singing “Let’s Do It” in Las Vegas (very entertaining) have been listening to the rest of those Vegas recordings. Don Black played Coward’s “Uncle Harry”, from the same shows, on Radio 2 a while back. I was taken by it then and glad to hear it again. It was probably something that Victoria Wood said that reminded me of watching “Chico and the Man” on my own in the 1970s. She had a TV and a piano in her room when she was growing up and would watch and play on her own (and eat alone too), anticipating teenage behaviour in the decades to come.

The TV show a friend recommended in an email was Louis Theroux’s “A Different Brain”, a documentary about people whose personalities have changed after accidents or overdoses. This is a very different take on the idea of becoming a different person, something I wrote about earlier this month regarding music (“When I woke up the next day I was a different guy”).

At various times in the past 20 years, when about to embark on a reading binge, I have asked for recommendations, usually prefaced with, “If you were going to recommend just one book to someone, what would it be?” This was what prompted me to read Andrea Levy’s “Small Island” many years back and it’s as good a recommendation as I’ve had. My number one recommendation to everyone is still Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, which I mentioned here.

I haven’t met anyone else who’s watching the new BBC comedy “Upstart Crow”, with David Mitchell playing William Shakespeare, but I’d recommend it. There have only been two episodes so far (29 minutes each), so it’s easy to catch up on the iPlayer. Yesterday I recommended the movie “Theatre of Blood” too. A book, a TV show and a movie: that’s enough recommendations for a while.


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