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The BBC, back when it was worth watching

This post is for two sets of people:  1) those who knew or knew the work of the English critic John Gross (who died earlier this year aetat 75) and 2) all other literate people who care about books and culture.

John was a dear friend and frequent contributor to the magazine I edit, The New Criterion. We first met in the mid 1980s when I was a newcomer to New York and John was enduring an alternately amusing and irritating patch as a critic for The New York Times (someday I’ll set down some of the stories he told).   He was extremely generous with his time and advice to an unknown friend of a friend. I vividly recall the many times we met at Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel in New York.  John was a conspicuous representative of the nearly extinct breed, the Man of Letters, a species he brilliantly celebrated in his magnum opus The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters.  Although he suffered from ill health in his last years, John was an effervescent personality, the fizz in the existential champagne of any gathering.  As I noted in my brief memorial piece about John for The Wall Street Journal, he was an endless fund of anecdotes, of both the literary and social variety (the latter often described, with often unwarranted opprobrium, as gossip).

John is one of those figures about whom those who him knew generally feel that he never quite got his due.  His career was distinguished (editor of the TLS, widely published author and critic, esteemed anthologist for Oxford University Press, etc.) but somehow not part of that magic circle that many lesser, but more politically correct,  figures occupy.

It is delightful, then, that John’s son Tom Gross, himself an astute political commentator, has unearthed a small cache of BBC book and cultures shows in which John participates.  The quality of the clips is uneven — the first, which dates from 1964, cuts out after about 20 minutes — but they display a seriousness and civilized playfulness that is utterly lacking from the BBC (and, as far as I know, any other television outlet) these days.

Here they are, an edifying glimpse into the recent past:

(1) “Take it or leave it” -- November 22, 1964, BBC TV, which features John Betjeman, John Gross, and others. John was still in his 20s.

(2) “Take it or leave it” -- November 29, 1964, BBC TV, which features Anthony Burgess, John Gross, and others.

(3) “Who’s reading what and with whom” -- October 21, 1982, BBC TV, which features  Antonia Fraser, Salman Rushdie, John Gross, and others.

These clips are fascinating sociological documents as well as reminders of what was once possible on television.