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The scope of great TV is mind blowing

EVERY couple of years, some weekend newspaper supplement runs a story about parents who've banished television from the home in order to persuade their children to use their leisure time more productively.

Invariably topping the list of Things to Do Instead of Watching TV will be 'reading a good book', as though watching television and reading were somehow mutually exclusive pastimes that have no business being in one another's company.


As someone who serially watches television both for a living and for my own entertainment and enlightenment, and habitually chews through a book or two a week for the very same reasons, the smug, patronising cultural vegans who come out with this old guff get on my wick more than anyone else I can think of (with the exception of actual vegans, obviously).

People who claim that throwing your TV set into the nearest skip will automatically improve the quality of your life and instill a sudden hunger in your children to devour the contents of the local library either haven't been watching much TV lately or haven't been watching the same as the rest of us.

The idea that TV has ever been an impediment to people reading is itself a great piece of fiction. Far from cancelling each other out, TV and books complement each another. Whether it's the BBC's revered 1970s adaptation of I, Claudius or ITV's long-running Inspector Morse (right), I'd venture that watching these programmes prompted many curious viewers to seek out the source novels.

Sometimes TV can even do things that are beyond the reach of books. Two of my long-time reading obsessions are World War Two and the history of the American West. Yet the mini-series Band of Brothers (scrupulously based on Stephen E Ambrose's factual bestseller) and Ken Burns' epic PBS documentary The Civil War brought those periods in world history vividly alive in a way few books ever have.

The very best contemporary dramas have more in common with books than with traditional TV. I've read a lot of thrillers in my time, but few I've come across lately have been as breathtakingly well-written as the pulsating second series of BBC2's Line of Duty, or exerted the same grip.


And then there's HBO's hypnotic True Detective, which continues on Sky Atlantic tonight. Steeped in the eerie swamps and potent lore of Louisiana, and featuring floridly-named characters spouting wonderfully idiosyncratic dialogue, it's the closest thing you'll find to a James Lee Burke novel that's not actually a James Lee Burke novel.

The Wire had the narrative scope and ambition of a Charles Dickens novel and a gallery of memorable characters to match. Hardly surprising, since its creator David Simon's roots are in print.

More than a decade before The Wire, Simon, then a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, wrote the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, a great slab of reportage that recounted, in gripping detail, the year he spent shadowing the city's homicide squad. The book later became the basis for Simon's pre-Wire drama series Homicide: Life on the Street.


Those who look down on TV should ask themselves if any novel, no matter how good, could have delivered as riveting a portrait of life inside a mafia family as The Sopranos did over its six seasons. I doubt it. So watching TV is the new reading? Of course not. But great TV is every bit as valid as great books.

RTE FULL OF SURPRISES: When the news broke that Marty Whelan is being replaced on Winning Streak by another Marty – Morrissey, missing link between Homo sapiens and Thunderbirds puppets – I was reminded of a lyric from the musical The Producers: "Who do you have to f*** to get a break in this town?"

Marty has had more than his share of rotten breaks. In 2004, RTE axed his afternoon show Open House for no good reason. In 2007, they took away his 2fm radio show. And now this.

We like Marty in our house – and not just because he once shared his sweets with my then-very young daughters at a Harry Potter movie screening. We like him because he's a very likeable guy, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. He's also very good at his job, which isn't as easy as he makes it look.

Rumour has it that 57-year-old Marty is being replaced by his 53-year-old namesake to make Winning Streak more appealing to younger viewers. And no, it's not April Fools' Day yet.

I WON'T MISS BBC3: One of the most hilarious howls of protest against the axing of BBC3 came from Russell Kane, a comedian not normally known for inducing hilarity. "Monty Python would definitely be on BBC3 if they were launched today," he bleated.

He might be right. Then again, since BBC3 specialises in programmes like Hotter Than My Daughter with Liz McClarnon (pictured) and My Man Boobs and Me, BBC3 might not want them.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Famous, Rich and Hungry, the upcoming series from the makers of Benefits Street, will feature four 'celebrities' living for a week with people too poor to afford food. The four include Boris Johnson's sister and Heather from EastEnders. Clearly not all of them tick every box in that title.