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Light ReliefJames May might well have invented the world’s dullest television show. His recent series, The Reassembler, ended this past week on BBC4. It was thing to behold. By the half way point of the very first episode, even he was forced to ask ‘has it ever got the point where the only person still interested in what’s happening is the person who is on the telly?’ That in itself is something to be admired. It takes a certain indulgence, certainly, of the BBC to permit May to take up BBC Four’s time as he reassembled a 1959 Suffolk Colt petrol lawnmower, a 1958 Bakelite telephone, and then an electric guitar.

There’s no word yet if there’ll be a director’s cut that fully conveys the tedium of watching him complete each build  but, in abbreviated form, the results were spectacularly more dull than even I can make them sound. There were 331 parts when he began episode one (my personal favourite) and one ugly lawn mower when he ended. In between was like watching grass grow. Slightly sardonic grass, I grant you, but still the stuff that imperceptibility creeps towards the light.

In his downtime from Top Gear, May has grown a beard that he has maintained a little too much; part George Lucas but far too much Rolf Harris in that it fades towards his ears, leaving it to gather upon the folded skin beneath his chin where the hard clipping is too apparent. Perhaps in later shows he’ll reassemble his beard trimmer but the fact that he’s gone with a beard surely marks the final stage of his evolution into the pub know-it-all we all slide along the bar to avoid. He drinks real ale and he knows the correct word for everything. ‘Pilling’, we discover, is the name for the little balls that gather on the surface of a fabric. Then there are the ‘tappets’, the ‘valve chest’, the ‘venturi’, ‘strangler flap’ (aka the ‘choke butterfly’)… Then, to emphasise his total ascension to a level of verbosity above the normal, he casually quotes Wordsworth’s poem ‘The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement’. He also hates adjustable spanners which I think tells you all you need to know about Mr James May.

Given the essential dullness of this new show, it is perhaps odd that it should also be a fine reminder of the BBC at its best. When it comes time to defend the license fee, the BBC should proudly thrust May, his beard, lawnmower and tappets to the front. It’s precisely the kind of television that only the BBC could make. It is also the kind of television that the BBC should make. In its total disregard for what might be popular, it is reminder that television can actually present a reality that is better than the world known by the viewer. This is television that could make us a better country. James May might have a superhuman degree of dullness but we should know that it’s a dullness partly derived from our own lack of depth. Given a choice between Ant & Dec or May and his pilling, we would be wise to go for the bearded man in his shed. Watch that first episode of The Reassembler and you might go off to read some Wordsworth, learn a little about the internal combustion engine, as well as feel in tune with a certain quality of British amateurism about which we should rightly feel proud.

Is it all a bit too much of a pastiche Barnes Wallis? Perhaps it is and it’s not inconceivable that May is secretly constructing his own Lancaster bomber in that shed, though May would be quick to point out that Wallis actually designed the Wellington bomber and that the Lancaster was used because it was the only aircraft capable of delivering the bouncing bomb which Wallis designed for Operation Chastise. That, however, is May’s chief gift. There is an interconnectedness in the things he does. There is a benefit in knowing how things are constructed that goes beyond simple intellectual curiosity. It is really, for want of a better word, quite political.

The British attitude towards most things has always been one of scorn, scepticism, and utter ridicule. We find ways to undermine most of the serious projects set before us. The public would name the new Antarctic research vessel Boaty McBoatFace and, in truth, we probably should. It would declare to the world that we are proud of the civic anarchy that’s found in the very best things we do. Nations such as China might be far more prolific in terms of scientific research but, in their mechanised striving for advantage, they miss that strange often twisted spirit of rebellion that is usually found in British achievements. When the Rosetta mission landed its probe on a comet, it was a Brit, Dr Matt Taylor, standing there in the command centre wearing a shirt covered by 1950s style models. He was cocking the proverbial snook to whatever was expected and, if it offended some, it was quite possibly inspiring to others. There is too much authority assigned to science, leaning, and technology in all its guises. We are held hostage to the sheer complexity of our gadgets that our subservience to them become an almost religious act of genuflection.

We should be grateful that Youtube already caters to that niche audience out to destroy that magic. Disassemblers pull apart even the most complicated technology to reveal the inner workings. Yet there is a subtle difference between pulling things to pieces and putting objects back together. Breaking things allows us to dispel the magic. It reduces something apparently beyond our understanding into objects of dull solidity: here is the battery, which we reduce to a lumps of chemical and metal. That dispels the voodoo of technology but it hardly helps us recover control. And that’s what May’s show is really about. Putting things together is about a habit of mind; about bringing technology, science, learning, or even political systems back into a human space. May is giving us power over the very things that would dominate us.

DWSo, yes, James May has possibly made the most boring show on TV but, in some ways, it’s quite an important one too. It sets a standard and not a bad standard at that. In assembling common day objects, he is really disassembling television and reminding us that we are the masters of the medium. That is as important a lesson as any in a day and age when our mediums would quite willingly become our masters.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at his blog The Spine.
or email at dr.d.waywell[at]


15 Comments on "The Dullest Man on TV"

  1. Your about to see the British attitude of scorn in action. Can’t stand the BBC I’m afraid David. You may be right that this is the sort of programming they should be making, it was certainly the (unpopular) attitude of the corporation prior to the war. Good luck to them provided it’s not with my money. I deeply resent being mugged every year to the tune of £145 for a service I rarely use and would happily forgo in exchange for my money back. It’s more than my home insurance, a months energy costs, more than the fee for emptying the septic tank and more than I pay in road tax, I won’t go on. I would say to those who love the BBC and view it as a national treasure, you pay for it then and enjoy it to your hearts content, make it a subscription service and scramble the signal so I can’t watch it and block my IP address from bbc iplayer.

    • I see your point, Rob, and I would agree with it if the BBC continues to push an populist lowest common denominator crap paying halfwits a fortune. But I think the BBC debate is a symptom of the struggle we’re seeing in the country at large between those that would happily let the markets run free and those that believe that we need a guiding hand. I like the BBC providing that guiding hand, stopping the world succumbing to the drag of Ant & Dec in everything and everything Ant & Dec. I would agree about pricing. I would agree about he management and direction. But I really don’t like the approach that would turn us into a cultural wasteland, everything allowed to slide in the name of the market. I’m elitist, I know, and I’m ashamed that I’m a cultural snob. But when faced with the alternative, I’d choose to keep the BBC every time.

      • The problem for the BBC is that the only way it will stay publicly funded is by churning out mindless drivel as that is what the majority of people want to watch, the James May program you talk of got 2% of the available viewers at that time slot and how many of them tuned in expecting top gear?. The BBC has been down the highbrow road before in the 30’s with the result that listeners tuned in to radios Hilversum, Luxembourg and Hamburg in their droves, in the build up to war this clearly became and issue and more populist programming was introduced. For a while BBC2 redressed the balance and you could argue the BBC had got it right. Nowadays BBC2 which was meant to screen “programmes of depth and substance” is the home of the Great British Bake Off and repeats of Dad’s Army while a huge back catalogue of great programming goes unrepeated, presumably so it forces anyone who wants to watch it to fork out even more money for the DVD. In terms of culture I’m not sure that the near £4bn of public money the corporation receives wouldn’t be better spent on other cultural programs such as keeping public libraries and museums open or funding trips to the theatre for kids, I would view it as a better use of my £145. In any case if it is to stay around it should go back to two TV and four radio channels and concentrate on producing quality over quantity.

        • That’s pretty much my position. Quality over quantity has been my argument all along. There are some very simple things they could do, such as introduce a wage cap. There’s enough talent in the UK that we don’t need to pay people a million a year to simply ‘host’ a show. Speaking as somebody who spent too many years sending comedy pieces to the BBC and never getting a single reply, I’d like them to take new talent more seriously. Stop paying people a fortune and give more chances to those people struggling at the bottom. The BBC could (and should) be a way for new talent to emerge. Again: it would be providing a service to the British people, producing talent that can then go abroad and make money. They did it before. It’s one of the things the BBC has always done quite well but could do even better. If new starts then want to make millions in the private sector, they can. But on the BBC, let’s keep prices down and quality up. I also agree: too many channels, too much low quality drivel with the BBC’s name attached. Like I’ve said before: I’m not against lowbrow but it should be something that’s clever or strange. For example, I also liked the new Vic & Bob comedy show which I only saw for the first time last night. Really odd comedy that nobody else would probably make.

          I’ve always liked the story, I don’t know where I read it, about Lord Reith (I think it way) who conceived of Radios 1,2,3,4 as a scale along which a listener would travel; starting at 1, developing a better taste, and then move to 2, and so on. Naive, of course, and perhaps a touch condescending but not entirely. I like TV that makes me a better person and challenges me with alternative thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

          Not mentioned, of course, is BBC News which I think is its chief asset. I would worry about the country if we lost our main impartial (though everybody say its partisan one way or the other, which proves it’s neither) news service.

          • BBC News ranges from very good to very bad. I don’t think the BBC news is partisan with regards to domestic politics however on foreign affairs or matters such as the Scottish referendum I think it is a different story, they are and have been far too close to whatever the FO or Govt line happens to be. Also Nicholas Witchells royal bum licking bulletins are reason enough to close them down, yeah we get it, the royals are absolutely fantastic god bless em I’m so glad they were born so special.

          • Hmm… Now that does take us down some difficult roads. I wouldn’t claim that the BBC is entirely unbiased but I do think that their biases tend to balance themselves out. There is also, I think, an institutional bias that they’re entirely incapable of recognising. It’s the bias that happens when, by some remarkable coincidence, one of David Cameron’s old friend’s from Eton just happens to be interviewing him on the news. But that’s really the bias of the nation. It happens in all walks of live, all areas, from publishing to pottery. About the only place where we don’t see it too much is in sport. But then you can’t dispute whether one person can run faster than another, but you can always claim that your chum from Oxford is just as good a comedian as some gobby guy from Glasgow.

            As to foreign affairs, not sure. Wouldn’t surprise me if the BBC tended to support the British interest in a story. Do you have any examples? Lack of proper criticism of Saudi Arabia would, I suppose, be a good example.

          • Sometimes it manifests as going quiet on British failures such as largely ignoring the chaos that removing Gaddafi from Libya caused, the lack of reporting on the war crimes of the KLA in Kosovo and the ethnic cleansing of Serbs in the aftermath of NATO bombing, failure to acknowledge that reports had greatly over exaggerated the numbers of civilians killed by Serbian forces as they were effectively regurgitating NATO briefings.
            Sometimes it is allowing MoD statements to go unchallenged such as the fallacy of British troops ‘winning hearts and minds’ in Iraq, the portrayal of the coalition being greeted with jubilation just because five blokes hit a statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes, the constant reports with commanders stating that we were ‘winning’ in Afghanistan, no critique of statements that our troops were there to fight the drugs trade despite the fact that poppy production went through the roof as a result of coalition occupation. In Ukraine what was actually a coup to remove a democratically elected leader was portrayed in the guise of a popular uprising etc etc and yes while North Korea gets the works on human rights Saudi Arabia gets little coverage, I notice they have also gone very quiet on Chinese human rights now that we are buddying up to them with an entire season of BBC content on China produced to celebrate our new relationship.

          • Good examples, Rob, but I’d ask: are those examples of bias or of laziness? Not suggesting that there isn’t some bias (I agree, N. Korea, is an easy target) but I generally think most things come down to individual flaws that elaborate machinations of state. I recently read a book called ‘The Boys on the Bus’, that was the story of the 1972 presidential campaign seen through the eyes of journalists. It explained how few journalists wanted to break new stories or rock the boat. The habit is to report what others report and confirm the established view. How many journalists are really that brave? Do they want a long career or a short career that ends when they cause a stink with the Saudi government? The ‘winning hearts and minds’ feels like the typical report where you know they’ve been flown in and out of a country, reporting what they’re shown, with no willingness to get away from the protected compound and report the truth. I recall P.J. O’Rourke saying pretty much the same in one of his books on war reporting. What looks like bias is often, I think, simple laziness.

  2. Peter Kennedy | 12th April 2016 at 7:35 pm | Reply

    The quality of television output is a problem that will take a considerable time to solve. When I was a child we had Jacob Bronowski and his series ‘The Ascent of Man’ and, later on, Dr Carl Sagan with ‘Cosmos’. Also who could forget James Burke with ‘Connections’. All of these are shining beacons in the television art showing us how TV should be made but now things have gone terribly wrong.

    I always understood that people gained in intelligence over the years, the items I studied for A Level Physics were taught at university level in Victorian England. Now things appear to have gone into full reverse and some schools do not even have Physics and Chemistry labs, the pupils are expected to watch videos of experiments taking place. As for the TV output, take away the soap operas, the cooking shows and the endless talent contests and there is not much left. German TV is no better, we have the talent shows but with endless crime dramas, mostly from the USA.

    So, if James May wants to spend some time putting a lawn mower and a telephone back together then more power to his elbow. At least viewers will see the inside of an engine and the innards of a telephone. The greater the number of science and engineering programmes that are shown on TV the happier I will be because someone will need to build all that stuff we keep on buying.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Peter. The ‘dullness’ is the BBC’s great quality. No other channel could invest time and energy into something that appeals to those of us that don’t like flashing lights, screaming kids, and people getting covered in gunk. I think if we invest as a nation in a television that actually helps us to raise our game, devote our energy to the sciences and humanities, inspire us to become scientists, inventors, engineers, artists, writers, thinkers, etc. then we all benefit in the long term. The alternative is, as I keep saying, a slow crawl back to the swamp. The market really has no morality and that is no more evident in TV. I’d hate to see it fail simply because everybody just wants whatever crap ITV are serving up.

    • Whenever I turn on a TV in Germany it seems to be five minutes of programming followed by ten minutes of werbung followed by five minutes of programming and so on, I’ve never seen so many adverts anywhere else in the world.

      • Peter Kennedy | 13th April 2016 at 9:47 pm | Reply

        I’m glad to see that someone else has noticed the quantity of TV adverts in Germany, it’s got so bad that I hardly ever watch TV broadcasts and the normal use of the flat screen is to view something that has been downloaded or to play a DVD. (I don’t do computer games, I’m too old).

  3. Lesley Lubert | 13th April 2016 at 9:08 am | Reply

    David, you are positively riveting!

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