Nick Andersen on the appeal of the people who introduce us to shows.
I’ve realized that I don’t watch TV so much as observe it while tumbling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole of semi-related curiosities on my phone. And it’s not always questions about where I know an actor from, or why a particular fancy English manor home seems oddly familiar — although often, it is that — but instead, lengthy journeys into the history of a cultural moment or political figure relevant to the series or film I’m watching.
Yet I’d rather somebody else did all that work for me, so I could fully watch TV and not be meaninglessly distracted. I’d prefer that more TV shows employed a host.
I’ll admit my bias here — I’m a podcast producer for Masterpiece on PBS, where for 50 years we’ve pioneered the art of having somebody else on screen do a gentle walk-and-talk while escorting you through the history of the United Kingdom’s Churchill family, or the struggles of the Partition in India and Pakistan. Hosting is an art I’ve come to know intimately as part of my work producing our three-part documentary podcast miniseries, Making Masterpiece.
For the first two decades of Masterpiece Theatre, the incomparable Alistair Cooke played this role, bringing the high drama of British period pieces down to our American earth and beaming his approachable knowledge into your living room. This was why the copper sales in Cornwall were so troubling for Ross Poldark, Cooke would tell you. Here is where the last British Viceroy held court. Here’s an excerpt from his remarkably neat summary of a 1980 production of Dostoyevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment:
Well, we’ve seen this impoverished, expelled university student embrace poverty willingly, but his addiction to gambling has forced him to sell every trinket he cherishes — watches, lockets from his mother and his sister. He’s appalled by the poverty of the masses in St. Petersburg and he comes to the pawnbroker, the old lady, as their tyrant. So he takes an axe and he kills her, and her half-witted sister. He washes the axe, his hands, his feet, he leaves no clue.
I’ve read this novel, but I promise you that Cooke’s summary will live longer in my memory than my own mostly forgotten corruption of the same.
Cooke’s successors in the role — Russell Baker, Gillian Anderson, and Laura Linney — continued the hosting game, while their counterparts on Masterpiece Mystery! — Gene Shalit, Vincent Price, Dame Diana Rigg and Alan Cumming — added an arch sense of suspense to incoming crime dramas.
Cumming, who still hosts Mystery! titles to this day, brings a saucy kind of charm to the host role, suavely inviting viewers to set reality aside and dig in to the gentle British murder of the week. In an interview for my documentary, Cumming described his role as embodying a you know you want to-type beckoner, which perfectly captures his approach to the job.
A TV host is a constant in a changing world, full of facts but not overbearing, and familiar when a plot might veer off into extremes. A TV host reminds you of last week’s mishaps without being as obvious as a PREVIOUSLY ON… opening sequence. A TV host even gives you time to grab a snack or a drink, after the program begins but before the important stuff flares up. They recognize our humanity instead of treating viewers only as content-consumers.
More than anything, a TV host is a friend. We might create elaborate mental alternative universes where the characters of our favorite television programs are secretly our friends, but a small part of our brain is stuck with the temporal and visual distance that remains between our TV families and our own actual families in the living room. A TV host is just one step closer to us than the characters on screen, offering a graceful hand and pushing aside the mental and physical clutter to allow the magical otherness of the filmed world on the other side of the opening sequence to wash over us.
Sure, I could just put my phone away while I watch TV. But if I’m going to try that, I’ll need a few more hosts to make it work. I already know I want to, Alan — just lay it on a little thicker, and make me forget about the outside world one moment sooner. If you feed my curiosity ahead of time, I promise I’ll do my best to pay attention. — By Nick Andersen