Between the Covers – should it be left on the shelf?

As I’m sure all book lovers know, Between the Covers is a talk show aired on BBC, hosted by Sara Cox, now in its fourth series (as of May 2022). She is joined by four celebrities, and they all discuss their favourite books, along with an upcoming release or book of the moment.

For any bibliophile, this should be a dream of a show. And yet, it fell rather flat for me.

I was eagerly excited when I heard about the first series, broadcast in late 2020, the second and third in 2021 and the fourth very recently. Over the four series, the guest stars have included the likes of Tom Allen, Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Ade Edmonson, Anita Rani, Oti Mabuse, Rob Delaney, Rick Stein, Nish Kumar, Stacey Dooley, Robert Webb, Emilia Fox, Ben Miller, Greg James and Evanna Lynch, amongst many others. A wide spectrum of stars from the world of comedy, acting, writing, singing and presenting.

In each episode, each guest puts forward a book they like – so that’s four already – then they discuss two others books; one just published, one to be published, an award-winning book, or in the case of 2022, a book named in the Big Jubilee Read. That’s 6 books for every episode. Each episode lasts just 30 minutes. But once you’ve taken away the time it takes Sara to introduce the show and the guests, and to sign off, you’re probably looking at no more than 25 minutes. This works out as each book getting roughly 4 minutes airtime.

What’s my point here?

Well, simply put, the programme is just not long enough. If you want to sit there and really pull apart these books and explain what you liked and disliked about them, like the average book club, then you need to give them more than 4 minutes each. It’s clearly become a very popular show, and I think it would benefit from being at least 45 minutes long, if not an hour. That would give almost 10 minutes per book, and it means Sara doesn’t have to cut people off because she has to move to the next one.

Here’s where I admit I only watched a couple of episodes of series one and didn’t start again until the most recent series. And I’ll tell you why. For me, the first series felt more like a panel show, a comedy show, that just so happened to mention books a few times. It wasn’t book-heavy enough for me and it just jarred with me. Now maybe this is because it was new and they were yet to settle into their groove, but it put me off, which is why I didn’t watch series 2 or 3. I have been watching series 4 and it does seem to have found its way now which is good.

What I did notice though with one of the most recent episodes – and I saw other people mention it on Twitter too – is some of the guests say a bit too much about the books, to the point of spoilers. Now I’m not saying every book needs to come with a spoiler warning – do we really need to warn people not to listen to a review of War and Peace which came out in 1869 in case you give away the plot? Probably not. Having said that, this programme is a good way to introduce avid readers to books they may not have considered before, and non-readers to any kind of book. Therefore, they should be talking about the book without giving away any major plot points. So much so, I considered buying a book recently mentioned but then a guest gave away major plot points and character developments, so I didn’t see the point of buying it to read anymore, and that’s a shame.

However, my biggest bugbear of them all, is that every single guest seems to love every single book and they simply rave about them. Everyone has different tastes and whilst I appreciate that some books are universal and no-one seems to have a bad work to say about them, I find it unbelievable and a bit naïve to be showing book after book after book that every single guest absolutely loves and it’s just not realistic.

Over the series they’ve had books ranging from The Iliad, The Midnight Library, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Wind in the Willows, Lord of the Rings, Madame Bovary, The Master and the Margarita, Americanah, The Devil and the Dark Water, Les Miserables, The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, Great Expectations, Emma, The Girl with the Louding Voice, The Mandibles, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Lessons in Chemistry, The Dictator’s Wife, The Handmaid’s Tale, The English Patient – the list goes on and on.

These books cover a whole spectrum of time periods and genres. We’ve got Greed history, classics, children’s books, fantasy, thrillers, comedies, romance, war, you name it. Like I said, some books may be universally liked – something like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings – but it seems completely incomprehensible that in the 21 episodes there have been as of writing (and I do appreciate I haven’t watched every single episode), that every single guest, be them presenter or comedian or actor or singer, be them English or American or South African or Indian, they all absolutely rave about all of them. I would like a bit of diversity, a bit of healthy debate about why someone likes a book and why someone else doesn’t. I think that’s what makes a good book club.

I will continue to watch it as I am interested in what books people are recommending, but I find myself choosing to record it rather than watch it live so I can zip through bits that uninterest me, and that’s not a good thing when it comes to broadcasting. Looking at some other reviews of the show, I seem to be in the minority with my views, but I can’t believe there isn’t someone who agrees with at least one of my points. I think the show will continue for many years, as is its popularity and the ever-increasing adoration for books (in part thanks to the lockdown), but I definitely think they should be looking at ways to improve it further in future series.

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