is – George Austin on too much TV
rules as BBC shuns reality TV’ ran The Times headline. The new Director
General, Mark Thompson, is apparently planning a ‘fundamental shake-up’ of
the programme-making to give comedy the same priority as news in order to breed
‘a new generation of comedy stars’.
promises a welcome change to programming, which in recent years, on the BBC as
well as on commercial channels, has seen a proliferation of shows which cost
makeovers, the hideous voyeuristic shows like Big Brother, the removal
sagas — Place in the Sun, Location-Location, Place Down Under~ Place by the
Sea and the rest, with almost identical unscripted scripts in all of them.
a marvellous view’ as they look over flat fields and half a dozen cows in a
distant meadow. ‘Lovely patio — I can just see us having a gin and tonic
here as the sun goes down.’ ‘Wow, I do like this kitchen.’ ‘Oh, now that
is nice!’ when they are shown an uncomfortable sitting room. And in
every house — ‘Ah, a wood-burning stove.’ What is it today about
wood-burning stoves? The previous owners of our house used to have a log fire in
the sitting room and had to keep both doors open because of the heat.
the places they move to. Florida I can perhaps understand. But Goa? Or selling
up to settle in Australia which they have never visited and have not the
slightest idea of how to emigrate there. Anything to be on television?
there are the choices presented. A maximum budget of £150,000 is offered, with
a request for three bedrooms, a small garden, not too remote. And what are they
shown? A house with two bedrooms, five and half acres of land, and costing £200,000.
And none of the clients asks the TV presenters why they haven’t listened to
does this remind me of the Crown Nominations Commission who were once asked by
the vacant diocese for a moderate Catholic, a man with rural experience who had
served in the north of England — and then appointed an Evangelical without any
rural experience who had never been north of the Midlands.)
Hoggart, the Times television critic, commented that the ~berated
lifestyle shows have mushroomed because they are cheap and popular’ adding
that they represented ‘a culture of intellectually lazy, timid, focus-grouped,
committee-concocted, copycat commissioning’ with the BBC producing ‘pale
imitations of commercial successes’. (I have read Synod reports that are not
Humphrys took this further in a lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival,
whose theme he reproduced later in the Daily Mail. He was in a unique
position to do so, not having had a television set for the past six years since
his last one gave up the ghost. So he installed one and asked the main channels
to send him ten of their best programmes to let him see what he had been
dispelled one myth straight away — that there is nothing worth watching
nowadays, citing programmes like drama’s Lost Prince, Schama and
Starkey’s history programmes, and comedy such as The Office.
he suggested that the good programmes cannot balance out the bad, ‘not if the
bad coarsens and brutalizes us and turns us into voyeurs’. He was shocked by
what he saw, when so much of it seemed ‘not just vulgar and obsessed with sex,
but altogether more confrontational’ that he had remembered.
cited Eastenders as a series iii which the characters can ‘scarcely
share a quiet cup of tea without throwing the cups at each other’. It can be
argued that important subjects are dealt with in a responsible way, and a former
executive producer suggested that ‘it’s really no more than the bible
stories in a modern setting.’ ‘That’s pushing it a bit,’ was Humphrys’
comment. ‘Dirty Den as St Peter? But I know what he means.’
worse were the so-called reality shows, and Humphrys’ research for the lecture
showed him that many people in the industry — who might have been expected to
defend it — are themselves ‘profoundly uneasy’. One consultant, a
psychiatrist appointed to a reality show, resigned because the programme had
‘provoked interpersonal violence for entertainment’.
problem is that the stage has been reached where every new programme of that ilk
has to carry the promise that it will worse than the last — witness the fifth
Big Brother series whose producers were so desperate to ‘pump up’ the
ratings that they assured viewers the new one would ‘get nasty, get evil.’
of course determine revenue, at least so far as the commercial channels are
concerned, but even the BBC has to try to match their viewing numbers and so
falls into the same morass. But even in that morass, there are moments of sheer
delight. Stars in Their Eyes is a populist programme in which wannabees
try to copy their favourite stars,
execrably, and the Celebrity version follows the same pattern.
recent programme featured soap stars and mostly one wanted to scream, ‘Don’t
give up the day job!’ Then came Amy Nut-tall, who plays Chloe in Emmerdale,
offering to be Sara Brightman. She began to sing and it made the hairs on
the back of the neck stand up as she gave an unforgettable performance that
no-one could have bettered. It was entertainment at its best in a programme a
viewer could easily have passed by.
it is good news that the BBC plans to ‘shun reality TV’ in favour of comedy.
Good news, that is, if it produces comedy is as it was in programmes like Dad’s
Army, It Ain't Half 'ot Mum, Are You Being Served, and the like,
rather than the more recent slobby, yobby offerings such as The Royle Family and
Men Behaving Badly.
is it wrongly felt that there is no longer an audience for that kind of comedy?
The humour of Yes, Prime Minister? was required viewing for politicians
and civil servants because it was so well based in reality, but then the
popularity of The Office was because so many could identify with the
characters as people they worked with. And surely there are script writers in
Britain who can match those who created Frasier and Friends.
down or plumbing the depths may attract audiences in the short term, but in the
end it is merely a spiralling into oblivion. After all, the poor old Church of
England has tried this for thirty years and look at the result of that.
Austin is a broadcaster, journalist and a writer
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