Coarse it is – George Austin on too much TV

‘COMEDY 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’.

It 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 little

— 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.

‘What 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.

And 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?

Then 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 their needs.

(Why 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.)

Paul 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 unlike some of that — intellectually lazy, focus-grouped, and especially committee-concocted.)

John 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 missing.

He 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.

But 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.

He 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.’

Much 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’.

One 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.’

Ratings 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,

sometimes execrably, and the Celebrity version follows the same pattern.

A 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.

But 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.

Or 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.

Dumbing 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.

George Austin is a broadcaster, journalist and a writer