I like to believe there should be two distinct and identifiable bands running right across the Saturday night schedule – one at about 7pm and another at 10. The first should be packed solid with so-called “family” entertainment: light, bright, non-offensive, multiple age-group programming, regardless of the genre. Game shows, comedies, dramas, talent and variety shows and general entertainment… whatever. At 7pm the TV should be dripping with the stuff.
At 10, the atmosphere is different because you can cut the kids out of the picture but, more importantly, it’s getting to that time of night where nothing is getting started. It’s generally not a time when you might grab a few minutes in front of the box before going off to do something else. No – I submit that if you’re watching at ten, it’s because you’ve gotten comfortable there and, frankly, good for you. However, this means it’s not a time for disposable telly — you demand something more engaging, something you can become involved in and care about. A good story, maybe a film or a drama, something gritty or something funny, but something you can relax into and which will entertain you.
I think there are only very few people who don’t shuffle with embarrassment when the BBC attempts to wrap a game show around the lottery results. I mean they really are truly awful, but they’ve now become part of the furniture so I suppose we’ll be stuck with them until someone can think up a really good excuse to take the lottery results away from the BBC. It’ll have to be a really good excuse too, because truisms such as “that’s not the role of a public-service broadcaster” still, amazingly, don’t cut it. The BBC doesn’t care about ratings my arse.
At the same time, BBC Two almost makes a smart move, be repeating the most recent episode of Michael Palin’s New Europe, for anyone that might have missed it last week. Although in danger of BBC Two being simply BBC One +1 (week), I cannot criticise commissioning high-quality programming and then trumpeting it loudly. I think three repeats in rapid succession is entirely acceptable, for the benefit of those who occasionally step away from their television, or neglect to set the recording apparatus.
Although still firmly buried in ballroom dancing at 7pm, there’s not long until BBC One pulls out its other prime-time big-budget wild-card, another serial retelling of Robin Hood. This one’s actually not so bad, it’s just slightly depressing that they chose to commission the retelling of a story that’s been retold so many times before. I mean, even the likes of Mel Brooks has had a crack at this one… wasn’t there some other story they could have serialised? Has the Duke of Wellington been done? Anyway, more points for effort if not originality, and I suppose they should have some dalek-free drama on the books.
If you can stand another five minutes of BBC Porridge, then BBC Two returns with The Culture Show. Much to everyone’s surprise, this weekly magazine has been going for three years. It is clumsy, muddled and, at times, quite admirably pretentious, but charming and harmless, and a good example of what BBC Two could be really good at if it’d stick to its guns. However, you can tell when watching it that the powers-that-be are looking for any excuse to axe it – probably to be replaced by more Porridge – when what they should do is put it back up to an hour and frig the schedule so it starts on the hour.
We’re fast-approaching prime-time, so we should begin to find things warming up a little across the board. Indeed, you can almost sense the budgets increasing as the clock swings past 6pm on a Saturday night, but it’s by no means a sudden leap.
On BBC One, we find popular recycled mish-mash Strictly Come Dancing. Now, we all know the BBC’s entertainment division (I assume there is such a thing) has always been strong, and, even though they insist through gritted teeth that they’re not interested in viewer ratings, they do a really remarkable job of getting lots of people to tune into whatever they’re doing all at the same time. More remarkable still is that they can do this even without having any new ideas. Now, I would rather be set on fire than watch this mindless codshit, but I doubt anyone involved in making the show will lose sleep. It’s loud and it’s brightly-coloured, so in many ways it’s ideal Saturday night television, and should be allowed to run at least until someone recalls another old show that can be dragged back into fashion. I’d like it to be Blockbusters, of course, but that was on the other side. Challenge Anneka, then?
It’s late on a Saturday afternoon so, as convention dictates, BBC One is summarising the football scores. It’s hard to know what to make of this. Many of us have fond memories of watching the scores rolling in at the end of the afternoon, but does this programme continue to be relevant? A lot of football, let alone other sport, is conducted at times other than Saturday afternoon, and there’s a whole channel dedicated to reporting sporting results in the form of Sky Sports News. Still, it’s live current affairs, and it’s still well-done, so that a couple of boxes ticked.
BBC Two, however, seems to have periods of not really knowing what it’s for – one such period is on a Saturday from about Midday round to the watershed. Occasionally Auntie is lucky enough to have more simultaneous sport than can be covered on a single channel, and Two gets the overflow… but today is no such day. It’s always been this way, of course, and maybe that’s why it has slipped from our concious attention. But every so often some bright young things are accidentally given licence to schedule and have a crack at beating back the afternoon’s scree of black-and-whites. Having seen Channel 4‘s apparent success with so-called “teen” programming, the bright young things have gone for an unashamedly similar approach mixing imported teen drama with a music show. Bless.
For reasons which may become clear at a later point, let’s examine the state of the UK’s prime-time television. For the purposes of this examination, let’s concentrate on the mainstream, freely-available content (the kind you might receive using a digital set-top box from a location in the Midlands), on a randomly-selected evening – which just happens to be this evening. We’ll take hourly slices through the schedule to get a feel for what’s on, and we’ll do this in something like real-time.
If you’re the youngest sibling, you’ll know about hand-me-downs. I imagine that if there’s only a couple of years between you and the next, the thought of all those worn out, ill-fitting clothes probably makes you shudder. Fortunately for me, as a child at least, there’s a gap of over sixteen years between me and the next brother. That meant I got cool stuff.
In the late eighties, when he bought himself a new hifi, I inherited my brother’s old one. A massive long flat National Panasonic thing with a smokey-brown perspex lid, housing a turntable and a cassette deck that no longer worked. My collection of vinyl at the time extended to a single twelve-inch copy of “1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?)” by The Jams, which obviously I had to keep constantly hidden from my parents and didn’t dare play on the system in the lounge for fear of being asked what it was called. The stories of how I came by this record and eventually lost it again are long and boring, so I’ll save them possibly to inflict upon you at a later date.
In 1966 the Government requested that the Minister of Technology (who was also the former Postmaster-General) travelled to Sweden, to investigate the new phenomenon of an all-music radio station. This investigation would form part of the preparation for the launch of Radio 1, originally established in response to pirate stations and now often regarded as the flagship of the Corporation’s radio output. Upon his return from studying this new broadcasting format, Mr Wedgwood Benn was quoted by the Daily Mail as say that it “would seem to be the answer, although it is not for the Government to tell the BBC how to run its own house.”
This remark seems poignant not only in the aftermath of The Hutton “Inquiry” but also by the fact that it was made by the man we know as Tony Benn, who famously spoke out against the invasion of Iraq.