It’s not really been a golden year for television. A few good programmes, but nothing actually spectacular.
I don’t write about television on this blog as much as I might. I guess that’s because I’m not really a big television fanatic in general. But as with most people, a number of programmes do come to my attention throughout the year. So here’s where I’m going to write about them.
Check ‘below the fold’, as they say, for views on:
- Freeview compression
- +1 channels on Freeview
- Quiz channels
- Little Britain
- Nathan Barley
- Look Around You
- The Mighty Boosh
- Man Stroke Woman
- Space Cadets
- The Comic Side of 7 Days
- Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps
- The Thick of It
- Don’t Watch That, Watch This
- The Late Edition
- Broken News
I think Freeview is absolutely great, and I am amazed at how many channels they seem to keep on squeezing out. Well, I used to be amazed. I’ve not counted, but there must have been four or five new slots created this year. While it’s nice to have extra channels, I have a number of misgivings now.
Firstly, compression. They have clearly been compressing channels in order to fit more in. Apparently they use some kind of technology that compresses channels at an adequate level for you to just about not notice. For instance, if one channel is showing a fast-paced sport programme, it will be compressed less. Meanwhile, the slow-moving soap opera on the other side will be compressed more heavily. A nice idea in theory. But in practice, the soap opera looks all blocky and pixellated because it’s being heavily compressed, and the sport programme still looks all blocky and pixellated because it’s still too fast-moving to cope with.
And then there’s the matter of what they’re actually broadcasting on these extra slots. These days they seem to just sell off new channels to the highest bidder. Invariably, the highest bidder is either ITV or Channel 4. At the start of 2005, if my memory serves me correctly, Channel 4 had only one channel on Freeview. Now they have six (Channel 4, E4, E4 +1, More4, More4 +1, QuizCall)!
ITV decided that they needed four channels just because the BBC has four channels. This is despite the fact that they obviously don’t have enough decent programmes to fill ITV1, never mind ITV2, ITV3 or ITV4. They announced ITV4 before they even knew what it was, then launched Men and Motors on Freeview. Then they decided that ITV4 would be aimed at men, just like Men and Motors is. When it came to launching ITV4, it was a toss-up over which channel it should replace between the ITV News Channel and Men and Motors. So sensibly (?!) they replaced the ITV News Channel, which means that ITV now has two male-orientated channels on Freeview, at the expense of their news channel. Good work as always from ITV.
Channel 4 have been more naughty though, if you ask me. Space on Freeview is limited, and yet they decide to gobble up Freeview slots for millions of pounds a shot simply to launch a couple of +1 channels. So essentially we get the same channel twice, twice (E4 +1, More4 +1). I hear that Channel 4 are planning on launching a new channel in More4 +1’s place (apparently it could be FilmFour — now that would be good!). But that still doesn’t explain why E4 +1 is there. When Freeview slots are so scarce, why is it acceptable to have the same channel twice, just an hour later? It is a waste of space.
And then there’s Channel 4’s other channel, QuizCall. I wrote about this earlier in the year, and that post has attracted almost two dozen angry people in the comments. For those of you who haven’t seen any of these scammy quiz channels, lucky you. But how have you avoided them? They are appearing everywhere! It’s not just on QuizCall.
The Hits had (maybe they still have) a quiz where you had to text in the answer to some ridiculous question, such as, “How long were Take That at number 1 for in minutes?” Texters would then text in their answers, presumably on the basis of pure guesswork, which then appear at the bottom of the screen. What you don’t know is that the quiz is time limited, and the correct answer is not revealed until the time has elapsed, no matter whether anybody has guessed it or not — the winner is presumably selected at random from the correct entries.
Ftn now have three hours every day of quiz shite. In fairness, what I’ve seen of it isn’t so bad, although the calls cost 70p a go! ITV have even been having a go, simulcasting Sky channels Big Game! TV and Quizmania on ITV2, ITV3 and ITV1. These quiz channels seem to make a lot of money, because they’re cropping up everywhere — even ITV1 is prepared to ditch its late-night schedule to screen Quizmania.
Surely it’s only a matter of time before Ofcom starts cracking down on these channels, just like they did with shopping channels a year or two back. Some of these channels are scammy and downright deceptive. I’ve even heard that there’s one channel on Sky where they ask for your answer off-air, and then only put you through to the studio if you’re wrong! It is pure evilness. Mind you, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the people who actually phone up these channels. You surely have to be pretty thick to fall for any of these, and think you actually have a chance of counting the right number of triangles on the screen.
Oh well, there’s my rant done for the day. And so on to proper programming, and I’ll get the big guns out of the way first. The big talking point of the year television-wise is probably Little Britain. The general consensus is that it has gone all shit, and I wouldn’t really argue with that. The first couple of series were fairly good, even though it’s continuing in the recent tradition of repeating the same jokes and catchphrases every single bloody week. They tried that up here in Scotland once. It was called ‘Chewin’ the Fat’. It was okay at first, but after the first few series it became a diabolically lazy programme. Now they only ever show it at Hogmanay because you need to be completely off your face to find it even remotely funny.
So I agree with many of the criticisms of Little Britain. I even used to defend it against the accusations of racism and other general non-political correctness. And then along came Ting Tong. Oh dear. A real low point. It sounds like a working title really.
A: “Okay, we’ve got this new character… She’s a Thai mail-order bride!”
B: “Great, what’s she called.”
A: “Oh I dunno.”
B: “Well let’s just call her Ting Tong until we think of a better name.”
…and then they never got round to thinking of a better name. In fact, the whole series — or what I saw of it — generally felt like they hadn’t bothered writing anything; there’s a real half-arsed attitude. There is little in the way of new jokes, and what new jokes there are seem specifically designed to tickle the bigot-glands of the knuckle-dragging cretins that watch this programme.
Series 1 was much more subtle, I’m sure it was. Lucas and Walliams are capable of being funny. Remember Rock Profiles? I can only hope that Little Britain 3 is simply designed as a kind of pension plan safety net for Lucas and Walliams, who will now go on to write funny stuff again now that they no longer need to produce shit for money.
The other big programme of the year was Extras, which will probably forever be known as the one which wasn’t as good as The Office. I kind of liked Extras because it’s gentler in a way. Conversations in Extras are actually like real-life conversations, which you just don’t see in comedies. In most comedies, every single bloody sentence ends with a punchline. In Extras, the punchline is still there, but often somewhere in the middle of the conversation.
Extras does feel a bit muddled though. And I wish Ricky Gervais would give all that stuff about race and homosexuality a rest. He seems worryingly obsessed with it all. He’s beginning to sound like a broken record; turning more into the sort of people he’s meant to be parodying by going on and on about it. Please come up with something different, even if you’re being ironic. You’ve been doing this stuff since The 11 O’Clock Show in the late 1990s.
My favourite programme from this year was probably Nathan Barley. I have written so much about Nathan Barley this year, so I’ll keep it brief. A lot of people thought it was crap, and not many people watched it, but I thought it was perfectly fine. And every time I watch it I think it’s better. It also contained the funniest thing I’ve seen all year year: I’m talking about what happens when Dan Ashcroft gets his hair cut, but I won’t spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it yet.
Another real gem from this year was Look Around You. The second series was very different from the first one, and I was a bit disappointed with the new series at first. I felt that the first series — based on ITV Schools / Open University programmes — was a real piece of art. You could tell that a lot of loving care was given to it, and I loved its slow-moving, minimalist style.
With the change in format — to something more resembling Tomorrow’s World — came a radical change in style, and one that took getting used to. When I caught repeats on the television, though, I found it growing on me a lot and it still contained a lot of brilliantly surreal moments.
Neither can I relate so easily to the new format. The first series really struck me because it is based something that all school children have so much experience of — those boring ITV Schools programmes that teachers would bung on when they couldn’t be arsed to teach us themselves. And while I’ve seen Tomorrow’s World, I’ve only seen a 1990s version of it, so I don’t have an immediate affinity with what’s going on in series two of Look Around You.
What I like about Look Around You is that, even though on the surface they’re taking the piss out of 1970s and 1980s television, at the heart of it all is a love of television of that era. Everything is so lovingly recreated, right down to the old-fashioned BBC Two idents at the start of the programme. Although here is another criticism of the programme for me: the computer-generated title sequence blatently isn’t something that they would have been capable of doing in the late 1970s, and it almost ruins the whole idea of having a spoof 1970s television programme. Odd, given that the title sequence of the first series was so bang-on for me. Despite these quibbles, though, I’ll definitely be getting this on DVD when it comes out.
The other programme that I vaguely liked from this year was The Mighty Boosh. I’m still not exactly sure what this programme is meant to be about. Everybody says it’s set in a zoo, but I didn’t see that at all — I’ve not seen the first series yet, although I got it on DVD for Christmas so I’ll be watching it later on. I did see a bit of the first series when I was flicking through, and all I saw was a bunch of people in animal costumes dancing. And you know what I thought: “Well, I’ve been watching this for five seconds, but it’s BBC Three, so I already know it’s shit.”
Well this time round I gave it a real chance, after somebody recommended it and told me a joke from it. And I then watched it, and I liked it! As far as I could tell they were washed-up, desperate musicians. There were plenty of good music jokes about finding a new note by processing a sound through an old shoe, finding the new sound, and so on.
The Mighty Boosh has a distinctive style as well: cheap. Well, cartoony sets. Either they couldn’t afford to make realistic-looking sets, or they were actually going for this style. And there is some chronic acting as well. But I guess that’s part of the charm… uh, I suppose. No matter what, there are some great gags, and that’s what counts in comedy programmes, right?
Elsewhere on that rotten BBC Three channel, there is nothing much to shout about. Given that it’s supposed to be full of fresh and exciting new talent, a lot of its output is frighteningly derivative. Their latest overhyped sketch show, Man Stroke Woman should have been called Man Snore Woman. BBC Three tried to sell this to the public by going, “Look! This one has the same producer as ‘The Office’!” I bet Ash Atalla is now going to make an entire career out of having been the producer of The Office.
There is some good, funny acting here. Nick Frost is the best of the lot, and Nicholas Burns is quite good as well. But the problem is that the funniest thing about this programme is that one of them is Barry Chuckle’s son. Possibly. Apparently.
The thing I find most infuriating about this programme is that it has so much potential to be great. I mean, there were some good jokes when I watched the first episode, but then I watched the second episode I realised that it’s yet another one of these sketch shows that thinks it’s big and clever to use the same jokes every. fucking. week. I think they’re attempting to get school kids up and down the country saying these catchphrases in playgrounds, because this is apparently the new barometer by which comedies are deemed successes or failures.
But I hate this trend with a passion, because funnily enough I don’t like to know the punchline before it comes because that doesn’t make it funny. “You can never just say I look nice, can you?” is moderately amusing the first time around — even if it isn’t an original joke. But seeing it every single bloody week is no laughing matter. It’s just lazy.
The same goes for Spoons. This one came from Zeppotron — Charlie Brooker’s lot — so it ought to have been good. And it was. For one episode. And, once again, when you watch the second and third episodes you discover that this is just another programme where they use the same jokes every. single. fucking. week. Still, extra points go to Spoons for one excellent sketch that made me laugh until I cried: “I’ve just done the most amazing shit.” Er, I guess you have to see it.
Sticking with Zeppotron, and Space Cadets. Now I have a confession to make: I quited liked Space Cadets. Well, when I say “quite liked”, I mean I found the idea quite amusing. I think it would have made a brilliant programme if it lasted about three days or something. Stretching it over ten days and turning it into some kind of Big Brother for winter just made it all wrong. But I guess flying people to a pretend Russia where everything right down to plug sockets and license plates are Russian, and then sending people into a pretend space it a kind of expensive business. And spending millions of pounds on a programme that lasts three days probably isn’t justified.
Still, a nice idea, eh? And that’s probably how it should have stayed: an idea. It’s been pointed out by many that Space Cadets is exactly the sort of programme that Charlie Brooker would have lampooned in TVGoHome, so it’s kind of ironic that his pals at Zeppotron made it. According to the article that Ben Caudell wrote for The Guardian, it was just a jokey pitch that grew out of The Cowboy Trap. I remember The Cowboy Trap a bit. If I remember correctly, it was all about hoaxing up cowboy builders and the like. It was a kind of, “Look at us get the evil guys!” programme, like Swag.
So you see, the difference between Space Cadets and The Cowboy Trap was that the victims in The Cowboy Trap actually kind of deserved the gentle pranking they got. The ordinary members of the public who were sent to a pretend Russia for three months and then sent into a pretend space for five days didn’t deserve it — their only crime was being “suggestible”. Ho-hum. The contestants seemed to take it quite well when they “came back to Earth”. I tuned in specifically to see if any of them them would go mental, grab the nearest axe and stick it in Johnny Vaughan’s forehead. Unfortunately it was not to be: the most disorientated person was actually Charlie Skelton, the actor who knew that he was on the ground all along.
Over on E4 was the spin-off, The Satellite Show, which was a Big Brother’s Little Brother-style magazine show. It was fronted by Alex Zane, who is an absolutely dire presenter. Interviews meandered all over the place, and all of his rubbish jokes were met with a fully deserved tumbleweed reception. Although sometimes the crew members, feeling sorry for Zane, would loudly guffaw, à la The Big Breakfast.
Back to BBC Three, and one programme that has potential in my opinion: The Comic Side of 7 Days. The problem with topical comedy shows is that no matter what, even if they can’t think of any funny jokes about the week’s events, the writers have to fill exactly the same half-hour that they did last week. This problem was most obvious in The 11 O’Clock Show. I maintain that The 11 O’Clock Show would have been amazing if it was just a weekly show, but it was on three times a week, and not a sensible three days of the week either — three consecutive days of the week. This meant that the writers had to come up with half and hour of funny topical jokes every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Obviously they couldn’t, so they just told a lot of cock jokes instead.
The Comic Side of 7 Days is a bit like this, but with a talking head element. The quality is highly variable, and sometimes what the comedians have to say is amusing, and sometimes it’s total rubbish. It’s rarely hilarious though. I saw Simon Munnery on an episode a few weeks ago, and he was awful. What on earth has happened to him? He used to be brilliant! Now he’s “ironically” rhyming ‘election’ with ‘erection’ (I’ve never heard that one before) to get a cheap laugh.
I do have a soft spot for the programme, though, and when it’s on I’ll sit down and watch it. What I like about it is that I get the impression that the writers have real fun writing the linky gag bits. The format is dead easy: a shouty-man says “7 Reasons why George Bush is a wanker” (or something like that), then goes on to list several dozen reasons why George Bush is a wanker. Or whatever. Maybe that doesn’t sound very good. But it’s alright. I don’t have a problem with it, and sometimes it’s quite funny, although not earth-shattering.
Before I leave BBC Three, I should admit to a guilty pleasure (file alongside David Letterman). Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. I used to think that this programme is a load of balls. But I ended up catching a couple of episodes and actually finding them quite funny. So if it’s on I’ll watch it, and laugh, and that sort of thing. Shall I get my coat?
That’s BBC Three dealt with, but what about BBC Four? They’ve had a good old stab at comedy this year with their little set of programmes for “Newsnight refuseniks”. The best of these programmes is undoubtedly The Thick of It. I can’t think of much to say about it though, apart from that it’s just very good. Everybody says the obvious thing about it, which is that it’s Yes Minister for the New Labour generation. I don’t have anything more clever to say about it.
Another of those programmes is Don’t Watch That, Watch This, which I think is fairly weak. There are some good ideas. Editing interviews and speeches to make famous people say rude things is hardly a new idea, but this is the best aspect of Don’t Watch That, Watch This. Editing Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Charles Kennedy and turning it into a big argument over whether or not Kennedy was drunk was fairly amusing.
But over all I find it quite difficult to watch this programme. I dislike its lecturing tone. You know, in those bits where they go on about how nasty capitalism is and stuff. I want to watch a fucking comedy programme, not a bloody party political broadcast. As if I’m going to take the advice of comedians when coming up with opinions. Some idiots might do that, but not this one.
The other BBC Four programme in that slot was The Late Edition, which I only saw one episode of because I thought it was crap. It’s like somebody’s watched The Daily Show and decided to make a British version of it, except really, really bad. I can’t stand Marcus Brigstocke. Is he actually meant to be funny? I mean, the man appeared on that bloody Anne Robinson car crash of a programme for fuck’s sake. Was it called ‘What’s Your Problem? with Anne Robinson’ or something like that? I don’t want to think about it, otherwise I might cry.
I hated the trailers for The Late Edition as well. It has got such a superiority complex. A completely unoriginal joke. They’re in a poncy meeting. Somebody comes up with a poncy slogan to promote The Late Edition. Then Mr Sensible Pants No-Nonsense Man of the People Marcus Brigstocke says, “Why don’t we just say… ‘The Late Edition — it’s really funny’? Yes, you see! Because I’m being no-nonsense!” No you’re not, you cock. You’re being the person who watches Jools Holland and thinks, “Now that’s real music. Why don’t modern bands sound like that?” Because it’s not good music, it is fucking MOR shite with a superiority complex, like your bastard programme.
Completely unrelated to Little Britain is Broken News. I feel sorry for anybody involved in making spoof news programmes these days, because they will invariably be compared with The Day Today, which will make most things look poor. (Broken News even seemed to positively invite comparisons with The Day Today, with a whole section about frozen urine.) It’s not as if the spoof news programme was invented with The Day Today though.
Broken News was alright. But not great. There were some quite funny ideas there, like the two newsreaders who’d finish each other’s sentences and the newsreader who walked around the set pointlessly, for no reason. But it was the same things every week. There wasn’t much reason to watch every week, and I didn’t watch it every week. Indeed, I almost forgot to include it altogether. Broken News won’t be remembered for long.
And that’s my review of this year’s television done and dusted! I’m not terribly sure what to expect from 2006. Graham Linehan’s new programme, The IT Crowd, might be one to watch. Apart from that, who knows?