I watch a lot of TV; I always have. TV has been one of my favourite hobbies since childhood, right up there with sleeping; so much so, in fact, that they often conflict. Ah, who needs sleep anyway?
That said, TV sometimes irritates me. To that end, there’s a running list of programmes in my head, which I want to hack up a bit. It’s not always that I want to axe them completely, just give them a bit of a nip and a tuck. The TV is, like me, peculiarly English, but since when has that been a bad thing?
First up is Room 101. Based on George Orwell’s famous room in 1984, Room 101 is the room where you face your biggest evil. In the TV version, you get the chance to make a case for consigning it to oblivion. People walking slowly, loud noises, a particular celebrity, you can pick anything to get rid of. The presenter will then decide whether you have been successful in your bid. You keep the rest.
It started out as one-on-one, with a comedian/presenter talking to a celebrity/contestant, which worked, until it didn’t. It was reinvented, still one-on-one, and it worked until it stopped being made. Now it is back again, after a major shake-up of its format, and now, like twice before, it has stopped working. The ideas which refreshed the format still work; just not entirely. Maybe it’s the host.
The original host was Nick Hancock, a comedian and former Footlight. His banter was suited well to the late 90s format; his suits likewise. Then came Paul Merton: relaxed and witty, I honestly think he just got bored and wandered off. Now we have Frank Skinner. Frank’s a great comedian, and a good TV presenter, but his focus on the laugh is ruining the conversation. That will be a running theme.
His insistence on cutting to a funny prop, a silly costume or a YouTube clip stops the contestants in mid-flow and breaks audience concentration. They feel shoe-horned in, and induce cringing. These are the elements of the programme I find objectionable. They do nothing to elevate the humour and, in comedy, that is a cardinal sin. It reduces the number of rounds, and that breaks the scoring. Three people; two rounds; one person won once, but they are the most convincing. I think not.
Next up, and a little more contentious, is Have I Got News For You (HIGNFY). It used to be cutting edge satire, but maintaining that edge is impossible over almost 30 years. Its early editions showed a, then normal, deference to the Elite; a deference which wore off to great comic effect very quickly.
My first issue is with Paul Merton. I have praised him before in this post and I will likely do so again. It just appears that the man is bored. He repeats the same tired lines and tropes again and again, as if he has something better to do. And he does: the TV and radio work he does away from HIGNFY is fresh, vibrant and essential in a way that HIGNFY hasn’t been in quite some time. I get the, possibly mistaken, impression that he has tried to leave in the past, but that the producers felt they could not do it without him. They can and they should. Let him follow his true passions. Take the leap.
And let him take Ian with him. Ian Hislop is one of my favourite satirists, editors and writers. I have been enjoying his work since I was a child, sat in front of Spitting image. The problem is that Ian has become too patrician and orthodox in his views, often chiding simply for upsetting his moral sense. We do not have such right to judge each other. Anyway, I’d far rather Ian was running the country.
I would like to see the panellists replaced by Andy Zaltzman (for Ian) and Romesh Ranganathan (for Paul) with the presenter’s chair filled permanently by Victoria Coren Mitchell. The atmosphere and format of the show would remain unchanged, with satire and whimsy hard coded in to the structure, and a tough, formidable judge in the centre, keeping the naughty boys in check. Much improved.
And, coming next, we have the news. I love the news: without it we’d be living in a parlous state. It is the check and the balance on the great and the good in this country. The problem is that being on at a fixed time does not work for me. If I want to consume news, I switch on the BBC news channel, and I catch up. Then I go back about my business. I don’t know what I’m likely to be doing at 1 o’clock, or at 6, or at 10. Feeding a child or myself, usually. I don’t have time to stop what I am doing to sit in front of the TV for half an hour. Plus I have a smartphone these days; they have news for me. I’ll just pretend that scheduled news broadcasts don’t exist, and then they won’t. Yes, that’s a good plan.
I really thought that Sandi Toksvig would be the remaking of QI. I was wrong. It turns out that the horse died several series ago, and Sandi is just a fresh flogging arm. My problem here is Alan Davies. Again, Alan’s output elsewhere is essential viewing in our house; As Yet Untitled especially. It’s QI where I have the problem. The issue is not that he plays the fool – that is a necessary and useful thing – he represents the audience when he does that. It’s that he leads the charge away from the topic and in to the jokes. I know it’s a comedy panel show; I just wish they’d drop the comedy bit.
QI means Quite Interesting, and that’s what the programme always was. It was meant to inform and entertain; for quite a few years, I have only felt irritated by it. Just when it’s getting interesting, and a subject is being explored, and I am finding out something I have never known, one of the comedians, led by Alan, crashes in and stops proceedings. We laugh, we move on, but the core has been lost. It makes me a bit sad thinking about it. Maybe I should just watch a documentary series on BBC4.
Last but not least, a TV programme I enjoy, but don’t get to see as often as I should, due in large part to its creator, writer and presenter being so busy being so talented everywhere else. Screenwipe: my favourite programme on TV. I can’t get enough of Charlie Brooker’s writing: I enjoyed his columns so much I bought them as books. When Screenwipe appeared I devoured it hungrily. Part review, part documentary, part cultural commentary, it holds a (Black) Mirror up to society and shows our flaws.
Charlie is much in demand, and that is the programmes only failing. There is so much intolerable evil going on in the world that they should have material from here to eternity. Hence, rather than stop, we should clone Brooker. In reality, we need Grace Dent. She’s not a female Brooker – that would be sad – she’s an A-grade arse-kicker in her own right. And there’s a lot of arse out there for her to kick.