Not so very long ago, on this very blog, I detailed five TV programmes which, although I genuinely enjoyed at certain points in their evolution, I felt were due some creative attention. I am not prone to list posts, nor am I prone to criticising other peoples’ work. In this post I intend to rectify that: I am writing a second list post, but this time I am going to praise the TV programmes I hold closest to my heart.
I have been a fan of University Challenge since I was very small. I even remember Bamber Gascoigne presenting the programme. As with most people, I was bemused by the fact that the teams were sitting next to each other, rather than on top of each other, but I soon got over that. It’s the joy of the questions I have always focussed on. I don’t care if I get them right or wrong; I just want to hear them, their other-worldly wordiness a wonder to behold. Just don’t ask me about Classical music.
With Jeremy Paxman at the helm, the programme is a consistent joy to watch, teams slugging it out week after week like a cerebral version of the Premiership. Only UC is of far greater interest to me. As with football, everyone has their favourite teams; for me it is Durham and St Andrews, both of which I attended in my youth. This applies equally to the now-venerable Christmas celebrity version.
I know people who will favour any team but one from Oxbridge, much like the football-following Scots and their Anglophobia, but I have no interest in such juvenile vulgarity. Give me my questions.
Next in my list of televisual affection is “The Film Programme”. It changes its name every year, so I’d have to come along and update this post every year in perpetuity if I gave its current form. Be it Film ’99 (with Jonathan Ross) or Film 2017 (without), I enjoy the programme just the same.
You will have your own views on the format, ranging likely from ambivalence to antipathy, but it all starts the same: Barry Norman. Barry was the first permanent presenter of the programme, and the one many of us recall most easily. That’s not to say he was the best: he was a bit woolly, a bit soft, a bit like his jumpers. But he believed what he said, and that’s a firm basis for TV history in my book.
Jonathan Ross seemed an odd choice of replacement to me. He was a TV presenter, and a fop, not a film reviewer. That his reviews were firm, erudite and learned surprised me no end. I didn’t always agree with him – I enjoy Kevin Smith’s films, for instance – but that is a necessity in opinion. The 2010 reboot was well-judged, and has led to a superb series. The new revolving door of presenters may be a little accident-prone, but the steadfast Danny Leigh gives the show real heft; stoic against the caprice of the lay presenter: his James Bond looks, straight from Fleming’s page, radiate gravitas.
Against the above, Only Connect is the new kid on the block, and a true rarity. Presented by Victoria Coren Mitchell, easily my favourite presenter on TV or Radio, OC is a quiz show which seeks not fame or fortune, glitz or glamour, ease or accessibility. You have four things; connect them. That’s the crux, but therein lie myriad potential permutations: Things left on the moon; Nuclear power facilities in Kent; Words ending with “flap”. Three examples, randomly chosen, but an accurate view.
Unlike many of the quiz programmes today – University Challenge excepted – Only Connect features real people, rather than celebrities. That is too rare today: real people are far less easy to control, their appearances not garnering a much needed fee. Only Connect features people who are in it for the glory of knowledge, rather than the love of cash. I miss quiz shows with real people. Thankfully I have UC and OC, and their questions are hard enough to scratch Victoria’s name on a diamond.
The black sheep of my flock is its most maligned. I would fight a burly, naked man in a back alley to protect BBC4 documentaries. Specifically, art history from Andrew Graham-Dixon and Waldemar Januszczak, but also Simon Sebag Montefiore’s landmark history series’ and Handmade. I have marvelled at single episodes on the histories of the toilet, the shed and the caravan; I have sat rapt, watching three-part series on the Arts of France, Spain and Scandinavia; I have had my mind blown by the European Baroque, and the rise and fall of the slack-jawed Habsburgs. I have loved each and every minute, and I wish that you all would too. Sadly, I doubt that it cuts it against the Kardashians.
Found footage from a previous century aside, I struggle to think of a single documentary topic BBC4 could tackle that I would shun. They approach everything with accessibility, yet retain the subject knowledge of the expert. These programmes are something we all need in our lives; their attempts at Slow TV, with their Handmade series’ reduced the bustle of busy lives to a manageable vibration.
Last but not least, a familiar face to If Percundis: Screenwipe. Yes, you are absolutely correct that I have said that I would take a large knife to the format, but that would only be to allow us to watch more of the series. Screenwipe, Newswipe and [Whatever this year is]wipe are simply superb TV.
A combination of TV review, an instructional guide to how television is made, and makes us, and a searing cultural commentary from a variety of arguing, dissonant, yet aligned voices, the wipes are this decade represented to a tee. We need satire, but it must not be oblique. The satire boom of the 1960s could not be direct; we were too tied to deference. The Simpsons is rarely as direct in its satire as it could be; such an unsweetened pill would put viewers off. Only when the light is dim can satire, commentary, criticism of the current order be allowed directness. Wipe looks you in the eye. Wipe dares you to look back. Wipe looks at hypocrisy, crassness and greed and feels nothing like mercy.
We have made this world in our own image; yet we are disgusted by it. Programmes like the wipes work hard to explain to us why we feel like that; they package a distasteful set of truths back to us in a form which we are ready to consume. Would that BBC4 documentaries were so avidly consumed.
Other series which almost made this list include Doctor Who, The Avengers, The Big Bang Theory, The Great Indoors, Stargate Atlantis, and House. Such ephemera may have to wait for another day.
Our In Memoriam section is currently under construction, and will be ready for consumption soon.