Monday, 31 December 2007

What is Wrong With British Television?

A topic started on the doyen of information that is the UK Fan Forum really got me thinking earlier today. The question was "What pissed you off about television?".

Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but the majority of what passes for television these days I find mind-numbingly boring. Everything is just so different, it seems the total opposite of what entertained the masses when I was younger.

Let's start off with something that has been around since television really took off in the 1950's - the soap opera. Many years ago soap operas were on just once or twice a week. The likes of Coronation Street and Eastenders commanded audiences in the twenty million range with great regularity. They gripped the nation with their storylines. It didn't matter if you missed just one episode, because you would easily be able to catch up when you watched the next episode.

These days, soap operas are on five nights a week. You can now plonk yourself down in front of your television and not have to wait three or four days for the next instalment of your favourite soap. However, miss one episode and you're screwed. You've probably lost track of about ten plot threads.

To cope with these extra episodes it seems that each soap now has a cast the likes of which used to be seen in a Hollywood epic, and that was just the extras. Take Emmerdale (Farm) for instance. When it first started it had a core cast of about ten people. How many regular cast members do they have now? Thirty? Forty? I wouldn't know, as I don't actually follow this show.

Soap operas are on just too much. With Neighbours being shown five times a week for nearly fifteen years now, it seems like the home grown soaps are merely following suit, and the loyal fans of these shows will lap up anything the producers throw at them.

But it seems that the television companies are using the soap operas to fill another gap that used to be the envy of the rest of the world - drama. In years gone by British dramas were regarded as the best in the world, and were seen around the world as well.

These days, apart from soaps, all we seem to see as far as drama goes are detective shows. Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse was one of the best dramas seen on television during the past ten years, yet it seemed that every other production company who supplied the main companies with their drama output wanted to get on the boat and churn out their own form of detective story. If it isn't one detective then it's a team of them.

Another main problem with British television actually stems from it's daytime cousin a little - the reality show. We seem to see it all these days - teams who will make over your house, your garden, your garage, your car, your wife, your dog, your cat. You name it, it will probably get a makeover of some sort. There will always be someone who isn't satisfied with the way that he/she looks, and, wanting their fifteen minutes of fame, will use these kind of shows to get their ugly mugs on television.

And it they aren't or their houses aren't being made over, they're complaining about how they argue with their neighbours, or how they were fiddled out of a few pounds by a builder or a gardener or some bloke who turned up on their doorstep looking for work.

Then we have the kind of reality television that decides to take an in-depth, behind the scenes, warts and all look at a particular profession. We've seen health inspectors, airport workers, undertakers, wedding planners, the army, the navy, the airforce, seemingly everything. People like Jeremy Spake and Mr. Trebus have become household names just because they did their job in an outlandish way, or because they had a personality you'd remember for more than fifteen minutes.

Then we have ordinary members of the public taking part in glorified game shows such as Big Brother, Fear Factor and Survivor. The original Big Brother format was great to start off with, but after a few years, it gets kind of boring. Looking back over the last series I'm starting to wonder if they will try and get the contestants to kill each other in the next few series.

These kind of shows give ordinary members of the public the chance to get their fifteen minutes of fame, and some of them use these fifteen minutes to get more, to get a career in the media, presenting shows which are either for kids or for those with low intelligence. Some of them try to carve out a career by attending gala celebrity film premieres. At the end of the day, will anyone remember who Caroline the outlandish Brummie was?

What comes next is the celebrity versions of these shows. C-to-Z list celebrities, desperate to get back into the public spotlight having been away for a few years get on these shows and show that they when all the glitz and glamour is taken away, they are just ordinary folk like you and I, with problems the likes of which we worry about every day. Who really wants to see some boring has-been or never-was comedian, actor or musician making bread or sitting on a sofa all day?

Next we have the situation comedy. In years gone by (a phrase I seem to be using quite a lot) British television was churning out classics. Are You Being Served, Last Of The Summer Wine, Citizen Smith, The Young Ones, Porridge, Open All Hours, Rising Damp, George and Mildred, Steptoe and Son, In Sickness and In Health. The list can go on and on.

There was once a time when American sitcoms were based on shows that we Brits had originated. But in the past few years or so, which of the two countries has produced the better shows? The only decent British sitcoms scene on British television today are some of those I have just listed, and these have been repeated over and over not just on the mainstream BBC channels, but on UK Gold as well.

Another part of the staple television diet was the game show, not the Big Brother or Survivor kind of reality game show, but the ordinary game show, where ordinary members of the public ask simple general knowledge questions in the hope of winning a few hundred quid or a new washing machine or toaster.

The main game shows seen on prime time television today only seem to exist so they can run premium rate telephone numbers, so the show's producers can make thousands of extra pounds from gullible fools who have plenty of time and tons of money on their hands.

It may not be fashionable to say so, but seeing the so-called game shows of today makes you realise just how much you miss the cheesy game show hosts of yesteryear. Jim Bowen with his "bit of bully", Les Dawson treating Blankety Blank, and it's contestants, with mock contempt, really taking the piss out of the awful prizes the BBC stumped up for. Ted Rogers with his dumb rhymes that years later made no sense, but made you yearn for a dustbin with eyes and ears.

And let us not forget those two larger-than-life gents who today seem comedic geniuses compared to what we have offered to us today. We have good old Bruce Forsyth with his countless catch phrases, and the genius that is Bob Monkhouse, a guy who could mentally run rings around even the best of today's stand up comedians.

Possibly the biggest pile of rubbish you'll see on British television is normally seen during the hours of daylight, the utter crap that the television companies offer those of us who either haven't got a job, don't want or job, or have some other reason for staying at home during the day. It starts off with breakfast television, tons of chat, followed by more chat mixed in with recipes and other crap such as makeovers designed to make ugly people look attractive.

Then we have glorified car-boot salesmen with their shop-brought suntans telling us all how little they paid for a knife and fork set they found in an old field on a Sunday morning, followed by game shows that used be shown on the minority channels in prime time, staffed by former "alternative" comedians and pseudo-intellectuals who are saying to you "hey, at least I've got a job, which is more than can be said of you!"

Of course, sitting at the top of the garbage mountain is the concept that was brought over from the land of the free - the daytime talk show, where people who are normally kept away from the public under lock and key come out into the public to talk about their problems. If it's not the American variety, it's the British rip-off hosted by Australian birds who's acting is more convincing than those of her countrymen in their national soap operas.

Some of the people you get on these shows must be really stupid. "Pardon me darling, but I think we have a relationship problem. Let's discuss it on national television in front of millions of people!" Come on! If I lived in America and my nearest and dearest offered me a free trip to Chicago or wherever the hell Jerry Springer is filmed so we could discuss "our problems" I would become very suspicious. But given the fact that the average intelligence of the people on these shows rarely reaches double figures it's surprising that these people manage to find their way to the airport so they can get on that plane to Chicago.

Given the fact that digital television now offers us over a hundred channels, it's sad that quite often I find myself flicking through all of these channels every night and finding absolutely nothing to watch. It makes you yearn for the days when the BBC would only broadcast during the day when there was a World Cup or a Test Match on. Compared to what is on our screens today, that young girl sitting in front of a blackboard with that stupid f'n doll looks like compelling viewing. It make you wish you only had four television channels. Today we have quantity, but we do not have quality.

And the sad fact is that nothing seems to be done about this. The television critics in the majority of the national newspapers agree with a great deal of the viewing public, yet those in control are doing sod all about this. They are content to give us psychic gardening neighbours from hell, content to tell us how much celebrities are worth, content to make bargain basement reality television so they don't have to pay for decent actors in decent dramas or decent situation comedies. They are failing to encourage those who seek to earn a living or make a name for themselves as drama or sitcom writers. Where is the next John Sullivan going to appear? When are we going to see another gem like Open All Hours?

I'll tell you when - the next time it's repeated on BBC1.

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