A CRITICAL GUIDE / Long Runners: No 20: That's Life
Sunday 27 February 1994
So when does it end? In June or July.
Why has it been axed? It's passed its sell-by date: it embodies the corny, cosy populism of a bygone age. A bit of an embarrassment to the high-brow Birtists now in control of the BBC.
Frequency: once a week, for six months a year.
Audience: 20m in its Eighties heyday, now down to 7.5m, even though it goes out on Saturday, just after Casualty.
Formula: high-street rip-offs, plus jokes - it's the show that put the humour in consumer. Issues - unsafe or just plain bad products, worthy causes and unusual feats - are raised by viewers and then relentlessly pursued by researchers. The investigations are presented from behind desks in the studio. Esther Rantzen, very businesslike with her file of letters before her, pulls faces and says things like 'They said' or 'But we thought, hang on', at which point her sidekicks read extracts from viewers' letters and subsequent correspondence with the people concerned. Between investigations, a celebrity guest presents the news: consumer novelties and general absurdities spotted by viewers. Daft signs, funny names, misshapen vegetables and performing pets are staple fodder.
Hosts: Esther has presented every single programme, while co-presenters, almost all men and younger than her, have come and gone. Although she started out equal with Bob Wellings and George Layton, by the second series she had made the show her own. Esther's current boys are Gavin Camp
bell, Adrian Mills and Kevin Devine.
Where do new presenters come from? The public. When a vacancy arises, auditions are held at the Hammersmith Palais. Hopefuls queue up overnight and Esther hands them all fish and chips in the morning. Devine, a former caravan salesman, spent 48 hours at the head of the queue in 1991.
Secret of success: combining serious social issues with smutty humour - tranquilliser addiction one minute, phallic vegetables the next.
Why that name? There may be a conman on every corner, but hey, there's always a dog that says 'Sausages' or a liquidator called Mr Bust to put a smile back on your face. That's life. Isn't it?
Most successful campaigns: the story of Ben Hardwick, a two-year-old dying from liver disease in 1985, influenced attitudes to organ transplants. The number of donors doubled and doctors were given legal permission to ask for child donors. It was through That's Life] investigations that rear seatbelts were made compulsory, that safer surfaces were laid down in Britain's playgrounds, and that action was taken against child abuse, which led to the founding of Childline.
Least successful campaign: to Get Britain Singing. Presenters tried to start singalongs on crowded tube trains but were nearly beaten up.
Most successful hoax: A newly discovered ape-like creature, the Lirpa-loof, which caused queues of eager viewers to form outside London Zoo in vain (read it backwards).
Has That's Life] ever got it wrong? Yes. In 1985 Sidney Gee, a Harley Street doctor, sued and won pounds 100,000 after the programme branded him a 'profiteering, unscrupulous quack'.
Little-known fact: a private detective, hired by a multi-millionaire whose crooked loans outfit had been uncovered, threatened Esther, telling her to watch out or she'd be wearing a concrete overcoat in Hackney Marshes.
Celebrity graduate: Victoria Wood had a slot in 1976, doing satirical songs.
Anything that makes you want to kick the set in? The camaraderie between Esther and her 'boys', a very scripted bawdy banter. How many bad puns can you squeeze into a single sentence?
The bottom line - how good is it? It's tacky, artificial and often patronising. But the fact remains that it has had a huge impact on British society, and the work it does must be continued. With Esther still around, you can be sure that it will. But with Alan Yentob also still around as BBC1 boss, you can be sure that it will be in a very different format. Thanks Alan.
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