Access TV: the bottom line

Camcorder radicals are taking over Saturday nights. Mark Wareham runs the gauntlet of sheep-wrestlers, stripping witches and a talking arse
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The Independent Culture
if you subscribe to the theory that television is overflowing with talking arses, then here's the proof. Norman Sphincter, soon-to-be small-screen celebrity, believes that when it comes to talking television, you come across a lot more clearly with your trousers round your ankles.

Tomorrow sees Sphincter's debut as television's first rectal impressionist in the opening episode of Takeover TV, Channel 4's British follow-up to Manhattan Cable, the American access TV programme made by the viewer for the viewer. Sphincter's coup de thtre is to lie on the sofa in his front room, his bared buttocks side-on to camera and, while the top cheek wobbles up and down to simulate a talking mouth, the voice of Sean Connery or Loyd Grossman drifts from round the back of the arse to further the impression. A casually placed carrot (Grossman) or deftly positioned cigarette (007) completes the image.

The producers were impressed enough with Sphincter's performance to ask for more. "They loved it so much," he says, "they rang me and said, 'Your arse should present one of the shows'." And so it came to pass, leaving Sphincter decidedly nonplussed. "It's a one-off," he says, alarm creeping into his voice. "I don't really want to make a habit of it. It's a joke that's gone far too far really."

Sphincter, whose identity has become something of a closely guarded secret, may find himself in demand after tomorrow's debut but is determined to avoid a repeat performance and steer clear of publicity. After initially flirting with the notion that he may be none other than Bernard Manning, subsequent investigations led metro to believe that he was in fact the son of a Tory MP - the programme credits him as Jonathan Legg, which would have pointed the finger at a certain MP for Milton Keynes South West - before finally establishing that he works as a senior producer for Radio 1 and goes by the name of Eddy.

While it may seem odd that a man who is prepared to bare all on national TV should subsequently turn publicity-shy, Sphincter is at least prepared to divulge the origins of his act. "I think it was Roger Mellie in Viz who always had these crap ideas for gameshows. One of them was called Celebrity Ringpiece and I think that's how the idea germinated."

Sphincter, it must be said, fits perfectly Takeover TV's brief which, according to co-executive producer Fenton Bailey, was for "compelling TV... it had to be something that would prevent you from changing channels". With a DIY showbiz galaxy of sheep-wrestlers, talking cats, Christian escapologists and feminist stripping witches aimed fairly and squarely at the Saturday-night chuck-out crowd, Takeover TV looks set to offer a capable follow-up to Manhattan Cable. Just as in the American show, this British version succeeds above all through variety and unrelenting pace. However dull you may find the Druid beardo speaking out for access rights at Stonehenge, you know you've only a matter of seconds to wait before an advertisement for a toy Jeffrey Dahmer doll pops up - "That's right, just two of the incredible Serial Killer In My Pocket Range ('Get them before they get you') from The God Told Us To Do It Toy Company".

Bailey, who also produced Manhattan Cable, found himself surprised by the mix of British offerings. "I expected a more reserved response but in fact there's a much broader range than in Manhattan Cable. If the American sensibility is drag queens extraordinaire, the British sensibility is much more Pythonesque. I've shown a few episodes to people in the States and it's 'Oh my god!'. They can't get round it at all. What really amazed them was that anyone would have a cat present a show. They can't understand the bizarrely intense relationship we have with pets."

Fans of Manhattan Cable may well recall Filthy the Dog, a somewhat neglected mongrel who was vociferously sung at by his deranged owners and then forced to celebrate his birthday by having his cake thrown at him and matted into his far from gleaming coat. While the dog was the hit of the series over here, he went virtually unnoticed in the States. The enthusiastic reception accorded Filthy may very well have been a reaction to the plethora of Beadle out-takes of cutesy pets, but whatever the reason, says Bailey, his popularity in this country almost outstripped that of presenter Laurie Pike.

Like Pike, tomorrow night's Takeover TV presenter, Adam Buxton, is bound to be upstaged by Norman Sphincter's talking arse (which presents episode two), but it could have been worse. According to Buxton, "There was to have been a singing penis. This guy articulated the end of it so that it looked as though it was singing 'I Will Survive' by Gloria Gaynor. It was quite good, but it had to go."

After criticism in certain high-moral quarters of Channel 4's Red Light Zone examining the sex industry, it is perhaps not surprising that the station has got cold feet about some of the contributions to Takeover TV. According to Buxton, "The feminist stripping witches were going to present the very last programme, but it was all looking a bit sleazy so they pulled them and I got asked to fill in at the last moment."

Channel 4 may feel it has to draw the line at warbling willies, but Fenton Bailey believes they'll get their chance eventually. "There's this whole underground of programming that's not being exploited. This is just a tease. Hopefully there'll be a Takeover TV channel before too long. What we really need in Britain is a whole public access network, an unregulated channel where people can just get up and do their thing."

Adam Buxton agrees. "Public access will happen over here in about five or ten years when people are completely comfortable with camcorders. It's just a different mentality in England. We're quite weird, but in a different way. It's a bit more anal."

Over to you, Norman.

'Takeover TV' 10.45pm Sat 6 May C4