Breakfast Television: Off to work with the cereal killers

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What a line-up ITV had on Wednesday night. At eight o'clock there was Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes, and at nine o'clock there came Men For Sale, on which a coven of ladies-who-lunch each pledged the average UK citizen's yearly wage for a night out with Jerome Flynn or Dale Winton. If only Cilla Black had been involved, these two hours would have been the very apotheosis of light entertainment.

If the queen of the genre wasn't present, two of the crown princesses were: Ulrika Jonsson and Denise van Outen. I hope van Outen took the evening as an omen of what's in store for her when she leaves The Big Breakfast at the end of the year - and I hope she realises that it's not too late for her to reconsider. I can understand her wanting to realign her body- clock with everyone else in this time zone, but I wouldn't condemn my worst enemy to a life of hosting fatuous charity auctions and appearing in Babes In The Wood.

Having said that, breakfast television is a weird, weird world. The Big Breakfast's wackiness is its trademark, of course, but BBC1 and ITV's programmes are weirder, just because they seem, at a glance, to be so sober and businesslike. It takes a few minutes to notice the surreality around the edges, and to wonder if you're the victim of a Truman Show- esque brainwashing experiment.

For instance, why are all the female presenters blonde? A blonde woman introduces a news bulletin presented by a blonde woman. Switch channels and the scene is identical. Are they all the same blonde woman? Is there a pool of blonde women on a rota? There are many more such mysteries to contend with. Why are the BBC's graphics so risible? Why do GMTV's presenters suffer a rare strain of jaundice? It must have been someone's idea to sit them on an orange sofa in front of orange walls, so that their skin takes on the tint of a character in a Tango commercial. And what about the disconcerting shape of John Nicolson's hair, which looks as if it was squashed into a motorcycle helmet while it was still wet after a shower? Finally, who can account for Eamonn Holmes? Imagine, if you will, a heavily-medicated Terry Wogan. He presents the serious debates with professional concern, but when he's called upon to banter whimsically with his blonde woman, you can glimpse a bitter, almost maniacal hatred of human life. Put all of these phenomena together, and you can only assume that the makers of breakfast TV have a devil-may-care, how-far-can-we- push-this-before-anyone-notices mentality.

The breakfast output of BBC1 and ITV is not that different: both are news magazine programmes with settees. Both are well done, if noticeably rough and ready. Both serve up packages that will make you sound reasonably well-informed when you arrive at the office in the morning. GMTV is more human interest-based than BBC1's Breakfast News, but both programmes, like a bowl of Shreddies, are easy to digest when you've just woken up.

It's the chat in between the factual items that's weird. It has the uncomfortably bright tone of Trevor McDonald delivering a cheery pun before signing off ... but extended over two or three hours. On Wednesday's Breakfast News, there was a report on Stephen Spielberg's Dreamworks studio. "Talking of dreaming," said the blonde woman afterwards, "never mind Dreamworks, I wish someone could dream us some better weather." Mind-boggling or what? Someone should strap her down and make her watch Alan Partridge videos until she learns that that there's only so much corn we can swallow with our cornflakes.

Talking of dreaming, most viewers will think they are dreaming when they witness the BBC's mesmeric meteorologist. Unlike any other weather person you've ever seen, he's a clean-cut young toff whose camp, over-emphatic recitation of the forecast is that of a Rada-trained Butlins redcoat. It's worth switching on just to catch him. He is inexplicable.

After all this strangeness, it comes as some relief to switch over to The Big Breakfast, where at least you're certain that the bizarre goings on are intentional. The BB also benefits from the presence of Johnny Vaughan, widely acknowledged to be the best TV presenter to come along in years. It is impossible to pin down his genius. He can be smirkingly ironic at the same time as he's enthusiastic as a puppy; he can be cool and trendy at the same time as being a young fogy. Crucially, his jokes get all the people in the studio guffawing. Sitting at his side, Denise van Outen plugs away with as many double entendres as she can fit in, and we never hear any response at all. She has to look over at the side of the screen and smile gratefully at some imaginary off-mike chuckler.

If she'd been born 20 years earlier, van Outen would have had a career wearing a glittery leotard and standing next to Paul Daniels. She's a sidekick rather than a presenter in her own right. Still, she's fun, she's sexy and she can keep pace with Vaughan, and I doubt you could have said that for the breakfast blondes of yore - Paula Yates, Anthea Turner, Ulrika Jonsson and Gaby Roslin.

The last time I saw Gaby Roslin on TV was Children In Need night. In a precursor to Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes, Vaughan and van Outen dressed up as Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue to sing "Especially For You". Afterwards, Roslin gushed that she'd just had a brainwave: would they record the song as a charity Christmas single? Poor old Johnny and Denise. In those circumstances, they couldn't refuse, but they must have been thinking to themselves: "I don't know ... it's a giggle as a one-off skit, but why would anyone want to own the single?" Don't forget the sinking feeling you had when you heard that half-cocked idea, Denise. And don't forget that Gaby Roslin made her name as the blonde woman on the Big Breakfast. Can't you see the future you're letting yourself in for when you say goodbye to Johnny? You could be climbing out of the English breakfast frying pan only to plunge into the fire of charity telethon hell.