Broadcasting: Red sauce goes nicely with velour
BRIAN VINER ON TELEVISION
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 26 September 1999
Monday's show concerned family feuds, a topic which ought to keep the Today programme going for half an hour, let alone Jerry Springer UK. Curiously, though, it ran out of steam, with a young woman feebly berating her mother for showing her dog too much affection. Moreover, the audience - disappointingly self-conscious when it came to indignant shrieking, pummelling the air and chanting "Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!"- will have to go some before it matches its Chicago counterpart. Just as you can never find a perfect cup of tea in America, so, one fears, the perfect Springer audience will prove elusive here.
In one respect, though, Jerry Springer UK did not disappoint. Television provides all too few treats these days, but Jerry's closing pieties are unfailingly, maybe even unwittingly, hilarious. On Monday he excelled himself, with a self-justifying sermon so righteous that I felt like applauding. The rest of us may scoff at the "trailer-park trash" who trade insults on his show, he said (or words to that effect), but "the rawness of the exchange may be the only spontaneous reality left on television today". The news, sitcoms, drama, are all "scripted, orchestrated, excessively edited", while the confessional, confrontational talk-show gleams - a nugget of integrity in a pile of sham.
Jerry Springer taking the moral high ground is like Mary Chipperfield slapping a sticker on her car proclaiming, "A dog is for life, not just for Christmas". But you've got to hand it to him. We all know that the average episode of Jerry Springer is marginally more carefully orchestrated than the string version of Schonberg's arrangement of Mahler's 10th Symphony. And he knows we know. Yet it doesn't stop him pointing the finger at all other forms of television. What a guy. However, someone should tell him that, over here, there is currently a drift away from scripting, orchestration and excessive editing, or at least the appearance thereof. Especially in comedy, where The Royle Family (BBC1) reigns supreme.
The long-awaited second series returned on Thursday, having switched from BBC2, amid some anxiety for those of us who rank the Royles as comic creations comparable with the Trotters, the Meldrews and the Fawltys. For BBC1 brings a much bigger audience, and one desperately wants the uninitiated to like it, while knowing that, like introducing new friends to a much-loved old friend with a bit of a wind problem, the encounter could go either way.
The genius, as ever, is in the detail. The copious velour, the bacon butties with "red" sauce, the ashtray overflowing with dog-ends, and the spot-on dialogue impeccably delivered. "Who do you think's the eldest, her or Gloria Hunniford?" wondered Barbara (the marvellous Sue Johnston), vaguely, of Judith Chalmers. Is it a paradox, or merely apt, that television is the medium best able to capture our pre-occupation with television? There are those who would call it a paradox. And then there are those who would say, paradox my arse. Whichever, The Royle Family is a blessed addition to Thursday nights, especially now that the incomparable The Sopranos (C4) is coming to a close - for a full lament, see next week.
I'll be coming back to The Royle Family too. And back and back. But in the meantime, Jessica Stevenson, who plays Denise Royle's diet-obsessed mate Cheryl, shows her versatility in a new sitcom, Spaced (C4), which she wrote with her co-star, Simon Pegg. The premise for Spaced - single woman meets single man, they move into flat together carrying baggage of past relationships - is enough to make a cliche-weary TV critic withdraw to a corner and rock to and fro, emitting a steady moan.
But it works unexpectedly well. The first episode of Spaced was highly original, quirky, pacy, decidedly dark at times, excessively edited (as Jerry Springer would say), and what's that other word we occasionally used to associate with sitcoms? Oh yeah, funny. It was very funny. "Do you rent downstairs?" asked Daisy (Stevenson) of her sensitive new neighbour. "Do you mean, am I gay?" he snapped. Perhaps you had to be there. But it looks as though C4 is on to a winner.
Which is more than can be said for the energetically trailed spoof documentary series People Like Us (BBC2). Michael Parkinson and John Humphrys were among those who lent their names to the spoof, which was fair enough, because People Like Us was a big success on radio. Chris Langham stars, mostly off-camera, as film-maker Roy Mallard, who last week conducted a po-faced profile of a small Nottingham-based manufacturer of thick film hybrids - which could just as easily have been desiccated suction caps or reinforced caterpillar treads. So far, so good. Yet, like many radio comedies before it, People Like Us has lost something in the move from Broadcasting House to White City. The joke is basically one-dimensional, which doesn't matter so much on radio, but matters greatly on television.
The spoof documentary is now almost a genre on its own, so I can't understand why there is a deafening fanfare of hype every time a new one comes along. The same happened with Operation Good Guys, which I thought disappointingly heavy-handed. Yet the funniest of them by far, Peter Kay's sublime mickey- take of a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a motorway service station near Bolton, The Services, was buried in the C4 schedules a year or so ago, and as far as I know has not had a primetime repeat.
On the other hand, hats off to C4 for giving a good primetime slot to Playing The China Card, Mark Anderson's two-part documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the Communist takeover of China. Part one was not only riveting but also unexpectedly hilarious. For it emerged that when Richard Nixon instructed his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, to take an olive branch to Beijing, the trip was conducted in such secrecy that Kissinger had to feign food-poisoning during an official visit to Pakistan. He was then spirited away to an airport, although not before his driver, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, had lost his car keys, eventually finding them in his son's bedroom. Meanwhile, to fox the media, a Kissinger- shaped stand-in was installed, presumably on the loo.
The programme did not record how the Pakistanis felt about the food-poisoning scam, which Kissinger's deputy, Alexander Haig, described, with scant regard for geo-political sensitivities, as "Delhi belly". But it did let on that, amid the drama of the 4am flit, Kissinger forgot his supply of shirts, which is how he came to meet Mao Tse-Tung in a borrowed shirt with a Harry Hill collar. Not only that, but when Chinese officials arrived to meet him, they weren't sure which fat Westerner was which. Cue the old song, "I wonder who's Kissinger now?"
These days, Henry Kissinger is more reviled than respected. But last week's telly left us in no doubt that the old boy has exerted more influence over his nation than any other Jewish-American ex-politician of German extraction. Apart from Jerry Springer, obviously.
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