Now, Face to Face (BBC2) has returned, picking its way out from the wreckage that was The Late Show and offering a fourth alternative to those anxious to reach an audience prepared to stay up way beyond what might be considered necessary. Face to Face, incidentally, is no longer a strictly accurate description of the programme as Jeremy Isaacs, the presenter, is now viewed entirely from behind; the most we see of him is the back of his ear, plus, when things get animated, a flash of sideburn.
The first incarnation of this programme was committed to legend as the show in which John Freeman made Gilbert Harding blub, Tony Hancock whinge and Evelyn Waugh squirm. These days, however, groomed on the American chat circuit and savvy to the tricky questions hurled by glove puppets, celebrated guests are unlikely to expose themselves in that way. In any way at all, in fact.
The recently rerun "Parkinsons" showed how much things have changed. Back in the days of bad acrylic knitwear, Parky interviewed Richard Burton, who proceeded to talk about demons, death, and his habit of downing two- and-a-half bottles of brandy a day. His treatment for this particular predilection had been turned into a jolly anecdote about how all his food had to be liquidised and about how his shakes were so bad that when he tried to bring his spoon up to his mouth, he redecorated his hospital room with raspberry jelly.
Compare that to Sir Anthony Hopkins, Burton's spiritual descendant as the greatest living Welshman, and the first up in the new series of Face to Face. Sir Anthony is plainly a man who could give a clam lessons in not giving anything away. At one point, for instance, he mentioned in passing his recovery from his bad years. "Why were they bad years," said Isaacs, perhaps hoping for a few hilarious Burton-style gags about rehab. "Drinking?" "Oh yes," sighed Sir Anthony. "Boring episode, over and done with. I don't want to go into the tedious subject of how I gave up the booze." "Tell us how you gave up the booze," pressed Isaacs. "No," said Hopkins, "I don't want to. Boring story." Given his guest's understandable reluctance to get personal, to allow himself to be put into television's equivalent of the psychiatrist's chair, Isaacs was obliged to stick to his script, which had apparently been prepared by Terry Wogan: "How did you get the voice for Hannibal Lecter?"; "Did the knighthood please you?"; and "Could you mimic Richard Burton for us?" ("No, boring" was the answer to that one, incidentally).
Finally, desperately, Isaacs reached the bottom of his cliche barrel: "How would you like to be remembered?" he said. "I don't really give a damn," said Hopkins. Next week, Jeremy Isaacs goes face to face with Zig and Zag.
Omnibus (BBC1) showed a film called "Listen, Paula...", about the novelist Isabel Allende and the letters she wrote to her daughter, who was lying in a coma in hospital. The film's opening shot was of Allende recounting how she dashed to her daughter's side when she heard she had been taken ill. "She said to me `Why are you crying?' I said `I'm frightened. I love you.' She said `I love you too'. And that was the last thing she ever said that made sense." As a warning for what lay ahead, it could not be faulted.