Ready steady schlock

Only has-beens and aliens go to Europe's biggest television trade fair. Plus Ainsley Harriott, Roger Moore, S Club 7 ... and Matthew Sweet
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The Independent Culture
wo rubber-suited monsters called Grob and Meeba are staggering towards me. "What's the premise of this TV show?" I ask, as the more piscine of the two plants a sucky proboscis on the side of my face. "These two guys are travelling through space," explains the PR from Southern Star Sales. "They're teenage aliens from the planet Urkle, right? And their space-bus crash lands in Australia and hits a TV station. And of course, they're a tremendous success." There's a loud thump as Meeba walks straight into one of our earth-chairs. As he stumbles away, a Southern Star executive notices that the creature has a kind of meshed aperture where its anus ought to be. "Look at that," he mutters. "Do you think he takes it up the clinker?" He should know, he probably commissioned the series. It's called Pig's Breakfast. It's a Cannes thing.

Hell is other people's television. And a good place to have this brought home to you is at MIP TV - Marche International des Programmes de Television - Europe's largest TV trade fair, held each year in the smart Riviera resort. Descend to the lower levels of the Palais des Festivals, and you find yourself in a sulphurous cauldron of cultural turd. Every ludicrous concept you could possibly imagine is festering somewhere on the lower ground floor. Charlton Heston's Mind of a Terrorist, in which the famed actor and gun enthusiast tells you about the psychology of the IRA. Dogs with Jobs. Anpanbread Man, a loaf-headed Japanese cartoon hero whose unicorn- infested exploits run under this slogan: "The hope in one's heart lends strength to the soul." The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, whose first episode, "Queen Victoria and the Giant Mole", guest-stars Dynasty's Tracy Scoggins. (Whether she plays the mammal or the monarch, I've no idea.) Young Rameses, the cheery animated adventures of the cruelly repressive Ancient Egyptian king.

Each of these programmes has its own little stand, staffed by a synod of smiling representatives who are just gagging to sell you the broadcast rights. There's Diaper Detectives, an American live-action series about crime-cracking babies. Other teams are peddling Spuds in Duds, an Australian comedy starring two man-sized potatoes, filmed in the style of silent slapstick; Capelitos, a cartoon whose characters are different fungi; Pinocchio 3001, the sci-fi adventures of the mendacious wooden puppet. I was particularly attracted to Iron Chef, a Japanese cooking show that combines the culinary flamboyance of Masterchef with the endurance tests of Gladiators. This isn't a piece of isolated excess: Cooking Showdown and It's Your Fridge fit snugly into this new genre. It's a "cooking/food/battle of the champions" show. You disbelieved it here first.

In the souk-like booths of the Palais, million-dollar deals are struck and serious-minded people in suits crowd around monitors watching cartoons about dancing cockroaches and squirrel superheroes. It's an excellent place to be, especially if you like tacky free gifts. My complimentary festival shoulder-bag currently contains a luminous plastic skeleton, a foam-rubber Batman frisbee, several T-shirts, a Ready Steady Cook chopping board, apron, recipe book, and chef's hat, a Channel 4 Filofax, a set of Pirates-themed playing cards, an S4C Walkman and a yo-yo bearing the image of some googly-eyed insect, who may well be a national hero in Belgium. Their combined weight has broken the strap.

The real business here, however, is business. Buyers are plied with jelly beans and Ferrero Rocher, and exhorted to fork out for the rights to broadcast the shows that producers and distributors have come here to tout. Which is great if you're a European TV exec who wants to purchase an Austrian animation series about a family of talking mushrooms. But if you're a journalist, MIP's appeals are slightly less obvious. True, there are immense possibilities for getting yourself a pitiless hangover, compliments of a major television channel. There was an uproarious, rum-swashed BBC ballyhoo to celebrate the imminent arrival of an animated cat called Rotten Ralph. There's even been a smart cocktail party to pay homage to the onward march of the Teletubbies. But there aren't really any celebs. The more famous film festival, which takes place here next month, attracts legions of A-list Hollywood stars. Not so MIP. Anyone hoping to chase Madonna down La Croisette had better get straight back on the plane.

"Only the has-beens come to MIP," a veteran hack explains to me. "It's the only way they get people to pay attention to them. But sometimes nobody bothers even with them." Then she tells me an awful story about how, at a previous festival, she was the only journalist to attend a breakfast press conference with the late Raymond Burr, the mountainous star of Perry Mason. The two of them spent an uncomfortable hour discussing the intimate details of Burr's medical history over cold scrambled eggs.

My own celebrity breakfast is a little less morbid. It's supposed to have been rustled up by the vaguely hysterical TV chef Ainsley Harriott, but the absence of bacon grease on his smart double-breasted suit suggests to me that he hasn't been anywhere near a frying pan this morning. After we have toasted the success of Ready Steady Cook, applauded the imminent triumph of the touring stage version, and given a rousing cheer of support for the new board-game, Ainsley introduces a showreel for the programme, designed to entice foreign TV chiefs into buying the rights to its format. Unfortunately, the video comes to life with a caption reading "Ready Steady Cock". Everybody pretends not to notice.

There's more awkwardness when Roger Moore turns up for his press conference. He's looking cross and crumply, and sporting a salmon-pink shirt with a white collar of the sort more usually seen on Sir David Steel. He's here to endorse a German documentary series about disadvantaged children, and generally to raise the tone of an event dominated by the talking- mushroom end of things. But his stately entrance is undermined when he trips over a bag that someone has left in the aisle. "You really shouldn't put that there," he rumbles, like an intensely suave fire-prevention officer. There are further little blossomings of discomfort, the most notable of which comes when the septugenarian Bond actor describes his visit to a symposium of child-abuse experts in Stockholm as "sexual congress ... under Queen Sylvia of Sweden". Moore, however, is a has-been with more camp cred than MIP's other headlining guest, the fragrant Jacqueline Bisset. She's in Cannes to promote her new mini-series, Joan of Arc, and by the time she has decided to turn up for her scheduled photocall, a huge gaggle of photographers has amassed on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel. Some of them can't quite remember who she is. "Wasn't she Larry Hagman's mother?" says a confused voice from somewhere near the back of the room. When Jacqueline does arrive, she begins to swoop graciously around the hotel's brasserie as the cameras click away. Getting a bit over-confident, she perches on a table, and finds that she has accidentally see-sawed up a side-plate with her left buttock. And the Teletubbies cocktail party is still two days away.

In Britain, we're very stuck on the idea that television is the key to the health of our culture. As long as the BBC continue to pump out costume drama in which the shape of the extras' epaulettes is historically accurate, then somehow the nation's intellectual and spiritual well-being is assured. It's not an idea with which the Europeans have much truck. French television, for instance, is among the worst in the world. But they don't give a damn about it. They go out to cafes and talk about politics. We stay in and watch adaptations of 19th-century novels which we can't be bothered to read.

British standards are a talking point here in Cannes. The UK TV industry is suffering from a pounds 272m trade deficit, and is puzzling over how to fix the problem. Last week's issue of Broadcast leaked details of Building a Global Audience - a report co-funded by the BBC, Carlton, Granada and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport - which suggested that over- regulation of the domestic market is the cause. In other words, the government's rules about programme quality prevent British producers from churning out empty-headed game shows which they can then flog to pap-happy mainland Europe. "The main problem is the lack of suitable progammes to sell," the report warns.

British TV is just too dark and gritty, apparently, to market successfully to a world in which most TV stations look like Channel 5. We also make shows in batches of six, when the rest of the world wants to buy series that can run for 36 weeks at a time. And when all major television series are, of necessity, co-productions, then the perception that British TV series are nasty, brutish and short is something that broadcasters need to address.

These days, everybody needs foreign money. There are even BBC current affairs editors at MIP, here to secure agreements with foreign TV channels that will, for instance, co-fund segments of BBC2's high-minded news series, Correspondent.

Although the BBC picked up part of the tab for Building a Global Audience, the corporation's representatives are keen to counterblast the hypothesis that more crap TV and quick is the way to reverse the deficit. The BBC team at MIP are keen to point out that the corporation's own trade balance is pounds 22m into the black, and that it's using MIP to make some surprising deals with overseas broadcasters.

The League of Gentlemen, for instance, that terrifying BBC2 comedy series about a moorland town populated by cannibals and psychotic toad-breeders, is selling well. Last month at the BBC's Showcase TV market in Brighton, the programme's cast performed a urine-drinking sketch which alienated a few putative purchasers. At MIP, however, delegates have been lapping it up. Thanks to negotiations in Cannes this week, viewers in Norway, Portugal, Holland and Finland will soon be able to enjoy the sight of an elderly shopkeeper suckling a live piglet.

It's not the only eyebrow-raising success: Goodness Gracious Me has been licensed to five countries (including New Zealand and Norway), and Absolutely Fabulous continues to be picked up by networks in places like Bahrain, India, South Korea and the Czech Republic. And the current affairs department has just sold an unflattering Panorama profile of Slobodan Milosevic to Montenegrin state TV, which gives you an interesting perspective on the BBC's status abroad, and perhaps tells you something about the way opinion is tending at the southern end of the Yugoslav Federation.

Channel 4 isn't doing so badly, either - especially now it has dropped 2,000 "dead" titles from its catalogue. Its recent drama Queer as Folk, for example, has been the object of intense interest. French viewers may soon become acquainted with Russell T Davies's saga of under-age sex, unrequited love and Doctor Who appreciation, and tapes of the series have been requested by dozens of networks. Even by the Disney Channel. (The official publicity for the series gives its target demographic as "women aged 16-24".)

The argument of the DCMS report doesn't impress Channel 4 chief executive Michael Jackson. "It's stupid," he says, over a very nice lunch aboard the Channel 4 yacht. "And I wouldn't want to overstress that."

If pressed, however, he'll say something nice about it: "There are a lot of interesting and worthwhile ideas in the report, but I think it's wrong to suggest that our television is too gritty for global consumption. There's a thin line between being dark and being dull, but many of the films and shows that do well internationally are edgy, attitudinal pieces. Trainspotting and Cracker, for instance. The way to be successful internationally is not to make your programmes more bland."

Down on the beach in front of the Carlton Hotel, however, the BBC is announcing its intention to raise blandness to new levels of marketability.

The sexiest event of MIP is indubitably the launch of S Club 7, the new band/TV series/merchandising concept formulated by Simon Fuller. He's the man who created - and was then spurned by - the Spice Girls, but his reputed pounds 15-20m divorce settlement from Sporty, Ginger, Baby, Scary and Posh has given him the cash to fund the development of his new cross-media product, in association with the Beeb and an outfit called Initial Kids.

As you'll know if you read Nicholas Barber on these pages three weeks ago, the S Club 7 are Rachel, Jo, Hannah, Tina, Jon, Bradley and Paul - seven clean-limbed teens who are currently starring in a comedy series, Miami 7, and will soon release records, start up an Internet club, and lend their images to a skipload of authorised toys, games, clothes and food.

The MIP beach party is their first performance ever. And I have a ticket. Their mini-concert is a blur of dry ice, gleaming teeth and exposed belly-buttons. The songs - somewhere between the Spice Girls and the Jackson Five - will be instant hits.

The S Clubbers - somewhere between 17 and 21 - will be a wow with middle-aged men all over the globe. After the performance they emerge from their dressing room to hobnob with the audience, most of whom are potential customers. I'm rather taken aback when Rachel makes straight for me, hand outstretched.

"Hello. How are you?" she exclaims, wrinkling her glittered nose. Whatever meet-and-greet training camp Fuller sent them to, it must have been expensive. The man standing next to me can hardly contain himself.

"You are soooo beautiful!" he caterwauls, and Rachel seems genuinely pleased to hear this. It's only when she's shimmied off to work another part of the room that her new admirer introduces himself to me as John, a sometime porn cameraman who, during our conversation, has been secretly videotaping Rachel's breasts on a palm-held digital camcorder. In a few weeks, he says, he's off to Portugal to film Page Three girls lying around on rocks. He rewinds his tape and shows the footage he's just shot. I'm in it, too, I'm afraid. Clear as day on his lucent little screen, the first person to share a special moment with an S Club 7 member in public. Does this, I wonder, make me famous as well?

A minute or two later, I'm talking to Rachel's fellow S Clubber, Jo. Jo is 19. I'm just discovering that life in the band is really wicked, but extremely tiring, when John pops up again, camcorder held discreetly at waist level.

"I just love your tattoo!" he enthuses, indicating the barbed-wire pattern around her left arm. "Do you want to see the one I got the other week?" she asks, brightly.

"That depends on where it is," I reply, half-expecting a gendarme to appear.

Suddenly, Jo has turned round and is dragging the waistband of her jeans over her tan-line. I think I must have looked, but I'm afraid I now have no recollection of whether it said "I love Mum" or depicted white horses running into the sea.

Before anyone has a chance to offer an opinion, one of the S Club minders, noticing the camcorder buzzing away in John's hand, comes sternly over and redirects Jo to another part of the room. It's a tart reminder of that strange, symbiotic vampirism that informs the relationship between celebrities and the media.

Fuller and the BBC are plotting to make a mint selling these seven kids as a "brand". They must know that if all has gone to plan in six month's time, there will be tabloid hacks truffling in their wheelie-bins for syringes, and Internet sites claiming to offer pictures of them in the buff. John, it appears, is a website designer as well as a pornographer.

By the time you read this, the pictures may already be out there. Simon Fuller hasn't given a significant interview since the Spice Girls gave him the elbow, so his chattiness takes me by surprise. He's a softly-spoken, plausible man, and very upfront about the dangers that S Club 7's anticipated celebrity will bring.

He isn't pretending that it won't be tough for his proteges. "I'm not naive enough to think that it won't happen," he tells me. "Shit happens. But they're so laid back about everything that I think they'll cope. And this is the new kind of celebrity. It's got to involve everything."

But what is he doing, I ask, to prevent his charges getting mulched by this new kind of celebrity?

His answer isn't what I'm expecting: "I'm not a ruthless man. You can get a long way by just being nice to people, you know. That's what the S Clubbers are doing, too."

Around the marquee, seven squeaky-clean teens are working the room, sweetening up the programme's potential buyers, allowing middle-aged TV executives to kiss their hands and tell them how lovely they are. It's paying off already.

That morning at Fuller's villa overlooking Cannes, representatives from the Fox Family Channel put their names to a deal to broadcast Miami 7 to 74 million US homes. With that concluded, signing up the rest of the world should be a doddle. Maybe that trade deficit has already been cancelled.