TELEVISION / Sunny side up but it's no yolk at all
Sunday 04 October 1992
At 7am, presenters Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin are grinning wildly on the step of the converted cottages in East London from which Planet 24, Bob Geldof's production company, is launching its Mission to Entertain. Inside, Pee-Wee Herman and Salvador Dali have collaborated on the decor: there are fried eggs on the kitchen wall and a piece of toast popping out of the puce prize tellies. Peter Jay's bunch at TV- am started out with a Mission to Explain, but anyone capable of understanding was listening to the radio while the rest fished the Spiderman transfers out of the Shreddies box. They had to lower their brows to take in astrology and cuddly rodents, the first recorded case of the Rat joining the sinking ship. Big Breakfast has no such buoyancy problems, the furry puppets are already installed in the bathroom and a psychic is looking forward to next week: 'Elizabeth Taylor - my alpha waves tune in and pick up troubles around the heart.' Who needs gravity, when you've already hit the bottom?
Gaby is a fizzy blonde, but Chris is the really gabby one, an endearing ginger Tintin with mini Eric Morecambe specs and a Kalashnikov delivery. The pair have the eyeball-poppin', let's-do-the-show-right-here zest of Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain, but tempered with sardonic Nineties Attitude. Chris runs into the garden for Whose Washing Line Is It, Anyway?, the camera in hot pursuit. He abuses one punter on the phone, before another correctly matches Frank Bruno to the HP Sauce bottle. Back to the kitchen to chat to Family of the Week, then upstairs for the What a Mess quiz before chucking a glass of water over himself. What is this guy on - the crack of dawn?
The news is read by Peter Smith, a sensible choice as he is the only person on set who looks old enough to vote. Peter sits in a cupboard with a queasy, shifting Tequila Sunrise backdrop on which are projected punning headlines. This works badly with tee-hee stories - 'Neil Thinnock' (losing weight) - and is summarily abandoned for serious reports such as Monday's air crash. Sex and sentiment predominate: the ideal item would involve a tug-of-love poodle discovered in Jerry Hall's laundry basket. Things are pretty thin elsewhere. A single interview is chopped up and shown over five days, with trailers and flashbacks to shine the lowlights in our face.
On Monday I got up to watch, by Thursday I was setting the video, exhausted by a show that snatches at your attention like a beaky fledgling. A clip from Tiswas ('the messiest, wackiest and often the silliest TV show ever') confirmed Big Breakfast's provenance. Both of them are really kids' programmes in which the adults have most fun, slipping on the custard slicks of live television. Inspired stuff, but only once a week on a Saturday morning. A daily dose is pushing it.
The Geldofs brought a cool professionalism to the feverish proceedings. Up in the boudoir, the main attraction is Paula's frocks; the little grass number with the parsnip and carrot trim belied its wearer's stiletto nous. Sir Bob had a brief lupine slink around the premises on Monday, before uttering a cheery 'rubbish' and leaving by the patio doors. The question now is not whether Big Breakfast can keep it up, but how long anyone over the age of nine can keep it down.
Every week in this job, the same temptation. You try it out for sighs: 'The worst thing I've ever seen on television.' It's best to hold fire. Big Breakfast looks bad now but one day, when the Sky has fallen in, it may induce the same nostalgia as Barchester Chronicles. Even as I write, the parameters of Bad are being stretched, with the BBC allegedly inviting viewers to invent and video their own programmes, then hand them in for free, surrendering all editorial control. Working title: You've Been Had.
I was looking forward to The Gaze of the Gorgon (BBC2). Tony Harrison is one of the few writers who can tackle a big narrative poem and come out nearer Auden than Betjeman at his mimsy worst. The feet of Harrison's poetry are made for walking. And putting the boot in. This was seen to great effect in V, his exploration of national divisions. The trick was conceits without conceit, flights of imagination that never felt self-indulgent because they were grounded in anger. Gorgon is more ambitious, starting in a Frankfurt building for the unified Germany: 'Eculand seems to prepare/To neutralise the Gorgon's stare/But what polished shields can neutralise/Those ancient petrifying eyes.' In a park, the small memorial to Jewish poet Heinrich Heine is spattered with a junkie's blood. Harrison's gruff baritone speaks for Heine. You're with him so far: something rotten in the state, the Gorgon a latent evil waiting to rear its ugly head. But then we're off to the opera house: 'If Art can't cope/It's just another form of dope/And leaves the Gorgon in control/Of all the freedoms of the soul.'
Heine goes to Greece and the camera relishes the suck and cess of a mercury sea, the mossy interstices of classical statuary, while Harrison meditates on war and suffering. At some point, the Kaiser turns up and unleashes the Gorgon on an archaeological dig. Unhappy shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Horror upon horror follows: a maimed soldier from the trenches with lips like a shoe, a concentration camp, Stalin, the Gulf War. By now the images feel bolted on, the ideas confused like the machine-gun rantings of an ideologue. These Are A Few of My Least Favourite Things culminates in a picture of Hitler having used syringes dropped on it. Harrison asks that a statue of Heine be restored to Corfu where ecu leaders are to meet: '. . . to keep the new Europe open-eyed/They let the marble poet preside.' Does he really think poets can save the world from evil? Does he really think shooting up is the same as gunning down? I watched it twice, and am none the wiser.
For wisdom about war and suffering, see Testament of Youth (BBC2), a repeat of the terrific 1979 adaptation of Vera Brittain's chronicle of a generation of men who were only half-grown when they were scythed down at Ypres. It doesn't need to show us the worst man can do; we can see it in Cheryl Campbell's lovely face.
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