Television: Brawn, Blitz, brains and Brucie
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 05 September 1999
To his credit, Dickenson commentated with what sounded like a straight face. "A real thinking game, this one," he said, as competitors hoicked a variety of heavy objects on to a brick wall. They had to decide whether to lift the barrel and then the anchor, or the anchor followed by the barrel, and in a way Dickenson was right, because, believe me, for some of these men it constituted quite a conundrum. But it was in nobody's interests, least of all the BBC's, to highlight the intellectual limitations of the competitors. Besides, what value brainpower when you can lift up a Ford Sierra with your bare hands? A man called Robert did particularly well, keeping the car's front axle off the deck for 61 whole seconds. "And he enjoyed every minute of that," said Dickenson, helpfully.
In the end, Glenn from Northern Ireland was crowned Britain's Strongest Man, and as the prestigious Energizer Battery Trophy was handed over, his fat face crumpled at the thought of his baby son. "I did this for him," he said, stifling a sob. It was a truly poignant moment, and it made me happy that Glenn had won. I think the BBC was satisfied, too. Rather Glenn than the chap with what looked suspiciously like a swastika tattooed on his upper arm.
I can't imagine what passes through the minds of old soldiers when they see swastika tattoos on their fellow Brits, especially in a week of programmes marking the outbreak of the Second World War. The pick of these was The Evacuees (BBC2), Jonathan Gili's small but exquisitely formed film in which three brothers described what it was like to be evacuated from a grim tenement in the East End to a stately pile in rural Oxfordshire.
The Evacuees has been shown before, but bore repeating as an example of documentary-making at its simplest and most effective. There were no snazzy camera angles, no tricksy editing; the three Burns brothers were not even taken on a sentimental journey back to the stately pile. Nothing was required beyond their warm reminiscences - the pish-posh Fennell family, maids in maroon-and-white pinafores, their own beds with crisp white sheets after years sharing a bed between three, and opening the curtains on that first morning to see "eagles, bleedin' eagles!" on the lawn. Peacocks, as it turned out.
Their memories had nothing to do with the war, except insofar as it was the war which set them down in such an alien landscape. They recalled their mother coming to stay, and struggling with her favourite snuff because their father had broken her nose. And they remembered, with no affection whatever, returning to Blitz-battered Poplar when hostilities - international rather than domestic - were over. One brother later joined the Communist Party with, it seems to me, the purest of motives. He didn't worry that some people had too much privilege, rather that others had too little.
Last weekend the BBC devoted an evening of programmes to John Peel; this weekend it was the Second World War. Make of that what you will. What it does prove, of course, is that unlike complacent husbands in soaps and sitcoms, television never, ever, forgets a birthday or anniversary.
Still, as anniversaries go, 60 years since the outbreak of war seems worthy of television's attention. I'm not quite sure about clearing an evening's schedules to celebrate 60 years of John Peel, but at least it made more sense than a programme billed as 21 Years of the Generation Game - Cuddly Toys And Conveyor Belts (BBC1). The Generation Game, presenter Jim Davidson told us, began on 2 October 1971. But fair play to the BBC, "A Shade Under 28 Years of the Generation Game" would have been a much less snappy title. And a less logical one, too, for isn't a generation supposed to span 21 years? Not 27 years and 11 months, anyway.
Apart from owing its title to sheer contrivance - so what if there have been 21 series of The Generation Game since 1971 - the programme also unwittingly charted the decline of Saturday evening telly. As someone who comes from the 1970s I might be biased, but the clips showed that Bruce Forsyth stood head and shoulders above Larry Grayson, and head, shoulders and torso above Jim Davidson. Brucie doesn't like to be thought of as a game-show host, but as someone pointed out when Leonardo da Vinci said he didn't want to be remembered as a painter, he shouldn't have painted The Last Supper. The Generation Game was Brucie's "Last Supper". He presided with what amounted to genius over its orchestrated mayhem, never forgetting that the show was about the contestants. Today, it's about Jim David- son and his contrived pratfalls. Contestants are incidental. And watching the clips was like reading the obituary of BBC light entertainment, from the glory years to rigor mortis.
I'm all for progress, but increasingly television needs to rediscover old virtues. Above all, simplicity, although simplicity is not always enough. BBC1's Bank Holiday drama, The Mystery of Men, was nothing if not simple fare, and started promisingly enough, but got bogged down in third-rate farce. And what is it with Warren Clarke? He is a wonderfully lugubrious actor. He could lugube for England. But it's time he kept his trousers up. I have nightmares about the close-ups of him having sex with lovely Hadyn Gwynne in Nice Work and lovely Emma Fielding in A Respectable Trade. And he was at it again here. I'm delighted for him, really I am. And hats off to his agent. But enough is enough.
However, lest anyone accuse me of hitching a lift on the BBC-bashing bandwagon, and in further pursuit of simplicity, let me cite Western Front (BBC2) as an example of top-notch factual programme-making. Stick an insightful, charismatic presenter - in this case the military historian Richard Holmes, in former times Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clark - in front of a camera, and sit back. Simple, yet the result is rarely less than compelling. And with Holmes, there is the added bonus of wondering whether he could possibly be the illegitimate son of Magnus Pyke.
In the final part of Western Front, Holmes assessed the importance of America's entry into the First World War, its soldiers "transfused into France like blood into a dying patient". Never a man to let go of a good simile, he added that the Germans needed to bring in replacements from the East before the patient became too strong. But by the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the war was over - an anniversary the BBC will perhaps choose to commemorate at 10am on 10 October, if its tribute to The Generation Game is anything to go by.
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