TELEVISION / Death on the box

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The Independent Culture
LAST week, This Week said that was that. And last night, That Was This Week That Was (ITV) showed us what we had lost, sifting through the 36 years of television's only primetime documentary slot, now terminated along with the Thames Television franchise. It will be missed. This was the programme that drew attention to famine in Ethiopia. And, with 'Death on the Rock', this was the programme that exposed the SAS in Gibraltar.

This was also, you reflected, as the archive footage showed yet another presenter walking earnestly up the middle of a street, the programme that launched a thousand comedy skits. But That Was This Week That Was seemed reluctant to endanger This Week's dignity, and this despite the presence of an independent observer (Chris Dunkley from the Financial Times) to guard against bias. Dunkley's treatment had nothing to say about the weeks the programme was boring, those quiet news periods when the best it could muster was a half hour on angry teachers in Burnley. Nobody wants a moaner at a funeral, but then we were dealing here with the end of a television slot, not a death. And for a programme praised as a thorn in the side of sacred establishments, surely a little poke in the ribs wouldn't have been out of order.

In fact, last night's compilation managed, as This Week rarely did, to smudge a key issue or two. Whenever the word 'tabloid' cropped up (it was applied by Jeremy Isaacs, among others, to the programme's style), it was as if its positive senses (brisk, clear, cutting) excluded its negative ones (opportunist, over-heated, sensational). The dilemma of re- staging was cheerfully swept aside, too. 'The tools of current affairs include reconstruction,' said Dunkley, without query. We flashed back to the edition in which This Week sent a full-size Cruise missile replica through some cramped village streets. They weren't allowed to film the real thing, but what's a little fakery between friends? Well, quite a lot, in a programme purporting to cut through to the truth.

But This Week's best moments could not have been re-stagings: they were too clearly one-offs. Directness was deftly won in a programme scheduled during family viewing time. Only This Week could have managed an item on sex toys ahead of the 9.00pm curfew. Outside a sex shop, the reporter solemnly unwrapped a rubber woman. 'The gentleman inside the shop told me that you inflate it first.' That 'first' was magnificent, standing in for the unsayable without resorting to winsome euphemism.

Sir Robin Day paid his tributes. So did Neil Kinnock. Even Sir Norman Fowler, Chairman of the Conservative Party, said it was 'a very sad day', but he was careful to say he was 'speaking personally'. Hard for him to appear here in any professional capacity given that his party has done more than anyone to make life for programmes like This Week difficult and, in the end, impossible. Translated, Sir Norman's valedictory read, 'We hate to lose you, but we think you ought to go.' Let's hope he enjoys whatever variant on 3-2-1 Carlton Television produces to fill the hole.

Jennifer Saunders' Absolutely Fabulous (BBC 2) left the screens too but, unlike This Week, we'll be seeing its kind again. The popularity of this first series was such that it seems likely to be given the re-run treatment on a Fawlty Towers scale.

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