TELEVISION / Long Runners: No 15: What the Papers Say

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The Independent Culture
Age: Thirty-seven. The longest runner on television first went out in November 1956, the week of Suez and the uprising in Hungary.

Whose idea was it, anyway? Denis (now Sir Denis) Forman, then controller of programmes at Granada.

And what is the idea? 'It's a comparative analysis of how newspapers treat the news,' says former producer Brian Armstrong. 'I get tetchy when I hear continuity announcers saying that the programme reviews the week's news.'

Has it changed? The format hasn't changed at all, although new technology means that quotes no longer have to be written out on boards. When the show went out live, these had a tendency to topple off their stands.

Audience: about 1 million now, but it was below half that in the '80s.

Wasn't it once on ITV? Yes, but the regions put it out at different times - at 2.45am in Central, for example. Granada felt it deserved better than being sandwiched between Nite Bites and Riviera, and sold it to Channel 4. Michael Grade didn't like it, Alan Yentob did, and now it goes out at 7.45pm on Fridays on BBC2.

Up against Coronation Street, huh? Yes. The show's present producer, Christine Ruth, reckons the audience doubles when the Street is off-air.

The theme tune: The English Dance, by Malcolm Arnold. One of the most instantly recognisable tunes on TV.

The presenters: 'name' Fleet Street columnists. Editors, with the exception of Ian Hislop of Private Eye, are strictly not allowed, because it's felt that they would forever be demanding balance and right of reply. The most-capped presenter was Brian Inglis, at 180 shows, closely followed by Bill Grundy.

An eerie coincidence: Bill Grundy died last year, on a Tuesday. Brian Inglis wrote his obituary on the Wednesday, and died himself on the Thursday.

Has anyone ever refused an offer to present? When Auberon Waugh discovered the show was recorded in Manchester, he declined. Norman Tebbit, when he had a column at the Times, also passed, claiming that the programme was left-wing.

Is it? 'I thought the show had become too politically correct,' says Brian Armstrong, who took over producing when the show moved to BBC2. 'The more backward members of the Daily Telegraph would never be approached.' Armstrong also introduced more tabloid journalists. Christine Ruth wants more women presenters. The recent ratio has been 8:1.

What's the money like? pounds 500. All presenters are paid the same. They also get a researcher who reads the papers for them.

Who reads the extracts? Three incredibly long-running actors: Peter Wheeler, who has been there 20 years, and who supplies the rottweiler accent used for the Sun, David Mahlowe (17 years) and Delia Corrie (12 years). The legendary Daphne Oxenford, a former Children's Hour presenter who had been there since the beginning, stood down three years ago.

Has a journalist ever complained about how their voice is portrayed? Lynn Barber complained that her voice had been made too high-pitched. The Guardian's Maggie O'Kane complained about her accent. 'People representing the Scottish nation also regularly ask why our Scottish accent sounds like inverted hiccups,' says Brian Armstrong. 'We reserve the right to have a bit of fun. When we do Andreas Whittam Smith, we give him a sort of Gregorian chant.'

Record number of quotes in one show: 180 in 14 minutes.

Has the show ever been sued for libel? No, although Mirror chief executive David Montgomery unsuccessfully complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission about Alastair Campbell's coverage of developments at Mirror Group. Campbell had been fired by Montgomery.

Most irritating aspect of the show: smugness. The presenters' cat-that- stole-the-cream expression. They should take lessons in deadpan instead of barely keeping the lid on their pleasure at their own wit and wisdom.

The bottom line - is it good? Yes. A very necessary enema for all the self- appointed pomposity, egomania, prejudice, propaganda and plain falsehood that sometimes passes itself off as the Press, although people now probably take it for granted that newspapers have their own agenda and political bias. It also manages to be wittily satirical instead of hysterically moralistic, and, because presenters themselves are journalists, it retains a basic affection for the craft.

(Photograph omitted)

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