Television Review

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The Independent Culture
I SUPPOSE Families at War (Sat BBC1) is the kind of thing Alan Yentob was on about when he gave his speech last month about the BBC "dumbing up". Few programmes have illustrated more clearly the BBC's dilemma - go for cleverness and be accused of elitism; go for ratings and be accused of stupidity - than this bewildering attempt to turn Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer into a kind of primetime Gilbert and George.

The format is essentially a surreal version of The Generation Game: representatives of two families are given challenges designed to test their particular gifts, and a jury votes on the best acts. Much of the show's weirdness comes from the particularity of skills: Saturday's edition pitted Stephen Greaves from Worksop, whose talent is running with heavy weights on his back, against Carl Felton from Tamworth, who does trick motorcycle riding. But Vic and Bob added an eccentric spin: Stephen had to run with Leo Sayer on his back, while the pint-sized troubadour sang his hit "When I Need You"; Carl had to knock the cigars out of the mouths of talking models of Jimmy Savile and Clint Eastwood. Elsewhere, Luke Greaves, a current Yorkshire Schoolboys boxing champion, was asked to fight a shed. As it turned out, not only was the shed handicapped by a lack of mobility, it had something of a glass jaw. Then Gail Felton, a beautician, was challenged to wax a number of people, on various areas of their bodies, while the Beautiful South performed "How Long Does a Tear Take to Dry?" The jury consisted of 12 jockeys from Gillingham, in full racing fig.

The programme had many commendable features, not least a fundamental generosity that was visible in the way that members of the public were invited to join in the foolery. By contrast, Noel's House Party delighted in inflicting foolery on people, then inviting them to show what good sports they were. And while Vic and Bob's anti-humour can spark off forest fires of mirth, it can also get a tad soggy and repetitive. Converting cults into ratings-grabbers is in any case a hazardous business. The jury, jockeys or otherwise, is out on this one.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 was running a kind of unofficial paranoia weekend: on Saturday, The White House Tapes, a trilogy based on the lately released tapes of Lyndon B Johnson's phone calls during his presidency, revealed that LBJ nursed a pathological dislike of Bobby Kennedy, and suffered violent mood swings. This was close to being a fascinating portrait of how power doesn't simply corrupt, but corrodes and weak-ens, too. But given that it was edited from thousands of hours of taped material, you wondered just how dull some of it must be for us to be subjected to LBJ's conversations about gussets with his tailor.

On Sunday, The Real James Goldsmith (C4) offered an even less flattering portrait of the billionaire businessman, of whom one friend observed, "None of the little words like `nice' or `kind' applied to Jimmy." But some big ones clearly did, including fanatical, obsessive and vindictive. If that wasn't enough, they had Paul Johnson in to say what an upstanding chap he was. Couldn't they let Goldsmith rest in peace?