Cuddly Toys and Conveyor Belts (BBC1), a retrospective got up to mark the start this weekend of the 22nd series, provided a neat lesson in the fallibility of memory - not so much the audience's memory as the BBC's. In its early years, The Generation Game was a production-line for catchphrases unequalled until the advent of The Fast Show - half the reason for tuning in was to have your expectations of these gratified. Here, we got a few "gay days" and "shut that doors" (though these were part of Larry Grayson's shtick long before he camped out on the BBC's lawn). But we didn't see Brucie yell "Nice to see you, to see you...?", or hear the audience chorus "Nice!"; we didn't hear him instruct Anthea to "Give us a twirl"; Larry didn't ask to see the scores on the doors; and there was none of the frantic cataloguing of prizes nodded to in the title - nobody gabbling "Cuddly toy, cuddly toy!" or trying to explain a fondue set.
Instead, we got a lengthy series of extracts from the show in its modern incarnation, under Jim Davidson's plodding stewardship, and just enough footage of his illustrious predecessors to show him up thoroughly. Fascinating to observe the sharp contrast in Forsyth's and Grayson's styles. To begin with, there was Bruce, the consummate variety performer, hardly able to comprehend the indignity that was being pressed on him - the air of superiority to his surroundings punctured by a gleam of horror in his eyes, as if he was suppressing the knowledge that, after all, this was all he was fit for. (Things had changed when he returned for a second stint, a decade later: by now physically less dominating, he carried a whiff of manic desperation.)
By contrast, Grayson was ready, even eager, to look as bad as his contestants did, his limbs flopping limply about the stage, his face fixed with a look of surprise tinged with pleasure at having got this far. The sheer expertise behind this act, and the personal warmth, were palpable.
After this flawless impression of incompetence, it was not merely depressing but demeaning to see Davidson wholeheartedly embodying the real thing. The funniest incidents from the Bruce and Larry years were all happy accidents, the stars improvising around fluffs or unforeseen absurdities, sparking off the contestants and the camera. With Davidson, tellingly, nearly all the moments chosen were carefully contrived bits of business, the humour supplied for him by trick camera-work or elaborate make-up jobs. Oddly enough, many of them involved Davidson doing imitations of such now and happening stars as Rod Stewart, Elton John and the Village People: if they could inject such a sense of history here, why was it missing from the rest of the programme?
To be fair to Davidson, life has got tougher for television shows that rely on the ability of the general public to make fools of themselves; we're all a bit too sussed these days.
Streetmate (C4) exemplifies one response to this difficulty: propel the public into ever more embarrassing and pressurised situations, in this case, by getting them to go on a date with a complete stranger. This rarely produces any chemistry, even when you get a couple as apparently well- matched as Hans, a manager of fashion designers who (according to a friend) "likes his German meat", and Uli, a fashion designer who was German. Still, at least they had something to talk about, unlike Steven, an Oxford undergraduate ("He never showers," explained an awed friend, "he always has a bath"), and Lydia, who worked in a clothes shop.
These damp squibs were enlivened, not particularly effectively, by the camera-work - speeded up, flicking from colour to black-and-white, with all the usual weird angles and jerky cutting. And we got the edifying spectacle of Davina McCall trying to raise a few sparks by approaching innocent passers-by and asking "What makes you happy in bed?" "Plenty of oral sex," was one answer; "Yeah!" said Davina, punching the air happily, "Me too!" Really, the whole thing leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
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