The lengths to which TV production staff are expected to sink in pursuit of a set-up or a prank have plumbed far greater depths than anything that was shown in this programme. However, what it confirmed was that, for television to address a subject such as this, at the very dog end of the Nineties, it must do so in the name of the lightest entertainment. The presence of a studio audience, and a simple stage set combining the colours of the Union Jack, suggested that a Dimbleby or a Paxman might be part of the proceedings. Instead, it was the implausible - and yet adept - double act of newsreader Kirsty Young and former Right Said Fred frontman Richard Fairbrass that put "morals under the microscope".
The combination of a hidden camera and the public as patsy was once the exclusive domain of Messrs Beadle and Edmonds, but now this approach has seeped into almost every aspect of television. Here, the method was used at length, with the programme's researchers doubling up as decoys to lure unsuspecting bystanders into traps that tested their honesty and morality. In Chelmsford, participants in a "girlie night out" were offered an indecent proposal by an actor playing a businessman with pounds 5,000 to spend on a girl with love for sale, for one night only. Surprisingly, there were a few takers - although the brunette who responded by throwing a drink in his face had surprised the friend who set her up. "I thought she needed the money; she needed a new car," claimed the best mate back in the studio.
And so to the question of whether the standards of British sitcom have declined in the last 20 years. Looking at concepts such as Spaced and The Royle Family, our survey says the opposite. And then, in the middle of the pantomime season, comes the return of Gimme Gimme Gimme (BBC2). When this sitcom first appeared, it was championed for breaking with tradition, with the premise of a straight woman sharing a flat with a gay man. A similar idea had been roadtested before by Julian Clary. But Gimme Gimme Gimme was to benefit from a proper writer, Jonathan Harvey, and two good actors: Kathy Burke and James Dreyfus. Whereas sitcoms once relied on innuendo for laughs, this cuts to the chase, and has the audience rolling in the aisles with the very mention of a sexual act. In an orange wig, with quirky specs and a silly walk, Burke is cast as the kind of character who once kept Su Pollard in work. She is working class, which, apparently, is still a byword for ignorance and illiteracy in the vocabulary of sitcom. Homosexuality, meanwhile, remains synonymous with bad camp and dreams of being Oscar Wilde's muse. "Kindly piss off, you old poof," Burke yells at Dreyfus, as the pair sit at home, alone, on the eve of the millennium. By comparison, Mrs Slocombe's pussy seems infused with a genius worthy of Wilde himself.
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