TELEVISION / The cringe festival

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The Independent Culture
THE prospect of a turkey dinner should give any producer pause for thought. As cinematic celebrations of the dismal and decayed have shown in the past, for every morsel of succulent meat you often end up with a whole mouthful of feathers; exhume these shows and you generally find out why they were buried in the first place.

What saved TV Hell (BBC 2), a few longueurs apart, from being as ghastly as its contents was the clear sense that much thought had gone into the packaging. Angus Deayton and Paul Merton provided a drily funny frame, the conceit being that Deayton was an infernal programme controller, dedicated to torturing the audience, while Merton was his worst nightmare - a viewer so undiscriminating that he thought Prisoner: Cell Block H was filmed in a real prison. As Deayton unveiled atrocity after atrocity Merton dozily asked for more.

Which was, when you thought about it, exactly how we were expected to react. For the most part it wasn't difficult to oblige. Even if the selection sometimes seemed rather wayward, including shows of immense popularity (It's A Knockout) and drama which is usually cited as one of the jewels in the crown (Elizabeth R), enough things came crawling out from under the archival stones to form a pleasurable cringe festival.

The real revelation though was that while these programmes might be hell to watch they were even worse to work on. This sometimes emerged only obliquely; during the package on presenters unwise enough to embark on a singing career in front of millions of viewers (rather than the bathroom mirror), Russell Grant was shown grinding through some twee standard. It was the sort of spectacle that called for a team of St John's First Aiders in the aisles, but the real stab of pathos was delivered by the sight of Russell Harty behind him, mouth open in dazed horror; a sane man who had awoken to find himself taking part in a circus act.

Elsewhere the misery was the stuff of front page headlines, as with the Famous Five, who failed to realise that in whacking the champagne against the bow of TV-am they had actually holed it. Peter Jay appeared quivering with nerves (or shame?) to describe how he was forced to walk the plank, while his loyal colleagues recalled the heady atmosphere of treachery. There was much brave- facery at the time; 'Does this mean that TV-am is finished?' asked a hack at Anna Ford and Angela Rippon's doorstep press conference, whereupon Rippon went into a hysterical pantomime of amused scorn that put her Morecambe and Wise performances into the shade. Both women were forced into a lifeboat shortly afterwards. Michael Parkinson 'took the shilling', as he put it, and stayed, but if you were thinking that he had got away with it you only had to wait a short time to see justice delivered with a vengeance. The brief extract that showed him introducing Roland Rat as his co-presenter outdid Dore as a vision of torment.