TELEVISION / The ghost in the scheduling machine

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The Independent Culture
IN SPITE OF years of research by top scientists, there is still no satisfactory explanation for the most gripping mystery of all: why, in television reconstructions, do the actors always have plummier voices than the people they portray? We will probably never know.

And there's something else spooky about Out of this World (BBC 1), a new series in which The Exorcist collides with 999 and Ghostbusters bumps into Crimewatch. Just when you think Alan Yentob, the channel's controller, has thrown his last dice, out pops another one on to your screen. Now you see Pets Win Prizes, now you don't. Any psychic investigator will tell you that Yentob's office is either on a leyline, near an ancient burial site, or haunted by the curse of Eldorado. No sooner does a programme proposal come into contact with Yentob's ideas tray than it succumbs to multiple bleeding, paralysis and internal haemorrhaging before being run over by a bus-load of critics. Then the corpse vanishes into thin air.

But along comes another. The programme's title barely hints at the tabloid values Out of this World espouses. Ghostwatch, or You've Been Haunted, or 666, or Paranorma would have caught the mood better, but might have looked like sensationalism. With Sue Cook at the helm, the intention is clearly to suggest that the paranormal is a matter of urgent public interest. Let's clear Britain's streets of these ghosts who fall under cars and then scarper. Let's create jobs for those who can foresee disasters.

Here's a start. Following a report on the woman who knew the Marchioness would sink 21 days before it did, Cook announced Britain's first national TV premonitions bureau. 'Don't forget, if you have any premonitions in the next few weeks, let us know before they've happened.' In other words, please inform the BBC if you have a premonition that you're going to have a premonition. But don't be surprised if you're not the only one who reports a vivid dream in which Out of this World is seen leaving Television Centre in a wooden box.

The show claims to investigate science's ability to explain the paranormal, to which end there are two honey-toned 'experts', for want of a less complimentary word, sitting on the sofa with Sue. In the four cases studied last night, you slumped back from the edge of your seat when the narrative ended and the analysis began. After the intriguing story of Liz Howard, whose dreams suggested that she was the reincarnation of a Tudor witness to the murder of a newborn child, one expert talked of 'random accessing of a collective data bank'. When he said that, did you, too, have this strange out of body experience in which you could sense the entire nation reaching for its remote control?

There is a serious programme to be made in this difficult field. The problem with Out of this World is that it's written with the reductive grammar of mid-evening entertainment. It looks as if the participants have just been leaping through supernatural hoops to get on to television. It may be no coincidence that the most arresting story concerned a man who bought a 10in skeleton which, whenever anyone touched it, appeared to trigger death, disease and disaster. He refused his 15 minutes of fame, perhaps fearful that the programme would go belly up if he touched it. The 'experts' suggested a decent burial. Will this do?

On The Larry Sanders Show (BBC 2), the joke is that the show is digging its own grave. In fact, it's the funniest thing the other side of midnight. 'Artie,' says Larry, whose marriage is on the skids, 'until we get this show on track I have no dick.' 'No dick?' says Artie. 'Check.' Check.