TELEVISION / The sins of transmission: Tonight the BBC celebrates the worst television can do. Mark Lawson stares into the flickering flames of Television Hell (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Culture
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 16 SEPTEMBER 1992) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

The idea of an evening devoted to the worst television programmes ever made is not entirely new. Some American channels (and Sky One, beamed in to Britain from space) mount similar festivals, never formally announced nor properly acknowledged, several nights a week. But only a television culture which takes itself as seriously as the British one - historically so concerned with charters and regulation - could envisage such a festival as TV Hell, the five hours of BBC2 prime time tonight (beginning at 7.25pm) devoted to terrible television.

This anthology of errors crosses all the sub-divisions of mistake. The gentlest involve no more than what might be called the Old Photo Album Factor. These dusty clips are funny because hair or clothes or taste have moved on. In a spiritedly malicious round-up called Rock Bottom (9pm), John Peel compiles a shit list of television pop's low moments. Why was Jasper Carrott not laughed out of business for the trousers in which he performed 'Funky Moped'? Did people really buy the Platonic dialogue between Father Abraham, a Dutch singer in a false beard, and the Smurfs, briefly modish plastic toys. 'Do Smurfs like to sing and croon?', warbles Father Abraham urgently, receiving in reply the vital information: 'Yes, but only to this tune.'

A similarly diverting exercise in gleeful hindsight is Trading Places (12.10), a compilation of unwise career moves by celebrities. During a Telethon, David Mellor sings, sounding as if he has several toes in his mouth. John Alderton and Cilla Black perform a delusion duet based around the hypothesis that he should swap acting for singing, while she makes the reverse journey.

The next circle of TV Hell collects the victims of accidents (territory from which Denis Norden has made a healthy living in It'll Be All Right On The Night.) This is good television - in the sense of being enthralling and amusing viewing - for all but the participants. It is the secret hopeful bet a viewer makes when tuning in to a live programme. TV Hell resourcefully avoids the familiar Norden items - interviewer bitten by ferret, reporters falling over or down holes during walking shots - in favour of new gem duds like a Nationwide segment about a man who claims to be able to step on eggs without breaking them. This proves to involve hopping over them, lightly brushing them with his soles. He makes two aborted landings before announcings in the night's saddest cry: 'There was a definite click]'

But the most anticipated lowlights of the evening will be those programmes which promoted a definite click of their own: either of the off switch or of the on switch, when they became accepted as compulsively repulsive. Examples of such traffic-accident programming feature in Nul Points (10.10), a collection of zero heroes from the Eurovision Song Contest. Extracts from other celebrated crashes - along with justifications and confessions frum the perpetrators - make up The Official History Of Hell (8.05). Material exhumed includes Mainstream, a BBC arts programme with a definition of culture so wide that it extended to cake-making.

The BBC also polled 40 former and serving television critics to select the worst British television programme ever made. Many of those participating in this exercise were surprised to find their minds returning so often to the current schedules: Eldorado or the celebrity-disease show Fighting Back or the reconstruction of the murder of Rachel Maclean in Michael Winner's True Crimes or The Richard And Judy Show, a down-market version of The Punch And Judy Show.

Psychologists - and currently-serving programme controllers - might attribute this phenomenon merely to the shelf-life of memory, with recent pain replacing older agonies. Perhaps. But it may also be an illustration of the slippage in television standards which has followed the exposure of the medium to greed or (its political alibi) market forces. Anyone attempting to compile a TV Hell evening in 20 years may have a dreadful embarassment of choice but a terrible absence of quality programmes for comparison.

Tonight, at 9.45pm, during TV Hell, I will announce the winner - or loser - of the hell-show poll. The result must remain secret until tonight - a whole show will then be screened - but the dud of all duds is one of those below, shortlisted in alphabetical order.

THE BORGIAS (BBC1, 1981)

An everyday story of anti-Popes, which excited such derision that doublet-and-goblet costume drama - previously a BBC standby - more or less ended here. In a piece of precocious political correctness, Italian actors, including Adolfo Celi, were employed in the Roman roles but, unfortunately, required to handle English dialogue. Accordingly, 'E's gone to Nipples' - regularly said of characters despatched to Naples - briefly became a catch phrase.

CROSSROADS (Anglia, 1964-1988)

Perhaps too popular and long-running (15 years, millions of regular viewers) to be considered a flop by anything but cultural snobs. Indeed, Noele Gordon - as Meg Mortimer, the proprietress - became a major star. However, a quality of acting and sets equally redolent of the carpenter's shop made the show a regular butt of night-club comics in the 70s. 'What happens to people after they die? They appear in Crossroads.' That kind of thing.

ELDORADO (BBC1, 1992-199?)

As a yearling, probably unlikely to win first time out. The compilers of TV Hell have been nervously insisting to critics that they are running a historical stakes. Even so, the BBC's soap-on-the- ropes has had such a rapid rise to notoriety that it must be mentioned. Set among ex-pats in Spain, it was planned to tap post-1992 Euro-unity, but in the early ratings referendums, viewers voted No. The performances of the young cast invite a new night-club gag: 'What happens to people after they die? They go to Eldorado.' Fascinating as a reminder that track record is no guarantee in TV: the same stable previously ran EastEnders.

MURDER ON THE MOON (LWT, 1989) A single drama, and the poll may favour failure over several weeks, but a truly catastrophic one-off. In a futuristic lunar - and, to most who saw it, lunatic - thriller, Birgitte Nilson played a space detective. Realising that her space suit obscured a major reason for employing her, the producers allowed her to remove it regularly to expose a skimpy cocktail dress worn underneath.

NATIONWIDE (BBC1, 1969-1983)

One of the BBC's many half-answers to what to do after the evening news. A controversial nomination, which also has many genuine admirers. Its risibility, argue detractors, lay in its fierce belief that serious and trivial items could be featured together, without strain or tastelessness. This resulted in that piece of TV history - The Nationwide Link. Moving from (say) an item on Spanish package holidays to (say) the trial of major London bank robbers, the presenter would say: 'Well, four people who won't be going on holiday this year . . . .' Notable as the breeding ground for a high number of love-or-hate media personalities: Frank Bough, Sue Lawley, Bernard Falk, Richard Stilgoe. Enjoyed brief tabloid notoriety when presenter Michael Barratt left his wife for co-host Dilys Morgan.

THE RICHARD AND JUDY SHOW (Granada, 1992-199?)

Another yearling, but experienced judges think that it might have the wind for obloquy. Cosy husband-and-wife co-hosts Richard and Judy Finnegan - he recently cleared in a well-publicised shop-lifting case - interview other tabloid victims or heroes. Really prurient questions are always prefaced by: 'Not meaning to pry, but . . .' Their encounter with Antonia De Sancha, who took the appearance fee but refused to mention David Mellor, is one of the medium's best ever unintentionally funny interviews. John McCarthy and Jill Morrell declined to appear, reportedly calling the show a 'lot of crap'.

SIN ON SATURDAY (BBC1, 1982)

Devised and presented by Bernard Falk, a broadcaster of some real talent, who died two years ago. One of the few shows to be pulled off by the BBC before the end of its run, this was a portmanteau chat-and-comedy show, dealing with a different one of the seven deadly sins each week and demonstrating the risks of live television. The first - Lust - brought together in one studio a clutch of Salvation Army majors, a rock group singing a number called 'Pump me with your love gun', Linda 'Deep Throat' Lovelace, Karen Armstrong (an ex-nun) and Oliver Reed, here giving an early version of the Legless Lecher act he would later give on Channel 4's After Dark. The show's most serious mistake was to pack the studio with representatives of the Moral Majority and then perform live comedy routines to them. The appalled silence in the studio gave the show a feel of doom from which it could not recover.

TRIANGLE (BBC1, 1981-82)

Described by a dissenting BBC executive, in one of the great pieces of boardroom bitching, as being 'for people who don't understand Crossroads.' Set on a cross-channel ferry cruising between Felixstowe, Amsterdam and Gothenburg, the soap opera was - improbably as it now seems - planned as a kind of answer to Dallas, set in glamorous locations. In short, it made the mistake of patronising the 'ordinary viewer'. Having decided to shoot on location, the producers could only get the ferry in the off-season, which gave the many sun-bathing scenes of Kate O'Mara (as the busty purser) a certain surrealism. With foolish hubris, the plot of the opening episode involves a rumour that the ship might be taken out of service. At the same time, the most interesting character - Wally the Welsh purser, played by Nigel Stock - was revealed to have a terminal disease. Triangle was also sunk by the tempting metaphors it offered to critics, who always like a thematic put-down: Bermuda Triangle, sinking ship, running out of steam, all in the same boat etc.

CORRECTION

Mark Lawson's recent article 'Sins of Transmission' wrongly suggested that the television presenter Michael Barratt had left his wife for co-host Dilys Morgan. Mr Barratt has since informed us that his marriage was over before his relationship with Ms Morgan began. We regret any distress caused.

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