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TELEVISION / Wake up and smell the coffee: Britain's latest breakfast television show starts on Monday. Mark Lawson looks back over the chequered history of early morning output and wonders whether its creators aren't working against the odds

The sterling performances of the BBC's Economics Editor, Peter Jay, during the current financial reversals have been widely remarked on. His confident commentaries are rightly regarded as marking the renaissance of his reputation. But it is interesting, on this particular weekend, to recall what Jay needed to make a recovery from. It has taken 'the most intelligent man in Britain' nearly 10 years to lose the stigma of unsuccessful involvement in breakfast television. The failure of his 'mission to explain' at TV-AM in 1983 humbled him to such an extent that his last stop before the BBC was as Chief of Staff to Robert Maxwell.

Bob Geldof and Paula Yates - the producers and part-presenters of this country's latest attempt at the genre - have less gravitas to lose than Jay. But The Big Breakfast, their Channel 4 morning show which starts on Monday, is that channel's second attempt at the form and at least the eighth launch or relaunch among terrestrial wake-up programmes in the decade since they first appeared on British TV. (The new Sunrise consortium replaces TV-AM in January of next year.) Many have hoped to make a packet out of British breakfast television, but many of those who tried have ended up shredded. The ghosts of these previous failures will haunt the latest tries at the rise-and-shine mix. Bob Geldof once set out to save the world. But can he save Channel 4 morning television?


The Big Breakfast has a thematic structure, based around the morning meal. Its main title is a nod at cafe and hotel menus - the entertainment news segment is called 'Snap, Cackle And Pop' and a comedy item 'The Crunch'. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first time a morning show has employed the symbolism so obviously.

However, it seems to be the case that most previous British early shows have toyed with the idea. The 1983 debutants Breakfast Time (BBC1) and Good Morning Britain (TV-AM) both apparently considered calling the weather report 'Early Morning Shower' and the medical advice slot 'Rashe(r)s' BBC producers are said to have proposed a five-minute punditry slot called 'Eggheads' and a regular feature called 'Close Shaves', in which people recalled escapes from danger. TV-AM reportedly thought of utilising the coincidence that one of its presenters, David Frost, had a nickname, 'Frostie', which was the name of a Kelloggs product. But such attempts at what you might call grapefruit segments were abandoned before transmission. In actually inflicting such puns on its audience, morning after morning, The Big Breakfast may be judged to be taking a risk.


The main thematic metaphor in the morning shows has been the sofa on which the presenters - on the original Breakfast Time and on Good Morning Britain even now - have sat. This was intended to suggest a cosy and leisurely approach suited to the sleepiness of the viewers. When the BBC's Breakfast Time became, after the arrival of John Birt as current affairs supremo, Breakfast News, it stated serious intent by swapping sofas for desks. Again pushing the symbolism further than any previous attempt, the new Channel 4 show broadcasts from a real house in East London, with different segments coming from different rooms.


All muesli shows have been defined by their attitude to news. This was partly because of their perceived competition with morning newspapers and the long-running politically heavyweight Radio 4 programme Today and partly because the Independent Broadcasting Authority - which supervised the commercial television attempts - was charged with ensuring some seriousness. Peter Jay's TV-AM, as suggested by its notorious 'mission to explain' tag, was originally headline-and-analysis biased. When ratings and advertising failed, Good Morning Britain saved itself by dropping down to bantamweight analysis.

The first morning attempt by the fourth channel - Channel 4 Daily, which was taken off air yesterday - was almost all news: world, sports, arts, business read by different presenters. This was perceived to be what the cool and sophisticated viewers of the newest terrestrial station most wanted. Ratings minor even for a minority channel (100,000 at the end) wrecked this wisdom. Among its thematic segments, The Big Breakfast has resisted one called 'Currant Affairs', and plans to restrict itself to short bulletins every 20 minutes, interspersed with jauntier material. Even 'The Geldof Interview', a key selling point, will be pre-recorded and will feature famous but not necessarily topical figures. Apart from the BBC Breakfast News, which is excused by its bosses from the quest for high ratings, all previous Cornflake formats have moved downmarket or failed. The Big Breakfast may be the first to begin there.


American breakfast shows (US versions had 30 years' start on their British counterparts) apparently require their presenters to use special optical washes to make their bleary eyes sparkle. Inflicted on a less high-energy culture, British hosts were, from the beginning, far more empathetically dishevelled. Selina Scott, the first female presenter of Breakfast Time, gave the unfortunate impression of regarding conversation at that time of the day as unwelcome. Jeremy Paxman, who later joined the programme, was as unnervily cocksure at dawn as he now is at midnight but, after eating several ministers for breakfast, was moved on. Anne Diamond and Nick Owen, who replaced Jay's heavyweights at TV-AM, were deliberately selected for their low-decibel personae. Mike Morris, the blokey joker who then replaced Owen as host, often seemed to be attempting an imitation of the half-awake state of the viewers. Channel 4's selection of Bob Geldof, who looks shattered and unshaven as a matter of course, seemed to take this trend to its extremes. However, it is now clear that Geldof and Yates will make only short appearances. The main hosts will be Chris Evans (a talented radio DJ) and Gaby Roslin. Evans's radio style - a favourite jape is encouraging listeners to shout 'Billy]' at passers-by - may adapt imperfectly to a Brighton Bomb-style morning story.


Another of the emblematic changes made by the BBC in its shift from Breakfast Time to Breakfast News was the dressing of the male presenters in suits rather than sweaters. Otherwise, the main sartorial trend in the form has been the bow-tie, favoured by astrologer Russell Grant on the original Breakfast Time, newspaper-reviewer Paul Callan in the first version of Breakfast News, Gyles Brandreth in middle-period TV-AM and Michael Nicholson in the first Channel 4 morning show. Paula Yates seems the most likely of the new Channel 4 contingent to follow suit.


If the history of breakfast television is any guide, then The Big Breakfast may soon be introducing a new thematic segment called 'Saving Our Bacon', which will probably involve a slightly tacky celebrity, live animal or stuffed one. All British morning shows which have attempted to compete for ratings have been saved by emergency innovations. The most celebrated intervention was by Roland Rat, the glove-puppet who rescued Good Morning Britain. This was a weird echo of the way in which the NBC Today show in America was turned round by a roller-skating chimpanzee.

Even without these terrifying precedents, it should be remembered that no early show has prospered without establishing lighter items, whether they be weather - eccentric and slightly effete meteorologist Francis Wilson on Breakfast Time, a succession of glamorous weathergirls on TV- AM - or fitness coaches. The latter - allowing female viewers to lose weight and male viewers to watch women jumping around in leotards - have been a regular ratings raiser. The Big Breakfast seems to be relying on the celebrity of Geldof and Yates, though this may have by now have soured in to notoriety, and the wackiness of the real-house setting. But are these durable enough curiosities? The sordid past of the morning form warns us to be ready for anything: perhaps even, in a worst case scenario, a moving picture version of Paula Yates's bestselling book: Rock Stars In Their Underpants.

The Big Breakfast is on weekdays on Channel 4 from Monday,7am

(Photograph omitted)