TELEVISION / Yackety-yak, no talk back

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The Independent Culture
THE programme Notes & Queries with Clive Anderson most resembles is How], that teatime favourite from the olden days, in which Fred Dineage and a team of homely hobbyists deconstructed puzzling phenomena, like how an industrial chimney functioned and what happened in your nose when you sneezed. Notes and Queries (BBC 2) has its practical thrusts, too: last night we learned that, if you give up washing your hair, eventually it will clean itself. (Caution: in the meantime, you'll have spent two months walking around looking like a seagull after an oil disaster.) But its main drift is more abstract, towards 'life's unanswerable questions', in response to which it toys with tentative, leaky theories - less How], then, and more sort of Hmm.

Notes & Queries is a regular feature in The Guardian, and this television adaptation proves that, though you can turn a newspaper column into many things - a book, an origami hat, some wadding to put under your cat litter - you cannot turn it into a television programme. For one thing, what's under scrutiny here (matters like why water is wet and whether the secret ballot is secret) is rarely inherently visual, and the programme has to chase between items to avoid stopping altogether. And thus, though by no means under-researched or careless, the programme ends up appearing to have a merely trivial interest in its own trivia, when what really brings trivia alive is a patient and ludicrously uncalled-for attention to its obscurest details.

Clive Anderson has his name tacked on to the title in the perfectly sound belief, one hopes, that it will bring the punters running. And these days the punters come not only running but also (to judge by the ones in the studio) ready to laugh at anything Anderson does. Last year, one could reasonably argue, Clive Anderson Talks Back was the best thing on television after Have I Got News For You: although given that the only other things on after Have I Got News For You were usually The Word and Dial Midnight, perhaps that isn't saying much. Even so, as a chat-show host, Anderson got laughs for picking up on something someone just said. But in Notes & Queries, he gets laughs simply for picking up what someone just said and saying it again. Take the Frank Muir incident.

Frank Muir had originally come into the programme to ponder with Clive the question, 'What is the most poignant moment in literature?' Their discussion - in which Muir chose something by P G Wodehouse and Anderson recited from the last act of King Lear as if he was reading the rugby results - was not among the most poignant moments in television.

After it, though, Muir gamely took part in a short piece on difficulties making the 'R' sound. Muir went to the trouble of pronouncing 'William Cobbett's Rural Rides' and explained, to much laughter, that this was certainly a book he had to avoid ordering over the phone. 'So, you just have to go through life avoiding ordering Rural Rides,' added Clive, to still more laughter, great shafts of applause, a hail of wet handkerchiefs and the sound of emergency resuscitation units arriving to wheel out the overwhelmed. It's hard to know how Anderson is going to temper this adulation, but it's tempting to suggest a second series of Notes and Queries would do the trick.

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