The importance of being earnestly incompetent - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

The importance of being earnestly incompetent

We get models `writing' novels, and we get prime ministers knowing all about genetic science

IF YOU turn the pages of this week's Radio Times, past the endless features and interviews, and the film summaries, and the interviews and features (which, oddly, are never about programmes, only about the lovely, lovely people who appear in them) and past the misprint of the week which Radio Times infallibly inserts (this week it's on page 51, where Geena Davis's ex-husband is named first as Mr Harlin and again as Mr Harling on consecutive lines) you finally, on page 64, get to the first programme listing.

Shortly after that - and this is where the story really begins - you get to page 73, where three programmes within two inches of each other caught my eye, because they all seemed to be based on the same idea - an idea which is in danger of taking over the world. I wonder if it's too late to do anything about it?

Programme 1: Time Team. Tony Robinson and team travel to Sussex to discover why there's a well-preserved Roman bath house sitting in the middle of a golf course... They have just three days to solve the mystery.

Programme 2: Escape to River Cottage. Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall attempts to live off the fat of the land in Dorset at a tiny gamekeeper's cottage. Arriving with two piglets, and seeds for the vegetable garden, Hugh now has to acquire skills in fishing, deer hunting and shooting game.

Programme 3: Julie Walters Is An Alien in... New York. Julie Walters crosses the Atlantic to New York, where she tries her hand at a variety of jobs including Central Park ranger, waitress and NBC reporter.

I think you see the link that binds. Yes, the idea is that if you get someone who is good at one thing to try something else, it will make good television. In other words, if you get someone to do something they can't do, it's somehow, in the face of all logic, instructive and/or entertaining.

So, in the same way, we get footballers being given chat shows, and we get models "writing" novels, and we get prime ministers knowing all about genetic science (and reincarnation), and we get comedians going on Question Time and going on great railways journeys, and we get Janet Street-Porter striding over a countryside she hardly even pretends to take an interest in, and after a while you begin to wonder what's wrong with people who do know how things are done.

It's the cult of the amateur taken to ridiculous lengths. People who can't use a camera are asked to make programmes. People who can't cook are brought on to cook. People who can cook are asked to do cooking they have no previous experience of, so we get pointless exercises like Rick Stein standing in a Thai market telling us all about vegetables he's never seen before, or Keith Floyd telling us how to cook Vietnamese or Texan style, where a Vietnamese or Texan cook might just be more interesting...

(Nor is it just on TV that the novice is glorified. Boris Johnson took up two pages of The Daily Telegraph the other day to describe his first pathetic attempts to shoot birds, as a house guest at Dalmeny Castle, though this did turned out to be a thinly disguised plug for shooting at Dalmeny Castle, with the castle's phone number given at the end and everything.)

It's elitism being stood on its head, which is a lot worse than elitism the right way up. The worrying thing about the Time Team programme with Tony Robinson is that although he has real archaeologists on the programme, they are only given three days to do a dig - in other words, when you've got someone who is really good at something, handicap him to bring him down to other people's levels.

Well, if being really good at something is elitist, then bully for elitism, I say. I once tried to interest people in an idea I had for a TV series in which famous people would talk about or demonstrate something they could do well and loved doing, apart from the thing they were famous for. I seem to remember it included Woody Allen playing jazz clarinet, and I have a funny feeling it included Warren Mitchell playing clarinet as well, though there must have been some non-clarinettists involved.

But the idea was always sneezed at. And I can see why now. The modern trend is towards people doing things falteringly, fallibly and for the first time. The idea of someone doing two things really well is totally out of fashion. Maybe the idea I should have tried to sell is of looking at people who are famous for doing something even though they are very bad at it, and not much good at anything else. I'm thinking of...

A libel lawyer writes: That will do for today, thank you, very much.

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