Last Night's TV - The Story of Variety with Michael Grade, BBC4; When Teenage Meets Old Age, BBC2

Why the old ones are still the best

Nostalgia is for losers, but it often makes great telly." So began my last contribution to this page, reviewing the Imagine take on Ray Davies. Forgive me for returning to it. I know it's not the done thing to copy and paste from one's own work, but we're so much in the same territory with
The Story of Variety that not doing so would be dim. And for the avoidance of doubt, here was Michael Grade, three minutes in, describing his project as a survey of a "lost world... [that is] gone but isn't quite forgotten".

And what a world it was! Grade spent his childhood roaming off-stage or up and down the corridors of the music halls of Britain. His father, Leslie, was a theatrical agent, his uncles Lou (Grade) and Bernard Delfont celebrated impresarios. They occupied a world of stage performance that was central to the culture of post-war Britain. It emerged, Grade told us, as a "family-friendly alternative version of music shows".

But what variety had on music shows was... variety. Strange to think, it was only as our country stumbled into the mid-20th century that producers fully capitalised on the basic insight that if people like comedy, music, dancing, ventriloquy, slapstick and gymnastic extravagance, shoving them together in a single show would be a way of getting a much, much bigger audience in. Probably peaking around the late 1960s, this tactic produced an entire subculture of performance that delighted millions and spilled over into other realms too, most often television, the medium that ultimately killed it.

So old crooners with unbeatable cardigans, immaculately coiffured hair and unfailing barrow boy accents were wheeled out for interviews with Grade, who put a lot of himself in, and why the hell not. Here was Val Doonican in a pink jumper; then came Mike Winters, Ken Dodd, Barry Cryer, Maurice Sellar, great performers to a man, and often doubling up as agents too. It was a mostly male show, though Janet Brown's recollection of her work with the magnificent Max Miller – a personal favourite of Grade's – was a particular delight.

They recalled train journeys from Aberdeen to Plymouth for a 10-minute slot at each end; stop-offs in Crewe; weird landladies who you had to be polite to lest they undercook your eggs; and creaking floorboards in random hostels populated by vermin of both the human and non-human kind. There was something heroic in all this – people suffering for their art – and also something so touching about the fact that many of the ostensibly lesser acts, who never achieved great fame, dedicated their whole lives to one show.

So while Bruce Forsyth – who said early on that he owed everything to variety – and Des O'Connor would go on to acquire that weird status, "national treasure", there were armies of performers who became local treasures in hundreds of different towns. In other words, they were real national treasures, but just not called that. And they often achieved such glories by spending 30 of 40 years honing a single 10-minute performance. This was craftsmanship, and creative wisdom, of the purest form, and with the demise of such variety, a precious fund of emotional knowledge – in other words, culture – has been lost.

That really is sad, and Grade combined the necessary solemnity with his love of theatrics well. A bit like Andrew Neil, who presented an outstanding documentary on class in modern Britain a few weeks back, Grade has an effortless authority that makes him compelling viewing. His pieces to camera were a little stunted, and for a man of allegedly refined tastes his choice in ties is a disgrace – who, honestly, wears maroon these days – but his autobiographical input was never less than fascinating.

For all that, perhaps it was the very self-indulgence of Grade's contribution that limited the range of points the show could make. This was an elegy, not an essay. It lacked a clear argument, or even narrative; there was no sense that it would ever switch from being a series of conversations with interesting old people into really worthwhile sociology. I shall watch part two in the hope of remedial action next Monday.

"The variety has gone... that's what you miss," Sellar said towards the end. But why has the variety gone? Britain is a more diverse and various country now; shouldn't it follow that there is more appetite for variety performance now, not less? What exactly does variety, which crams seven letters into four syllables, mean, anyway?

A fabulous answer came in the second instalment of When Teenage Meets Old Age. The basic device of this show is to shove unlikely companions together. So our ethnically diverse yoof are sent off to look after (mostly widowed) elderly people. This week, they retired to a lovely spot on the Cornish coast. One scene, in which our greyer lady explained the tyranny of osteoporosis to her young carer, was deeply affecting. Another, in which one of our oldies was sat on a beach while castigating negative media coverage of young people, was inspirational.

"Variety's the very spice of life, that gives it all its favour", wrote William Cowper in "The Task", and last night strengthened his case. It was, in fact, dialectic. Grade suggested variety is a diminishing asset in our land; then those marvellous teenagers argued against him. I've venerated Grade for years but am siding with the optimists on this one.

Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map