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
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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.