How the West Was Lost began with a classic Western takedown, a grizzled, taciturn veteran finally reacting to the provocations of a cocky young upstart.
Grizzled was Rich Hall, sporting a black hat and three-days-in-the-saddle worth of stubble. Cocky was a yuppie Hollywood type, using his laptop to check out the latest box-office figures and being noisily condescending about the Western. "Empty, elliptical, cornball shit," he said, finally provoking Hall to rear up, slam the laptop shut on his fingers and give him a crash course in the virtues of American cinema's original myth. Cocky eventually got left in the desert, miles from the nearest wi-fi hotspot, but we – the producers presumably hoped – would dog Hall's footsteps all the way to the railhead, 90 minutes away over some hard country.
I made it all the way, but I won't pretend it was easy. Hall himself was no problem, weaving quite a bit of fancy teacher talk into his script but never going for very long without one of his trademark growls of repulsion at the state of American politics, the sort of thing that will make even the most somnolent student sit up straight in the lecture hall. "We're at war in Iraq," he snarled at one point, "because some tongue-tied, bible-thumping fuckwit of a President convinced enough people he was a kind of laconic Gary Cooper hero." There was a point here, besides the release of feeling, because it was Hall's thesis that Hollywood Westerns weren't just about the history of the 19th century but of the 20th, too, with many US presidents adopting the moral perspective of the films they loved. I think I'd need a bit more evidence than was advanced here to buy that, but the exploration of Harry S Truman's admiration for John Ford's My Darling Clementine was interesting, even so. And it was startling to learn that, in 1959, six out of the seven top-rated shows on US television were Westerns, an impressive measure of how dominant this narrative was in post-war life.
The difficulty was that, when it comes to a film-studies audience, quite a bit of the interpretation will already be familiar, whether it's the arrival of doubt in the Korean war, Westerns of the late Fifties, or the way in which spaghetti Westerns tuned up the operatic melodrama of the genre. And for the rest of the audience – those who'd tuned in because they were hoping to hear Hall crack gags – there may have been a bit too much analysis and not quite enough comedy. Hall's mordant take on his own countrymen got some exposure. "Americans are very happy," he said, after spending some time with a Western firearms expert. "One of the reasons they're happy is because they own guns. And it's very important to keep Americans happy. Because they own guns." But then you'd almost immediately be sucked back into a stolidly chronological take on the history of the Western, moving from decade to decade with not quite enough speed. It seemed odd, too, that so much of the illustrative material should have been pulled from period promotional material (presumably clips of trails must come cheaper than the films themselves, the clearances for which can be prohibitively expensive). At times, it felt like "How the Westerns Were Sold" would have been a more accurate title.
I don't imagine there are big rights fees for a programme such as Commercial Breakdown with Jimmy Carr, given that people quite like the idea of getting an advertisement on the BBC. Which perhaps explains the sturdy persistence of this kind of show, alongside the fact that there'll always be a reasonably good audience for other people's funny ads. Can there be an attention span in the land that can't cope with a programme in which no sequence lasts longer than 30 seconds? The title sequence for this latest version, presented by Jimmy Carr, includes a hint as to why top comedians might be persuaded to take a turn at the wheel, a pastiche of the famous Conservative election poster, showing a dole queue of Carrs and the slogan "Jimmy Isn't Working". Tell me something I don't know, I thought, assuming that this was one of those classic old-rope/big-cheque deals that so appeal to the jobbing entertainer.
Still, some of the films were pretty funny (check out Trunk Monkey on YouTube for the best of them) and, after a slightly bland start, it was reassuring to see that the sawtooth edge that makes Carr's comedy distinctive hasn't been smoothed out of existence entirely. What's funny is the combination of that end-of-the-pier face – all perky, cheeky-chappie reassurance – and the breathtakingly impolitic things that come out of his mouth. After running a pricelessly dated public-safety film about the dangers of abandoned fridges, Carr offered a reassuring postscript: "On the bright side, if a child does get killed by a fridge, it will keep them fresh for three weeks."