TELEVISION / Cruelty free television - a chemical solution

'THEY say laughter is the best medicine,' Frank Skinner said to the Gagtag (BBC 1) audience, 'but no, you had to choose Valium.' This made me laugh, like a number of the things he said in the programme, but the thought isn't a bad one, really. Watching new comedy programmes these days can be an agitating, stressful experience. If the BBC can offer its staff trauma-counselling after working on programmes with distressing content, then perhaps they might issue the odd tranquilliser along with their press releases. Last Saturday, Danny Baker was at pains to point out that no cruelty had been visited upon the contestants in Pets Win Prizes (BBC 1, yes, honest . . . No, it wasn't Carlton . . . I'm not making it up. Look, check the bloody Radio Times if you don't believe me). It is surely time that this tender principle was extended to audiences, even if it takes pharmaceuticals to do it.

Like Danny Baker, Jonathan Ross had taken out some insurance, presenting the show as if there was a giant set of inverted quotation marks either side of the autocue. 'Good evening,' he said, 'My name is Michael Winner. What you're about to see is a reconstruction of a panel game that actually happened.' The set was being ironic too, a garish spread of upholstered vinyl which served as an escape hatch in case of emergencies - this isn't trash, it's cult of trash. To confuse matters, the line-up included two of those old-wave comedians which we used to be allowed to laugh at but are now allowed to laugh at again . . . if you see what I mean.

It wasn't bad in the event, a celebration of traditional gag construction in which the contestants are invited to complete proverbs ('Oh what a tangled web we weave . . . here at the Alcoholic Spiders Association') and provide new punchlines to antique feeds ('I wouldn't say he was ugly but . . . he told a girl his father was a boxer and she said 'If people only kept them on leads this sort of thing wouldn't happen' ').

The cutaways to Bob Monkhouse make you wish that television programmes would occasionally transfer to radio, and the presence of the veteran gag-writer John Junkin, as production associate, suggests it isn't quite as spontaneous as it wishes to appear, but it's an affable affair, well sustained by Jonathan Ross and Frank Skinner, both capable of sweet corn even when their jokes don't quite come off.

I would have had more confidence in 'Brazil: A Nation in Football Boots' (BBC 1) if the title hadn't been superimposed on a conspicuously naked foot, a mismatch which suggested a clumsy myopia in the makers. The quotation came from a remark about the national team but the truth of this oddly meandering documentary was that Brazil is a nation without football boots - impoverished, demoralised but sustained (or anaesthetised) by a passion for a game that is played everywhere - in one shot you saw six teenagers huddled on a shanty roof the size of a ping-pong table, effortlessly keeping a ball in the air; even volleyball succumbs to the infection, being played with feet and heads only.

The film was the first in a brief series about nations with sporting obsessions entitled A Whole Different Ball Game. It had been scheduled with a gambler's eye and the bet paid off - the high hopes recorded before the competition were even more moving now that we know they have been fulfilled. 'There are more important things than qualifying for the World Cup,' said one man, 'like qualifying for the First World.' He is the only person in Brazil who believes this. All the rest appear to be convinced that the former is the best hope they have of eventually achieving the latter.

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