TELEVISION / Nostalgia simply ain't what it used to be

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The Independent Culture
DOES ANYONE have a clue what Danny Baker's on? Apart from a salary comparable to what Millwall got for Tony Cascarino, that is. You consume the unique contributions of the BBC's Golden Verbals to our national culture, and have to assume that he has access to some wonder-drug, like the one in Brave New World, that makes everything look as cheerful as it is cheap.

He must have supplied some to Alan Yentob, who seems to have been lulled into becoming Baker's biggest fan. Alan is obviously obsessively addicted to elasticated alliteration, or he wouldn't supply a series to someone whom he hopes will transform into tomorrow's Terry Wogan.

Baker is already looking like today's Wogan, a one-trick pony with an incurable strain of verbal diarrhoea. His one trick is a nostalgia for the forgettable. When some like-minded 10-year-old grows up into a yakking television historian, he'll pay mock homage to Baker as Baker has done to the icons of his youth in TV Heroes.

The mini-film will say that here was a man whose entire career was built on the pursuit of trivia (plus a fanaticism for Millwall, which amounts to the same thing).

It will add that he made a chat show that fed ravenously on all the chat shows that had gone before, and then he made a game show that scavenged frenziedly from all the game shows that had gone before, and that eventually he disappeared up his own retrospection.

Obituaries will observe that there is a fine line between celebrating the past and living in it, between deep nostalgia and shallow ideas for wallowing in it, and that Baker was more often than not to be found on the wrong side of the line. Merchant Ivory made a nostalgic biopic, which won an Oscar for best costumes. The shaggy, balding Danny Baker doll, complete with autocue, also sold well.

Bygones (BBC 1) is that game show. It's hard to sum up the full scope of its ambition in a sentence, but its host introduced it as 'an eclectic electric bearpit of recollection'. Shorter words that are just as suitable hove into view, if not into print.

A show that celebrates yesteryear's ephemera aptly offers a smattering of yesteryear's stars, plus Carol Thatcher, the daughter of one. Barbara Windsor and Paul Morley impressed in the section on Barbie dolls, while their captain, Rick Wakeman, just sat between them wearing one of those game-show jackets that only the truly uncharismatic can get away with.

Over on the other team we had celebs-for-hire, plus Carol Thatcher, who is the daughter of one. Frank Bruno sat on what must have been a footstool, trying not to look twice the size of the set. Craig Ferguson did his manic best to ensure that, in the brief to provide 'light entertainment', the 'light' didn't beat the 'entertainment' hands down. This involved not answering any of the questions correctly. For Carol Thatcher, it involved not answering any of the questions at all. Rarely in the history of the game show has a panellist looked so convinced that there must be better ways to earn a living. If only that thought had occurred to her mother. And, come to that, to Golden Verbals.

There was one well-worked joke about misreading the autocue, in which the announcement of 'Round 2, dummies' was corrected to 'Round 2: dummies', before the panellists tried to identify a wax effigy.

But in the antediluvian age of television that this show remembers, there would never have been a bone-baring gag about autocues, and the post-modern Danny Baker would have been flogging soap powder in a supermarket rather than on the box. Let Bygones be bygones.

The flashy Europe Express (C4) took the baton from the, er, trashy Eurotrash (C4). What both programmes have in common is the facility of foreign presenters with the English tongue. Obviously, if other countries' presenters are too clever by half they just send them over here. It's time we returned the compliment.

Thomas Sutcliffe returns on Monday