TELEVISION REVIEW / Long live the corpse in the high-backed armchair

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The Independent Culture
ANOTHER weekend, another theme night. No complaints, but where will it end? The evening of programmes about Liechtenstein or concise crosswords or door-to-door insurance salesmen cannot be far off.

But Saturday's ATV Night was one of the best, and that BBC 2 should be the host channel put an enjoyable ironic spin on the entertainment. (ITV, of course, was far too busy screening modern triumphs - Scavengers, Celebrity Squares, Columbo - to celebrate the birth of its own baby.) If my reading of television history is correct, BBC 2, which broadcast its own anniversary night recently, was introduced partly to wrest the initiative from ITV, a network which was itself set up to challenge the hegemony of what we now call BBC 1.

Years later, and the studio and format of The Late Show, that genetically perfect offspring of BBC 2, is used for an interview of Lord Lew Grade, the founder of ATV, conducted by his nephew, Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4. Is terrestrial television running a cartel or what?

The shape of these evenings is showing signs of arthritis. A to Z of ATV, for example, followed the now tiring formula for pooling as many memories as possible in the smallest possible space: A for action, B for bathtime, C for classic; D is for do we need yet more alphabetised nostalgia? Unlike Granada, which not long ago enjoyed a similar homage from Auntie, ATV was a snug fit for the theme night; as the creation of one man, it lends itself to succinct summary.

Craig Ferguson's spoof tribute, The Last Action Series, stripped down all the ATV classics to their bare essentials to point out that, whatever the name on the credits, the shows were essentially identical. In highly generic successes like Danger Man, The Persuaders, The Saint and Jason King, the staple elements of plotting cropped up hilariously again and again: the apparently slumbering corpse in the high-backed armchair, the casino, the girl in a wrap with a bikini underneath, the car crashing over the cliff, the implausibly long syringe, the French dialogue.

In the end, the only difference between these shows was the haircuts: Danger Man's was straight out of Jermyn Street, Jason King's looked like a topiary of a hippopotamus on its hindlegs. In the end, all eras are carbon dated by coiffure.

The centrepiece of the evening was The Persuader: The TV Times of Lord Lew Grade, in which young Michael listened to his uncle's stories with the fixed grin of someone who may well have heard the one about selling Jesus of Nazareth to America for dollars 25m, 25 times before. But for those who hadn't, Grade (ne Louis Winogradsky, Russia, 1906) was as exuberant as any of the programmes he had the foresight to spawn. Of Raise the Titanic, which stiffed even more spectacularly than I Am Going to Be a Customs and Excise Officer, he said 'it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic'. You'd never catch John Birt exuding such charisma.

For some reason, the effect on ATV of the advent of colour went undiscussed, but for anyone who saw the whole evening out it was plain to see. While Danger Man, trading on the paranoia of the Cold War, looked just right in sombre black-and-white, glorious technicolor suited Grade's programmes more than anyone else's. Some ATV shows introduced your set to hues it probably never knew existed. In The Best of This Is Tom Jones, the Pontypridd beefcake was seen looking like a frilly zip-up medium-to- rare kebab, in an outfit that even Jason King might have thought twice about. The Muppet Show, in comparison, was practically monochrome.