NO-HEADLINE

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The guilty secret of television reviewers, I can reveal at the end of my week in the job, is that they don't watch the box like normal folk. In part it's a bit like the illusion that a restaurant critic is just an ordinary bod out for a meal. I once spent a week with Egon Ronay's chief inspector and can tell you that after two three-course meals a day and a different hotel room every night, your "ordinary punter" perspective dwindles rapidly.

But it's more than that. Reviewers get the programmes in advance on video. There are advantages to this. You give due consideration, sitting in front of the screen with a pen and pad, and are able to wind back the puzzling bits. Yet most people watch TV while doing the ironing. Or they surf the channels, half-bored, half-hoping to find something vaguely interesting. So on Saturday, I decided to get real. After a day out Christmas shopping, I began with All Rise for Julian Clary (BBC2) and watched the entire thing with a horrified, hypnotised fascination at the sheer awfulness of it. Now, I am/was a Clary fan - witty, self-revelatory, dangerous and vulnerable, as he once was. But this was banal in the extreme.

On a set which looked like that of a cheap ITV game show, he flipped his way without conviction, evidently reading the autocue, through a rackful of material which was flat and vacuous. The audience seemed to sense, despite its occasional hysterical hoot, that this was a scene of desperation. His badly edited filmed interviews with members of the Red Devils parachute team consisted of nothing but tenth-rate doubles entendres. The Army "privates" (geddit) Clary was interviewing, banana in hand, endured it all with polite bewilderment. Perhaps they thought it was some obscure Parachute Regiment test of their ability to accept authority unquestioningly. Instead of scrutinising his own ambiguity, Clary was after cheap laughs by embarrassing ordinary punters. Watching reminded me why people go out on Saturday nights.

The problem, I thought, as I went in search of the ironing board, was that Clary was not doing what he was good at. Still I decided to persevere and just watch whatever was on. When I returned to the screen, "controversial" performance poetry was in full flood in Vice and Verse - Murray Lachlan Young (BBC2). I gave him the benefit of the doubt but was eventually forced to the conclusion that this sub-Berkovian high-octane Edinburgh-fringe stuff was all performance and no poetry. I surfed channels. Nothing. A quick flash of Paradise Lost (BBC2) confirmed me in my earlier view that a film about the trial of three teenagers convicted for the murder of three eight-year-olds in Arkansas in 1994 was too grim after the end of a hard week. Even the ironing could not dilute the poverty of the available offerings. So I decided to give up my experiment with real television, and turned to a preview video of last night's Lily Savage Show (BBC1).

This was altogether superior to the Clary. Paul O'Grady plays Lily Savage with the technical accomplishment of Danny La Rue but with the added virtue of an honest anarchic wit. There was an irreverence and warmth to his long stand-up routine at the start. It was there too in the home-video scenes which followed, but was becoming more strained and panto-like in the scenes after that in which Lily became a magician's assistant to Paul Daniels. And it was stretched to breaking point in the supermarket song and dance number which ended the show. Play to your strengths seemed to be the night's recurring moral.

The same was true - back to live TV - of The Sundays (C4), a late night show reviewing the Sunday papers. Fielding others' opinions, generously larded with insertions of his own, is what Melvyn Bragg is very good at.

Panellists had been chosen - in the personages of Helena Kennedy, Francis Wheen, Kirsty Young and Richard Littlejohn - for political insight, wit, glamour and vitriol. They, too, stuck to what they were good at and did not try unduly to score points off each other. The result was pacey and entertaining yet not unintelligent. More please.

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