The televisual equivalent is The Royal Variety Performance (BBC1, Sunday), an event that seemed archaic a quarter of a century ago. It should be held in the grounds of Windsor Castle, or merged with the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, to become the Royal Variety Tattoo. Tourists would flock to it. American cable stations would buy it.
In form it is practically the last reminder of the days of music hall, when jugglers, singers and vaudeville acts packed them in from Camden Town to Inverness. As translated to TV it became a place for sequined dance troupes, ventriloquists, TV comedians and dancing dogs; a varied bill of fare which was bound to produce something that the average viewer would like, even if they thought most of the acts were execrable rubbish.
Today the whole notion of "Variety" seems bizarre. We already have it; our lives are stuffed with it. Supermarkets do not just offer "variety", but a cornucopia. You can buy 20 different types of instant cappuccino, 20,000 different music CDs, a million books. Our problem - unlike our distant ancestors in the Fifties - is not variety; our problem is choice.
And yet, there it was. Jill Dando, showing more teeth than a Great White, stood outside the Dominion ("in the heart of London") and took us through the presentation of the nobs to HRH the Prince of Wales. Lady Delfont (whose first name - unaccountably - is Bernard) and Chunky Redface from Apollo Entertainment (or something) were in the line-up, rubbing shoulders with the great cultural tsars of the BBC. An awkward moment came when the Prince of Wales, introduced to Alan Yentob, forgot to bow. The age of deference is indeed dead.
The show? The show. The show started with "Ray Shell, ladies and gentlemen, and the Royal Variety Company performing One Nation!" This was not a song with lyrics by Benjamin Disraeli and music by Chris Patten, but a dreadful dance costumed and choreographed by Dame Barbara Cartland. People in weird amalgams of national dress pranced around to a confused medley of sounds taken from various musical cultures: Japanese flamenco dancers, Scottish Greeks and Zulu Eskimos can-canned and line-danced until the audience at home had all switched off - and then stopped.
Then we had a sliver of circus, Steve Coogan as Tony Ferrino doing a pastiche performance of a Tom Jones number, a gobbet of ballet, Jim Davidson, a ventriloquist, the brilliant Joan Rivers and the wonderful Jackie Mason, and - finally - Tom Jones himself. Jones is no longer young, and has been singing exactly the same songs for 30 years now; songs done and redone by others in cover versions. As I watched him going through the motions of "Delilah", I wondered whether it wasn't time for him to release some more cover versions of his own. Tom Jones singing "Anarchy in the UK" perhaps, or attempting some Bjork numbers - now that would be variety.
It would also provide some extra material for the latest addition to the Have I Got News For You and They Think It's All Over stable of risque pseudo-gameshows, the pop quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks (BBC2, Tuesday). This could be the kiss of death for a programme aimed, presumably, at quite a young audience, but I really liked it. Mark Lamarr chaired with the deadpan efficiency of the early Deayton, and had some very tightly scripted and funny links. And, although I had no idea who most of the panellists were ("Matt Priest, drummer with Dodgy" could just as easily have been "Dodgy Matt, drummer with Priest"), they seemed amiable and inventive.
Ancient listeners to Radio 4's veteran I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue will have recognised the general idea behind the best games. These included Guess the Words in unintelligible pop songs, such as Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up"; Guess the Song From the Dance, in which Ray Shell's Cartland dancers and their forebears were shown cavorting silently, and the guests had to work out what the original song was; and Guess Who, where middle-ranking pop sensations of yesteryear were put in a line-up, and had to be identified (which, poignantly, they never were).
One of the most famous mis-identifications in literary history is when Prince Edward, later King Edward VI, and the pauper Thomas Canty got swapped over. In the mid-Sixties I walked five miles with my mate Michael Peet, all the way to the Gaumont, Camden Town (once a music hall - see above), to see the Disney version of Mark Twain's story. That was good, but the latest The Prince And The Pauper (BBC1, Sunday) was better. Above all, the furniture was marvellous - something that you only notice when you get older.
Naturally, when I was a child, there were questions of credibility that I simply didn't ask. How come that - after years of domestic violence and abuse, poor diet, rickets, scurvy, scrofula and rat-bites - poor Tom looked exactly like rich Edward? And, more pressing - given the historical accuracy now insisted upon by the wardrobe department - what on earth could have persuaded the prince to don the fetching, but tight and doubtless sweaty, light green cod-piece worn by his doppleganger? I've been a 10- year-old boy, and I wouldn't have done it. You could have had a lend of my Zorro sword, but I never would have worn your knickers.
Errol Flynn might have, though. For, as Secret Lives: Errol Flynn (Channel 4, Monday) revealed, Errol was a bad boy. The only problem was that we knew all this already. Indeed, most of us also know that if we'd looked like Errol Flynn, we'd have been pretty bad as well. This is a truth, however, which eluded the makers of the programme. The story of how Flynn bonked 12,000 women, got pissed a lot, sailed round the world, starred in loads of movies and died at the age of 50, was told as though written by the Moral Affairs Editor of the Daily Mail. "He had begun experimenting with drugs," the soundtrack intoned. Hands up who hasn't. As for the assertion that "we can now reveal that Flynn lied" over the accusation of statutory rape (ie sex with an underage girl), on which charge he was acquitted after the war, this was just sloppy journalism. No evidence which would have been in any way sufficient to overturn the acquittal was produced.
The most interesting thing that we discovered about Flynn was that the myths about him were probably untrue. The foot-long appendage (certainly sold to me as an abso- lute fact) was, in reality, a "stubby" thing of average dimension; and he wasn't a spy for the Nazis either. He was just a man who knew how to enjoy himself.
As is Gordon Perrier. Gordon was the first dinner-party host to throw his doors open to the presenter of TV Dinners (Channel 4, Thursday), and allow the preparations for his dinner party - and the event itself - to be filmed. It is hard to do justice to Gordon's exquisite taste, to his care, to his enjoyment of preparing things and situations for others. From the iced grapes, to the fish soup, to the new dining table, to the pudding-coloured dining chairs, to the eight glasses per person, to his generosity about his brother's role in the party, to his quiet satisfaction at the pleasure of others, Gordon was a joy; a real mensch.
In the spirit of The Real Holiday Show and Moving People, TV Dinners tells the tales of non-celebrities' dinner parties. It does so with the help of a young man with spectacles, an Albert Einstein haircut, dirty trousers and the unforgettable name of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. His links are not great, his screen appearance unprepossessing, but he has one enormous (and often under-rated) talent - that of bringing out the best in his interviewees. It is this authenticity, this sympathetic reality, that people want from telly today, rather than distant, ancient glitz. Our little toes might be disappearing, but the organs of empathy are not in decline.Reuse content