Give us back our Saturday night telly

ITV and the Beeb are failing to keep us glued to the gogglebox. The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise and Anthea Redfern are long gone. Now all we have to look forward to is Pop Idol and - oh, no! - the return of Noel Edmonds. Who's to blame, asks Brian Viner
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The Independent Online

What a shock for Britain to hear the seismic news that Noel Edmonds is planning a television comeback. It was reported that the creator of Mr Blobby had, with characteristic immodesty, compared himself with the five-times Olympic gold-medallist Sir Steve Redgrave. Just as Redgrave once said that if he ever got into a boat again we had permission to shoot him, so Edmonds had said, following a bust-up in 1999 with the then-controller of BBC1, Peter Salmon, that he would never again enter a TV studio.

Redgrave famously came out of self-imposed exile to row his way to yet another Olympic gold - which is evidently where Edmonds sees a significant parallel. "I'm doing a bit of a Steve Redgrave," he said. Arguably, there will be those who will wish the parallel to be even closer. As they digest the news that the 54-year-old, one-time king of light entertainment does now intend to re-enter a TV studio, they will doubtless be thinking: "Dammit, if only he'd done a bit more of a Steve Redgrave and given us permission, if ever he went into a studio again, to shoot him."

By toying with this ungenerous thought I am, of course, merely obeying one of the Ten Commandments of broadsheet journalism: thou shalt not write anything nice about Noel Edmonds. Or, at the very least, thou shalt take the piss mercilessly out of his beard and/or his Eighties taste in knitwear.

But in truth I am rather fond of him, not least for brightening up my Saturday mornings from 1976 onwards with Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. Those were the days. And those were also the days of Saturday nights. Even if you loathe Edmonds, it is hard to take issue with his observation that, "TV used to be very special. We've made it unspecial by digging up one or two gardens too many, or painting one or two rooms too often. I always had 'people' shows, but we didn't just point a camera at someone and say 'entertain us'."

Indeed. And the television companies are painfully aware that they are getting it wrong, or at any rate, not getting it right. A spiritualist advised Cilla Black that she should quit Blind Date, and the suits might consider consulting that spiritualist too, in the hope that she will offer a rosier glimpse of the future. The Director-General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, has conceded that, "it would be nice to have a new entertainment show on Saturday nights which could pick up between eight and 10 million viewers. That's not there at the moment, and it is a priority for us to get that right."

In the meantime, even making allowances for the time of year - summer being a traditionally thin time for programming - the Saturday-night schedules are underwhelming, and decidedly over-reliant on feature films.

Tomorrow, on BBC1, a Weakest Link Special (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is followed by Fame Academy II Live, The National Lottery: Winning Lines, a Fame Academy II update, the film Apollo 13, the news and weather, and then another film, Rambo: First Blood Part II.

By way of competition, ITV1 offers You've Been Framed! (a title which manifestly applies to those viewers who believe that anyone would just happen to have their camcorder trained on a man repairing a roof, or a cat asleep on top of the television), followed by news and weather, The Sketch Show, the film Twister (about two meteorologists on the brink of divorce... Pardon me while I cancel my dinner plans), The Vault (eight contestants have to guess the combination of a safe), It Shouldn't Happen to a Royal Reporter, The Sketch Show again, more news and weather, and then, at 11.15pm, Fortysomething.

The much-publicised shunting of this last programme, a comedy-drama starring Hugh Laurie, shows how dangerously in thrall schedulers have become to overnight ratings. It was dropped from its peak-time slot on Sundays after only two episodes. Even in the ruthless business of Premiership football, expensive signings are allowed more time than that to prove themselves.

But at least the ITV1 executives can argue that theirs is a fully commercial operation. Their BBC counterparts are supposed to be running a public service, yet they too react to the arrival of the overnights like terriers to the arrival of the postman. And, just like terriers, they bark, snap, get hold of the wrong end of the stick, and, in an almost entirely metaphorical sense, sniff each others' bottoms, while at home we forlornly contemplate the question: whatever happened to Saturday night telly?

Of course, the question presupposes that Saturday nights used to be something to cherish. And one should be wary of such a presupposition. The TV schedules, like pretty much everything else, look a sight prettier when lit by the pink glow of nostalgia. But who can honestly say that an evening of Bruce Forsyth's version of The Generation Game, with a gaily twirling Anthea Redfern, followed by Morecambe and Wise, followed by the news, Match of the Day and Parkinson (with the Fred Astaires of this world as his guests, rather than the Jeremy Clarksons), is not worth a heavy, rueful sigh?

Actually, television historian Mark Lewisohn can. "I remember asking my mother: 'Why are the Saturday night TV schedules so crap?'," he says. "Seaside Special? All that dreadful variety? When The Black and White Minstrel Show came on in our house, it was always time to switch off and do something else. Traditionally, Saturday-night TV goes back to the days of variety. Bill Cotton, who ran BBC1 for years, was the son of the bandleader Billy Cotton. And Saturday nights still follow that theatrical tradition, although I don't know why. Everything else has changed, but that hasn't. Now it's just crap of a different kind, although perhaps to be avoided even more."

Indubitably, he has a point. Another member of a showbiz dynasty who wound up running BBC1, Cotton's protégé Michael Grade, admits that he used to put together his Saturday-night schedules like a variety bill. The problem is: what used to be a facsimile is now a facsimile of a facsimile. Through no fault of their own, today's executives and performers were not brought up in a theatrical tradition, and it shows.

"The theory in television is that people get what they want," says Saturday-night icon Ronnie Corbett. "The cry is always, 'We're giving them what they want.' But perhaps they're not. I think the problems began when they started lighting the audiences. Suddenly, the focus was no longer on the performance, the writing and the preparation, but on the audience.

"When Ron [Ronnie Barker] and I did The Two Ronnies, each programme took a week to prepare, and eight programmes had been made before the first went out, giving us more time to change things if we needed to. Eric [Morecambe] and Ernie [Wise] used to rehearse for three weeks before each show. And the Beeb at that time lavished production values on us. That's not there now... Although I must say that my wife is a big fan of Casualty.

"The other thing that made a big difference was that we had all done a tremendous amount of theatre work," Corbett continues. "I was 37, with 17 years of pantos and concert parties behind me, before my face was even recognised. So we were very aware of what an audience wanted, and were a bit stricter with ourselves than they seem to be now. We turned up sober, and we turned up on time."

Corbett was thrilled to see a blow being struck for his generation in the acclaimed recent performance, as guest host of Have I Got News For You, of his golfing buddy Bruce Forsyth. Although team captain Ian Hislop spent much of the show looking as though he was trapped in a small room with a bad smell, Forsyth, watched by a plainly impressed Paul Merton, brilliantly demonstrated that old-stagers never die, they just get better at playing an audience.

"But the thing that most worried me, just before I went on," Forsyth tells me, "was the kind of audience that would be out there. It hadn't occurred to me to worry before, but I suddenly thought: 'These people who write in for tickets, they like satirical humour, humour with a bit of an edge. I wonder how this crowd will take to me?' But within five minutes they were just like a game-show audience."

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there for the suits, that a show can make an audience, but an audience can't make a show. It also occurs to me that if punters expecting topical satire can undergo such a metamorphosis, perhaps it can work the other way round. Ian Hislop for Play Your Cards Right, anyone?

Meanwhile, as also happened to Bob Monkhouse after he appeared on HIGNFY, Brucie suddenly finds himself back in vogue. "I've got a few meetings with people and things are in the melting pot again," he says. "It has been a very exciting time for me these past few weeks, as exciting as it's been for years." Bless him. And bless Hat Trick Productions, the makers of HIGNFY, for asking him (although for them it was a no-lose situation: triumph or disaster, did they have newsworthiness for us).

Unsurprisingly, Forsyth is not at the moment inclined to play the popular old tune about how things were better way back when. And he declares himself genuinely awestruck by the slick professionalism of the HIGNFY team. "There are three producers on that show who really know what it's all about," he says. From an old pro, there is no higher praise.

But, at the same time, he gives an instructive insight into the working practices of Saturday-night telly in the Seventies. Each edition of The Generation Game took five long days to prepare, and on Tuesdays, the day of recording, the team spent at least 12 hours in the studio. These days, the exigencies of television make such time and expense nigh on impossible.

Nor, arguably, is there quite the same level of devotion. In the basement of an old synagogue in Soho, oddly enough, I once spent a day watching Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer rehearsing an edition of Shooting Stars. Morecambe and Wise, with whom the pair are sometimes compared, would have thought it a decidedly slapdash carry-on. On the other hand, Shooting Stars had precisely what Bruce Forsyth believes such shows should strive for. "If it looks as though they've just walked on and had a bit of fun, that's exactly what it should look like. Nobody watching should realise all the hard work that's gone into it."

When you find yourself pining for Shooting Stars, it really is a sign that Saturday nights have gone to the dogs. "I think that maybe what's missing now is the wonderful variety of shows we used to have," continues Brucie. There's that word again: variety. Anathema to Lewisohn, perhaps, but still, when deployed properly, the essence of a good Saturday-night schedule.

"At 5.15pm it was Dr Who, at 5.45pm The Generation Game, then The Duchess of Duke Street, then The Two Ronnies or maybe Morecambe and Wise, Match of the Day and Parkinson. Or was Parkinson before Match of the Day, Brian? Brian?"

There is a fleeting silence at the other end of the telephone, where a nostalgic swoon has overwhelmed me at the very mention of The Duchess of Duke Street. I wonder if it was really any good?