Media: Gloves off, this is 'real people' TV: The no-holds-barred style of American tabloid television debates is taking root in Britain. Thomas Quirke watched a programme in the making

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The Independent Online
IT IS 10.45, Friday evening, and across the heartland of England a million viewers are outraged that just about the most popular regional programme on British television is rapidly degenerating into a reasonable discussion.

But then Nicky Campbell, a presenter and Radio 1 DJ, asks Liz what persuaded her to be celibate for 12 years, and Carole, whose caption reads 'Self-confessed sex maniac', says that Liz is talking 'absolute rubbish'. Soon they are at it hammer and tongs. A million channel-changing fingers relax.

Nothing can stop Carole now; on she babbles about keeping sex out of the bedroom. Then she mentions 'a blow-job'. Groans emanate from the director's box, and Nicky turns away as if electrocuted. Central Weekend has just crossed that thin line it treads every Friday after the pubs shut.

Central Weekend, which starts a new run on Friday, promises to be the new face of current affairs as television continues to alter its mission to explain to one of entertainment. Its clones include Granada's Up Front and Tyne-Tees's Late and Live, and an HTV version starts in January. Excerpts from Weekend were shown to an avid audience at an Edinburgh Television Festival session on 'real people' shows, the hottest genre around.

Already, Central's live 90- minute show is the most talked- about programme in its vast region: during its transmission, the runaway MP John Stonehouse suffered a heart attack; a furrier attacked an animal rights activist; a Birmingham fireman forced an Iraqi ambassador into retreat. It has been praised as the best discussion programme on British television, and denounced as not far from 'throwing the Christians to the lions'.

Tuesday morning at Central's Birmingham studios, and the 15- strong production team is bouncing ideas around. The series producer, Doug Carnegie, a wiry 41- year-old Aberdonian, wants a Scottish vs English debate but is less enthusiastic about student loans. 'We can't find a sociology graduate on the game in Sparkbrook,' he complains.

As in the programme itself, everyone jumps in with views, and are sidetracked into personal feuds. The editor, Mike 'Tiger' Townson, stocky, with a shock of grey hair, is keen to develop a tale in the tabloids. 'We have got to end up with a wife who has a sick note from her doctor, excusing her from sex,' he insists.

Television has become too predictable, Mr Carnegie believes. 'Those who can handle a lively debate, like John Prescott, will appear on our show. Edwina Currie did not do us for two years after she found herself facing angry patients when she was a minister.' Central Weekend, he says, re-creates the danger of early television when Bernard Levin could get punched live on That Was The Week That Was.

Such confrontation is a speciality of American tabloid television: Steve Donleavy, host of A Current Affair, confronted a woman in the Kennedy rape case with a photograph of herself indulging in oral sex, and she attacked him; Geraldo Rivera interviewed mothers who claimed to have bred babies for satanic sacrifice; the infamous Morton Downey Jnr subjected guests to sneers and insults.

Mr Carnegie rejects any comparison. 'We're not like Morton Downey, who got taken off the air. We're not into fakery, because the public sniffs it right away and switches off. All we do is pick up on what people are concerned about, put them in a studio, close the door, and let them argue it out with the gloves off . . . But some media people feel we're a conspiracy against understanding.'

The veteran television journalist Richard Lindley wrote in the magazine Airwaves that the programme was 'all good rollicking fun', but 'what will happen when unrestricted competition comes to ITV? How much of a danger is it that American-style shlock and sleaze entertainment will drive out the information and education element that's so much a part of current affairs at the moment?'

Mr Carnegie has no time for critics. 'The only people who have a problem with us are those who feel that debates on television are definitive, sort of 'after the break, we solve Third World hunger'. In 25 minutes you barely scratch the surface. The debates start when the programme ends.' Indeed. After an edition about crime, the debate continued at the police station for one member of the audience (he was arrested as he left the studio, having been recognised by a policeman).

Central Weekend's audiences are not the respectable ones the BBC has on Question Time, as the Iraqi ambassador to France, Abdul Razzak al-Hashimi, discovered. A fireman in the audience barracked him: 'This guy's talking crap.' The envoy gathered up his papers and left, muttering about ungentlemanly behaviour.

Thursday morning, and the cast for the sex debate is finalised. 'I just think,' says Doug, 'that an ex-nun who has got pregnant 16 times is inescapably good TV.' The Scottish item is proving more problematic. 'We need somebody pissing on the Scots from a great height,' he says.

The team scatters to round up the usual suspects, including the regulars who can be relied upon to 'do the business'. Some of those invited are innocents, who vow never to repeat the experience. As dozens of guests are required, this is not cheap television: each edition costs pounds 40,000, which is a lot of late-night movies.

Friday afternoon, and Wendy, the producer, is wrestling with the 'song sheet' that will guide Nicky through the debate on sex. 'Have we got the lesbians in yet?' she asks anxiously. Nicky asks her about a line he has thought of to say: 'You think about sex 12 times an hour, you have sex 12 times a day and you haven't had sex in 12 years.' Wendy has been ordered to prevent Carole saying 'blow-job'. 'We don't want the clitoral geography,' Doug says.

Half past nine, and guests pack the Green Room. The Sun columnist Gary Bushell is drinking Carling Black Label from a can. 'It is the best discussion programme in Britain,' he says. The audience has arrived in the canteen. 'People don't come on Central Weekend to behave like Question Time, where you ask questions on a card,' Doug tells them. 'If you have a point of view, it's as valid as anybody else's, so get your hand in the air.'

At 10.40, the credits roll, the band strikes up and the doors slide back to disgorge three prancing presenters. Up in the director's box, Doug prowls restlessly, surfing on adrenalin, clutching the microphone through which he whispers instructions to his presenters.

When Carole and Liz start arguing, Doug whispers: 'Just let it go, Nicky.' Nicky lets it go, but it goes too far. 'My boyfriend has been on the phone,' Carole chirrups, 'and I've given him a blow-job . . .' Panic in the director's box. 'Oh God, off her,' Doug hisses into Nicky's ear. Wendy senses a blip in her career. 'I told her,' she whispers.

The second debate - on the NHS - is as dull as Doug feared, despite his cajoling of the presenter: 'Use the audience, look for the spat.' The concluding Scottish debate is much more lively. Mr Bushell says that 'sour- faced vixens' such as Muriel Gray should be 'kicked back over Hadrian's Wall', and Margo MacDonald, Scottish National MP turned television reporter, responds in kind.

Up in the box, Doug is well pleased. Down in the Green Room, though, Ivan Lawrence, a local Tory MP, is complaining that Central Weekend is infuriating. 'It deals with very important issues from an entertainment point of view.' He had been on one programme with 'visitors from another planet'. But he admits that politicians cannot ignore its vast audience. 'People who don't give a damn about politics watch it, and that's good in a democracy.'

Margo MacDonald, who would like to present something similar on Scottish Television, gives a professional's verdict. 'Sex, the NHS and prejudice,' she purrs. 'Quite a good mix for a show like this.'

(Photograph omitted)