Television and the Young: Prime Minister flunks the couch potato test: Tom Sutcliffe, Arts Editor, offers a personal view in the debate

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The Independent Online
WE SHOULD, I suppose, be grateful that the Prime Minister doesn't watch much television - he has more important things to worry about than whether he is going to be home in time for Noel's House Party.

But you would think that before he made an important statement about broadcasting standards, a minor civil servant might have been seconded to act as Assistant Couch Potato or even just to flick through back copies of the Radio Times. The truth is that though Mr Major talks of 'a relentless diet of violence' on our screens, British broadcast television is far more genteel, far more cautious than it was 15 years ago.

Where a teenager in 1978 could have planned his evening's viewing around Starsky and Hutch, The Professionals and The Sweeney - all programmes with a large appetite for the more spectacular flesh wounds, his contemporary counterpart would have to make do with the more cerebral Miss Marple, Inspector Morse and prime- ministerially approved Poirot.

You might even trace the gentrification of television through the progression of one of its stars, John Thaw, from hard-case Flying Squad officer (Regan in Sweeney) to opera-loving detective Morse to retired advertising executive in the south of France in A Year in Provence.

On the evidence of last week's Radio Times the violence appears not so much relentless as virtually undetectable. True, last Saturday's Casualty had to be moved past the nine o'clock watershed because of its content, a shift that prompted an apologetic concession of error from Alan Yentob, the new controller of BBC 1. But for the rest of the weekend the most violent offerings would appear to have been Rugby League from Headingley and The Big Fight on ITV.

However, on Monday, in A Secret World of Sex, pre-war rape victims talked about their ordeals and Panorama reported on the case of a woman who killed her two children after an early discharge from a psychiatric ward; on Thursday First Sight dealt with office bullies and, in The Bill, a blind woman had to identify her assailant; on Friday Public Eye investigated cases of female patients in mental hospitals being sexually attacked by other inmates.

Barring a screening of Lethal Weapon on Monday, then, and a murderous episode of Taggart the violence was confined to documentaries reporting on Britain today or to drama series which venture some social realism.

Deregulation has kept up the body count - you could see films like Terminator 2 and Maniac Cop on Sky Movies. From these offerings and what is available in video stores it is possible to construct an evening of 'relentless violence'. The programmers behind those schedules, though, sit not in BBC and ITV offices but on couches in ordinary British homes.

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