Formulaic TV is what people want

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The Independent Online

The BBC Trust, after reviewing the output of the Corporation's flagship television channels, BBC1 and BBC2, has arrived at the conclusion that they are showing too many programmes that are "formulaic" and "derivative". This news was given widespread media coverage yesterday, and we can only hope that media organisations will show the same degree of interest in the forthcoming announcement from senior sources at the Vatican, who, once they have completed their review of the output of Pope Benedict XVI, will feel obliged to report that he is overwhelmingly Catholic.

Formulaic and derivative? Couldn't they have said something less, you know, derivative and formulaic? Couldn't they have accused BBC1 and BBC2 of boring the viewers with too many penguins and microwaves or something, rather than simply echoing precisely the words that ordinary licence-payers have been uttering for years?

Why bother with an official review when they could just have cut out a random selection of letters from the Radio Times? Incidentally, when I tell people that as part of my working week I review television programmes, they quite often recoil with horror, and make me wish that I had owned up to something less offensive, like lighting up cigarettes for beagles in an underground laboratory. "Television's rubbish," they say accusingly, as though they hold me personally responsible. "There's absolutely nothing worth watching."

This, of course, is itself rubbish. I keep a closer eye on programming than most people, and can testify that there are plenty of marvellous things to watch. How many of them find their way on to BBC1 and BBC2, however, and for that matter ITV1, Channel 4 and Five, is debatable. More and more, the best of BBC television is to be found on BBC3 and BBC4, and BBC1 in particular is almost entirely formula-driven, not that there's anything remotely new about that, as the high-minded worthies on the BBC Trust seem to think.

Besides, is there anything intrinsically wrong with a formula? Isn't penicillin manufactured according to a formula? Isn't Coca-Cola? Formulae work, that's why they're formulae. And working, in this context, means decent viewing figures, which some of the most "formulaic and derivative" programmes continue to attract.

But let's get back to that underground lab. If you keep offering laboratory rats food that instinctively they dislike, eventually they'll not only eat it, but eschew the stuff that they used to prefer.

Alan Plater died the other day. He was a fantastic writer and a kind, interesting, companiable man, whom I had the pleasure to know slightly. It was heartening to see how much space he got in the obituary pages, but also a little dispiriting, because much of it was taken up by his many and varied drama credits, a reminder of what we used to have, and what we have lost. As television gains more and more history, inevitably it becomes more formulaic and derivative. The trick is to choose the right formulae, and derive from the best, not the worst.









Don't put all your eggs in one suitcase

A fellow poultry-fancier was on the radio the other day, saying how intelligent and likeable her chickens are. She obviously fancies them more than I do. We have a flock of 10 and they are singularly brainless birds. In fact, my son Joe has a goldfish and every one of the chickens makes the fish look like Dr Jonathan Miller.

The woman on the radio gives names to hers, which I confess we used to do when we started keeping them eight years ago, but you really can't form a relationship with a creature of limited intelligence that runs around aimlessly all day, not unless you're married to ... no, we'd better keep England footballers out of this.

All that said, we have a couple of legbars that lay perfect eggs of bluey-green, the kind of shade that wasn't artificially produced until Mr Farrow met Mr Ball, so respect to them for that. And indeed respect to the whole flock for their laying prowess, which in the summer months reaches a height of at least eight eggs a day. Even in an egg-centric household such as ours, this means that supply far outstrips demand, with the result that on every trip I find myself carrying boxes of eggs to give away to friends, relatives, and even, in egg-stremis, perfect strangers.

I promise only one more egg-related pun, and it relates to a journey I made yesterday, with the usual box of eggs, swaddled in tea-towels, in my suitcase. I suppose it was always likely to happen, and it happened spectacularly, four out of six eggs smashing in transit and their runny insides somehow soaking into every item of clothing. I thought instantly of a millionaire friend of mine, an astute entrepreneur who manages to turn every incident in his life, bad as well as good, into a commercial opportunity. My hope is that he will back my plans for a new fragrance for men: Hommelette.









It's lucky for me that England are out



This time tomorrow, either the Germans or the Spanish will be cock-a-hoop, while either the Germans or the Spanish will feel utterly bereft. Love it or loathe it, the World Cup has the power to lift or distress a nation like nothing else, especially in its closing stages. That is why I have decided to be grateful for the fact that England were exposed, so early on, as no-hopers. The resilience of (comparative) youth got me through the heartbreak of 1990, but I'm not robust enough for another semi-final trial by penalty shoot-out.



Alex James is away

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