It's the traditional time for diets, and I'd like to suggest one for a medium that has been suffering from appalling middle-aged spread for quite a while now. It bulges where it shouldn't bulge and the old outfits just won't fit anymore. I'm talking about television, and, in particular, Famous and Fearless, the very noisy exercise in "event television" with which Channel 4 is plugging that exhausted gap between the Christmas specials and the resumption of January normality. If you haven't seen it yet (it concludes tonight) it's a grand action extravaganza in which neither word in the title really means what it says. Vaguely Recognisable and Game for a Laugh might get a little closer. Or Who's That and Why Is That Dangerous?, perhaps.
The idea is that celebrities take part in urban sports (street-luging, BMX riding, ram-raiding etc), competing to win glory and money for their nominated charity. Everything plays out live in an arena somewhere in Liverpool, in front of a gladiatorial audience, with Chris Evans and Clare Balding frantically pumping up a largely synthetic sense of hazard.
Why Famous and Fearless is relevant, though, is not because it's uniquely unsightly, but because it's so typically flabby. It began and will end with a two-hour episode and the four in between last an hour and 35 minutes each. There is a sort of mitigation for this length, though it's not a very dignified one. Famous and Fearless looks as if it's fairly expensive to mount (even if it's a relative bargain compared to original drama). So it would be understandable if C4 wanted to maximise its bulk in the schedules. And since the events themselves barely take up 20 minutes of television time in total (if that) something else has to fill out the space – whether it's little films about the training process or achingly extended live interviews about how competitors are feeling before they take part and what they're feeling immediately after they have done. Like the brine that goes into supermarket hams, there's absolutely no nutrition to these elements – it's just something added to help tip the scale in the merchants' favour.
Famous and Fearless is hardly an exclusive offender here. Indeed one of the defining features of much current television is the amount of redundancy it contains. Whether it's the insulting recapitulations that follow every ad-break, or the formulaic stings and phrases which run through reality shows, or the notionally tension-raising pauses which precede every verdict, there's an astounding amount you see on the small screen which you've seen before. If life had a fast-forward button it wouldn't matter so much. We could simply triple-speed to the next salient moment. And perhaps, given that so much television is now watched in digitally-recorded form or via watch-again streaming, it doesn't matter anyway. But it still leaves intact the mystery of what producers think they're doing when they take live programmes and make them crawl along in second gear. In theory we should be in the outside lane of the motorway, with no time to take our eyes off the road ahead. In practice we're stuck behind the caravan of some bloated presentational architecture and so bored that we're tempted to wedge a newspaper into the steering wheel and do a crossword until we reach the next bend.
A kind of terror of the audience is at the root of all this. A terror that we'll be too stupid to keep up. A terror that we might not get excited enough unless every turn of events is hyped up to the rafters. A terror too that we might turn over if the noise level drops and the dazzle fades for a moment. Paradoxically, the result is the kind of programme that you never for a moment feel you actually need to pay attention to. So nervous are producers that we might miss something that they make television that is virtually defined by its missability. You can almost leave the room and make a cup of tea in some of the "cliffhanger" pauses that programmes now include – surely a sign that a kind of evolutionary process has got out of hand. And when someone ignores the done thing and tells you something straightaway you feel like cheering at the unexpected jolt in the rhythm.
Get the formats on a diet now – try to catch us unawares. TV might find we like the slimmer version.
Nigel Pargetter and a rather artificial dying fall
"I was very proud of that scream" said Graham Seed, in an interview about his headlong departure from The Archers after Nigel Pargetter's fall from the ramparts of Lower Loxley. Quite a lot of other people seemed to like it too – some of them so much that they downloaded it to use as a ringtone. And the fact that it was so drawn-out, concluded only by the crunch of Pargetter on gravel, means that it should perform that function reasonably well. I found myself wondering about its authenticity, though. It's true that people almost always scream when they fall off a high place in a film or a drama. But do they actually do this in real life?
I'm happy to say my own experience of death-plunges is very limited – but we know that the people who fell from the World Trade Center towers didn't scream all the way down, and I can't remember reading many accounts of long, blood-curdling screams in mountaineering literature. Wouldn't instinct and physiology militate against it? You'd gasp certainly, and possibly utter a last guttural grunt of panic. But would you really have enough breath for one of those shaped arias of terror beloved of thriller films?
I suspect it's a purely artistic convention, rather than a reflection of reality. And I suspect that radio – which needs an aural way of indicating a long drop – might have had quite a bit to do with its creation.
Time to take stock of new art
The proposal to establish a fine art exchange – so that you can buy a stake in Sol LeWitt futures or simply boast that you own a thousandth of one of his works – sounds muddled to me, awkwardly poised between proxy collector-ship and naked investment. But the basic idea is intriguing and got me wondering whether it couldn't be adapted for a different purpose.
The Paris-based Art Exchange is clearly a gilt-edged endeavour, working through established galleries and with well-established artists. But what about a riskier investment at the other end of the market, where the money might do more good? If you can create a Fine Art Stock portfolio, what about a Young Artist Venture Capital Bond, which would trade in the far more volatile stock of untested talent? Clearly, this wouldn't be for the more nervous investor, given the failure rate. On the other hand the returns could be very attractive given the leverage between penniless art student and international salesroom star they might eventually become. Perhaps we could have a Goldsmiths Art Tracker Fund – funding bursaries for their most promising students with the purchase of stock options in the Class of 2011's long-term performance. They're making an informed bet when they give out their places every year. It would be a novel kind of patronage to let us put our money where their mouth is.