Terence Blacker: Richard and Judy: pioneers of reality TV

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The Independent Online

A moment of small personal revelation occurred this week. I had been asked to contribute some thoughts for a radio programme on a TV-related theme and – I'm a freelance, for heaven's sake – I had accepted. Only when the producer rang me to discuss what I planned to write did it become clear that I would be working under a certain disadvantage. I watch television these days so little that I am culturally and socially dysfunctional.

In many ways, I am grateful to the TV controllers for handing me back my life. A glance at the schedules will almost always reveal such a dreary homogeneous landscape, populated by people I have absolutely no wish to see – John Thaw, Sir Trevor McDonald, Robson Greene, Carol Smillie and so on – that there is no temptation to watch.

TV has cured me of itself. Comedies are self-parodically unfunny. Arts documentaries have been virtually phased out. Serious drama, when it is represented at all, comes in the form of yet another self-important offering from Stephen Poliakoff. Last year, reality TV seemed a mildly intriguing new development but, predictably, what was once a sneaky, voyeuristic thrill has become an exercise in boredom.

And, this week, another significant step towards freedom from television has been taken. Richard and Judy, the king and queen of daytime TV, have left us. On their last show, Maria from Gwent phoned in to describe the couple as "the housewife's friend", but the truth is this to under-rate their appeal to those of us who work at home yet rarely raise a duster.

For the past 13 years, Richard and Judy have offered a daily glimpse into Studioland, an alternative world that exists in parallel to reality yet is entirely set in a TV studio. In Studioland, the question of who is about to kiss who on Emmerdale is a matter of genuine public interest. Celebrities can act like ordinary people, lounging on a sofa talking about themselves or pretending to cook something with the studio wok, and, just as importantly, ordinary people can be granted the brief illusion of celebrity, airing their personal problems on the phone-in or, being "made over".

Normally, this would all be rather tedious, but Richard and Judy's version of Studioland is uniquely interesting. Outside, in the real world, they are married; they live and, presumably, sleep together.

Every morning, beyond the make-up, the script and smiles, we are granted an edgy, sometimes downright embarrassing, glimpse into a real, long-term marriage. As if we were watching a rather sophisticated reality show, we become caught up in the dynamics of what seems to be a distinctly odd relationship.

Do they really like one another? Is the marriage we see essentially a Studioland construct, yoking two unlikely characters together, as in the best sitcoms?

Somehow this uncertainty means that they have the touchingly fragile status of semi-celebrities. In glittering gatherings, away from their own studio, they look too real and normal to be entirely at home – the emergence of Judy's chest, supported by a big, mumsy bra, at some TV prize-giving could only have happened to her.

Seeing them on This Morning, surrounded by their homely experts – the dreary doctor, the cuddly-aunt counsellor, the chippy shrink – is like visiting some odd, yet lovable, neighbours, and checking out the state of their relationship, but with the significant added advantage that you can leave whenever you want.

On Channel 4, I fear that they will no longer be allowed to occupy the fascinating middle ground between the real world and Studioland, and their appeal, to me at least, will quickly fade. I am missing them already.