Docs, drams, coms and other viewing

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A READER tells me that a television programme the other night about a recently deceased Hollywood film star was previewed as a 'biodoc'. She is worried because she does not know what it means, nor what is meant by most of the other terms used by television people, and she seeks enlightenment.

Well, as far as anyone can make out, there are three different ways of making a programme about someone's life on television (apart, of course, from getting Ken Russell in to do it). You can:

a) put together lots of film clips of the celebrity involved, with a commentary on top by another, unseen, person who never met the celebrity. This is what is sometimes called a biodoc.

b) You can interview lots of old people who knew the late celebrity when they were all young, and stitch their failing memories together into a programme. This is usually called a 'portrait'. (Almost inevitably you switch on these programmes by accident halfway through and become obsessed with trying to guess who the programme is about. When you have guessed that, you have a lot more fun trying to guess who all those aged people sitting in shirt-sleeves in the sun are. After that you switch off.)

c) You can get an actor who doesn't look much like the subject of the programme to dress up like him and look somewhat embarrassed as he says the sort of things the subject would have said, to other actors dressed similarly. This is a 'dramadoc'.

If any of these is shown in several parts, it becomes a bioepic. If Melvyn Bragg makes a fleeting appearance before or after, it is called a South Bank Show Special. If it is put out before the subject has died, it is a profile, after his death it is a tribute.

A 'biocentennial' is a programme about someone who died or was born 100, 200 or even more years ago. The snag with these people is that they vanished before film was invented, so there is no footage of them available. You can always get a dramadoc done or call in Ken Russell, but it is far cheaper to mount a 'reappraisal' or 'reassessment' of the person involved, as we have recently seen done with Columbus. If possible, these programmes should be tied in with new books on the subject, as the authors will be prepared to appear on the programme very cheaply, or even for free.

The term 'dramadoc', incidentally, is also used for reenactments of events at which cameras could not possibly have been present, such as famous trials, meetings of famous people or the resignation of Mrs Thatcher. The actors involved are always given the exact and authentic words as used by the real people involved, and the real people involved always say afterwards that it was nothing like what really happened.

The most familiar abbreviation, of course, is 'sitcom', from 'situation comedy', meaning a recurring programme in which the same characters are rude about each other week after week. Less well-known is a 'stand-up sit com', in which a famous stand-up comedian more used to delivering one-liners plays the part of a sitcom character as if he were a stand- up comedian more used to delivering one-liners playing the part of a sitcom character.

Other terms? Well, a 'mini- series' is an idea that should have been contained in one programme but wasn't.

A 'sitdram' is a sitcom with no laughs.

A 'telethon' is a charity programme on which uppity producers are sent to work as punishment, prior to early retirement.

A 'roadshow' is a programme which, for reasons of economy, is shot with a studio audience but no studio.

A 'sitdoc' is a situation comedy series set in a hospital.

A 'biocom' is someone's life story told in commercials, usually centring on their love of instant coffee.

A 'docdoc' is a hard-hitting programme about junior hospital doctors falling asleep and killing people.

A 'copdoc' is the same, but about policemen.

A 'youthdoc' is a fast-moving programme in which the images move fast one way and the captions move fast another way, neatly cancelling each other out.

And a 'minidoc' is a short filmed item inserted into Newsnight to give Jeremy Paxman time to go to the loo, and then learn the names of the new guests being wheeled in for the next part of the programme.

(If you would like a fact sheet containing details of the above, why not cut this out?)