If they love it in Berne, it's time for a rethink

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The Independent Online
I think it is in Madagascar that the country people periodically dig up their dead and involve them in daily life for a while, before reinterring them. They have the same idea in this country, which is why Punch magazine has come back from the dead for a time. But the people who have the idea most often are those old folk at the BBC.

They disinter old Hancock Half Hours or old panel game ideas, shake off the earth and pebbles sticking to them, and put them back on prime time radio or TV, which explains why Call My Bluff is back on our screens at lunchtime during the week and why SJ Perelman is on Radio 4 at the hallowed 8.40am spot, and why Gerry Anderson is back in Gerry's Bar....

I switched on my TV at lunchtime the other day just to convince myself that Call My Bluff was really back again, and there it was, twinkling away at Pebble Mill, with Alan Coren and Sandi Toksvig playing the parts of the team captains, and the random collection of maladroit and verbose semi-celebrities being played by a random collection of maladroit and verbose semi-celebrities.

I almost said, with Alan Coren and Sandi Toksvig playing the parts of Frank Muir and Patrick Campbell, but that would be unfair. For a start, nobody could replace those two. For a second lap, Coren and Toksvig are their own people, and do things differently - they obviously have a good rapport, which they use to be pleasantly rude to each other, when they would clearly much rather be rude to some of the long-winded guests on either side of them.

The odd thing about Call My Bluff is that it doesn't do the one thing that you would think it might do, and that is to spread the knowledge of obscure and arcane words. Not one word has ever been reintroduced to English parlance by Call My Bluff. Once, when I was on the programme in the old days, I asked the long-time chairman Robert Robinson if he had ever adopted any of the words that passed through the programme, and taken them home for further use and enjoyment.

"Not a single one," he said tersely.

I myself can only remember one word ever used on TV's Call My Bluff, and that was a word I knew already. I was on Frank Muir's team and we were given, by the opposition, three different definitions of the word "piaffer".

In English this is an extremely rare word connected with horse dressage. In French, however, it is quite a common word meaning "to rear up", of a horse, which I had taken in at French A-level time, so, of course, I only had to pick the one definition with an equine bias and I was the happy winner of a point. What I couldn't do was actually say, "Oh, yes, I know that," which would make me look unbearably smug and superior, so I had to go through the charade of pretending not to know and then guessing accurately, and then looking amazed and pleased that I had guessed right.

Still, it is odd to see the programme back at all. I can't remember exactly when Call My Bluff first died, but I was around at the time because I can remember the then producer, Johnny Downes, having to come to terms with the death of his baby.

"I don't want to leave the BBC without getting something else up and running, Miles," he told me one day. "Something to leave behind me, you know. If I come across something worth trying, would you like to get involved?"

Well, you don't say no to someone's dying wish, so I said yes, which is how I became involved in a new TV panel game based on Scrabble. It was copied from a programme which was already well established in Switzerland. It was to be chaired by me. And most of the programme passed in silence while the celebrity contestants pondered what words they could make out of the letters they had been given. I can't remember what the show would have been called but I do remember that we made several pilot programmes. Kenneth Williams was a guest on one of these, in the excruciating course of which I made the discovery that I was one of nature's guests, not one of its hosts.

Anyway, the BBC decided not to take it any further, from which experience I have derived several golden rules about the media.

1. Do not copy programmes that are popular in Switzerland.

2. Do not think that people pondering in silence makes good TV.

3. Do not have TV shows hosted by Miles Kington, especially if you are about to retire from the BBC and want to leave something behind to be remembered by.

Tomorrow - we consider the revival value of SJ Perelman, Gerry Anderson and `Punch' magazine. Anything, in fact, rather than talk about party conferences.

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