Is this why we pay the licence fee?

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The Independent Online
Afriend who works for Channel 4 took me to an office party the other night and announced that I don't own a television. His colleagues stared at me as though I was some species of space alien, then someone uttered a single awestruck word: "Cool!"

But there is a problem about being unfamiliar with current TV schedules, as I discovered last week. I had heard of Esther and Vanessa, indeed I have been invited to appear on both of them, but I had never heard of Lowri until a researcher called me two weeks ago. The result: disaster.

The researcher said he was setting up a discussion about whether it is possible to have an amicable divorce, and wanted to talk about various articles I had written about serial monogamy. We spoke a couple of times, mostly about the way in which so many adults now have two or three significant relationships during their lives instead of a single marriage. He knew I was divorced, a fact I have mentioned briefly in the past - usually to make a joke about being on the road to Damascus when it happened - but I made it clear that I was not prepared to talk about my personal life.

In retrospect, I was misled by the fact that Lowri goes out on BBC2 and by a letter which assured me that "we pride ourselves on producing an intelligent discussion programme".

On Tuesday evening, I turned up at the BBC studios at White City in west London, where two editions of Lowri were being recorded back to back. In the studio, we were introduced to Lowri Turner, "the star of the show", who gave the audience a pep talk encouraging them to join in the discussion. She made a little speech to camera, questioning the conventional wisdom that divorce is a bad thing, and introduced a divorced couple who talked about their friendly relationship. Like any members of the public who are unused to being on television, they spoke hesitantly but honestly, explaining the efforts they had made to minimise damage to their children.

Instead of taking them seriously, Turner went on the attack. They came over, she said, as impossibly nice, "tree-hugging" people, "paragons of virtue" who were obviously going to get back together. The ex-husband, Christian, was a good-looking bloke, and was Sarah really telling the truth when she said she didn't fancy him any more? I had clocked by now that the programme's apparently liberal agenda was no more than a front for the cheapest type of confessional television, with the guests functioning as straight men, so to speak, to the presenter's cheeky-chappie personality. Knowing my turn was coming, I kept an eye on the studio monitor where I was gob-smacked to see the words "Joan Smith (acrimonious divorce)" scroll up.

I realised I had been double-crossed, then Turner was striding towards me and events took a surreal turn. "Joan Davies," she began, "you went through an acrimonious divorce." Joan Davies? Who she? For a split second, I was tempted to play along with her mistake, inventing a fictional Mr Davies who had treated me abominably: "Well, Lowri, the moment I knew my love had died was when he came into our bedroom dressed in a chicken costume." God knows, they might even have transmitted it.

Of course I did the sensible thing, pointing out she had got my name wrong and I had made it perfectly clear I would not talk about my private life. Her reaction was a kind of flounce, followed by a revealing remark that she thought that was what we were all there for. We had a rather stilted exchange, in which I made some of the general points I had discussed with the researcher, before she moved on to another guest.

Why was I so shocked by this experience? Isn't it standard fare for early- evening telly?

On the contrary, that is precisely what is so dismaying - that the BBC churns out this kind of rubbish night after night and so little fuss is made about it. (You could watch the edited version on Tuesday, if you had absolutely nothing better to do with your life, while later in the week Turner talks to women "who have fallen in love with serial adulterers, conmen and murderers".)

As I waited for my taxi to arrive, I spotted Turner on a monitor, preparing the audience for the next recording. The subject was "everything you have always wanted to ask men", presumably for those women who have never encountered one. "Does breast size really matter?" she demanded archly. At this point, I underwent another Damascene conversion: now that the BBC has moved into the business of producing stupid television, it has comprehensively lost the argument for keeping the licence fee.