Morning TV made a fool of me: Channel 4's 'The Big Breakfast' is cheap, nasty, noisy, low-grade . . . and quite brilliant

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The Independent Online
DAYTIME television is now a joke that has entered the language. For hardworking, metropolitan types to say that they have been watching daytime amounts to a self- conscious boast that they have been wallowing in the grunge of low-intensity culture, hanging out with the housewives and the unemployed.

Richard and Judy, Nick and Anne, the couples that front the competing daytime chat shows, are camp heroes, wonderful in their smiling, undemanding, coffee-morning chumminess. Their electronic proximity, thanks to the de rigueur news bulletins, to the Bosnian war or the fighting in Somalia, enhances the joke. They remind me of the smart Cold War line that, on hearing the four-minute warning, you should run to Peter Jones in Sloane Square on the grounds that nothing really bad could ever happen there.

But the cosiness of daytime is being threatened by a new and restless force with curly red hair and black-rimmed glasses known as Chris Evans. This alien, along with his pal Gaby Roslin, fronts Channel 4's The Big Breakfast, a two-hour celebration of the joy of nothing happening. Daily, Evans and Roslin race round the same eventless loop-the-loop format of silly games and stupid jokes. Every 20 minutes there is a token news bulletin and sometimes Roslin conducts a 'serious' interview. But the defining principle of the show is that nothing must ever happen. The Big Breakfast is entirely devoid of mystery, suspense, technical or dramatic effect. The crew and the producers all take part - ooohing and aaahing with the presenters - and the graphics, design and music are a unity of magnificent grunge: triumphant, deliberate and colour-saturated evocations of the cheap and nasty. The strange and terrible thing is that The Big Breakfast is quite brilliant.

Single-handed, Evans has rendered obsolete all previous attempts at fun television. He makes Roland Rat look like Robin Day and The Word like Crackerjack. His confident control of the camera is so complete that you cannot help feeling he could do Question Time better than Peter Sissons, television economics better than Peter Jay, even Newsnight better than the great Paxo. Evans is not simply a skinny nerd with the Wrong Red Hair who happens to be a broadcasting genius, he is a moral and cultural event, an historic statement of the obvious, though secret, truth that daytime television is much, much easier than life.

It has taken the British over a decade to acknowledge this truth, though ever since Frank Bough appeared on a sofa in a pullover the cat has been more or less out of the bag. The first three decades of British television were dominated by the strict assumption that this flickering box was an indulgence that, unless administered in metered doses, would rapidly degenerate into a soul- and society-destroying vice. This moral panic was reinforced by periodic scare stories that it was 'bad for your eyes', a curious threat that had already proved ineffective in another context. So television - apart from a brief children's slot - was almost entirely restricted to the evening. The rationale for this was that the evening was an acceptable time for recreation. It was when people went to the cinema, theatre or concerts, therefore it was when they could decently be permitted to watch television. Equally the content of what was broadcast was based upon discreet elements of the world as it already was: news was like newspapers, plays like the theatre, quizzes and variety like music hall and so on. Television, if it was to be prevented from destroying civilisation and blinding the population, had to function as a neutral duct for directing the elements of culture into the home.

The TV 'programme' is essential to this ideal. A programme is a way of denying the distinctiveness of the television medium. It preserves the segmentation of the pre-TV culture - a programme is like a play, a symphony or a film in that it makes sense only if the audience sits through from beginning to end. The truth was, however, that from the start the then-shameful act of watching television for the sake of it was more vital than the respectable act of watching programmes because they were good. The medium - to resurrect a fragment of dated intellectual chic - was more potent than the message. People watched because they liked, or simply could not stop, watching.

With the advent of new channels this inertia became the basis for the black art of scheduling. Knowing of the inability of the British masses to rise from their G-Plan and turn over unless seriously provoked, the schedulers artfully contrived not to provoke them by, for example, 'hammocking' edifying documentaries between slices of the good stuff. Nevertheless, the whole concept of programme-based television remained the respectable, prevailing lie until the arrival of the breakfast show.

The idea at breakfast was to lengthen and broaden the 'magazine' format so that it became a capacious bag into which a number of items could be tossed. The key was the dominance of the loose, rolling format over the material. So Frank Bough or Selina Scott could switch brightly from wars, plagues and famines to their fat astrologer, and the only visible discipline was the clock in the corner for people hurrying off to work. In other words, here was a show that at least pretended to be tailored to the viewers' rather than the producers' schedule. Equally, here was a show that was not intended to be watched from beginning to end, that was not, in fact, a programme.

This was the first real acknowledgment in Britain of the 'coolness' of the medium. Television is cool because it works without the total involvement of the viewer, it simply burbles away in the corner. Rolling format shows embody this coolness by providing low-intensity television that goes out of its way not to demand your attention but rather to aim quietly to collude with the rest of your life.

But cool was also cheap, and low-intensity, sofa television became the model for post-breakfast daytime broadcasting. Audiences for these shows are not large enough or rich enough to generate big advertising money, so the shows must be cheap and there are few things cheaper than two people sitting on a sofa. Thus began the competing sofa shows featuring Nick and Anne and Richard and Judy. These couples lower the intensity even further with desultory chat, coffee and a weak theme of muted concern for their viewers. Even the fact that there are two of them - one of each sex - helps to thin the mix by emphasising the ordinariness of the set-up.

Their problem is that The Big Breakfast is something quite new which implies that the whole daytime scheduling settlement can be detonated. Previously the breakfast ratings war was fought out on the traditional battleground of 'up-' or 'down-market'. TV-am, with its suits and hilarious 'mission to explain', started up but went down with Roland Rat; BBC started down but went up when it became clear that beneath Roland there was only a sub-charter abyss of glove puppets and tabloid trash.

But in the strange dockland cottages where The Big Breakfast's arcane rituals of eventlessness take place there is neither up nor down, there is only the loop, the grunge and the disturbing calm behind the black frames of Chris Evans's glasses. What The Big Breakfast has done is to take one aspect of low-intensity television - its poverty of content - to its logical conclusion by extirpating content.

The sense you have while watching that this is all taking place in some super-colourful parallel world is intended. Chris and Gaby and the whole crew are working strenuously to avoid all contact with planet earth and therefore all meaning or significance.

Perhaps one of the most alarming things about Evans is that he seems to know precisely what he is doing. There is a shouting, laughing swirling sense of activity, but there is no thread, plot or purpose. You can turn on or off when you like and nothing will change, even though something is always happening.

The question this asks is: why not? What's the point of low-content, desultory chat when you can have no-content, high-colour screaming? In the industry they said that breakfast was a special time - after the hard news and the fun the housewives and the unemployed wanted precisely what they were being given. In addition the cash restraints forbade risk taking. And GMTV believed them.

The Big Breakfast is the final, explosive liberation of the British from the twin beliefs that watching television for the sake of it is wrong and watching television for the sake of it during the day is peculiarly vile. The good side of this is that it neutralises and demystifies the whole business of television; the bad side is that it works so horribly well that it makes you watch in spite of yourself.

'I hate television,' said Orson Welles. 'I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts.' And look how fat he got.