Well, I have now seen a Carlton TV programme called the Clive James Show, which went out on HTV the other night, and now I think I know what they are talking about.
I remember Clive James from my London days. He was a twinkly Australian with little hair who couldn't make up his mind whether he wanted to be remembered as a serious writer, as a TV personality or as a savage TV critic who made fun of bad TV. I haven't seen him for years, but it seems from the Clive James Show that he has opted for two of these three careers; he has become a TV personality who goes on TV to make fun of other TV programmes. But that isn't what intrigued me about the programme; what enthralled me and kept me watching to the very end was the discovery that Clive James and Carlton TV have made the breakthrough that was threatening to come for so long: the extension of the pre-programme monologue into the whole programme.
Let me explain. It has become the custom for people who run TV shows to do a stand-up act before the show starts, almost as if they know that when the show proper starts, the guests will get the limelight. So the host gives himself a pre-show routine, often written by someone else, and almost invariably unfunny.
On Loose Ends on Radio 4, for instance, Ned Sherrin lets no one talk until he has done his news-of-the-week and funny-mystery-noise monologue. Clive Anderson does the same, except for the funny noise, on Clive Anderson Talks Back, and Angus Deayton does it with captions to photos on Have I got News for You?
It is unforgivable but understandable, and I can see the psychological reason for it. If you give the host a chance to have his own spot early on, he won't interrupt so much later and hog the limelight.
But the Clive James Show was different. It started with the opening monologue in which Clive James says funny things about the week's news, or at least says things about the week's funny news. It then continued this monologue by other means for the whole programme. The first guest, Bob Monkhouse, was not interviewed at all but given piles of newspapers and asked to make spontaneous, premeditated jokes about the week's news.
We were shown several mildly silly American TV commercials for dieting, hair replacement and stress relief, of which Clive James unwisely made fun by putting on the products advertised (wig, massage glove, etc ).
We were shown an extract from a Hungarian TV fairy tale, in a not very good English language version, about which Clive James said things we were supposed to think funny and we were forced to watch an embarrassing interview with an ageing M*A*S*H star whom Clive James had once fancied, which we were supposed to think interesting.
And then Stephen Fry came on. This was the reason I had switched on in the first place. Fry is a bright and funny bloke, and I thought he might say some bright and funny things. I hadn't reckoned with Clive James. Clive James proceeded to do something I have never seen on TV before. He interviewed Stephen Fry by asking him what he thought of the rest of the programme so far. He asked him what he thought of the American commercials. He asked him what he thought of the Hungarian TV extract. He even asked him what he thought of the interview with the forgotten M*A*S*H starlet.
Stephen Fry is a bright and funny bloke, but faced with interview questions at this level he found it hard either to keep smiling or to conceal that he thought it was all a load of manure ...
Well, now I have seen a Carlton TV programme, and I have seen something else I never thought to see; bad television being made fun of on a show which is worse than anything being pilloried. Maybe there is something to be said for living way outside London after all.