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Dimbleby’s exit poll: what’s behind the BBC’s election selection?

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We learned this week something of the BBC’s plans for covering the 2015 general election.

Given it’s still over a year until polling day, this was somewhat unprecedented. But then so was the announcement. 2015 will see a ceremonial passing of the indiscreet Mars bar. David Dimbleby, who has anchored every general election for the Beeb since 1979, will serve his last tour of duty behind the desk. Moreover, he won’t even helm the entire programme. Huw Edwards will take over the morning after, and will remain in place for as long as it takes to form a government. Which, given Huw’s unambiguously capable charms, will be hopefully at least a week.

Huw (one of the few people in Britain who can be referred to by one name and not as an insult) will present all future election coverage on the BBC. This isn’t really a surprise; Dimbleby (see preceding parenthesis) has been fashioning an exit for ages. The only real question is whether he’s chosen to walk through it or was pushed.

There’s a trace of a Granita-style deal about the transition. Dimbleby could, and arguably should, have bowed out in 2010. His lightness of touch and sureness of tone disappeared around the same time as Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Veritas, only with more dignity. Given Kilroy-Silk bowed out after having a hissy fit over someone squirting him with a water bottle, admittedly this was not hard.

BBC election night studio, 8 October 1959: Dimbleby senior

BBC election night studio, 8 October 1959: Dimbleby senior seduces the nation

BBC election night studio, 1 May 1997: Dimbleby junior salutes the nation

BBC election night studio, 1 May 1997: Dimbleby junior salutes the nation

But even the sometime host of Shafted knew better than to give the impression of wanting, to coin a phrase, to go on and on and on. One of Dimbleby’s best election night ad-libs was prompted by the toxic gales of self-delight forever swirling around the originator of that desperate quote. Asked by Robin Day during the BBC’s coverage of the 1987 election to speculate on whether she’d still be PM in 2000, Mrs Thatcher replied she could well be “twanging a harp” by then. Back in the studio, Dimbleby unleashed a zinger. “Well, she’s absolutely convinced she’s going to heaven one day!” he cracked, to knowing laughter from the studio crew.

Which brings us to this week’s other election news. It got somewhat overshadowed by David’s long goodbye day. In fact, it barely drew any comment – at least from the mainstream media. But buried down towards the bottom of the press release, sounding as half-apologetic as a Lib Dem lost deposit, was confirmation that all the BBC’s election results coverage will now be broadcast from Elstree.

Granted, part of this is expediency. Seeing as TV Centre is no more, Elstree is the closest property nearest to the capital in which the BBC can afford to take the time to plan and build an election studio. The newly-expanded Broadcasting House, in a bittersweet irony, is too small to both co-ordinate and transmit a programme. Salford, Glasgow or Birmingham were deemed presumably too far away, although the last time we looked each of those cities contains both MPs and actual voters.

 

BBC election night studio, March 1966

Elstree has space to spare, which the BBC has the resources to fill. Whether politicians will be among them is another matter. For Elstree is not easy to get to. It’s not on the doorstep of any transport interchange. The A1 and M1 are nearby, but not easy to reach. And it’s a 10-minute walk from a small and moderately-served railway station.

These may sound like parochial observations. And sure, the Beeb has trusted ways of shuttling people to and from the site. But just how many MPs will want to pop over to Hertfordshire for a psephological natter on polling night? In the time it takes a big beast to ride up from London, a dozen backroom deals might have been done to deny the minister their chauffeured car back home.

It matters having guests in the studio on election night. In 2001 ITV decided to junk them all and speak to contributors only via outside broadcasts. It was a major error, robbing proceedings of spark and hubbub. Technology mediates the impact of a presenter starting into the whites of someone’s eyes, and not always to the good. DG Tony Hall is long enough of tooth to appreciate the value of on-the-spot diagnoses when the nation’s returning officers start clearing their throats. Hopefully a battery of politicians will be hunkered around Dimbleby doing the same.

There’ll definitely be room for them at Elstree. For history also shows that the bigger the election night set, the more bracing the coverage.

Those occasions when the Beeb shunned scale for cosiness never made for quite so irresistible television. Think of 1983 or 1987. Minus all the multi-level gantries, whirring mechanoids and thronging foot soldiers, both proved stubbornly unsatisfying viewing.

Election 83: this brown is coming like a ghost brown

BBC election night studio, 9 June 1983: this brown is coming like a ghost brown

Ladies and gentlemen, we are voting in space

BBC election night studio, 5 May 2005: ladies and gentlemen, we are voting in space

But going big isn’t itself enough. In 2001 and 2005 you had the size but not the sociability. Dimbleby and co were plonked in atriums of shimmering glass and banquettes, capacious enough to accommodate the entire of House of Commons. Yet much like the real House of Commons, few people bothered to turn up. Election studios need bodies for news to ricochet off ferociously like pinball. Instead they might as well be on an iceberg in the Arctic. At least the hot air would have tangible impact there.

Elstree has the size, but will it have the camaraderie? Both are crucial for successful election night television. While the studios complemented admirably the anticipated razzmatazz of last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, coping with the unanticipated, not to mention unending drama of an election aftermath will be tough. Even getting Jeremy Vine to clatter up and down one of Strictly’s giant staircases won’t drown out a silence begging to be filled with the hum of a hundred number-crunchers.

Election shows are ensemble affairs, not star turns. Without a supporting cast of heft and volume, it won’t matter a jot whether Dimbleby or Huw takes the lead: the first result of the night will be a landslide swing away from the Beeb.

 

Election 66: master of revels Cliff Michelmore and a few friends

BBC election night studio, June 1970: master of revels Cliff Michelmore entertains a few friends during rehearsals

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The not-quite-late-enough shows

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When Britain tries to do topical late-night TV: eight-and-a-half examples

For unfussy disciples of US popular culture, which nowadays is pretty much the whole planet, this past week has been an occasion to rank alongside the Oscars or the Olympics. What a shame someone cocked up and scheduled all three for the same month.

Talk about bad timing. Which, not coincidentally, is exactly what the departing host of America’s most famous TV programme has been doing for much of the last decade. Jay Leno leaving the Tonight Show is a big deal. That it’s not the biggest deal in town is only partly the fault of the Academy Awards and the Sochi Games. What is the biggest deal is the fact that Jay Leno is leaving the Tonight Show AGAIN.

He’s had to do what Larry David dubbed a “double goodbye”: having already once said farewell in the worst possible circumstances, he faced the same ordeal over again.

“Dammit, where’s the Lewinsky gag?” Jay Leno checks cue cards before his last Tonight Show

It’s all part of the glorious shambles that is the recent history of the Tonight Show – but a history entirely in keeping with its status as crucible for the most talked-about brouhaha in showbusiness.

If there’s nothing that rings true about any of the preceding paragraphs, it’s because there’s nothing like it in this country. And more’s the pity. We’ve never been blessed with the kind of programme that demands to be watched – and on which the biggest names demand to appear – at bedtime.

We have, however, been cursed with a fair few not-quite-late-enough shows. And in this we have endured the worst of both worlds: programmes that have tried and failed to copy America, and programmes that have simply failed.

Below you’ll find eight-and-a-half attempts by British TV to crack the secret of a successful late night series, each teasing us with flashes of that all-elusive self-sustaining longevity, only to falter and flop like a post-watershed piss-up.

We’ve drawn up two rules.

One: the show had to be on after 9pm. Sadly, this means no Wogan, Ross or Harty. But on the positive side, no Live With Chris Moyles or Johnny Vaughan Tonight.

And two: the show had to be more than once a week. As you’ll see, this almost, but not quite, spares us having to talk about Parky.

“I’m want to give you the bad news first,” said Steve Allen at the start of the Tonight Show’s debut on NBC on 27 September 1954. “This show is gonna go on forever. Boy, you think you’re tired now!” Six decades on, America is still rubbing its eyes expectantly at 11.30pm. If only the same were true here.

In descending order of merit…

8. 24 HOURS

(BBC1, October 1965-July 1972)

America had Johnny Carson to wish it goodnight in the 60s. We had Cliff Michelmore. If only Cliff, like Johnny, had stayed behind his desk right through to 1992. For here was Britain’s first, and best, wind-down merchant. On 24 Hours, Cliff took the authoritative but convivial schtick he’d essayed on the Tonight programme – as reassuring and hardwearing a teatime fixture as your mum’s kitchen pots – and recast it as something as functional yet soothing on your palate as an after-hours mint.

24 Hours' party people: Cliff Michelmore and Kenneth Allsop

24 Hours’ party people: Cliff Michelmore and Kenneth Allsop

The time slot wandered about for a bit, until landing at 9.55pm in 1967 to steal a five-minute lead on ITN’s News at Ten. We know which one we’d have tuned in for.

The light channel may have had the heavyweights, but the Beeb had the lighter touch. 24 Hours hopped with relish between avuncular discussion, live votes from the Commons, breaking news from the US, newspaper reviews and topical skits, besides sporting a guest policy elastic enough to stretch from people who could read backwards to the premier of China.

On the night the Post Office Tower opened, the team broadcast live from a party at the very top. Some of the rude daubings left on windows by intoxicated staff members exist to this day. 24 Hours could have evolved into the biggest show of the 70s. Instead David Dimbleby took over and, just like he’d do 10 years later with Nationwide, swapped tonic for gruel. Lesson one: never serve up something indigestible last thing at night. At least Cliff was canny enough to have the last word of all.

7. LATE NIGHT LINE-UP

(BBC2, September 1964-December 1972)

A show that spent part of its very first week on air doing the history of Radio Times was always likely to be remembered fondly – if not by the viewing millions, then by the enthusiastic several who salivate at the idea there was once a programme that had Margaret Rutherford, Burl Ives and Arnold Ridley all in the same week.

Joan gets Muggeridged at a Late Night Booze-Up

Joan gets Muggeridged at a Late Night Booze-Up

Or Tim Buckley, Cicely Courtneidge and Kingsley Martin on the same night.

Fans of live, late topical shows on the BBC were truly spoiled in the late 60s. After a slice of Michelmore, you could turn over for an open-ended helping of Sheridan Morley, Joan Bakewell, Tony Bilbow and co munching on counter-cultural cud with whoever was still hanging around TV Centre once the bar closed.

Some of it must have been ghastly: Yoko Ono and Malcolm Muggeridge on the same bill; any number of earnest discussions of “happenings”.

But a week in the life of Kenny Everett? A chat with Benjamin Britten and Billy Cotton? Hundreds of “last ever interviews” or “first ever performances?” David Attenborough dropping by to put his feet up after another day running BBC2?

We’d never have gone to bed.

6. THE LATE SHOW

(BBC2, January 1989-June 1995)

What did we think of this programme’s insightful, fresh and fun take on the arts, media and popular entertainment? We’d have welcomed it.

Fridays were decent enough to begin with, while Clive James was host. Then he fell out with Alan Yentob over how many women he should have on as guests, and quit to spend more time with his clips of Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf. We were left with Tracey MacLeod, Michael Ignatieff and Sarah Dunant: three of the most intelligent people on television, but also the least intelligible. This non-brio trio, one of whom went on to be leader of the opposition in Canada, rotated nightly but sadly not fast enough to create even a wisp of passion to disturb the studio’s arid air.

This was a show that thought it was a good idea to do a spoof Juke Box Jury featuring recordings of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, to devote not one but two editions profiling the redevelopment of Stansted airport, and – most heinous of all – to launch Mark Lawson’s TV career. Because of that, and despite any number of classy guests, live music and being gatecrashed by Lenny Henry during Comic Relief Night in 1989, it can never be forgiven.

5. TONIGHT

(BBC1, September 1975-July 1979)

Having ditched 24 Hours after Dimbleby knackered it, the Beeb replaced it first with Midweek: a show that, like its title, was neither one thing nor the other. When this also flopped, someone decided to dig out an old teatime treat from the back of the cake cupboard. Only the lid hadn’t been properly screwed on, and its contents had gone off.

Granted, Tonight Mark II had precious few good stories to tell – the rest were all nicked by Nationwide. Plus once a week you’d get, in capital letters, The Ludovic Kennedy Interview. Still, even that was preferable to Melvyn Bragg interviewing Oswald Mosley about antisemitism, or recreations of the Northern Ireland Troubles using Action Men dolls.

Sue Lawley got out as soon as she could, leaving Denis Tuohy and John Timpson to pass hosting duties between them like a leaky bin bag. Eventually BBC1 controller Bill Cotton decided the nation needed a smile and a song to send it to bed. Instead what it got was…

4. PARKINSON

(BBC1, September 1979-April 1982)

It’s not often we find ourselves siding with Robin Day against Bill Cotton, but on this occasion the old bugalugs called it right.

A flock of "bloody birds" takes revenge on a journalist

A flock of “bloody birds” takes revenge on a journalist

Bill wanted Michael Parkinson’s Saturday show, running since 1971, to air five nights a week. Sir Robin, and the BBC governors, disagreed.

Topical entertainment of the Carson kind had no place on BBC1, they said. What they meant to say was topical entertainment of the Parky kind had no place on BBC1. The thought of Mike trying to do an opening monologue of zingers about “prices” or “that bloody bird” every weeknight was grisly enough to make even substitute show Question Time – with a crowing Sir Robin in the chair – seem preferable.

Cotton still had gaps in his schedule, however, so Parky was tossed the bone of a Wednesday night “serious” talk show to rub alongside his ongoing Saturday night snorefest. Both came to an end when Mike, not for the last time, defected to ITV in order to moan about the BBC while getting filthy rich.

For his part, Cotton didn’t let up and a few years later tried to woo Wogan for the same five-nightly gig. “That’s too late for my Radio 2 audience,” snapped Tel. What, and 7pm wasn’t?

3. V GRAHAM NORTON

(Channel 4, May 2002-December 2003)

This had the high-profile guests and the blessing of a permanent slot in the schedules. But it was almost all pitched on one note, and that note was very high and very loud.

If all else fails, wield an over-sized TV company logo

If all else fails, wield an over-sized TV company logo

V Graham Norton could make glitter come out of your set, but only if fired from Cape Canaveral. Being shouted at tactically is one thing; being bellowed at lazily, even if it’s being done with Grace Jones or Ruby Wax next to you on the sofa, is not entertainment.

Graham’s more reticent guests – your Nigel Havers and your Peter Davidsons – always looked thrown by the show’s format, while Graham himself seemed panicked whenever the star count swelled from one to two. Few could make the prospect of interviewing Brian Capron and Jane Birkin feel like a task of Sisyphusian ordure. Graham did.

Weekly outings to New York and Los Angeles at least made for a change of scene, if not tone. And the daily turnover of guests was bracingly unfussy: Monica Lewinsky one night, Mark Owen the next. But you could never get purchase on this show. The comedy phone calls rang particularly hollow. A case of too many handsets, not enough heft.

2. THE JACK DOCHERTY SHOW

(Channel 5, March 1997-June 1999)

“We ran out of guests,” offered the host in lieu of a coroner’s verdict. He was half right. More accurately, The Jack Docherty Show ran out of guests who wanted to appear. Promoted as the jewel in the navel of Britain’s newest network, within months it became the grit in the eye. A roving eye at that; the Friday edition got dropped for episodes of La Femme Nikita.

Those three Fs in full: a fool, his fate and some food

Those three Fs in full: a fool, his fate and some food

A bit like Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, the show was simply and brutally squashed out of existence to be replaced by lots of leather and shouting.

By September 1997 it was down to four nights a week; by April 1998 three; by November 1998 two; and by the time of its demise just one. Bookending its existence like two nonplussed tentpoles were appearances from Roger Moore and Michael Aspel. Other nights you were lucky if you got Steve Punt.

The biggest problem, however, was the tone of the thing. The show was taped early evening in a poky West End theatre (now the Trafalgar Studios) then broadcast “as live” at 11pm. Atmosphere fled out of the premises from day one. Star guests did likewise from day two. Ultimately its host followed suit, disappearing for weeks on end while the likes of Dr Fox and Melinda Messenger held court. When it died, no one rejoiced, because no one cared.

But The Jack Docherty Show isn’t quite the worst series on our list. By virtue of its miniscule budget and scant self-regard, it ranks one place behind…

1. THE 11 O’CLOCK SHOW

(Channel 4, September 1998-December 2000)

Iain Lee approaches a woman in the street to do a “comedy” vox pop. “Do you believe in life… after love?” he asks. She looks nonplussed, then terrified, then out of politeness gives a small chuckle. She is the only one in the nation to do so.

Charlie Brooker, Ricky Gervais et al not pictured

Charlie Brooker, Ricky Gervais et al not pictured

Most of the programmes in this list managed to get right at least one of the ingredients of late night TV. The 11 O’Clock Show failed to achieve even that. It was a classic Channel 4 flop: when it went wrong, which was very quickly, money was thrown at it, which was a lot, and the presenters were changed, who got sequentially awful.

Any jokes surfaced in spite of not because of the format. The show had to signal the end of its “funny” news-in-brief section by announcing “that’s the end of the news in brief”, because it never finished on a funny enough line to generate spontaneous applause. None of its stars were people you’d ever choose to spend time with, let alone – as David Letterman once said in praise of Johnny Carson – be tucked in at night by.

C4 boss Michael Jackson stuck with it for a couple of years, as he was the one who’d come up with The Late Show for BBC2 and was loathe to have two late night turkeys on his CV. But even he accepted the last revamp, swapping the ghastly Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan for the rotten Jon Holmes and Sarah Alexander, was laughable (ironic, given that nothing else had been) and that it was time, finally, to stop the Clock.

Special mention for…

THE RDA (60 editions during 2000 and 2001)

This is a tale of a show undermined by its own over-ambition, but fantastically so.

About the only thing worth remembering of digital channel BBC Choice, The RDA revelled in its shoestring budget, down-at-heel feel and love of amateurism. No pretence here; host John Gordillo made a virtue of his inexperience as well as the show’s lamentable choice of guests, frequently botched stunts and lacklustre gags.

A very Savile row: John takes Sir Jim'll down a peg

A very Savile row: John takes Sir Jim’ll down a peg

And yet, by the end of its short life, it had become one of the best shows on television. This was thanks both to its imagination – no nook of BBC TV Centre was left unmilked for its comedy potential – and its unabashed determination to make the best of the worst of all possible worlds.

It became a show about the making of a nightly topical TV show, but not in a crass, uber-arch way, rather one that was shamelessly honest and infectiously fun.

A typical episode saw Gordillo ring up the BBC duty log to lodge a complaint about his own show. Or taking the studio crew (and us) for a coffee to avoid watching a musical number by Bonnie Langford. Or spying on Huw Edwards leaving TV Centre after each day’s Six O’Clock News, until – wonderfully – the tables were turned. Or exploiting whatever big event the Beeb were covering that day, be it the London mayoral election or Eurovision. Or mounting OBs from wherever would have him, from the Royal Albert Hall to the set of East Midlands Today.

Taped as live at 7pm then transmitted a few hours later, the RDA was everything a British late night hit show could and should be… except popular. With a bigger profile and much larger TV audience, things may have been different. But then so would the show, and Gordillo’s foibles might have been transformed from boon to boondoggle.

Maybe one day – or better still one night – we’ll see its like again. As Michael Jackson instructed Paul McCartney on The Girl is Mine: you keep dreamin’.

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2013

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“Agnes finds the festive spirit lacking”

20140101-141506.jpg
Christmas Day, at least on BBC1, has long been held up as the most important broadcasting day of the year, with a show’s appearance seen as a major honour – the televisual equivalent of an OBE. Certainly the perception of Christmas Day schedules is of a host of the biggest stars in Britain in some of the biggest shows, so you would assume that only the most established names would make an entrance.

Yet in recent years this hasn’t been the case and BBC1, in particular, have made some brave choices when it comes to the big day’s schedules. In 1999, The Royle Family‘s first Christmas special appeared on BBC1 less than 18 months after it had begun as a late night BBC2 experiment. Catherine Tate’s festive show in 2007 was the first of her efforts ever to be screened on BBC1, while Little Britain and Gavin and Stacey hadn’t long graduated from BBC3 by the time they enjoyed a swift promotion to the Christmas Day schedules. All enjoyed highly impressive viewing figures too, which illustrate the importance of refreshing the line-up with some new names and new shows.

So it was in 2013 that the honours for most watched programme of the day went to something that had again begun in modest circumstances – but Mrs Brown’s Boys was a bit different to some of the comedic fare that had made its debut on Christmas Day in recent years. Brendan O’Carroll’s panto dame-style character had made her first appearance on Irish radio more than 20 years ago, and had enjoyed cult success via stage productions until the BBC decided to take a punt on a TV version, which arrived on BBC1 in a late night slot in early 2011 with little in the way of promotion and a distinctly lukewarm response from critics. However the bawdy comedy struck a chord with audiences and via word of mouth and a repeat or two started to pull in huge audiences, with the special on Boxing Day in 2012 getting the highest rating of the entire festive season. Hence this year it was an obvious choice for Christmas Day itself, and “Buckin’ Mammy”, to give it its typically unsubtle title, was the highest-rated show of the day, with 9.4 million viewers.

Okay, so few would hold it up there with some of the comedy shows that have appeared on the 25th in the past, but for every Only Fools and Horses and One Foot in the Grave there’s been a Bread and a Birds of a Feather, so it perhaps wasn’t quite the new low that some would have you believe. One thing that was unique though was probably the amount of swearing it included – surely the first f-words on Christmas night BBC1 ever?

Regardless of your views of Mrs Brown, though, it did provide some comedy on a night that seemed otherwise bereft of laughs. Following Mrs Brown at 10pm was Michael McIntyre. Two years ago the Marmite comedian had done decent business in a late slot with his Christmas Comedy Roadshow – but this wasn’t that; instead a first TV screening for his most recent DVD. A big show maybe, but on a night when you expect something a bit out of the ordinary this seemed a pretty half-arsed affair, up there with 1978’s True Grit – A Further Adventure. Opening with 10 minutes of jokes about the 2012 Olympics surely just emphasised that we were getting some second hand stuff here, with distinctly average ratings to match.

The rest of BBC1’s Christmas line-up had been motoring along fairly steadily up to there, starting in familiar form with Breakfast, the cartoons and the service and two animated movies in Chicken Run and The Princess and the Frog which saw us through to lunchtime in amiable fashion. Just as familiar was what followed at 2pm. With continued newspaper stories about some of its previous presenters, and the weekly show now a distant memory, the return of Top of the Pops seems less likely every year, but here it was again a week before its 50th anniversary – not that anyone seemed particularly interested in celebrating that fact.

The annual word from Liz was followed by, surprisingly, the teatime news, clearing the decks for non-stop entertainment until late at night. That began with the premiere of Toy Story 3, an excellent choice for the afternoon and also making it the only film series where every instalment has premiered on Christmas Day (a honour previously held by Indiana Jones for some 20 years before they decided to make a fourth). After that came Strictly Come Dancing in its earliest ever Christmas Day slot of 5pm. Again five new celebrities took to the dancefloor, although none seemed particularly more interesting than those we’d been following for the past three months. Nevertheless the all-round family fun made it perfect for teatime vegging out.

Then came a triple bill of drama, and the second Christmas Day outing for Call the Midwife. Last year’s special seemed somewhat out of place as the centrepiece of Christmas Day and was roundly criticised for being far too gloomy. This year the latter was addressed, at least, with a more frivolous storyline including a wedding, though its slot at 6.15pm seemed even more out of place, surely inviting most dads and kids to switch over. The ratings proved fairly stable year on year, though, but still down on the kind of figures it receives any other day.

This year though the midwives ceded the prime slot to Doctor Who – and rightly so. In the year of its 50th anniversary and, in this programme, a brand new Doctor, it received the plum 7.30pm slot and, while it finished in second place to Mrs Brown’s Boys in the overnight ratings (before those who recorded it or watched online are added), the moment where Matt Smith became Peter Capaldi was the most watched thing of the whole day with over 10 million tuning in to see this little piece of telly history.

Next came EastEnders, which for the past four years had been the most watched programme on the big day. However this Christmas came at the end of a pretty poor run for the soap, with dwindling figures and a revolving door of cast changes, while viewers seemed unimpressed with some less than gripping storylines. Mindful of the boost the show normally gets on Christmas Day, the production team therefore took the opportunity to mount something of a relaunch with Danny Dyer making his debut as the new landlord of the Vic (though quite why you’d buy a pub on Christmas Day was never adequately explained). Unfortunately this wasn’t enough of a boost to interest casual viewers and for the first time since 2000 it found itself beaten by Coronation Street as it slipped to fourth place in the day’s chart. We’ll have to wait until next Christmas before we can judge whether Dyer’s arrival will help lure back lapsed fans.

After the McIntyre DVD, and the late news, BBC1 rounded off Christmas Day in by now traditional style with a few comedy repeats, including The Vicar of Dibley from 1996, and a late film. Overall it hadn’t been a vintage Christmas for BBC1, with new comedy extremely thin on the ground. The individual programmes – bar EastEnders and McIntyre – seemed decent enough, we just needed more of them.

For ITV, where Christmas Day in the past has often been a case of damage limitation at best, the fairly credible showing they’d put in for the last few years was enough for the commercial channel to say “same again” – indeed, almost literally. After an unusual head-to-head clash of news bulletins at 3.10pm (though for ITV it was a late lunchtime rather than an early teatime bulletin), the schedule was virtually an exact repeat of 2012 – the film Tangled, Paul O’Grady at Battersea Dogs Home, Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Downton Abbey, followed Love Actually, which was no stranger to Christmas Day on ITV.

Compared to last year, Tangled and Paul O’Grady fell foul of BBC1 juggernauts but Emmerdale perked up a bit running head-to-head with Call the Midwife, as opposed to 2012’s thankless slot as stooge to Doctor Who, though still didn’t beat its BBC opposition – one of the few days of the year that’s the case. Despite facing Doctor Who, Corrie was virtually neck-and-neck and managed to beat its London rival for only the second time this century, but Downton posted another bog-standard rating – though obviously far better than more or less everything else they’d shown in this slot before it made its first appearance in 2011.

As for the other channels, a major shock on BBC2 – no Dad’s Army repeat! Instead the comic relief came from The Two Ronnies and a Morecambe and Wise compilation. It was a very good day for Mark Gatiss too, with his drama on the creation of Doctor Who, An Adventure In Space and Time, getting a repeat outing in the afternoon, and then at 9.30pm came his adaptation of MR James’ The Tractate Middoth, followed by his tribute to the writer himself.

Channel 4 again aimed for the mainstream with animation, family films and Deal or no Deal during the day, while a screening of Home Alone 2 at 6.15pm no doubt offered sanctuary for families unimpressed by the female-skewing offerings on BBC1 and ITV and pulled in the biggest audience away from the main channels of the day. A new show from Alan Carr and a special of Greg Davies’ sitcom Man Down meant C4 actually offered up more new comedy than BBC1, not something that’s happened before. For Channel 5 it was pretty much businesses as usual too – old films during the day, including Gone With the Wind again and Casablanca, then Eddie Stobart in the evening. Just the one hour with the truckers this year, though, with the main attraction being the premiere of the ghoulish documentary Michael Jackson’s This Is It.

In fact despite BBC1 not quite firing on all cylinders, and what would appear to be a far more attractive schedule than in other years, ITV was actually only ahead of BBC1 for half an hour from 10pm when Michael McIntyre was on. That’s testament to how, for many people – regardless of some rather illogical scheduling and threadbare bits of the schedule – Christmas Day continues to mean BBC1.

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The Creamup Christmas Number 2013

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The Great British Flake Off

The moon is right! The spirit’s up! We’re here tonight! And that’s enough of a reason for us to unleash a little something upon you – a special Christmas edition of TV Cream’s long defunct Creamup ‘emag’.

This one comes sporting a ‘tribute or trash’ vibe, as we battle 20 festive favourites against each other to discover the best in show. So will that be Merry Xmas (War is Over) or Wonderful Christmas Time? The Christmas Radio Times or the Christmas TV Times? Scrooge or Scrooged? You get the idea.

Subscribers to our Creamguide service will already have received an email with details about how to obtain this organ. But now you can dive in too and download the 1.8meg PDF right here.

Merry Christmas!

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Christmas Creamguide 2013

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Have a cracking Christmas... with Creamguide!
It’s out today! The new Christmas Creamguide is now winging its way through the email chimneys of all our subscribers! And, as is its custom, it’s also ready for you to read right here on good ol’ TV Cream!

Simply click on this link and this link to jump straight to our selection of all the very best things on TV and radio over the festive fortnight.

Also, look out for the Christmas Creamup, which will also be with you very soon.

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The six worst Christmas Radio Times covers

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Worried about heating your home this Christmas? Dig some of the following disgraces out of your attic, douse with a bit of brandy, then WHOOOMPH: a conflagration that’s both physically and sanctimoniously satisfying.

Alternatively, use these covers as an alternative to wrapping paper – on presents for people you deeply dislike.

We’ve spared you this year’s effort. You’ll have seen enough of it by now, and besides it’s almost identical to last year, which counts as laziness not calculated distaste. Unlike what follows:

6: 1949

What the..?

Let’s be charitable and say this was done for a dare. On the other hand, let’s not, and wonder how the hell this grisly confection ever made it past the proofs. As if 1940s Britain hadn’t had enough of terrifying things falling from the skies.

5: 1936

By golly

Not merely a gollywog, but a gollywog looking desperately pissed off. The tree’s fallen to pieces as well, while a box of cigars lies ready for a child to begin a lifetime’s addiction to narcotics. Merry fucking Christmas.

4: 2009

Pro - cras - ti - nate!

What could be funnier that a Dalek in a Santa hat? Quite possibly everything. But look: the RT Christmas issue has now somehow become LEGENDARY. Who could have known? We prostrate ourselves in front of your biblical self-righteousness, oh mighty tome of insufferable cant.

3: 1993

Grow some teeth, kid

An ugly kid pulls a gormless face, and we’re meant to feel festive? Come back when you’ve grown some teeth, son – not to mention some manners.

2: 2010

Legendary

Ah look, Wallace and Gromit are back. Well, yes, in the sense they were on the front of the Christmas Radio Times just 12 months earlier. But no, in the sense of them starring in a brand new adventure that’s the centrepiece of the Christmas schedules. In fact there was no new Wallace and Gromit on TV at all. This was just an idle, lousy reworking of the previous year’s cover. Thank heavens they never tried that again. Oh, wait…

1: 1974

A failure, yesterdayBritain’s unfunniest comedy creation gestures at a tube of tatty shiny paper. To pour piss into the wound, look at that long, long list of names, any one of whom would have been 100 times better as cover star. “I’m a failure!” And so say all of us.

Dishonourable mentions for…

No, us neither

1952: fright before Christmas

Oh no, it's "me"

1978: oh bollocks, it’s “me”

Plonkers

1985: plonkers needing stuffing

Get back in your box

1996: typographical trauma

Not wild about Harry

2000: not wild about Harry

Get out, Claus

2007: call Crimestoppers now

Now see the six best Christmas Radio Times covers

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The six best Christmas Radio Times covers

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IT’S NOT HARD. You’ve all year to think about it. You’ve been doing it for almost a century. And it’s not like the occasion hasn’t been responsible for inspiring, at the last count, 134,932 carols, songs, films, plays, musicals, myths, costumes, jokes, rituals, foodstuffs, fluids, religious fables and drunks shouting.

And yet this year’s Christmas Radio Times cover is so poor, so throat-narrowing, colon-clenching, Scrooge-besting poor, you have to wonder just what the magazine has been up to these past 12 months*.

Anyhow, let’s not dwell on the periodical equivalent of a Brussel sprout dry fart. Let us instead look back to half a dozen festive fancies we’d drop everything to save from the flames of an Advent crown, fireproof tinsel or no fireproof tinsel. Doff your paper hats to the six greatest Radio Times Christmas front covers.

*Aside from not watching TV programmes, of course.

6: 2005

Oh, and by the way...

Celebrating Dr Who’s return to Christmas Day after 40 years, the Tardis gets plonked in a globe along with a snowman sporting Tom Baker’s scarf, the inevitable pepperpot, and blobs of space junk looking like baubles. Nobody would’ve expected this 12, even nine months earlier. Sod Narnia; please Mum, can I have a Dalek for Christmas?

5: 1959

Claus for thought

Not for the last time, RT puts a bunch of pricks on the cover. But there’s Claus for thought in the shape of not one but two Saint Nicks, one vaguely resembling Alan Whicker, the other crouched behind a camera thumbing a red nose at the electricians’ union. Why can’t you give Santa the sack? Because he’s already got one. Ho bloody ho.

4: 1964

Er...Ponce alert! Radio Times goes a bit way out as it dips a toe into the cold Serpentine of mid-60s abstract art. It could be the British Isles, it could be a dove of peace, it could be what happens when one of your Woolworths baubles falls on the floor. Whatever, it’s rather splendid.

3: 1927

A dose of the clap

Got your number, ducky. RT goes gay with a swinging toast to the roaring 20s, offering up its own Christmas Reith in the guise of a bell ringing out – huzzah! – radio waves. ALL THE CHRISTMAS PROGRAMMES too, should there be any doubt.

2: 1968

Hanging looseGroovy typeface adorns a preposterously pendulous bauble, star-encrusted with the famous and not so (who’s the chap on the far left with the teeth and suit?). It looks like a poster for the original (and best) Casino Royale. If only this HAD been the cast of the original (and best) Casino Royale.

1: 1963

Toppermost of the poppermostThe most imaginative seasonal cover ever – and the most gorgeous. Carol singers with no eyes, a clump of Lowry parishioners trudging to worship, reindeer that look like the Black Rabbit from Watership Down, and an angel with a bouffon. Bold, unique, and utterly baffling: the true spirit of Christmas.

Honourable mentions for…

A hard-working family, yesterday

1923: a hard-working family

What fascist undertones?

1926: what fascist undertones?

That's what they call you

1929: that’s what they call you

Christmas Deco-rations

1933: the Deco in decoration

Pop goes Christmas

1966: taking Christ out of Xmas

Oh no it isn't - oh yes it is!

1988: oh yes it is, oh no it isn’t

Now see the six worst Christmas Radio Times covers

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26) “I don’t do French, I do woodwork!”

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Chrissie swims the Channel, January 1985

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“Dark” comedy was something that seemed to be invented at some point in the last decade, with the likes of Julia Davis and Ricky Gervais aiming to unsettle as much as amuse, but back in the eighties Victoria Wood was doing all that in the middle of primetime, and few comedy sketches have been both as hilarious and as sad as Chrissie’s attempt to swim the channel, as seen on TV on, er, As Seen On TV. In fact the sketch is also years ahead of its time in the way it sends up the conventions of the television documentary and its various artifices (we love the way her parents really awkwardly walk out of the front gate, clearly the last of several hundred takes). The forced banter and Chrissie’s bedroom (with its “Learn To Swim With The Daily Mirror” posters) are both absolutely perfect. The concept of an ambitious but deluded character ineptly aiming to complete an impossible feat is something that Wood portrayed quite frequently over the years but she did it so well, imbuing her characters with such warmth that you really feel for Chrissie even though she’s on screen for less than five minutes. This does mean that the whole thing is really quite bittersweet and at the end of it you feel quite melancholy, but there are loads of brilliant jokes in it before you get there – like the fact she constantly wears the swimming cap and her parents can’t remember how many children they have, which reminds us that it’s just a bit of daftness that isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. A lesser comedian would have expanded this over several minutes for several weeks, and hammered home the pathetic-ness of the participants, but Victoria Wood isn’t like other comedians.

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27) “I look slightly different!”

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It’s No-No-No-Noel’s Addicts, 28th September 1993

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Before you watch that, watch this, because this is a great example of a parody that’s now actually become more famous than the show it’s parodying. But as you can see, there was an actual Noel’s Addicts, which ran for one series in the summer of 1992 and involved Noel meeting people with ker-azy hobbies and interests. It’s only by seeing that you can appreciate how accurate the title sequence, theme tune and set are, though from the moment that “Noel” reverses onto the set in a body stocking not much else has much to do with reality. In fact the VHS of this series actually featured an introduction before Ken Taylor’s appearance (in which Noel addressed the audience as “boy scouts”) which might have made it a bit less mystifying, but regardless of whether you know what it’s parodying the whole sketch is among the silliest pieces of television ever made. That said, it does actually make some proper satirical points along the way, including Noel’s ridiculous overexaggerated laugh, his liking for a weak innuendo, the relishing of cock-ups and, of course, how he loves nothing more than to be “surprised” by his old friend DLT with a picture of him where he looks slightly different. In between we have two notable comic creations from Vic Reeves, including Chris Bell – a name the pair apparently spent ages pondering over to find the right kind of mundane name – who would make various other appearances on The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer to generally irritate people. But the star of the show is Noel himself, in an unforgettable costume – we love how he fiddles with one of its protrudences while walking across the set – with a completely bizarre accent. We don’t know what Noel made of it, but any offence would doubtless be countered by the fact it’s just plain bloody stupid – and that’s why it’s so great.

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28) “There’s no need to be afraid!”

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Band Aid’s one and only TV appearance, 25th December 1984

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It’s been suggested that this is the ultimate Top of the Pops performance in that it tries to amaze but falls ever so slightly short. There’s some truth in that but it’s a pretty memorable moment in any case, as it surely emphasises how important Top of the Pops was in the early eighties. 1984 was a huge year for pop in the UK, what with Frankie selling records by the truckloads and Ghostbusters and Last Christmas selling thousands and thousands of copies and not even getting to number one, and the Christmas Top of the Pops represented that with plenty of big names in attendance – and not just performing, either, but presenting too, as Michael Hurll had got fed up of the Radio 1 DJs whining about their role in the Christmas show so decided not to use any of them. Pops’ pulling power was such in those days that everyone wanted to appear on the Christmas show and so they decided, for the one and only time, to actually do a live performance of Do They Know It’s Christmas. Obviously logistics meant there were a few personnel changes from the record, most notoriously with Bono’s unavailability, while George Michael was ill, but it’s augmented by some new arrivals who were there for the show including Slade, sharing a stage with Sting, and, sneaking in on the end of the line, Black Lace. Regardless, it’s a fascinating document, watching Jim Diamond and Francis Rossi share a joke, Marilyn blow kisses to Glenn Gregory’s amusement, and Gary Kemp deciding to illustrate his musicianship by miming guitar. All a bit shambolic, maybe, but Top of the Pops, and specifically Top of the Pops under the auspices of Michael Hurll, is almost certainly the only TV show that could have done anything like this, and it’s incredible they even managed to get it all together. On Christmas Day 1984 this would have seemed to the average teenager the most amazing gathering of stars ever assembled – overshadowed a bit by Live Aid a few months later, maybe, but at least by being mimed, Simon Le Bon came out of this one with dignity intact.

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29) “That’s what I did last night, anyway, here’s Hawkwind!”

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Smashie and Nicey’s final appearance, 4th April 1994

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It’s been suggested that Smashie and Nicey was the only bit of satire that ever actually achieved anything, as you’d have to look hard these days to find any DJ banter that doesn’t have its tongue firmly in its cheek. In fact John Birt once thanked Harry Enfield for being responsible for changing the face of Radio 1, much to Enfield’s horror as he thought John Birt did far more damage to the Beeb than some “harmless” DJs. Regardless, though, the fact remains that Smashie and Nicey were absolutely brilliant comic creations, probably the best thing Enfield and Whitehouse have ever done, and the public got the point they were making immediately. Sadly their success meant that they could no longer continue as they managed to make the subject of their satire redundant (literally), so after the Bannister revolution at Radio 1, it was time for Radio Fab to clear out its schedules. Happily, their final appearance, in a 45-minute special, was an absolute triumph, brilliantly written, acted to perfection by two wonderfully talented performers and also technically amazing – moments like Nicey on Blue Peter or in the Deptford Draylons advert, and Smashie in Dixon of Dock Green look fantastic now, never mind nearly twenty years ago. There are so many great moments in it it’s almost impossible to choose, which is why we’ve alighted in the hilarious opening sequence where the pair just burble on about nothing in particular, our favourite being Nicey’s inept attempt to précis the plot of an episode of One Foot In The Grave. Like The Day Today, it’s hard for people who didn’t see it at the time to realise that this isn’t some standalone bit of silliness but a parody of an actual thing, so successful was it of making it look so stupid it couldn’t continue. But even if the topicality is no longer there, it remains one of the funniest pieces of television ever made.

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30) “We’ll let you know how this goes!”

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Si, Saz and Pete have some trouble with dogs, 20th January 1983

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Val, John and Pete have always been cited as the ultimate Blue Peter team, with some justification, but surely a close second comes Si, Saz and Pete, especially as they managed to bring the show back to its best after the atrocious antics of Chris Wenner. They certainly continued to lineage of their distinguished predecessors – Simon Groom was clearly the Peter Purves of the trio, slightly square and unexciting but a reliable presence and with a neat line in dry humour. Peter Duncan was unmistakeably the John Noakes of the eighties – scruffy, a bit manic and overexcited but with bags of warmth and enthusiasm. And then there was Sarah Greene, like Val a true professional, appearing far too cool for the boys’ antics but clearly just as happy to send things up. Here’s the team at their brilliant best, trying to work through an item invol ving St Bernard dogs. Biddy Baxter famously heavily scripted the show but clearly hadn’t realised quite how over-excited seven large dogs might get in the studio, and the item is quickly reduced to chaos. Si’s fabulous pratfall is great fun, and while he and Sarah try and explain exactly what the dogs are doing here, they eventually get drowned out by the barking and Pete wisely decides to write the whole thing off as a bad job, and the brilliantly abrupt conclusion, where he simply promises “We’ll let you know how this goes” before they wish a hasty goodbye, is just the funniest thing. Blue Peter in the eighties had a bit of a reputation for being boring, and occasionally it was, but many kids liked that slow pace and routine. It also meant that when the odd bit of anarchy arrived, it was all the better, handled expertly by a fantastic team.

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The 10 Greatest Doctor Who Moments

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"You must obey!"

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And so we reach the final instalment of TV Cream Countdown: The 50 Greatest Doctor Who Moments. You might, should your browser allow, be able to listen to it above. Or download it here (it’s big at 71meg). If you haven’t already, you could also subscribe. And this is our RSS feed

Simon Cartwright as Bob MonkhouseA very special guest, Simon Cartwright in the guise of Bob Monkhouse (left),  begins this final epistopic interface, which also takes in lesbians, Geoffrey Palmer, Doctor Who’s ultimate adventure and the very greatest thing about Doctor Who ever. Plus! Contains Ian ‘Brendan from K9 and Company’ Sears’ first ever interview about that show.

As per Episode OneEpisode TwoEpisode Three and Episode Four you can also access the bits on Soundcloud right here, or below.

TV Cream would like thank the following for helping us make this five-episode podcast series: Karen Bartke, Jonathon Carley, Simon Cartwright, Charles Daniels, Peter Dickson, Debbie Flint, Ryan Hendrick, Keith Miller, Dom O’Shea, Jon Peake, Rose Ruane, Matthew Rudd, Ian Sears, Chip Sudderth, Hamish Wilson and anyone who posted some kind of crazy clip to YouTube or VideoMotion or somewhere else, which we’ve mercilessly pilfered.

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The 20-11 Greatest Doctor Who Moments

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"Because there's always a button"

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Today we release part four of TV Cream Countdown: The 50 Greatest Doctor Who Moments. You might, should your browser allow, be able to listen to it above. Or you might prefer to download it from here (clocks in at 59meg). If you haven’t already, you could also subscribe. And this is our RSS feed

In this one we encounter the father of fandom, arrive on the planet Shepherd’s Bush, wonder if your wife has come back from her sister’s yet and find out what happens when Doctor Who sings.

As per Episode OneEpisode Two and – well – Episode Three, you can also access the various bits on Soundcloud right here, or below. Tweet any bits you like.

As per a previous ep, one of the bits didn’t make it onto Soundcloud, so we’ve replaced it with a fresh cut. But if you want to hear what you’re missing, click this.

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The 30-21 Greatest Doctor Who Moments

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"You will be the next... to hear this instalment"

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Part three of TV Cream Countdown: The 50 Greatest Doctor Who Moments is now available! If your browser is amenable, you can listen to it above or download from here (clocks in at 45meg)). Or subscribe. Or try our RSS feed

Features a guest appearance from Debbie Flint of BSB Doctor Who Weekend fame. Plus, the Master debate, a particularly stupid theory, Sylvester McCoy saying “bollocks” and the rare photo of the Rill!

As per Episode One and Episode Two we’ve bit bits up onto Soundcloud for your downloading and sharing pleasure, which you can access here, or below. Tweet any bits you like.

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The 40-31 Greatest Doctor Who Moments

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"Lll-a-llll-a-lllll!"

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And so, part two of TV Cream Countdown: The 50 Greatest Doctor Who Moments, which you can listen to above (if your browser lets you) or download from here (that’s about 50 meg you’ll be shifting). Or subscribe. Oh, and this is our RSS feed

This time around one of the Jamie McCrimmons joins in the fun, we take a journey to an altogether more far-flung shore, examine premature male pattern baldness, an oscilloscope and a frockcoat, and remember the time the Doctor Who Appreciation Society blew it.

As per Episode One, we’ve also popped bits up onto Soundcloud for your downloading and sharing pleasure, which you can access here, or below. Feel free to tweet any bits you like. We should add, though, that due to copyright reasons, two chunks are not included in the playlist. But you can hear them, well, here. They are numbers 36 and 34.

We’ve instead included two extra, additional bits, to plug those Soundcloud gaps below. Collect them all!

Our thanks go to voice heroes Jonathon Carley and Dom O’Shea.

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The 50-41 Greatest Doctor Who Moments

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"Peoples of the universe please attend..."

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Peoples of the universe, please attend! The podcast that follows is TV Cream Countdown: The 50 Greatest Doctor Who Moments!

This is the start of a five-part series, which will run daily from here till Friday. It’s a slightly misnamed podcast to be honest, as it’s more a miscellany of 50 things about Doctor Who; but whatever – it’s still a nifty tie-in for the programme’s golden jubilee.

In this first instalment, we countdown from 50 to 41. Includes the Cybermen, the crossover betwixt DW and 007, a living legend of Doctor Who podcasting and a symposium on Whovian impressions. Ahhh.

It weighs in at about 46 minutes and 50 meg. You can listen to it above (if your browser supports that kind of fun) or download from here.

Easiest thing, though, is to subscribe. And this is our RSS feed. Be aware, for technical reasons this is a different iTunes feed from the previous TV Cream podcast, so even if you were signed up to that, you’ll have to sign up to this. Sorry.

We’ve also popped bits up onto Soundcloud, which you can access here, or – again, browser permitting – below. Feel free to tweet any bits you like, download, share etc.

At least try listening to the Introduction – that gives you a good taste of the podcast to follow…

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Coming soon from TV Cream

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Peoples of the universe please attend: The above video is to flag up that next month, we’ll be launching our podcast series celebrating the five faces… erm, five decades of Doctor Who. It’ll be called TV Cream Countdown: The 50 Greatest Doctor Who Moments.

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56) “Blimey, that was original!”

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Pip Schofield vs Fruitbat, 27th October 1991

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The great thing about Smash Hits was how democratic it was – certainly not just confined to teen fare, if you were in the charts you were in the magazine, and that spirit of openness continues when Ver Hits appeared on the telly in the shape of the Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party. A major TV event in the day when pop was still strictly rationed on our screens, grebo trailblazers Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine don’t at first glance appear to be the most obvious choice of guests but they were in the charts and provided something of a contrast between New Kids of the Block and Chesney Hawkes (although late 1991, just after New Kids’ pomp and before the rise of Take That, offered up pretty thin gruel as far as teen idols went). That said, their political lyrics and distinctive fashion sense were likely to have baffled and bored much of the audience, until a spectacular climax. Such was the fast turnaround of acts on the show, all the bands were obliged to mime and the issues of live TV meant some were faded out early to allow the show to run to time. Jimbob and Fruitbat weren’t particularly impressed – and had also enjoyed some pre-show hospitality – so decided to indulge in some time-honoured rock posturing at the end by smashing up their equipment. Host Pip Schofield found that terribly amusing so made what seem pretty quick-witted pointed remarks about how the band were “pushing back the frontiers of music”. Fruitbat decided Pip was taking the piss a bit too much and launched himself at him. The framing of this moment is absolutely beautiful, Fruitbat coming from absolutely nowhere and taking the pair of them off screen, leading to a panicked director to immediately cut to a shot of nothing in particular, but ever the professional, Pip immediately dusts himself down, has a good chuckle and then continue s, albeit with half his Halloween-themed costume now on the floor. Apparently Carter were frogmarched from the venue and told they’d never appear live on the Beeb again, but Pip took it all in good part and posed for a photoshoot in the next issue of Ver Hits with a Fruitbat lookalike and a baseball bat, while a few million more people knew who Carter were and within a year they’d had a number one album. And rightly so, they were a great band.

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David Frost RIP: scrupulous gadabout genius

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The man and his people

FEW WENT ABOUT THE BUSINESS OF BEING FAMOUS as meticulously as David Frost. Even fewer managed to make it look so effortless.

From his debut on television in 1962 to his unofficial retirement in 2005, everything seemed so maddeningly playful. A whiff of insincerity, a sense that he wasn’t merely the sum of his parts but that his parts weren’t even his own, clung to him throughout his TV career.

Yet he virtually created the modern media industry, if not purposefully then through intimation. Both on and behind camera he revolutionised what was possible – and more importantly what was thought possible.

From the start it all seemed casually calculated: an attitude that won him as many apostles as brickbats right up to his death. The job fronting That Was The Week That Was came about partly because John Bird didn’t fancy it, but mostly because of a nice lunch between Frost and the show’s creator Ned Sherrin. Frost was inserted into a format 95% fully-realised. But he contrived to make the remaining 5% the most important bit of all: himself.

Seriously, they're doing a great jobChristopher Booker said Frost’s most obvious quality was “he simply wanted to be amazingly famous for being David Frost.” Yet away from the cackle and the hair, Frost turned in some remarkable work.

For example, there remains very little on television that has ever been as incisively critical as the sketch on home secretary Henry Brooke broadcast in the very last TW3 in December 1963.

Its effrontery is staggering. Brooke is paraphrased as being “the most hated man in Britain”; he is called a liar; Frost declares: “Your word, Henry, isn’t very eloquent, is it? Perhaps that’s why you so rarely bother to keep it”; and it ends with Willie Rushton as Brooke saying direct to camera: “It just shows, if you’re home secretary, you can get away with murder.”

Frost didn’t make TW3, but it made him. In turn he made a whole host of others if not quite as influential as he, then certainly as famous.

The casts and writers of TW3, its successor Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (1964-65), and the subsequent comedy series The Frost Report (1966-67) were the yeast in British TV entertainment of the 1960s. Frostie had the wherewithal, but also the intelligence, to fuel the rise – and to ensure he rose with them. The whole industry got shaken up.

Ubiquity became the trademark. For a time he was on television every night of the week: four in America, three in the UK. If you had the means, you could arrange to be out of the country whenever he was in. If not, he was there to shoo you to bed with an increasingly cosy turn each Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Now he was playing television like a captain of trade. He owned the commanding heights and became the champagne commissar of ITV, pulling levers and spinning dials and concocting five-year plans. The industry got shaken up all over again.

And still he couldn’t really do presenting. The topical gags at the start of each edition of Frost on Sunday (1969-72) triumphed in spite of their delivery. Frost would appear, his grin and tie perfectly in place, gripping a clipboard a little too tightly, armed with zingers penned by Dick Vosburgh and Neil Shand about statutory incomes policies or the Common Market, only to plunge through proceedings with the same demeanour as a Wile E Coyote plunging down a ravine.

Selfridges presentsDid it matter? Not a jot. It never mattered. The material made the man, not the other way around. If the material ever ran out, so did he.

The best moments in Frost’s interviews came when the scripted questions led into chit-chat, combative and wispy. It was here that he let his knowledge of both medium and message inform his interrogation rather than dominate it.

The jousts with Nixon and Kissinger would not have so wrongfooted their subjects had the host not been so lightfooted in his prosecution.

The showdown with the Yippies would not have worked in any other setting than a studio, where Frost could nail so perfectly his cluster of undignified dopes by informing them: “Laughing childishly when you manage to say a four-letter word on television? Big deal.”

When he told Emil Savundra that he had “either to be stupid or dishonest – which?” it was a question Frost could only have asked on live TV with a garrulous audience egging him on and a larger one at home hanging on his every word. “Well done Frostie!” the studio cried as, shuddering with rage, he strode off set as the credits rolled, surely knowing that such a denouement would have just as much impact as the cross-examination it concluded.

The language of television that Frost helped to write was easy to mock at the time, but only in the way anything unfamiliar is lampooned in order to make it more palatable. The parodies came quickly too, with former proteges leading the charge.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus spoofed Frost with the kind of barbed wit based on first-hand experience. But listen to the hoots of laughter and applause from the audience as they realise who Eric Idle is impersonating. This is no elite in-joke. Everyone is in on the gag – and it’s only 1970, not even 10 years into the Frost supremacy.

Setting some hares running“David came over here and fooled everybody for a while,” said Johnny Carson. “They thought he was an entertainer – and then they got on to him.”

Frost’s strutting around the planet in the 70s stretched the elasticity of his act until it was nearly transparent. Those who wanted to could look right through. Others marvelled at how he kept it all together.

The scrupulous gadabout was once again shaking up the industry, this time on a global level. He funded and filmed the Nixon interviews independently, raising an imperial two fingers at the US networks. He then sold the tapes to whoever was interested, being sure to keep hold of the rights. And still the money bubbled in.

There was no science to any of this. The one time Frost tried to dabble with the elements with was when he promised “sexual chemistry” at TV-am. That particular farrago was one from which he managed to emerge with his status and bank balance reasonably intact.

But from now on a different kind of Frostie flitted through the ether. All the rough edges had been chipped off. Where once he sashayed, now he shuffled.

Come the 1980s, all most of us saw of him was an hour or so on a Sunday morning, and the occasional Guinness Book of Records special on a bank holiday. He was still only in his 40s, but like Keith Richards and the Queen he suddenly seemed to age 30 years in the space of three.

Then, as if to prove such cheap observation wrong in as public a manner possible, he had one last go at shaking things up. Except this time, he over-reached himself in spectacular fashion.

“Richard Branson and I have always cherished a desire to work together,” Frost said when trying to explain the reason for their joint attempt to win yet another slice of ITV in 1991. The bids were stuffed with ponderous quotations from ancient philosophers. Money splashed about the place, with £45m being pencilled for London, £22m for the south and £10m for East Anglia.

Yet it wasn’t the cash that scuppered the project. All three bids failed the meet the regulators’ “quality threshold”. In other words, they were rubbish. With proposals including “Sunstroke, set in a ClubMed-style resort”, an adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt and 60 minutes of local news a night, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it was unusual to see Frostie fail. Twice, in fact, for the same process saw TV-am lose the breakfast franchise.

Major disasterA berth on the BBC completed his journey from industry ignition to brake.

Breakfast with Frost was where things simmered down, not kicked off. It was sofa, so good. The drowsy atmosphere sometimes lulled politicians into indiscreet outbursts. This was the exception, however. The programme was an anachronism from the start: a 1950s colonial-drinks-lounge supposedly at the spearhead of a 1990s mission-to-explain Birtist BBC.

It did change over time, but only to become more cumbersome, fussy, peculiar. After the final show in 2005, the continuity announced proclaimed it to be “the end of an era”. Whichever era it was, it was the wrong one.

For what will David Frost be most remembered? Almost certainly the shop-window stuff: the chinwags with potentates, the tete-a-tetes in presidential parlours, the way he made satire look glamorous and sexy rather than starchy and sad.

But he also deserves to be cherished for his appreciation of how television works, what makes it great, and how it can confer greatness upon others.

He created the template for the modern media mogul. He showed that you can be on TV and run TV at the same time.

Above all he understood what countless others failed and still fail to realise: that it’s not what to be on television that matters, it’s how.

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