TV Cream

It's Saturday Night

111. The worst programme currently on terrestrial television

 

 

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Crime Traveller never clicked with the Saturday night audience. A better attempt at light-hearted drama followed in May with the launch of Jonathan Creek. Although the two series shared a basic ethos, Jonathan Creek was clearly more rooted in reality – while the plots were fantastical, most episodes were based around everyday and mundane events, rather than someone leaping into the nearest time machine. Ironically Crime Traveller had been commissioned much quicker than Creek, and the latter’s production team, including David Renwick, had at one point assumed they wouldn’t get the green light due to the similarities. Of course while Crime Traveller was dropped after eight weeks, Jonathan Creek – the first dramatic production by the BBC’s entertainment department – turned into a big hit.

It seemed as if all the channels were in something of a state of stasis in 1997. This included Channel Four, who in January launched their first entertainment show on Saturdays since Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. This was Last Chance Lottery, fronted by Patrick Kielty – a big star in Northern Ireland after he’d presented a number of entertainment shows for the local BBC1, but in the rest of the UK his only previous exposure was fronting After The Break in 1996, another variation of the Commercial Breakdown series originally fronted by Jasper Carrott. This new vehicle was hardly the ideal format for him, as it seemed to follow the example of its predecessor almost to the letter. Based around the idea of rewarding losers, each edition started with a reading of the night’s lottery numbers, before a series of songs, including a weekly musical guest, and games with members of the audience – more or less Toothbrush by numbers. Stephen Pile, writing in The Daily Telegraph, summed up the critical reaction to the series, calling it “seriously unfunny” and “the worst programme currently on terrestrial television”. He also suggested it “proved just how hard it is to create a Toothbrush-esque occasion”. Fair comment; the series was dropped after one run.

1997 also saw the arrival of another option on Saturday evenings, with the UK’s fifth terrestrial channel opening on Sunday 30 March. Channel Five’s Saturday night line-up, much like the rest of the week, consisted of cheap films and imports, but there was one new entertainment show. Night Fever, like the rest of the channel’s output, was cheap and cheerful. The ludicrously simple format saw two teams of micro-celebrities (men vs women) facing off at karaoke, while over the hill pop stars and tribute bands crooned old tunes. Presiding over events, and looking throughout as if he’d rather be elsewhere, was Suggs, and the whole hour was surely one of the tackiest programmes to hit our screens for many years. Yet it seemed to have its tongue in its cheek, and the resulting romp gained a loyal, albeit tiny, audience for a few years – though Channel Five never launched another home-made series to go alongside it, simply flinging on repeats and imports while it was off air.

The Beeb did launch two new entertainment series in 1997. The first, Whatever You Want, replaced House Party in April 1997, and was largely successful without pulling up too many trees. The series revolved around members of the public taking part in games and quizzes to win the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, such as meeting a favourite celebrity or achieving a long-held ambition. Gaby Roslin presented, having a rather happier time of it than on her previous Saturday series, C4’s ill-fated Gaby Roslin Show, although it was alleged that most people in the industry referred to the show as “Dim’ll fix it”. Despite running for four series, the only real legacy of Whatever You Want was that of its creator – David Young, a young producer who was getting something of a reputation for his enthusiasm for light entertainment. He would go on to play a big part in our story.

The other new concept was The Other Half, a new quiz with Dale Winton who needed a format after Pets Win Prizes had been dropped. He said he knew the show was right for him when the producer said to him, “Here is one woman and three men – which is she married to?” – Dale reckoning that the best game show formats can be explained in a sentence. Certainly, it was easy to play along at home, and Dale could often generate laughs with his regular jaunts around the contestants’ homes, but it wasn’t really the sort of thing that empties the pubs on a Saturday night, despite this too lasting four series.

The same could be said of The Big Big Talent Show, which returned in the summer of 1997. Jonathan Ross presented as before, this time joined by Sun TV critic Garry Bushell. However in a step backwards, the programme was now pre-recorded, with the studio audience alone deciding the winner; the same format as Stars In Their Eyes, yes, but taking the decision away from the viewers removed some of the appeal. Singer Lydia Griffiths was therefore the second, and final, winner.

The decision to bring back the successful Big Big Talent Show was a no-brainer. The same could also be said – though with a rather different meaning – of the reappearance of The Shane Richie Experience, despite its critical slamming the previous year. However Granada, still committed to Richie, had made some welcome changes – the songs were dropped, as were the bottom-related games, while the top prize was the chance to get married anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, as opposed to in a shed round the back of Granada Studios. To complete the revamp, and to perhaps distance itself from the bad press, the name was also changed to the less phenomenal Love Me Do. However it was felt the show was toned down to such an extent that it lost any sort of curious appeal it once had. The timing was also slightly iffy, as Richie later admitted – “I don’t suppose anyone remembers it much today. More people were watching Countdown. I never felt very comfortable with it. I was on television, promoting monogamy and there I was slap-bang in the middle of an affair. I had to do it – I was still under contract to Granada, but it was never my sort of show and was more suited to somebody like Cilla or Dale.”

Despite everyone’s efforts, by the end of 1997 we were more or less where we were two years previously – with the same long-running shows still playing to gradually declining audiences. New ideas were now not just desirable – they were crucial.

Next Monday: I award the city state of Milton Keynes 100 credits!

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Richardpd

    March 18, 2022 at 10:57 pm

    I imagine Crime Traveller was quickly commissioned when it was obvious the Doctor Who telemovie wasn’t going to lead to a new series. The next year Invasion Earth filled the “We Don’t need Dr Who” quota, followed by a reimagining of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) and probably one or two other forgettable telefantasy series before the BBC succumbed to the inevitable.

  2. Glenn Aylett

    March 19, 2022 at 1:10 pm

    @ Richardpd, Doctor Who was still a bit of a toxic brand, even after the television movie. Viewers who recalled its last years in the eighties considered it to be a cheaply made programme that had never been the same after Tom Baker and they probably had a point, as some of the special effects were woeful and Colin Baker( no relation to Tom) had chased away the casual viewer. Also being shown opposite Coronation St for its last two series didn’t help, even if the last two series were a big improvement.

    • Richardpd

      March 19, 2022 at 10:36 pm

      Doctor Who seemed to get very self referential in the 1980s which put a lot of casual viewers, especially in the pre-internet era when only a few reference guides had been written & almost only owned by fans of the series.

      Peter Davison’s era was OK, even if it suffered from being shown twice weekly on week days.

      Even though it was moved back to Saturdays, Colin Baker time as the Doctor suffered from poor characterisation in the earlier stories and other issued that got the series rested.

      With the boost of a new script editor the Sylvester McCoy era got better as it went along, but wasn’t enough to keep it from being cancelled. Certainly the lack of support from the BBC top brass didn’t help things.

  3. Sidney Balmoral James

    March 20, 2022 at 12:05 am

    I’m always surprised by the lack of love for the Colin Baker era – I thought he was very good, and didn’t he go a bit psycho at times? Also the stories could be surprisingly hard-edged. The McCoy era also included some quite violent episodes, and I don’t remember as a teenage viewer thinking the programme had declined (I started watching at the very end of the Baker years – I must have been about five, as I remember K9, so God knows what my parents were thinking letting me watch it at that age). But then few BBC dramas from the late 80s and early 90s are likely to be fondly remembered – this was the era of Eldorado, Virtual Murder, A Year in Provence etc.

  4. Glenn Aylett

    March 20, 2022 at 8:46 am

    Colin Baker wanted to portray the Doctor in a less sympathetic light than his predecessor and play him more like an alien than some Anglicised figure like Peter Davidson’s cricket loving Doctor. Also in one episode he gassed an opponent and tried to strangle Peri, which led to numerous complaints, while at the same time, the tardiness of the sets and the poor special effects were seeing viewers drift away. The show really did need a rest and a reboot, but when it returned, the new Doctor had to face his biggest adversary, Coronation St.
    I think the BBC dramas Sidney is referring to are more of the nineties than the eighties, as the BBC was strong in drama up to 1991 or so. Eldorado was the classic, expensive flop, a new soap made in Spain that was ditched after a year, but I could add the horse racing drama Trainer, the tedious 1950s Scottish drama Strathblair, and another Scottish flop called Para Handy, about three men on an old fishing boat. Others like Civvies, a brutal drama about ex paras that was quite good, was considered rather niche and wasn’t recommissioned and Rides, an attempt at a comedy drama about a female soldier using her pension to set up a taxi firm missed the mark, even if the premise was good, and the police dramas Specials and Back Up came and went with little comment.

  5. Richardpd

    March 20, 2022 at 10:05 pm

    The Sixth Doctor casually knocking someone into an acid bath without a hint of remorse, something which had more than just Mary Whitehouse calling the BBC duty line. There were a few other OTT acts of violence in Colin Baker’s first season.

    Virtual Murder was a very strange series, very tongue in cheek and drifting into fantasy at times, almost like an early draft of Jonathon Creek without the David Renwick sparkle added.

    Para Handy had been adapted from a long running newspaper serial, which had TV versions in the 1960s & 70s. I found

    Civvies was a Lynda La Plante series, just when she hit drama gold with Prime Suspect.

    • Glenn Aylett

      March 21, 2022 at 7:28 pm

      @ Richardpd, John Nathan Turner wanted a darker Doctor who was more controversial and had little of the charm and humour of Peter Davidson and Tom Baker. The Doctor was still on the side of good, of course, but was a very flawed figure and this was part of JNT’s plan. Unfortunately viewers took a huge dislike to Colin Baker and Michael Grade, who considered Doctor Who to be a cheaply made throwback to the sixties, found an excuse to rest the show he admitted to hating after he left the BBC. My view of the show at the time as a fan was it really needed a huge increase in the budget and a better Doctor.

      As regards Civvies, this was actually a good series about Paras trying to adjust to civilian life, but extremely violent and unsettling to many viewers. In one episode a retired Para kills one of his neighbours for playing music too loud, and in another two Paras almost kill each other in a fight based on a feud dating back to a tour of Northern Ireland.

      • Richardpd

        March 21, 2022 at 10:14 pm

        I don’t think I remember watching much of Civvies but the much screened trailers started with the quote “We were the roughest & the toughest!” & ended with one of them jumping off some scaffolding.

        There seemed to be quite a few short run dramas around this time, often never repeated or available on video or DVD.

        • Sidney Balmoral James

          March 23, 2022 at 11:48 am

          Civvies of course had Peter O’Toole as a villain, a slightly absurd and half-cut villain, but still luxury casting.

  6. Droogie

    March 21, 2022 at 11:14 am

    I was always baffled by the career longevity of Patrick Kielty. I always thought him an arrogant charmless oaf who wasn’t as funny as he obviously thought he was. I wasn’t alone as his name became a running joke for crapness on Never Mind The Buzzcocks by Mark Lamarr who obviously couldn’t stand him either.

    • Applemask

      March 24, 2022 at 12:25 pm

      Between Kielty and Lamarr, the latter might have been funnier once upon a time but the former seems to be the better person.

  7. Droogie

    March 24, 2022 at 12:49 pm

    Oh – I’m no fan of Lamarr. The man is a sociopath! He also has an issue with women. The time he made Gail Porter cry on NMTB by telling her to take her clothes off or leave was particularly nasty.

    • Richardpd

      March 24, 2022 at 11:18 pm

      I think we’ve discussed the curse of the 1990s comedian elsewhere, with Lee Hurst & Rory McGrath having falls from grace, along with premature deaths of some others.

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