While OTT was attracting terrible column inches, the BBC had its own Saturday night disaster to contend with. Sin on Saturday was first broadcast on 7 September 1982 at 10.55pm. Described as “eight discussions, interspersed with music and comedy that is thoroughly sinful,” the mix sounded highbrow but not a million miles away from late night BBC fare such as Saturday Night At the Mill and Parkinson. Co-editor Sean Hardie was later to describe Sin on Saturday as a “dinner-party idea … we all sit round and think it’s a great idea for a programme, and then someone turns round and says ‘Do it,’ and you say ‘No I didn’t actually mean that,’ but by that stage it’s got into the system.”
Presenter Bernard Falk recalls the BBC was “looking for someone who personally encompassed as many of the sins as possible. I’m overweight, I’ve always coveted a late-night talk-show, I envy people who are more successful with women than I am, I’m incredibly pleased with myself and incurably slothful”. Falk had previously presented the first series of the BBC’s ambitious adventure game show Now Get Out Of That (which was to return for a second and final run in 1983), but was new to the business of hosting a chat show. Nevertheless, he was determined to do things his way. “No one has been invited just because he is a ‘celebrity’ and I won’t be expressing phoney interest in anyone’s latest show, album or about-to-be-published autobiography, because I’m just not at ease with showbiz people in that context. We have chosen guests who are directly connected with a particular sin – and they will be there to talk about that. We’ve also made sure they are all people who can really talk”.
Falk went on to outline how he foresaw the projected eight episodes panning out. “The show will be light-hearted and funny, but not entirely frivolous. There will be an element of serious investigation into the nature of ‘sin’, why people are sinful and whether they can (or should) do anything about it … Everyone we have on will be full of life and even the virtuous ones will be made to confess that they’re sinful deep down! … At that hour you want to keep people up and send them to bed happy, so the recipe will be intelligence, humour and wit … I admit I’m cautiously terrified – but you can say I’m quietly confident. It’s a great subject. When I look in the mirror, I see all the sins we’re dealing with staring right back at me. We shall be plumbing the depths of human nature – what could be more interesting than that?”
Sin on Saturday’s title sequence consisted of Falk pulling faces to accompany each of the sins. As the programme was scheduled to run for eight weeks, the production team tried to come up with a suitably contemporaneous eighth sin, and so Falk was required to mime something suitable for the sin of “getting away with it”. The first programme covered lust and included “laughter and music from Cheetah, Robbie Coltrane and Elaine Loudon”. Coltrane was, like Sayle on OTT, new to television and hailed from the burgeoning alternative comedy scene. Loudon had developed a reputation as a singer and comedian, but – until that point – had received limited nationwide exposure. The eclectic collection of guests included Linda Lovelace, ex-nun Karen Armstrong, a representative from the Salvation Army, novelist Charlotte Lamb and actor Oliver Reed.
It became apparent Falk did not have the experience to create a cohesive, structured debate involving so many disparate opinions. A question to a line of beauty queens in the audience asking them to “define lust” resulted only in nervous giggles, and by inviting people with opinions as intractable and opposed as a pornography star and a nun, no sustainable debate was possible. Recalling the programme for the BBC’s 1992 TV Hell programme, Charlotte Lamb remembered waiting back stage with Oliver Reed, when the larger-than-life actor decided he wasn’t going to go on because he “thought the format was completely wrong”. When the duo was introduced, Reed tried to make a beeline for the audience, but was restrained as Lamb grabbed him by the hand and visibly pulled him onto the set. Reed’s main contribution to the debate was that he liked to look at “ladies who take their clothes off”.
Writing for The Observer, Julian Barnes recalls “I watched and thought ‘I’ve seen bad but this is dire’ and I rubbished it and noticed everybody else rubbished it, (then) there were two weeks of constant rubbishing from the critics”. Headlines such as “The Sins of Falk,” “Hell Bent,” “The most deadly sin – just not good enough,” “Bummer of the season”, “A nasty and incompetent piece” were bad enough, but BBC1’s own controller, Alan Hart believed the programme to have “committed the most deadly sin in television of being both boring and banal”.
The second programme covered covetousness and included a similarly eclectic selection of guests, but there was a sense all concerned recognised Sin on Saturday was a sinking ship. Disgraced Walsall MP John Stonehouse (who in 1976 faked his own death and was jailed for seven years for fraud, theft and deception) responded to a question about his return to public life by claiming to Falk “I do it because you invited me. I think you’re a great guy … Bernard here has a great idea for a programme and it’s a live programme and I think we should all help live programmes because that’s what TV should be about”. Stonehouse’s misguided, implied admission that the series was failing did little to alleviate the sense of impending doom surrounding the production, and the second edition remained as disjointed as the first, with Falk still manfully struggling with an unwieldy format.
While still critical of the programme, Hart was more positive than BBC director general Alasdair Milne (who wanted to pull Sin on Saturday after the second episode). The third programme (envy), proved to be the last. This time Alan Whicker, The Duke of Argyll and veteran anti-royalist Willie Hamilton were forced to artificially mutate their life stories into treatise on the pitfalls of envy. As the final Sin on Saturday drew to a close, Falk advised us to tune in the following week, where he would be discussing the sin of gluttony with 26-stone bounty hunter Tiny Boyles, Fanny Craddock, George Best and Chef d’humeur Patrick Barlow. There was to be no “next week”. On 4 August, the BBC announced no further programmes in the series were to be transmitted “for failing to come up to standard”.
Julian Barnes initially thought the “power of the critics” had done for the programme, but ultimately realised “it’s much more likely that Alasdair Milne, who had just been appointed director general, decided to shoot someone to encourage the others. It doesn’t mean that programme makers are impervious to criticism but they go more on audience figures than what the critics might say”. Viewers were in the main relieved to see the demise of Sin On Saturday, but it wasn’t a unanimous reaction. “We think the BBC is mistaken,” complained Radio Times readers Timothy Dhonau and Judy Paxton. “The idea for the series is original, and by the third programme it had got well into its stride: it considered important issues in a relaxed but confident way and was thought-provoking without being strident. The guests were well chosen so that their reactions to each other complimented their own contributions and illuminated the subject in hand”. Reader Mrs B Manley agreed the programme had begun poorly but had improved, claiming the “show was no better than Saturday Night At the Mill and certainly no worse … and a great deal better than Triangle (the much criticised early 1980s drama series) … Bernard Falk may not have the polish of, say, Robin Day – but give the fellow a chance!” Mrs Manley suggested the programme had somehow split the nation. “Although it may not have appealed to southern audiences it certainly was liked here in the north”.