Netflix headquarters, 15th September 2031. Despite people’s doom-laden predictions, the company is doing very nicely, thank you. But it’s doing nicely because they’ve finally started making smart financial decisions.
Across the road is where all those smart financial decisions are made. Right next to programme development, in fact. We’re not in the cool section of the place, though. We’re in a nondescript office block. Overspill, where all the boring projects go. It’s surprising it hasn’t been knocked down, and all these people just work from home. In a couple of years, exactly this will happen.
Until then, boring meetings take place here. And today’s boring meeting is about what to do with the latest selection of legacy content, where the rights are running out. David Smith presides over a room of greyness.
“Morning everyone. Let’s get this over with, we all have other things to do. What’s coming up next month, Mary?”
All eyes turn to Mary. She speaks, though it’s clearly an effort to give a flying fuck. “OK. We have Survivor, but the new rules kick in with this season – we only had the rights for this season for a year anyway, due to the new right-to-be-forgotten ruling….”
David rolls his eyes. That one had been a fucker for every company making programmes involving the general public.
Mary continued. “The Price is Right we won’t bother with – that hologram of Bob Barker was a disaster. And then there’s this thing called Black Mirror.”
David frowns. “What? Should I recognise that?”
“I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. It was a show we commissioned years back. Science fiction, all very dated now, of course. The main problem is the music rights – they run out next month.”
“Worth bothering with? How many views do we get on that show now, anyway?”
Mary consults her iPad Lisa. She looks up. “It actually gets a fair few streams a month, but the cost of those rights… take a look.”
She hands him the iPad. David glances at it. “Hell, no.”
I remember the very first time I ever became aware of KYTV.
It wasn’t through actually watching it, like a normal person. That would be too easy. No, it was reading a rather snotty reference to it in What Satellite magazine, where some idiot columnist made some outraged remark about the BBC making fun of their precious satellite television while forcing everyone to pay the licence fee. It was a remark which, if Geoffrey Perkins or Angus Deayton had read it, I suspect would have filled them with glee. Irritating various people who deserve to be irritated is entirely within the remit KYTV had set itself, after all.
In any case, it’s easy to accuse the columnist of over-sensitivity. “A parody of cheap satellite TV” might be part of what KYTV is doing, but it most certainly isn’t all of it. If that was true, then for a start, they wouldn’t have been able to reuse so much material from the show’s radio predecessor, Radio Active. No, the targets KYTV had in its sights were fairly scattershot. For every joke about dishy dish girls, there’s another about BBC2 theme nights. And for every joke satirising cheap and exploitative TV, there are jokes which aren’t much about TV at all. You could stick Martin Brown in any environment, and he’d be funny.1
Which brings us to Challenge Anna: the last episode of Series 1 of KYTV, the best episode of the show made up until that point, and up there with the best full stop. In the programme’s sights are Challenge Anneka – a BBC show – and Treasure Hunt – a Channel 4 show. Indeed, neither programme is the kind of thing which Sky or BSB could really afford to make in 1990. And while the feature “Spin the Wheel” could be viewed as what could happen to the formats if dirty old Sky got hold of them, jokes about companies helping out on the show in order to get their name mentioned are very much digs at the Beeb.
Sadly, KYTV has fallen down the cracks of comedy history somewhat – more, in fact, than Radio Active itself, which has had an ongoing successful stage revival, and this year is up in Edinburgh for the team’s 40th anniversary. So let’s redress the balance. With many thanks to Darrell Maclaine-Jones, I have in my possession the script for Challenge Anna. And contained within are all kinds of differences to the broadcast episode – with whole scenes included which didn’t make the final cut.
As someone who passed their GCSEs through being reasonably clever rather than working hard, found out the hard way that I couldn’t do that with my A-Levels, and then had an absolutely disastrous experience at university for exactly the same reason, it’s perhaps not a surprise to hear that I suffer from the standard exam-based anxiety dream.
You know the one. The one where you’re going into an exam you haven’t prepared for, and don’t know any of the answers. To be fair, this is less an anxiety dream, and more my brain reenacting exactly what I did when I was 18, over and over and over again. 20 years later, I’m still having it on a regular basis. Which, I guess, is my punishment for wasting an opportunity others would have loved to have.
Still, many people have those kind of dreams. I work as a TV channel director, and people in our line of work have a whole raft of standard anxiety dreams specific to our job. I’ve had every single one of the following dreams, and when I’ve told other people in the industry, most replied with: “Oh, so it’s not just me, then?”
In an attempt at some kind of therapy, here is the kind of nonsense our brains decide to inflict on us.
1) It’s ten minutes before the late news is on air. I decide to go to the toilet… and suddenly find myself on a train leaving work. I ring up the playout suite to apologise, and inform them of my situation. Nobody is pleased.
2) Everything is going fine, for once. Ah, right, the live programme’s ending. Time to find the button we press to manually take it off air and go to the next event… what? Where is it? It’s not where it usually is! Help!
Eventually, engineering show up. The button had been moved overnight, and was hidden under all my paperwork. I feebly protest my innocence.
3) For some reason, control of the most important channel in the UK has moved to my childhood home. Time for my shift. I go downstairs into my living room, and the last shift has already left, leaving the room in the dark. They’ve also turned off all the monitors I need in order to run the channel. I spend ages switching them back on, then realise we’re coming up to a live programme. Studio talkback is now controlled through my family PC speakers, and the channel is now controlled through my family PC. I wake up in a sweat, and ponder what Freud would have made of all this.
4) I forget to give the continuity announcer sound, which means their live announcement won’t go to air. When I finally remember, I can’t find the required button because I rapidly start losing my eyesight.
And perhaps the worst:
5) I dream the entire shift, everything goes smoothly… and then wake up and have to do the whole thing again for real. Thanks, brain.
On the plus side, I did once dream of Kathy Burke sitting in a darkened studio, complaining that her weather graphics had crashed. I’m sure you could get a sitcom episode out of that.
So many of us have vivid TV memories than seemingly nobody else remembers.
* * *
Nottingham, in either the late 80s, or more probably the early 90s. The teatime edition of Central News East is on. I’m watching it, because not only am I fascinated by television, but I’m very specifically fascinated by television which is being transmitted live just up the road from where I live.
Anna Soubry is presenting, in the days when she was a journalist, long before she was an MP. I remember very little about the programme. I can’t even remember who she was presenting with. I just remember the very end of the programme. Anna and her co-presenter are sharing their usual banter. Her co-presenter said something. I can’t remember what. But as the lights dimmed and the closing credits appeared, I vividly remember Anna’s reply:
I actually remember that the sound was slightly dipped at the end of the word as we went to the wide… but it was very clear what she said. I also remember the general air of embarrassment in the studio on that final shot. It was bloody great.
* * *
I can’t imagine this particular gem ever being unearthed. Anna must have presented hundreds of editions of Central News East; I can’t even give you a year, or the name of her co-presenter, or any of the stories featured in that edition. My memory tells me I actually recorded it on VHS; my memory also tells me I recorded over it shortly afterwards, like a damn fool.
Nowadays, that clip would probably end up all over YouTube. Back then, unless it made it onto It’ll Be Alright on the Night – and I’m sure this didn’t, or else we’d all know the clip – it would often just disappear into the ether. I don’t think it even made it onto one of Central’s blooper-filled Christmas tapes. Unless someone who worked on the show remembers it and made a note of when it was, I can’t imagine it’ll ever be seen.
Which is a little unsatisfying. So instead, I can offer you the following Anna Soubry clip from Central’s 1985 Christmas tape1. At 11:42, dealing with people who look old enough to know better:
Right. I’ve had enough of writing worthy stuff that nobody is interested in. As 2018 comes to a close, I think it’s about time I did something which is just all-out populist. I am more than happy to throw my dignity under a bus for the sake of shareable content.
Here’s when all your favourite TV shows really jumped the shark.
“At an event co-hosted by BBC Director-General Tony Hall and Shane Allen, Controller of Comedy Commissioning, it was announced that BBC One will host the annual Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture, to be given by a key comedy figure to share his or her experiences and to help inspire others, as well as addressing the present-day challenges and opportunities facing the industry.
Akin to the Reith and Dimbleby lectures, the Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture’s aim is to articulate why comedy matters so much, both on a personal level and how it helps to reflect and define our national character. An inaugural speaker announcement will be made shortly.”
“The inaugural Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture speaker is multi-award-winning comedian, novelist, playwright, film maker and creator of classic sitcoms The Young Ones, Blackadder, The Thin Blue Line and Upstart Crow, Ben Elton. He is introduced by Sir David Jason.
Recorded at the BBC’s Radio Theatre in front of an invited audience from the world of comedy, the lecture is named after the much-loved comedy writer and performer Ronnie Barker, star of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Open All Hours.”
And what did David Jason say in his introduction in the programme itself?
DAVID JASON: I’m so pleased that the BBC have decided to institute an annual lecture on the art of comedy.
The point: the programme was conceived as an annual lecture, and was described as an annual lecture in the programme itself. With 2018 drawing to an end, then, it seems an appropriate time to ask: where the bloody hell has it gone?
It’s annoying. And it’s annoying because the idea of the lecture was such a fantastic one. I can think of few things better than a funny person talking about comedy for 45 minutes, and then broadcasting it to the nation. “Educational but entertaining… perfect BBC output”, you might say. With the best will in the world, how difficult is it to get someone funny to stand in the Radio Theatre for a while and bang on about comedy?
Indeed, I would argue that naming the lecture after Ronnie Barker and then giving up after a year is a tad disrespectful. If they really weren’t sure they could make it an annual event, it was unwise to sell it as one. They could have just named last year’s The Ben Elton Comedy Lecture, do it potentially as a one-off, and give themselves some leeway.
Still, surely there isn’t a struggle for things to talk about. Last year, Ben Elton made the case for studio sitcom – a topic extremely relevant to Ronnie Barker’s work. I would argue another topic equally as relevant to Barker is the current dearth of sketch comedy on television. The odd show like Tracey Breaks the News aside, there’s virtually nothing – and the lack of sketch shows on TV is incredibly damaging to the health of comedy in 2018. True, if the BBC broadcast that lecture, plenty of people would just yell “commission some, then”. But the BBC has a long and proud history of self-flagellation, and I don’t see why this should be any different.
Although at this point, I’d probably settle for somebody standing on stage and telling us YouTube is the future of comedy. Anything, in fact, than a great idea being thrown away so quickly. I mean, I thought there was a possibility it might peter out after three years or so.
Odd, because unused TV idents aren’t exactly the kind of thing the Radio Times usually writes about. I mean, I’d love it if it was, but let’s face it: the only reason this article was published is because it’s about Dad’s Army, a sitcom everyone is still obsessed over, despite the fact that It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi!, and You Rang, M’Lord? are all much better.
Enough of my irritating opinions on comedy. I’m here to give some irritating opinions on TV presentation instead. Let’s take a look at the rejected ident in question:
I mean, it’s beautiful. Really beautiful. Very nicely animated, and the inclusion of the Isle of Wight on the 2 really sells it as what it’s supposed to be. In and of itself as a standalone thing, it’s one of the best pieces of TV presentation I’ve seen for ages. It’s clearly made with a tremendous amount of love and respect for the show.
It wouldn’t have worked as an ident in front of Dad’s Army. Not even remotely.
You could perhaps query the inclusion of Nazi symbols on a piece of TV presentation, but that’s not my main problem with it. Nor is my problem covered in the reason the BBC gave for rejecting it:
“Ultimately, however, the BBC decided not to use the homage to those original opening credits. “They said some very nice things about it and it was clearly something that was under discussion for some time,” continues Norton. “However, they told us that they wanted to move away from content-specific idents on BBC2 and wanted more general idents that could serve all programmes across the channel.”
Here’s my problem with it: stop thinking of the proposed ident as a nice standalone piece of video, and start thinking of how it actually would have been used, in front of an episode of Dad’s Army. Just imagine the ident running, the announcer talking over it, introducing the episode… and then going into the actual title sequence, which looks identical. It would be such a weird, jarring repetition of what you’d just seen. Something which looks utterly magical in isolation, would look naff when used in context.1
Linear television is more than just individual elements, slammed next to each other. What the viewer has just seen impacts on what they’re just about to see. And as the various parts of television get ever-more siloed off, seeing the big picture of what is transmitted when everything gets put together becomes more and more difficult. It’s vital that this overview is protected, and strengthened, across all of television.
Otherwise, you don’t just end up with the oddity of seeing a pastiche of a title sequence followed by the real title sequence. You end up with idents accidentally mocking the dead.
The original version posted on the animator’s own YouTube account is even worse – it has the Dad’s Army theme dubbed over it. So you’d be going from the Dad’s Army theme… straight into the Dad’s Army theme again. ↩
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with TV pilots.
TV pilots of all kinds. Shows which eventually made it to the screen virtually untouched as part of a series, like The Young Ones episode Demolition. Shows which made it to screen, but which were substantially or entirely reshot for the series proper, such as Citizen Smith. One-offs which aired, but never became a series – remember Mirrorball? And then there’s my favourite: pilots which were never broadcast, either because they were never intended to be in the first place, or because substantial changes happened between the pilot and the series… or because they were a complete fucking disaster in every single respect.
There are so many of these unbroadcast pilots I’d love to see. There’s the 1986 pilot Dungeon Doom… followed by a second, also unbroadcast pilot under the more familiar name Knightmare in 1987. Similarly, 1983 saw an unnamed pre-pilot, followed by a full pilot called UNTV… with a series appearing the year after, a certain Spitting Image. Then there’s Paul O’Grady’s version of The Generation Game, which by rights should have been the BBC’s big entertainment hit of 2003… and wouldn’t you just love to watch the two pilots they made to see exactly why that didn’t happen?
Occasionally, such pilots get to see the light of day on DVD, if they ended up as successful shows. Sherlock saw its unbroadcast 60 minute version of A Study in Pink released. The Day Today is one of the most obvious comedy examples, with the bare bones of the show there… but the visual panache of the series very much not. And then there’s Doctor Who, where the DVD set The Beginning contains the complete unedited pilot recording, and a brand new edit combining the best of all the raw session’s takes. Because, y’know, Doctor Who.
With comedy, it’s easy to wish so much more was released.1 Blackadder is the most obvious example here, with a pilot which had never been officially put out on DVD, presumably due to somebody not wishing it to be out there.2 Slightly further afield, I would do anything3 to see A Big Bunch of Hippies, the pilot for the underrated sitcom Hippies – and even if you didn’t like the show, its unbroadcast pilot was the last TV show scripted jointly by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, which is surely of interest to the discerning comedy fan.4
But occasionally, we get lucky. Hello Drop the Dead Donkey, Channel 4’s truly excellent 90s newsroom sitcom… which actually released its unbroadcast pilot on DVD in 2005. And watching it in the context of that first series from 1990 is rather instructive.
Admittedly, comedy in general has it better than game shows, or entertainment shows in general. Duncan Norvelle’s pilot edition of Blind Date is the stuff of legend, and we’ve never seen so much as a field of it. UPDATE: Thanks to Ben Baker, who points out that parts of this pilot were seen in the documentary Who Killed Saturday Night TV? Now I’ve just got to pluck up the courage to watch it. ↩
To be honest, it shuffles round the net so often like the proverbial video ghost that you’d think whoever it is might as well just throw up their hands, give in, and accept a few pennies out of it. ↩
Here’s a nice little find: a good quality version of the second title sequence to BBC political programme On The Record, from 1993:
The clip was uploaded by one of the creators, Stephanie Chappell:
“This was designed and directed by me and my fellow designer Dimitri Kevgas. It turned out to be one of the longest running titles on the BBC – running over 11 years until the programme was retired in 2004.1
We created a story for the UK political animal – the crocodile based on one of the gargoyles at Westminster. Because we were moving into the EU in the early 90s, we sent the crocodile on a journey, reflecting the interaction with his European allies. The whole project took 3 months to complete – with 1 month of solid single frame animation covering a second of the sequence each day.”
Here’s my question: could you ever imagine a political programme commissioning such a title sequence today? A piece of stop motion animation which took three months to create from beginning to end? I can’t. The money for such luxuries has long gone.
And this is the kind of thing I mean when I say: a lot of TV looks cheaper these days.
Oh, sure, there are endless newspaper columns and blog posts going on about the current golden age of television, and I’m not going to sneer at shows like Killing Eve. But they aren’t the only kinds of television there is. And over the years, imperceptibly at first, huge swathes of TV has been squeezed. Sometimes fundamentally: we’ve all read endless stories about the lack of rehearsal time on the soaps even compared to the 90s. And sometimes just with the fun stuff at the edges.
Because of course: On The Record didn’t need those opening titles, per se. But they did set a certain… tone. TV’s no fun if you cut everything to the bare bone. Television shouldn’t just be utilitarian, in the same way that your dinner shouldn’t just be about nutrition. Blockbusters didn’t needthis glorious set of titles, but surely we can all agree it’s brilliant that they did… and also agree that there’s not a chance in hell they would ever be made now.
When I think back to my memories growing up with television, it’s often that fun stuff on the edges I remember the most. When TV just goes all-out on something beautiful, brilliant, and a bit mad, just because it can. Like, for instance, spending three months on a stop motion animation sequence of the Palace of Westminster acting like a crocodile and taking a short holiday around Europe. When budgets shrink, that stuff is the first thing to go. And I miss it like hell. 2
I’m not particularly pinning blame on programme-makers here. They do the best with the resources available. Nor is this really the place for my long, uninformed thesis on how to fix television. I’m just saying, for all the talk about the current golden age of TV… it’s worth remembering some of the fun stuff we’ve lost, just because it has the temerity not to be a “premium” drama.
A bit of theatrical sparkle shouldn’t be restricted to a narrow set of programming.
I love this argument too, from Dave Jeffery: “To me, commissioning titles like that is the BBC supporting and promoting the arts in a way that is just as important as supporting an orchestra or composer. Similarly the BBC should do things like commission sculptures or murals for its buildings.” ↩