Weaver's Week 2009-05-03

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It's hardly Harold Pinter, is it?


Tonight's the Night

Barrowman Barker / BBC for BBC1, Saturdays at about 7pm from 18 April

We've been scratching our heads recently, wondering what it is that John Barrowman's new celebrity vehicle Tonight's the Night reminds us of. Is it the new Generation Game? Could it be the successor to Surprise Surprise? The follow-up to My Kind of Music with a less disreputable host? Or something else entirely.

The show begins with John Barrowman rampaging through the streets of Britain, and in his wake house windows light up, and the world comes alive. The titles end with the show's name in big bold lights. Any relationship between this sequence and the opening to Antan Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway is coincidental.

After that bombastic opening, what better way to begin proceedings could there be than for Mr. Barrowman to perform a Barry Manilow song popularised by Take That? Well, many ways actually, he could walk on set and crack a few jokes, he could run through the audience and introduce us to the stars of the show, he could rise through the stage floor in a trapdoor-and-dry-ice extravaganza, he could indicate through sign language what was going to happen.

Barrowman's singing. It could be magic...

There are previews of what's coming up in the show. Most of it is stuff we can zip through at great speed, for it is about people who don't know they're about to go up on stage and perform. A man who always wanted to appear with the cast of a stage musical. A woman who does a lot of work for charidee and as a reward gets crooned at by Mick Hucknall, all of which makes us wonder what people would do if they didn't like her. Get crooned at by Mick Hucknall and John Barrowman, probably. A young girl who saved a life and gets to perform with The Saturdays, Britain's Eurovision representatives this year. What? They're not? Typical!

So far, so Surprise Surprise, the show where Cilla Black did nice things for people who had done nice things. Or Jim'll Fix It, the show where a bloke called Jim fixed things. Hence the name. Oh, and there's a bit where Mr. Barrowman dresses up in some silly costume and there's some hidden camera trickery. At least, we think the gorilla outfit was meant to be a silly costume, and not his regular evening wear. This isn't so much Beadle's About, it's not even Remotely Funny.

Three parts of the show concern us here. Topping and tailing the broadcast is a challenge for one lucky member of the public. They're asked to perform with some professional entertainers – in the episode we watched, to be part of a quick-change magic act. If the member of the public could pull off their clothes and leave on the right clothes and do it quickly enough to look half-way slick, they'll win a prize. In this case, a trip to Milan. It's not quite as good as The Sorcerer's Apprentice, but then neither was the recent second series.

Denise Lewis wins the challenge: to stand still without waving hands in shot

In the middle is the Star Challenge, an excuse for Mr. Barrowman to invite a celebrity onto his show. Can the host perform a karate routine better than Denise Lewis? When was Denise Lewis ever a karate expert anyway? The celebrities are only competing for pride, and the honour of winning a prize for a randomly-picked member of the audience's charity. Anyone would think we'd stumbled across a pantomime version of Challenge Ant Versus Dec.

The final game show element is Workplace Wonders, where two workplaces perform song-and-dance routines on stage, and the audience votes for whichever one they prefer. The days of Opportunity Knocks are here again, with the clapometer replaced by the slightly more scientific button-pushing.

Overall, what can we say about Tonight's the Night? It's a very traditional Saturday night programme. It's utterly undemanding, to the extent that viewers can miss half the programme and still not have missed a tremendous amount. It's perfectly safe: the featured acts are family viewing through and through. And, if viewers are after some light and undemanding television, it'll attract them. Certainly it's less pretentious than ITV's Britain's Got Talent: the BBC makes it clear that everything's been set up for the show.

Other reviewers have gone for the jugular for Tonight's the Night. Could that be because they'd spotted the show broke BBC standards because the executive producer credit is for Gavin Barker, who co-owns production house Barrowman Barker with John Barrowman? Er, no; we would have had that as a scoop if Private Eye hadn't published first.

No, the critics have been gunning for Tonight's the Night because they don't like it. "No one ever failed on Tonight's the Night, we're told. Where's the fun in that?" wrote the man from the Grauniad. "Stinks like five-day old fish," exclaimed TV Custard. "Anodyne and dismal," wrote Teletext. Actually, given Associated Newspapers' institutional bias against the BBC, we'll call that strong praise.

We're going to go against the fashion, and say that Tonight's the Night is perfectly fine, if you like that kind of mildly feelgood light entertainment thing. It's not particularly to our taste, but if we had to choose between Hole in the Wall, Total Wipeout, and Tonight's the Night, we'd be watching Mr. Barrowman.

And which Saturday evening show does it most remind us of? Public involvement, giving people the chance to do unusual things, star name guests, a host from children's television... Why are we thinking that this is 70% of the first series of The Late Late Breakfast Show? That light entertainment behemoth took forever to get going, with some tremendously ropy and dull episodes in autumn 1982. If the BBC's minded to ruthlessly weed out the bits that don't work, and grow the good bits, they could have a long-running hit on their hands.

Bruce Forsyth and The Generation Game

BBC1, 25 December 1973, repeated 26 December 2008

A long-running hit

The yardstick for Saturday night television is, undoubtedly, The Generation Game. The Dutch format had made its debut in 1971, and the Christmas Day edition in 1973 marked the moment Bruce and Anthea's show was confirmed on the television A-list. Mr. Forsyth was already a star, the compere of the London Palladium variety shows, with his slick patter and trademark pose, all present here. Generation Game had been a Christmas Day regular since 1971, initially the warm-up act for the queen, now starting an avalanche of entertainment that led, inexorably, to Mike Yarwood.

So, what happened for the viewers tuning in at 6.05 on Christmas night? Well, we begin with the traditional pose, and Bruce has a brief chat with the audience. They've been given a paper hat, champagne, and some nuts. "What, you didn't get the champagne? You think we're nuts!" Anthea Redfern comes on, does a twirl, and half of the crew come out from backstage to get a better look. Bruce has a quick chat to the first two pairs – people who are related but at least a generation apart.

Within six minutes, we're into game one. It's six celebrity snowmen, and the contestants have to work out who it is buried in the fur. Snowman one? Wasn't he a jungle star in later years. Number four? Going nationwide with Frank Bough. After the next game, we can see stagehands dressing the set, putting out the tables and equipment for the next challenge. While they're doing that, Bruce invites his players to pull a cracker. No, not Miss Redfern, the snap-hat-and-novelty cracker.

Name that snowman!

For game two, the contestants are shown how to make these Christmas crackers using the various bits and some cardboard tubes. Phyllis Holland, the expert, gives their demonstration while jaunty seasonal music plays, and then the contestants have their go. One of the highlights of The Generation Game was the way the contestants were allowed – nay, encouraged! – to make a complete botch of it. The audience would see what they were doing, and laugh at the amateur efforts. Once the pressure was off, so would the contestants themselves – Bruce was a master of making entertainment from other people's misfortune. Mrs. Holland awards marks out of five, and the couple who have the more points go through to the semi-final: the other pair are efficiently ushered offstage.

We'll rinse and repeat through the introductions for the other players and move on to the first challenge. Goodness, it's Fanny and Johnny Craddock! They're demonstrating how to make a perfect mince pie: push the pastry tightly down into the basin, put the mince in, roll the topping up, put it on, and pinch to make it look pretty. All the contestants made a rather good job of it, and it's clear to see how the Craddocks became such huge stars: they make cooking fun in a way that Nigella Lawson never quite managed.

For the second trick, the contestants are asked to do a conjuring trick. Set the table for dinner, and then pulling the cloth away from underneath the place. Again, the trick is demonstrated – this time by Robert Harbin – and then the contestants repeat what they've seen. No rehearsals, they just get on with it.

A stagehand clears the table for the next contestant.

It's clear by now that The Generation Game comes from a different era entirely. The show isn't afraid to let its stagehands into shot: we see desks trundled on and off, and a man removing the cutlery and crockery after each performance. The set is also very bright, all in oranges, yellows, and purples. Lest we forget, in 1973, most families will have been watching on black-and-white sets, and the shows had to look good without the benefit of colour. The more things change, the more they stay the same: there's a similar transition from standard-definition to high-definition.

Anyway, back to the show, where it's the Generation Game pantomime, starring Frankie Howaerd and the rising star Lynne Fredrick. We'll see Cinderella three times, with the gentleman contestants taking Frankie's role as The Baron, and the ladies playing Cinderella. Is it dull seeing the same performance three times in a row? Nay, nay, and thrice nay! Bruce is quick-witted enough to go off script with added wit, and the contestants have to read their lines from various props. "She shall not go to the ball stomps off!"

The colours worked in black-and-white

Why does this show work? Bruce has created an environment where we know what *should* happen, and where what should happen is funny in itself. The professionals have started us laughing, and Bruce is able to keep the laughter rolling. He has no care for the fourth wall: these are amateurs, hamming it up and quite clearly having the most wonderful time. "Frankie will be furious, he's better than 'im!" says Bruce of one contestant. He's not just knocking a hole in the separation between actor and audience, he's helping to blow it down with gales of laughter.

After about twenty minutes of this, the productions have finished, and Frankie Howaerd declares a winning pair. But that's not the end of the game – the losing contestants get their consolation prize of perfume and a drill. We have to bring the two winners down to one. The two competitors stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and Bruce asks three questions. Whoever shouts out two correct answers first is the winner.

He gets to go behind the screens, which open, and a conveyor belt of goods appear in front of them – there's a slide projector, a radio, a coffee pot, a cuddly toy, fondue set, perfume, hair curlers, stereo, a camera. After he's seen them, he gets 45 seconds to recount whatever he can remember. Whatever he says, he wins. The show ends very quickly, with the winner shown in front of his prizes.

...tray of cutlery ... cuddly toy ...

We've no doubt that the production team pulled out all the stops for the Christmas episode – it was always going to be seen by something like half the country, and it was a joy to see from start to finish. Part of The Generation Game's charm was that it never lost sight of the reason why people were watching: they wanted to see other viewers, people they could empathise with, doing extraordinarily silly things. The contestants were the focus of the show throughout. There weren't any songs from singers who would only appear if they could sing their current dirge. There was nothing outside the studio, and apart from dressing the set before and after the panto, the show looked like it was shot in real time, fluffs and all. It's television that felt real.

The stuff of legends: Bruce and Frankie.

Frankie Howaerd is appearing in pantomime at the London Palladium.

This Week And Next

OFCOM has passed judgement on last year's Big Brother series. 4724 complaints were received, mostly about perceived bullying, harassment, intimidation, and generally acting like a cosy suburban family like they see on Eastenders. OFCOM rejected all the complaints, apart from those relating to a well-known f-word appearing before 9pm. OFCOM also found that there was no unfairness in the telephone voting: if Channel 4 said that lines would close at a time, lines closed at a time. The correct lines were always open, the incorrect lines were always closed, everything was above board, and we can't even use our 0898-gate icon.

OFCOM rejected 141 complaints that the opening episode of Britain's Got Talent breached generally-accepted standards. The watchdog has not explained its reasoning or expanded upon the complaints. While we don't believe that it's necessary to detail every single complaint received, it is difficult to verify that OFCOM is fulfilling the mandate given to it by parliament if it does not discuss matters that interest the public.

The regulator issued a statement about the semi-final tie on Strictly Come Dancing, which added the grand non-total of nothing to the debate. OFCOM's head said that it was powerless to force ITV to continue providing regional news, which does rather make us wonder what good OFCOM is doing. It doesn't intervene against Big Brother on the grounds of quality programming, it doesn't discuss its thinking with the public, and it can't be arsed to regulate the biggest commercial channel in a matter of genuine public interest. If OFCOM were to vanish tomorrow, would British television be the poorer?

The annual BAFTA Awards for Television were dished out last Sunday. Harry Hill retained his Best Entertainment Performance gong for TV Burp, and Entertainment programme was won by The X Factor.

Ratings for the week to 19 April showed Britain's Got Talent was seen by 12.95m viewers. That's a higher rating than any show other than the final last year, and testament to the power of Simon Cowell's promotional machine. The Apprentice was seen by 7.85m, and Beat the Star returned with 5.6m. Hell's Kitchen peaked on Saturday with 5.4m, and Tonight's the Night got going with 4.7m. Britain's Got Talent also ruled on the digital tier: Saturday's auditions show had 1.66m, and the Sunday repeat pulled 950,000, beating Come Dine With Me by a long chalk. Just for comparison, Mastermind had slightly fewer than 1.5m viewers.

Another painfully quiet week next week: RTE Radio 1 has a gala Eurovision concert (Monday, 9pm), BBC2 invites us to Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is (4.30 from Tuesday), and Jack Dee is the exciting host of Have I Got News for You.

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