“No-one Killed Saturday Night”

Jack Kibble-White interviews Christopher Bruce and Martin Cunning

First published July 2004

In November 2003, At It Productions contacted OTT to discuss plans for a major one-off documentary on the recent history of Saturday night television. The resultant programme – Who Killed Saturday Night? – goes out on Channel 4 on 10 July at 9.30pm. Recently OTT was able to interrupt Producer/Director Christopher Bruce, and At It Productions Managing Director Martin Cunning whilst they were hard at work on the final edit, to ask them a few questions about the production.

OTT: Can you tell me a bit about your background – how you got into TV and something about At It Productions?

MARTIN CUNNING: In 1987, I was bored and back on the dole in Glasgow – making the odd peso from music journalism, but directionless and itching for a change of scenery. I saw an ad in the Monday Guardian from the BBC in London, asking for would-be-researchers for a new thing called The Clive James Unit. Being a big fan of Clive’s, I shot off a letter, went down for the interviews, and wangled one of the jobs. It was a great learning curve, ‘cos Clive then was at the top of his game – Saturday Night Clive, the Postcard documentaries and the rest. I got to Producer level but, feeling a bit institutionalised by the Beeb, I hitched a ride with Charlie Parsons and Waheed Alli’s 24 Hour Productions indie (as it was then – when Geldof joined pre-Big Breakfast it became Planet 24) for the second and third series of The Word. It was the only fun in town in those days for dirty rotten scoundrels – and we all thrived – the one place on TV where you could cut from an item on penis extensions, to Shaun Ryder and a visibly-bewildered Bo Derek sharing couch-space, to a live pig race in the studio.

Practically the whole of TV is now like a bad version of The Word, so the thrill is, of course, long gone. Anyway, I then went back to Clive James, and his Watchmaker Productions, for his transfer to ITV (The Clive James Show, An Evening With Lily Savage etc), and then off to MTV Europe, series producing their daily, live, signature show Hanging Out, with Davina McCall. By then, I had had too much fun to go back up chimneys for the likes of “Lord” Alli again – so, with a shortbread tin full of fivers, I started At It with Chris Fouracre, who had been my directing partner at The Word. We moved one desk, two chairs and a phone into Keith Allen’s attic in Great Titchfield Street and got a one-off arts documentary commission at Channel 4 off the ground (Has Anyone Seen My Pussy? … about sexual innuendo in British sitcom), and away we went. The rest is history but, if anyone’s remotely interested, you can read about what we’ve been up to since ’97 on our website.

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE: I started at the BBC back in 1986 as a trainee film editor – worked my way up to be a producer on the arts strand Arena – and then turned freelance in 1997. Martin Cunning knew somebody who knew somebody who knew me – and they needed someone like me to produce/direct …

OTT: Where did the original idea for Who Killed Saturday Night? come from?

MARTIN CUNNING: Last summer, there was a whole slew of stories about a perceived crisis on Saturday Nights – Barrymore and Cilla were gone, mega-budget shows like Judgement Day and Boys and Girls were bombing badly, and apart from classic family-size “purple and pink” shows like Pop Idol and Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Take-Away, there was nothing that the British public seemed to want to stay in for in any great numbers, with or without Des Lynam. I then read some factoid that up until as recently as seven years ago, Saturday night had always been the most-watched night on the box, and now it was the least. I checked it out to be true – then I knew we had a show.

OTT: In determining the type of programme that you wanted to make, how conscious were of you of other TV series that have looked at the history of television such as I Love … and The Showbiz Set, and to what extent, if any, did they figure in the process of pitching the idea to Channel 4?

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE: We were conscious of the look and feel of clip shows generally, hence my desire (as far as possible) to achieve something different. As as result the TV’s invariably in the background of our interview set-ups, with the incoming or outgoing clips still playing on them – and the lighting for all the interviewees is generally dark and moody because, after all, TV is something best viewed in a darkened room. Also important is our inclusion of (informed) TV viewers who speak their mind and relay (often) fundamental truths about various aspects of Saturday night TV. Finally, our visual emphasis on the TV itself – after all it has gone from a much-loved three- dimensional piece of furniture to a rather cold and untouchable two-dimensional (largely empty) picture frame, ie. the plasma screen.

OTT: Were there any TV clichés that you wanted to avoid?

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE: Clip/interview/clip/interview – but of course we can’t completely get away from that. However, hopefully what we do is examine the experience of watching TV and track some of the more important historical changes – as well as the more conventional funny story about a particular clip . We are also trying to embrace the clichés of the game show – by having a special theme tune written – by using a characteristic game show style voice over in certain sections – and having fun with the graphics.

MARTIN CUNNING: Well, firstly, I never wanted this to be some predictable trawl through the archives – you know the kind … A Flock of Seagulls plays over shots of Thatcher, whilst Phil Jupitus sleepwalks through some hopeless countdown from an amusement arcade. There’s some shockingly lazy “nostalgia” programming and I hope we’re not pigeonholed with all that – this isn’t about lists, although of course it will have a driving narrative and will seek to cater for every nerve-ending. This programme is about trying to getting to the essence of an essential part of our recent social/pop cultural history, uncovering the reality behind something we all think we know everything about already – something so broad and overwhelmingly “popular” as Saturday night television. Like The Showbiz Set, which I did like, it will have an argument – a beginning, a middle and an end. Because we take our starting point as Brucie’s defection to ITV in the late ’70s, we’re hopefully not hamstrung by lots of black and white clips, and because we’ve organised the programme thematically rather than in a straightforward linear narrative, it’ll zing along. Two hours is a long time to keep anyone’s attention.

OTT: How would you describe the tone of Who Killed Saturday Night? and was it predetermined or did it develop as the production progressed?

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE: It’s hard to be precise about this yet as we are still in the thick of cutting – but I think the tone is a) celebrational and affectionate – for the golden era and; b) cod mournful and nostalgic for Saturday night television’s demise; then c) grown-up for realising that it was a particular moment in the history of popular culture and that people actually wouldn’t really want to go back to the ’70s/’80s.

OTT: Who do you regard as the key figures of Saturday night telly that you thought needed to be in the programme?

MARTIN CUNNING: Received wisdom is that it’s people like Chris Evans and Jonathan Ross who are the revolutionary entertainment television figures of the last 20 years, but I just don’t buy that, and a casual glance at their programmes will confirm it. They were tracing paper over already long-established hits like Letterman or whatever. I would argue that it’s actually people like Noel Edmonds and Jeremy Beadle who have been the revolutionaries, much maligned and loathed as they both are. They have been responsible for not just the most popular programming by a long chalk – Evans would die for audiences of 10 million, although it ain’t ever going to happen – but also the most groundbreaking and original formats, whether it be House Party or Game for a Laugh. So I kind of wanted to absolutely give them their due. Their turn at the top came at a funny time in British light entertainment, the moment when old-school “variety” with all its end-of-pier-pinky-ring connotations was thought to have died – with the alt-com brigade dancing on its grave. The end of The Entertainers, the Little and Larges and Cannon and Balls, signalled a new type of presenter, like Beadle and Edmonds, who didn’t come from Northern clubs or Southern holiday camps – they didn’t have a specific “talent”, but they knew how to involve the public, the entire family, in their programmes (the hardest trick of all – if there’s nothing else this show teaches you, it’s that there’s nothing “light” about light entertainment) – to the tune of 12 million plus week in, week out. The Beadle’s About‘s, the Surprise, Surprise!‘s, the “Gotchas” … all started to explicitly involve the Great British Public, and this public got a taste for it, responding by practically taking over TV. Look at the result – it started with You’ve Been Framed, and ended with Pop Idol, Big Brother, and the rest.

The other two unquestionable Saturday night giants of the last quarter century have been Cilla Black and Michael Barrymore, but both their stories have been told a million times before. The “forgotten men”, the Eddie Larges and Bobby Davros, are the ones often with the most extraordinary stories – and they’re people who still don’t know quite why the bubble burst. How they went from entertaining 15 million punters one week to the golf course caddy and a couple of sparrows the next is fascinating. They still really care – the problem, of course, is that the suits and the public generally don’t.

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE: I think there’s an immense amount of respect for Edmonds and Beadle and also for many of the execs and much of the rest of the talent. You pick this stuff apart and you realise how hard it is to make successful classics – and also how hard it is to sustain quality. We are certainly not looking down our noses at these people – they are amongst the cleverest (and most wealthy) in TV – let’s not forget Dyke, Grade and Birt all came from the world of light entertainment.

OTT: From the interviews you conducted did you get a sense of Saturday night telly being important to the interviewees, or simply just one element in their career?

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE: For the talent – yes of course. Where else are they going to get so many bums on seats and such exposure? For the execs, though – not so much. For the viewers too – also not so much.

OTT: What’s your own theory on who killed Saturday night?

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE: In essence, the talent say it was the broadcasters and the neurosis conjured up through the “science” of viewing figures, whereas the broadcasters say it is “life” and the fact that we all have so many more choices available to us now – which I think is nearer the truth. TV no longer has the cultural prominence it once did – it’s as simple as that.

MARTIN CUNNING: No-one killed Saturday night – we all did. All that choice, all that freedom … in the world-lit-only-by-fire we all used to live in not so long ago, there were only three channels and the huge, captive audiences that the BBC and ITV liked to brag about were just that – captive. There were no Sky Ones, no Blockbusters, no DVD players, no computers, no plethora of restaurants and good-taste cafes, no shops open, no extended licensing hours. For the vast majority – me included – there were basically no options, no money … No Fun. Britain was a simple primordial land of simple primordial tastes – and shows like The Generation Game, with their cheery optimism and family appeal, cleaned up. All that’s gone – replaced with astonishingly swift advances in new technology and a relentless novelty culture. The programmes now are really no better and no worse than they were at any point in the last 25 years – nor are the frontmen or the commissioning editors – but they’re at the mercy of the schedulers, bean-counters and ad men like never before. Crucially, somewhere along the way, the idea that the pinnacle of some young entertainer’s career might be to give away a car on Saturday night TV with the whole nation watching, has disappeared – they’d rather be doing some challenging sitcom on Channel 4 on a Friday night, or trying to get into the movies. What used to be called light entertainment has grown-up, got serious, and turned its back on the mass audience – and the mass audience have, for the most part, responded in kind.

OTT: Finally what’s next for At It Productions and for you both?

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE: Not sure yet – probably a rest. I’ve been working for more than a year without a break …

MARTIN CUNNING: Er … a cup of tea?