ITV: 5.30pm – 6am

By Ian Jones

First published April 2000

Granada Tonight is heralded by a stern voice-over explaining how the programme will be “Bringing The News Home To You”. This mission statement is emblazoned on the opening titles and implies the viewer should feel privileged or somehow in debt to Granada for what they are about to see. What ensues is a jarring needling hour of triviality, fronted by two of the most sickly bland and creepy people to appear all day. Lucy Meacock and Mark Owen have a particular tone of delivery that simultaneously evokes fingernails scratching a blackboard and an oversensitive school counsellor. Meacock especially sets your teeth on edge with her cloying, half-whispered diction, introducing each story as if some terrible blasphemy has just been uttered.

The line-up is essentially the same as it has been all day, most stories involving an element of human misfortune, either fatal (various killings and accidents) or associated with some burgeoning moral panic (chemical leaks, hospital “organ scandals”). The wafer-thin half-stories and “features” (“Show Me the Ropes”, an In At the Deep End rip-off; the oldest piranha in the world) are beyond parody. A live bingo count held in the studio involving nine pensioners is a noisy shambles. The whole programme is at least 30 minutes too long; the aesthetic, agenda, presentation and format a ragged, amateurish, reductive, alienating cauldron of waste. Regional reporting at its shameful worst and an utter betrayal of Granada’s entire history.

The Evening News which follows is supposed to be ITV’s main newscast of the day. The “bongs” are back, as is Fayed and much the same running order. John Suchet presents: a dry, shadow of a newsreader, mouthing rather than speaking his lines, and occasionally his voice sounds like he’s talking through a mouth of tissue-paper. Yet another plug for the Rees Jones interview is followed by an interesting report on a libel case ITN are fighting in court against Living Marxism magazine – it would’ve been worthwhile hearing more of this story, but there is sports (i.e. football) news to fit in. A visuals-only montage of clips ends the bulletin, supposed to supply us with “the main images” of the day; this sort of mediation is counterproductive and ends the broadcast on a rather flat, ineffectual note.

There’s a new episode of Emmerdale to begin ITV’s proper evening schedule. The potpourri of emotional ricochets and multiple confrontations is the same as before; characters talk in inclusive statements rather than naturalistic free-flowing dialogue. At least there’s some awareness of context: one kid challenges his land-owning father over a career in agriculture, bawling “We don’t want to spend the rest of our lives standing around in fields!” It is the only engaging moment in a litany of banality. The amount of tears shed could solve Yorkshire Water’s annual drought crises.

The Motor Show is a very cliquey, knowing magazine-type show on prospective developments in the car industry, fronted by two youngsters, Richard Hammond and Ginny Buckley. The amount of knowledge that is assumed of us by the presenters – impenetrable chatter about engine sizes and models numbers – renders the narrative stubbornly inaccessible and off-putting to those unfamiliar with the vocabulary of the motor trade. There’s also a soundtrack of dance/pop tunes, music video-style editing and graphics, and an arsenal of laboured similes (one car appears “more rugged than John Wayne in bullet proof pants and a tin hat”). It’s all very elitist, self-reflexive and feels as if it’s only being screened to fill a gap while the rest of the country watches EastEnders.

An hour of long-overdue drama approaches. The Bill turns out to be the concluding episode in a 3-part story, “Meltdown”, written by Tom Needham. Cursory clips sketch in flimsy details of what has happened so far, and it turns out there is to be some kind of closure on events going back almost a year in the series’ history. Consequently there is a frenetic pace perhaps dictated by the need to resolve so many loose ends within the hour. The violent, cathartic conclusion it is implied will come never arrives, and there is a terrible baked bean ending with all the tension and emotion snaffled.

The sequence of personal and psychological revelations and resolutions upon which the narrative is founded are undermined by the poor overall dramatic structure and flat characterisation. It is unfortunate there is a high proportion of youths involved, given how this phalanx of jobbing drama graduates, RADA students and “resting” Equity members have to dominate the action with their unoriginal mannerisms, reductive gestures and stereotyped yoof-speak (“The police ‘ave done nathan’ for this place, nathan’ for us” etc.) Floundering pre-watershed, The Bill resembles a symphony of ineptly harmonised motifs, with too much concern for the visual and outward emotion rather than subtlety and innovation.

The other side of the ostensible “watershed” finds twee fluff which could have been broadcast at any hour of the day (or better, not at all). TV Nightmares IV features the loathsome Steve Penk endeavouring to link together various clips from television archives showing presenters and guests suffering “nightmares”. An audience is present to laugh on cue, though very few extracts show any variation on the much plundered mine of out-takes shows, and at least half of the 60 minutes is fleshed out with shots of people falling over, fluffing lines or even Ordinary People themselves caught on camera doing “silly” things.

To further camouflage the paucity of material and the amount of repetition, not only did we see certain presenters introduce their nightmare pointlessly telling us about the incident before we saw it all again ourselves but Penk also entertains some guests in the studio. Out of the three who appear – Anna Walker, Keith Chegwin and Barbara Windsor – only Chegwin in effect needs to be there to sketch in context for clips from a Sky TV talent show Star Search. We were encouraged, in effect, to laugh at the way celebs (and Cheggers) were laughing in that trying-not-to-laugh way. But it goes on too long; Penk’s continuity is grating and his presentation style repellent. There has to be a new way of doing this sort of programme, and then only if there’s enough of a new spin or agenda to make it consistently engrossing and memorable.

Tonight with Trevor McDonald is supposed to be ITV’s flagship current affairs programme, a replacement for the much-missed World in Action. The chance to develop thoughtful, rigorous and worthwhile investigative journalism is, however, forfeited for an interview with Trevor Rees Jones – one that has been ruthlessly plugged all day, and which is apparently enough to hang a whole edition of this programme on.

Structured around an “exclusive” dialogue with Jonathan Dimbleby we are taken back over the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the car crash in Paris which killed Princess Diana, Dodi Al-Fayed, the driver Henri Paul, and which almost killed Rees Jones, tied together by Dimbleby’s voice-overs, which are calculatingly melodramatic and absurd (“Trevor’s soft life was to change utterly …”) It is base, reductive and lazy current affairs reporting, nothing investigative or challenging about it at all. Rees Jones’ narrative is articulated as the truth and a version of events which cannot, must not, be questioned or criticised. Worse is the way Jonathan Dimbleby laughably interrogates his subject with the aim not of clarifying or contextualising Rees Jones’ story, but purely to further heighten the impression of his subject as some kind of victim-loner-avenger figure. “Doing this is the chance to say what really happened,” Rees Jones splutters, as if his reading of history is superior to everyone else’s. He is the hero, Fayed is the villain, and this mediation has to be sustained constantly. The manipulation of news discourse, and also of our emotions and preconceptions, is ruthless and unrelenting. Dimbleby is absolutely unequivocal in his bias: Rees Jones is a “remarkable person” he declares to camera, and this is his natural “right to reply”. One of the lowest points in the day so far.

Thankfully there is no reference to Rees Jones in the Nightly News which follows. This omission, and its replacement by a story culled straight from the tabloid first editions (about George Best) are the only changes to a line-up that has predominated these newscasts since midmorning. It’s as if nothing has happened in the world since 6.30pm (or 12.30pm, in effect). Nicholas Owen is the presenter and appears unsure who his audience is and why he is reading the news. Only at the end is there major divergence from earlier bulletins: a summary of the evening’s sports (oops, football) news, and a useful preview of tomorrow’s first editions – The Guardian, Sun, Times, Independent and Express in that order (perhaps being the only front pages as yet available). Owen wins points for signing off “… from ITN, goodnight.”

After the fury of Granada Tonight, it is back to the sober newsdesk for another brief Regional News update, So Rahman reading word for word what appears to be his script from lunchtime, and another AA Crimecheck.

The assorted programmes informally grouped together as ITV’s night-time schedule are a ragged collection of repeats, out-of-date rockumentaries, sports features, consumer orientated guides and a poor man’s teletext. There’s definitely no coherence or attempt at stylistic uniformity; the line-up seems and feels put together casually, disdainfully and at the last minute.

An hour of World Championship Boxing welcomes Granada viewers to twilight time. The programme comprises recorded highlights from one fight staged earlier in the evening in Liverpool, between local defending champ Peter Culshaw, aka “The Choirboy”, and a “dangerous” Mexican challenger, Oscar Andrade. The presentation, aesthetics and even the vocabulary reek of a big money title fight being staged on a shoestring budget. A guest summariser proffers absurdly obvious advice (boxing matches being “never as easy as people think they are”), while presenter Alastair Mann indulges in the first of many blatantly racist clichés (“When a Mexican comes to fight, you know they’ve done it the hard way.”)

The footage of the fight is wearisome and repetitive, like the sport itself. Worse is the way “legendary commentator” Reg Gutteridge and his cohort Dave McAuley indulge in the most shameless xenophobic rhetoric when referring to Andrade, uttering that he has “got that look of a bandit about him,” that Mexican boxers play “a hard old game and they come from a hard old country,” and “you don’t get the mugs coming out of Mexico.” This utter drivel – undisguised racial prejudice – continues throughout. The full 12 rounds have to be played, and Culshaw almost loses, only to rally enough in the dying rounds to win by the narrowest of margins and “make a bigger comeback than Lazarus.” Dreadful electric guitar rock music plays this troublesome programme out.

Young, Gifted and Broke is the equivalent of an open mic slot down the local community centre; eight struggling “artists” are given a few minutes of air time to plead with anyone watching to send them some money so they can realise their dreams and make it big. Example: four-piece Brassik, whose pompous lead singer seals his fate by citing his influences as The Beatles, The Stones – and Ocean Colour Scene. They perform a new song, a three chord Oasis-like dirge, and expect record labels and managers to take note. This pic’n'mix of bargain bin pub circuit entertainment is linked by anonymous Josie Law, who gives out details on how to get in touch, and there’s a competition too (to win two Virgin cinema tickets). Testing, trying and winsome.

The extended interview with Ash which comprises Planet Rock Profiles is a hopelessly out of date and unwelcome echo from the dreadful year of 1996. During stilted and ineffectual conversations backstage with fellow Irish journalist (and, it seems, long-term fan) Dave Fanning, the band serve no purpose other than to remind the viewer what a musically backward, introverted, culturally imperialistic and heinous 12 months that year was, and how fortunate such a period did not last. We see the band as a trio of inarticulate wastrels (“Every day is a weekend,” gurgles one, sincerely), though amusement is gained from the way the programme implies Ash are on the cusp of lasting global domination, which proved to be happily utterly untrue.

After an unnecessary repeat of the earlier Tonight with Trevor McDonald, there’s a brief News Summary from Sharon Grey at ITN, significant for the fact Fayed is no longer lead; Grey has that look in her eyes that knows there can only be a few hundred viewers tuned in.

There’s a return to sport with World Football, a cheaply made compilation of interviews and match highlights with voice-overs from two unseen (and unnamed) earnest male presenters. Despite the global implications of the title, the programme is only actually concerned with the particular “world” of the Americas, Europe and the Middle East only. An off-putting glossy presentation style endeavours to obscure the triviality and irrelevance of much of the line-up, compounded by a grating hyperbolic narrative, trying to play up the “quite remarkable” biennial Gold Cup between North and South America. There’s a second and just as undesired reminder of the Year Zero that was 1996 in an interview with Jurgen Klinsman, who “shares thoughts” on Euro ’96 and the drama of what we’re told was “World War III” on the football field. Klinsman is seen propping up a bar, sounding uneasily like your typical lazily xenophobic British sports commentator when he observes how the Germans are all “very ambitious people … something to do with their history.” Next week: elephant football.

Cybernet is another programme hosted by an disembodied voice (but it has a name: Lucy Longhurst) and consists of plug after plug for new computer games and consoles with little even rudimentary critique beyond stating whether something is “good” or “very good”. Products are appraised on either potential for violence and realism of graphics; it is unashamedly geared for the computer fan and consequently, outsiders are made to feel very unwelcome and uncomfortable, alienated by the ultra-specific vocabulary, in-jokes and multitude of technical jargon. An explicit celebration of greed and destruction, where calls cost £1 per minute to enter the obligatory competition.

After another pointless repeat of a programme first broadcast less than 24 hours earlier (Trisha) and a News Summary identical to the one earlier, the “chance to go behind the scenes at ITV and discover the latest news and stories” arrives with ITV Nightscreen. I had expected a good old “pages from teletext” effort, akin to Ceefax AM, together with some light muzak backing. Unfortunately, it is nothing of the sort; a 13 minute loop, shown five times in all, of very amateurish BBC Acorn computer-esque displays of text and graphics. There is a soundtrack, but mostly cod-dance and up-tempo hi-energy tracks totally at odds with the very dated appearance of each colour slide. The information, for what it is, extends to blatant plugs for future ITV presentations, plus details of schedules – all of which are utterly useless, being for Thursday, i.e. programmes that have all been and gone earlier in the day: completely pointless and worthless, in other words, like the entire hour.

Completing the day is one last News Summary. It is hard to fathom what purpose this extended bulletin serves, other than as a deliberate poke in the eye from ITN to GMTV who have to follow straight afterwards with their own separate (and inferior) news service. Sharon Grey runs through reports, many of which are almost 24 hours old, but appears smug, safe in the knowledge that however poor this newscast may be, it’s nothing compared to what’s coming up.

In a surreal (but somehow appropriate) incidence of symmetry, the 24 hours end exactly as they began: with a brief loss of both picture and sound as the continuity passes us into “the hands of GMTV” and the nightmare starts happening all over again.


Last Orders Please

ITV seems to be in a crippling uncertainty as to who it should be broadcasting to, what it should be transmitting, and indeed why it should exist at all. Other than a penchant for creaking formats and conventions, unimaginative scheduling, endless repetition and reductive conservative moralising, it’s difficult to locate any cognisant, coherent agenda here. As a mainstream entertainment channel, moreover, nothing is innovative, exciting or entertaining.

The only worthwhile programme of the entire day is Dog and Duck. None of the 24 hours I sat through would deserve inclusion in a notional pantheon of classic, important, relevant British television. The entire first seven hours resemble an unflinching refraction of life-as-tabloid, a relentless tide of received opinion, gossip and content that is trivial in the extreme. Children’s programmes are faceless, soulless, husks of half-dead life. ITN’s news input is woefully objectionable, not in the least bit responsible, questioning or investigative. Programmes are obsessively self-reflexive and inward; some (The Motor ShowBoxingCybernet etc.) permit the casual viewer no entry point whatsoever. Granada have utterly betrayed their reputation as a once-historically important and culturally relevant company; it is a disgrace to all former Granada actors, writers and producers that utter travesties like Granada Tonight exist. Tonight with Trevor McDonald represents the end product of an agenda rooted in sensationalism and celebrity as opposed to one in any way concerned with simply facts and information.

I found the 24 hours output unceasingly depressing, boring and wearisome. There is not one programme I would willingly tune in to watch again. ITV have staked their future upon a very narrow definition of “entertainment” that is not pluralist, inclusive or enjoyable, and gives rise to not one programme that is stimulating or moving. Nothing is being created here, there is no progress, no dynamism, no positive ethic of construction; it is blanket inertia: replication, imitation. At no point in the day did I feel a relationship with what I was seeing on screen; instead, I was constantly being pushed away, repelled, shut out. There is no trace of this commercial broadcaster responding to the cultural, artistic and political fabric of Britain as it is today.

Face down in its own gutter, ITV is the drunk who refuses to acknowledge that time was called long, long ago.

  <12.20pm – 5.30pm