Who Killed Saturday Night TV?

Saturday, July 10, 2004 by

The generous yet increasingly-mocked surfeit of clip-based TV shows to which we’ve been treated over the last few years is no more a sign of bankruptcy in commissioning editors’ imagination than to ascribe the increasing number of Newsround bulletins on the CBBC channel or gardening spin-offs on BBC2 to laziness on the part of scheduling executives. There remain plenty of stimulating and exciting ways to re-examine familiar topics and genres on television – indeed, in a sense that’s precisely what telly is for, to enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of everyday issues and shared interests.

Who Killed Saturday Night TV? was a model example of such a process. It focused on a subject about which almost everyone has an association and almost certainly an opinion. It used as its foundation a series of programmes, celebrities and incidents about whom much has been already written and filmed. But it then went several steps further, to methodically and unselfconsciously uncover a wealth of long lost and sometimes previously unseen archive video, solicit new testimony from as many people who were there at the time, and re-emphasise a handful of universal yet rarely-spoken home truths. And it achieved all this while simultaneously demonstrating tangible fondness and affectionate inquisitiveness for the task in hand.

Blessed with a title a bit like those essay questions in exam papers that invite a piss-easy one or two word answer but then expect you to provide another thousand words explaining why, the programme took up two hours of the very night it was setting out to both eulogize and bemoan to arrive at a verdict. This turned out to be that the death of Saturday night TV really wasn’t anything to do with TV at all, but more the fault of a muddle of other factors loosely grouped together as, well, “life”. A cop-out, maybe; a textbook baked bean ending, certainly. Still, with judgment having already been passed before the thing even began (the title seeming to dissuade anyone from advancing the notion that Saturday night telly wasn’t dead) the emphasis was always going to be on the means, not the end.

Sure enough, the substance of the show lay within those intervening 120 minutes. Here was nothing less than a vast post-mortem with dozens of witnesses and case studies marshalled into a somewhat sprawling yet unceasingly entertaining sequence of feats and follies which, thanks to their influence and notoriety, were confirmed as having irrevocably shaped both the lives of those involved in making them and the lives of those watching at home.

Rather than a strictly chronological account, we were led through a broadly thematic dissection of the last 30 years of Saturday nights. Inevitably this gave rise to some overlapping testimony and slightly-skewed narrative. For instance, while plenty of time was spent on Larry Grayson taking over The Generation Game from Bruce Forsyth in the 1970s, not a mention was made of the same show’s re-appearance in the 1990s (Noel’s House Party billed as being the only decent Saturday night BBC show of that entire decade). Equally it was argued that the post-’70s decline of “old school” variety performers was solely down to the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and Saturday Live, while later sections of the programme dealt with the related impact of game shows like The Price is Right and the people-based efforts of Jeremy Beadle and Edmonds in almost complete isolation.

That such flaws didn’t conspire to undermine the entire documentary was thanks almost entirely to the consistently strong and inspired use of clips and talking heads. In both cases we were presented with material that was as original as it was genuinely thoughtful: proof yet again (see also The Showbiz Set, Comedy Connections, I’m Dreaming of a TV Christmas and others) that a reliance upon such devices does in no way automatically result in derivative or inane programming – quite the reverse.

Some remarkable footage had been unearthed. The sight of Brucie interrupting an edition of his Big Night for a petulant 10-minute tirade about the press (“… people thought that glitter was going to come out of the set … you get criticised if you try something new, you get criticised if you do the same old thing …”) was truly astonishing, the most un-Bruce like thing imaginable, and quite clearly the show’s death knell. Extracts from the pilots for Blind Date (presented by a gurning Duncan Norvelle and titled, brilliantly, It’s a Hoot) and Who Wants to be a Millionaire (complete with a £1 starter question and sung theme tune) were similarly eye-opening in their hideousness. Syd Little boxing with a kangaroo was rendered even more spectacular by producer Michael Hurll’s heartfelt reflection, “I pissed myself laughing.”

Grainy shots of William G Stewart strutting around the set of The Price is Right in a pink satin bomber jacket, or of Paul Daniels helming the aborted BBC pre-Game for a Laugh people show Gotcha were left to speak for itself, and quite rightly so. Rarely did the programme fall into the habit of letting its talking heads describe an event only to be followed by a clip duplicating everything they’d just said. Focus was shuttled around sharply, occasionally too sharply, between an army of the great and the good, almost all of whom (even the unbilled members of the public) had pertinent contributions to make. Highlights included Edmonds defending Beadle against his numerous detractors (“So unfair … he dealt with that with great dignity … I’m a big fan”), Michael Jackson astutely detecting “the seeds of the destruction of Saturday night” within Blind Date‘s creaking format, and Les Dennis refreshingly vouchsafing, “there’s no point being bitter about the business changing.”

The most valuable presence, though, was that of Clive James. Stirred from his idleness, or stubbornness, or whatever really keeps him from resuming a continuing presence on TV screens or in print, he revealed his talent for witty observation and lucid analysis is as undimmed as ever. Hence the reason Big Night failed was because it simply “wasn’t a format – it was just a big night, it was just a long show.” Beadle’s practical jokery is “fairly closely allied to power, an attempt to regain power that was lost in childhood.” And while … Millionaire is “money for jam”, it’s appeal lies in the fact “there’s only one part of (a contestant’s) personality on display: their brain.”

Crucially, nearly everyone emerged from the show with their dignity intact, bar maybe Beadle (his comments about Game for a Laugh having “a limited shelf life” sitting awkwardly with his famously documented protest that LWT were responsible for “fucking killing the golden goose”) and Brian Conley, glimpsed at the start requesting “they should just make Saturday night telly for sad people” and at the end moaning about why his lamentable 2003 effort Judgement Day flopped. In short, contributors and producers alike seemed to have approached the project determined not to be glib or insincere, and a sense of everyone wanting to make a fair and accurate job of tackling the subject was palpable from start to finish.

Sure, there was whole other aspects not even touched upon, in particular the importance of drama – from All Creatures Great and Small and Dallas to Robin of Sherwood and The Tripods – and most recently ITV’s aborted attempt to run football highlights in primetime, certainly a key factor in accounting for the fortunes of recent Saturday night TV. Even so, there was an absolute deluge of absorbing viewing here, and the entire affair could’ve easily expanded into three hours or more, even chopped up into a series of programmes to give the talking heads a bit more time to breathe and to untangle those loose strands of narrative.

Thanks to its well-chosen mix of scope, care and ambition, this was easily one of the most fascinating things on Saturday night telly – in both senses – for ages.


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