Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe

Thursday, March 2, 2006 by

TV shows about TV shows have a long, but not very distinguished history. There have been right-to-reply programmes like Points of View, Open Air and, erm, Right to Reply. There have been critical shows like Did You See? and Late Review. And there have been industry shows like Hard News and The Media Show. Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe attempts to roll all three genres into one with only minimal success.

Brooker, best-known for his now-defunct TV Go Home web site and his weekly Screen Burn column in The Guardian, has three main things going for him: He can be very funny and accurate in his analysis; he’s an industry insider, having written for The 11 O’Clock Show, created Nathan Barley and co-founded a production company, Zeppotron (which is now part of Endemol UK); and he lacks the pretension that many media commentators suffer from. Screen Wipe, which is essentially a TV version of Screen Burn, could therefore have been almost the Holy Grail of meta-TV shows – an accessible, entertaining look at television from both in front of the set and behind the scenes. Unfortunately, it has lofty ambitions yet only an elastic-band to power it.

In his favour, Brooker does lead the viewer on a merry path through the absurdities of much of modern television, particularly those on channels so high on the Sky EPG you get nose bleeds just going near them.

But Brooker, self-confessed rubbish presenter, seems to have the attention span of a gnat. Given a full half-hour to really get going on ridiculous text-message competitions designed to grab the viewer’s money, the lamentable nature of daytime TV and the dozen or so other topics he selected just for the first episode, he still produces more or less the same few hundred words he’d use in Screen Burn. A guide to “three great shows you shouldn’t miss” offers no reasons for you to watch those programmes, other than Brooker’s promise they’re good. Yet given his choice was The Shield, The Wire and Deadwood, anyone with even a passing familiarity with them could have waxed lyrical for most of the programme and at least have provided some insight.

Then there’s Brooker’s much-vaunted guide to the backside (ho ho) of the industry, which offers little. Exposing the fact that even his “low-budget” show costs £47k to make per episode, Brooker then spends five minutes or so explaining why. Which itself begs the question: “Why?”. Does the viewer end up in a better situation to understand the nature of television because of this segment? Does knowing it costs £50 to show a copyrighted photo on-screen help you analyse the current state of British drama production? Where are the critiques of the falling budgets that are squeezing post-production houses into bankruptcy, of the rise of the super-indie that’s leading to the demise of the small production company, or the effect that the amalgamation of the ITV franchises under the Carlton/Granada super-brand has had on creativity in the regions? Brooker is many things, but if this is his idea of an insider’s view of the industry, one thing he’s not is Ray Snoddy.

A bizarre interlude featuring Robert Popper of Look Around You adds another five-minute element to the mix: Z-list celebrity TV nostalgia, one of the things, ironically, that Brooker critiques endlessly in his Screen Burn column. Popper spends his allotted span enthusing on the awfulness of Gyles Brandreth’s 1980s talent/game show Star Quality. While this is indeed as bad as Popper recalls, the segment suffers from all the same flaws as other list shows: Popper obviously remembers the show, but can’t recall all the details after nearly 20 years, so a team of researchers have clearly stuck him in front of a single episode to refresh his memory. This, of course means almost all his comments end up hinging on that one particular edition. Again, it’s hard to see exactly what the point of the segment is, other than to add another element to the mix and to give Brooker five minutes off from the tiring job of presenting.

In an attempt to put together a one-size-fits-all show about television, Brooker has assembled too many elements into too short a time, a problem reflected unconsciously (or maybe even consciously) in the programme’s overall feel – a mishmash of disparate styles, ranging from reality TV, to list show, to late-night ITV video review programme. After watching Screen Wipe, you come away feeling as though you’ve been channel surfing for half an hour, rather than having watched The Media Show: The Next Generation.

While Brooker’s mixture of self-loathing and visceral hatred for bad television make for an entertaining read, they’re far less compelling on screen. Brooker needs to turn down that trademark self-deprecation and start taking himself seriously if he’s to be a TV presenter. He has many good points to make and a few of them hit home, but on the strength of this first episode, he really needs to take a dose of Ritalin and learn how to construct a proper argument if he’s to produce anything that lasts longer in the memory than a Kate Thornton retrospective.


Comments are closed.