Part Two: She Bangs The Drums

By Ian Jones

First published November 2001

For half a dozen years at the end of the 1980s and start of the ’90s the DEF II strand remained a BBC2 schedule fixture. That in itself is some achievement, occurring at a point in history when various factors – an economic recession, major upheavals within the television industry, and numerous pieces of radical media legislation – conspired to challenge both short and long certainties about the direction British TV was heading.

Perhaps this staying power was down to the way DEF II was quickly perceived as “useful” by various people of influence for a variety of reasons. For instance, DEF II was a convenient flag for the BBC to wave whenever necessary (to say: “look, here’s where the Beeb is experimenting, providing choice, and pioneering”). In a practical sense it helped keep up the Corporation’s quota of independently produced programming. It also generated distinctive, original output that fulfilled various remits, which pleased the BBC Governors and senior management.

While its two chief benefactors remained in positions of comfortable authority – Alan Yentob (as BBC2 Controller) and Janet Street-Porter (Head of Youth Programming) – its immediate future seemed safe. But over time the strand increasingly resembled a rather ill worn crucible in which disparate programme ideas, formats and personalities were assembled, broken up, then reassembled with scant regard for ratings and sustaining viewer interest. Sometimes the experiments worked and had impressive results. Other times one botched show replaced another. What began promising much ended delivering almost nothing at all. How did DEF II get away with it for so long?

The strand had been conceived to comprise a mixture of long-running, returning series, together with ongoing new commissions – some of which were inevitably destined for immediate extinction, but others, it was hoped, would take off. This strategy was no doubt practical: the returning series’ provided a safety net to cushion experimentation elsewhere. But it was also flawed. It risked the strand becoming over-reliant on its warhorses, which themselves could easily become stale and unpopular – and what then? Indeed, for all Janet Street-Porter believed in innovation and diversification, DEF II did only ever boast three proper long-term, bedrock series: Reportage, Rapido, and Rough Guides. And one of them was an import.

Reportage made its greatest impact thanks to its longevity. Quite simply, it always seemed to be on. The first series ended in March 1989, but a second followed just eight months later, sticking to the same format and with an enlarged presenting team – thanks to new recruits Brenda Emmanus and Tyler Brule. After another whopping 16 week run the show was rested, reappearing in January 1991 in a new guise and with a proper “main” presenter. This was journalist Aminatta Forna, previously of BBC2′s Ebony and Public Eye, and who had been brought in on suggestion of series editor Sebastian Scott. The “interactive” elements were toned down and the mixed line-up swapped for programmes focusing on one major issue, such as video surveillance, youth crime, or unemployment. It felt like a step backwards, but remained the house style for three further series right through to 1994. Competently made – latterly under the stewardship of Tony Moss – Reportage survived as long as it did perhaps more down to what it symbolised in a wider context (“current affairs for yoof”) than its numerous campaigns, polls and exposés.

Rapido transferred to BBC2 in March 1989. Cheap – the BBC funded 35% of this transcontinental package – always entertaining and with good access to both major and upcoming musical acts, it had an obvious place in DEF II. A legal battle in 1990 over who owned the name kept the series off the air until the end of October, when it reappeared briefly, before resuming regularly in the new year and continuing into 1991 and ’92. Antoine De Caunes remained a capable host, his patter – including regular “Chunnel progress reports” – fresh and amusing.

But easily the most successful of the three was Rough Guides, thanks to its evolution into a distinctive, renewable franchise. The Rough Guide to Careers ran for five series over five years, profiling both the glamorous – the worlds of advertising, the music business, fashion and television – and the vocational: catering, environment and conservation, health, tourism (with the help of Richard Branson), and sport and leisure. The final series, this time titled Rough Guide to Careers: 50 Inspiring Ideas, rounded up half a hundred job opportunities across the UK from chocolate designers to milliners and included a guest appearance from John Major.

Meanwhile the original travel show format mutated through a number of guises. Rough Guide to the World (summer 1989 and ’90) and Rough Guide to the World’s Journeys (autumn 1991) sent hosts Sankha Guha and Magenta De Vine on epic voyages as far afield as Mexico, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and Southern USA; while Rough Guide to the World’s Islands (autumn 1992) and … to the Americas (autumn 1993) saw Magenta paired with new cohort Rajan Datar (Sankha having joined ITN). Consistently interesting and appealing, Rough Guides did more than any other show to keep DEF II’s “infotainment” reputation alive.

But this trio of long-running series were obviously not nearly enough to sustain the entire strand. Complementing them were a raft of further commissions, all, in their own way, notable, if only for (occasionally) ending up so dreadful. Some were new, some ongoing, some caught on and were spun out to four and even five further series; some lasted just a matter of weeks.

That Was Then … This Is Now was an example of the latter, running for just one further series in summer 1989, despite being reformatted to revolve around extended interviews conducted by (at the time) freelance journalist and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove. Open to Question survived for longer, returning in April 1989 for its third series with Krishnan Guru-Murphy still the host and guests including Pamela Stephenson, Roy Hattersley and Janet Street-Porter herself, snapping back at the kids picking holes at “their programming”. After a long break one final series ran through spring 1992, now hosted by John Kelly, and featuring guests such as Justin Fashanu and Robbie Coltrane. A cousin of Open to Question was the short-lived Words Apart (summer 1990), a seven part debating series chaired by Kirsty Wark and John Holdsworth that displayed a perhaps over-earnest obsession with issues rather than personalities.

It was a long while until DEF II found its proper next big series. Awkward gaps in the schedules continued to be plugged by repeated Scene documentaries or one-off regional films. Indeed, Scene celebrated its 25th anniversary in autumn 1993, a chance for an even longer run of repeats – but this was actually quite interesting as a number of archive episodes were screened, including the 1969 drama “Terry” starring Dennis Waterman. The summer months of 1989, when not disrupted by sport, entertained such fare as BBC Scotland compilations of live music from the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, and the optimistically-titled Open to Question Classics. The autumn saw the debut of Gimme 8 (1989 – 91), a selection of repackaged youth TV from around the world. A rather unpromising affair, it ran for three series and was hosted for a time by Lisa I’Anson. One of the featured shows, the US fly-on-the-wall series Yearbook set in a Chicago high school, was later broadcast in its entirety during May and June 1992. There was also a sister series, Extra (autumn 1990) made up of clips from solely European shows.

The A-Z of Belief earned a second series in spring 1990 and included Simon Booth from the band Working Week discussing Communism and The Thompson Twins painstakingly explaining Green politics. Behind the Beat returned for a third series in October 1989, and Snub also reappeared for two more series (spring 1990 and ’91), yet despite Janet’s supposed approval both these efforts were officially dropped in July 1991. Plans were now afoot for a new, single, music show to replace all previous efforts. It took some time – and what a wait, as during the summer of 1990 the strand disappeared completely for far longer than ever before – but come October DEF II at long last found its next big hit.

Dance Energy (1990 – 93) was a wholly welcome burst of noise, disorder and fun and became a fixture on Monday nights for an impressive six series. Our host was one Norman Anderson, aka Normski, a former photographer, whose role initially was simply to introduce a sequence of rap and dance acts while surrounded by his jostling Dance Squad Posse. From within a plain white studio Normski battled to keep control of his hyper crowd – including a vogueing Geri Halliwell – and developed a string of memorable catchphrases (“Let ‘arf!” “The livin’…!”). Easily the most charismatic host to grace DEF II, the man soon became something of a style icon (and, for a time, Mr Janet Street-Porter) rubbing shoulders with Antoine De Caunes in a Rapido special on the history of hip hop (June 1991) and even providing continuity announcements on BBC2.

But Dance Energy had a tortuous history. The first series, produced by Jaswinder Bancil – one of Janet’s protégés – ran for 10 editions, together with 10 minute spin-offs titled Dance Energy Updates featuring the results of a video vote, a mix from the DJ of the week and the updated dance chart. The show was thought to have promise, and a second, shorter series followed (summer 1991). However a third run was almost lost due to behind-the-scenes rows. Dance Energy was not an in-house BBC production; instead it was made by Activate, a small London-based company that was overseen by Toru Uehara, a former Japanese pop star with experience of music programming, and was itself part of the huge Fujisankei Communications International empire. Relations between Activate and the BBC had never been smooth and a crisis point was reached in summer 1991. Unhappy with the show’s ratings, Janet eventually forced Activate to work via Diverse Productions (who made Rough Guides) and adopt various changes to its format.

With new personnel on board – Tim Byrne, ex-music buyer for Motormouth, The Word and Paramount City, and Lindsay Shapero, a former executive producer at BSB’s The Power Station and head of news at MTV – the show developed into a more ambitious affair. While the third series (autumn 1991) looked much the same a huge change occurred for the fourth and fifth series (spring and autumn 1992): nothing less than a new name, Dance Energy House Party, with the show coming from inside Normski’s “house”. A much broader music policy was introduced mixing chart acts with indie bands and dance groups. Normski and mates poked fun at the general public’s appalling dress sense in “Style Squad”; aspiring bands could win a record deal in the Lift Off competition (ultimately won by the immediately forgettable Streamline); and most notable of all there was comedy from Vas Blackwood, who “moved” into Normski’s “house” in the first show.

It had been Janet’s idea to add the humour. She’d become gripped by the potential comedy had to revolutionise youth entertainment, and her excitement led to another classic Street-Porter soundbite. Complaining how contemporary music shows only played “Music to change babies’ nappies to,” she argued: “we need to rethink the current chart shows to cater to the young, with witty, cultish programmes for under-18s, which have their own in-jokes. Comedy has much more appeal than music to a young audience. When we introduced comedy to Dance Energy the ratings shot up. Music programmes will have to include comedy if they are to be successful.” She concluded with that legendary statement, “Comedy is the rock’n'roll of the 1990s.”

It was a perceptive outburst, coming at the height of post-Mary Whitehouse Experience, pre-Fist of Fun mania. A pity, then, that her precious comedy was promptly dropped from Dance Energy – for when the sixth and final series eventually appeared (autumn 1993) it was re-titled – inexplicably – D Energy, still with the broad music selection, but no sketches. It also ran concurrently with a 30-minute sister show on Radio 1, but this was confusingly still called Dance Energy, though also presented by Normski. This was a sadly messy end for one of DEF II’s longest-running and most infectious creations; and no similar music show ever replaced it.

Meanwhile some other additions to the schedules came in the form of new black US comedy series. First up was New Attitude (autumn 1990), a show set in a beauty salon starring Morris Day, famous from Prince’s Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge movies. Dropped from the American networks after just five episodes, all eight were shown in this country. Far more substantial, however, was what followed in January 1991: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This made a great impact and quickly became a DEF II staple, continuing throughout – and well beyond – the strand’s lifetime.

Other shorter, throwaway series also continued appearing. 283 Useful Ideas From Japan (spring 1991) was a five-part study on Japanese culture and technology reflecting Janet Street-Porter’s obsession with the Far East. Slightly more substantial was Liquid TV (summer 1991, autumn 1992), a joint production between the BBC and MTV involving experimental and surreal animation. It was predictably patchy, though certainly diverse. “Stick Figure Theatre”, “The Invisible Hands”, “The Specialists” (three cartoon private investigators) and “Dog Boy” – “taking Max Headroom one stage further – it’s like the Comic Strip,” proclaimed Janet – were highlights.

After another sparse summer of Wednesday night-only repeats, the autumn 1991 season boasted DEF II’s next – but also its last – major new, long-term series: Standing Room Only. TV’s first proper football fanzine was hosted by Simon O’Brien and featured a broad mix of interviews, profiles and issues coverage plus a cartoon strip from The Guardian’s Steve Bell. David Baddiel and Rob Newman appeared each week with comic observations in “Footy Shorts”; various legendary footballers – such as Pele and George Best – talked about their favourite goals and best matches; and features ranged from a day in the life of John Motson, Simon visiting Glenn Hoddle’s house to watch an England v. Germany match, to an attempt at pioneering various new laws such as bigger goals, no offsides and four quarters of 25 minutes – experiments only tried out in Wales as the English FA refused any of its clubs to take part.

As with Dance Energy however, Standing Room Only had a rather erratic history, despite also running for six series. Rory Bremner was added for the second series (spring 1992); then everything was changed for the third and fourth series (autumn 1992, summer 1993). All previous features and contributors were ditched and a new host – Kevin Allen, actor and presenter of a 1990 World Cup Video Diary – was joined by Shelley Webb, wife of Man Utd.’s Neil Webb, who provided news and gossip updates; then Simon O’Brien came back for two final series (autumn 1993, summer 1994). Still, it survived longer than most of its fellow DEF II stablemates, was a decent, entertaining effort and had a profound influence on the look and content of mid-late 1990s sports shows (not least the Street-Porter commissioned Fantasy Football League).

Standing Room Only was DEF II’s last big success. Subsequent programmes tried hard but always failed. Artrageous (spring 1992) was an arts magazine designed to be the DEF II equivalent of The Late Show. It promised a lot and producer Lindsay Shapero sounded keen: “It’s an attempt to get away from the traditional coverage of the arts. It not only looks at what’s happening for young people culturally, but also celebrates their creativity.” Janet was completely behind it, but unfortunately her enthusiasm led her to make another one of her more rash decisions: personally recruiting jazz pianist (and TV novice) Jason Rebello after spotting him performing one night. “I wanted someone creative to present the show, and as an accomplished performer he personifies everything Artrageous is trying to get across,” she countered. Naïve but honest, Jason conceded: “I’m not that knowledgeable about some of the stuff we’re covering so I’ll be learning a lot myself.” Unfortunately the resulting show was abominable. Jason had no screen presence, while the line-up was too perverse: features on the radio station XFM appeared alongside reports on contemporary sculpture and poetry. The series lasted for six editions, then was quietly dropped.

This debacle coincided with increasing confusion and instability behind the scenes. In March 1992 Tony Moss, editor of Reportage, was promoted to oversee the entire output of the newly expanded youth department (Bill Hilary, Janet’s former assistant, having left to become the new commissioning editor for youth programmes at Channel 4) while Janet was made head of youth programmes and entertainment features, with less overall input into DEF II. She was also moved to Manchester permanently, a controversial decision that prompted her to remark if anyone saw her crying they were “tears of joy”.

Trying to gauge the success or otherwise of DEF II proved difficult within the newly expanded department, at least judging by ratings. The record was not good. Behind the Beat, over its three series, had dropped from an average of 1.14m viewers to 1.26m, then to 0.92m. That Was Then … This Is Now had fallen from 1.08m all the way down to 0.52m. But Dance Energy went up from a first series average of 0.79m to 1.59m for its fourth – though annoyingly the fifth series fell again to 0.91m. Gimme 8 had hung around the same point – 0.70m – while Snub had gone from 0.45m down to 0.38m, then up to 0.69m, only for it to be axed.

With Janet having less of a hands-on role, was there the same desire and commitment to see DEF II succeed? Omens were not good. The strand went on holiday again in summer 1992, with a few repeats added later from the Teenage Video Diaries series, edited and revised for content and language, including the classic “In Bed With Chris Needham“. Several episodes of Wayne’s World also joined the usual fare to pad out autumn evenings. But while the various returning series propped up the strand – Dance Energy, Reportage, Rough Guides, Standing Room Only – nothing new of note was being produced. DEF II’s obsession with archive cult programming had also not let up. Back in 1989 Buck Rogers had replaced Mission Impossible, which in turn was succeeded by The Invisible Man and then Star Trek: The Next Generation (though this, and its replacement – the original Star Trek – were curiously never billed as being part of DEF II).

The next attempt at something new was the dreadful Cyberzone (spring 1993). Craig Charles hosted this “virtual reality” game show, based in a not unfamiliar cyber-punk studio setting. Two celebrities competed against two ordinary folk in a round of computer-generated challenges involving the virtual worlds of the Medieval Citadel and the futuristic Technotraz. Thesp (James Grout), essentially a Gamesmaster-type character “living” inside the computer world, introduced games and shouted “One minute warning! One minute!” from time to time. The first guests were John Fashanu (who stole Craig Charles’ catchphrase – “Awooga!” – for his own personal use on Gladiators) and John Barnes versus two members of the Dangerous Club. Other unlikely battles included Jonny and Greg Searle against some Ranger Girl Guides, and Tessa Sanderson and Colin Jackson versus the Manchester fire service. Undoubtedly innovative in theory, in practice the series was laughably limited in its ability to reproduce proper virtual reality worlds either in the studio or on screens.

DEF II was seriously flagging. Alan Yentob’s departure to BBC1 in March 1993 robbed DEF II of its godfather. All output disappeared for its longest ever “break” in the summer: after Monday 17 May no shows of any kind turned up until 6 September, an unprecedented gap of almost 16 weeks. Autumn 1993 offered up one promising new series: The Ronson Mission wherein the Time Out/Select journalist embarked on various silly “quests” and challenges such as to get naked people on national television, to organise a pop concert to stamp out crime, and perhaps most memorably “What Have People In Britain Done To Stop The War In Bosnia?” in which he tackled Samantha Fox and a Swiss weatherman. Not so memorable was Les Lives: five-minute wordless sketches featuring the famous assistant from Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out. Repeats of The Real McCoy and the grotesque Newman And Baddiel on the Road to Wembley “tour film” showed up ahead of Christmas.

What was to become the last DEF II season began in January 1994. Reportage and Standing Room Only continued for one last series each, joined by the cartoon Ren and Stimpy and repeats of the comedy drama Goggle Eyes. Telling Tales, a series profiling the lifestyles of some young people in contemporary Britain, initially began outside DEF II but got co-opted into it after Easter. Spaced Out was a BBC2 sci-fi strand that ran throughout late spring 1994. In its DEF II guise it comprised a cult/classic sci-fi film – including When Worlds Collide and Invaders From Mars – introduced by, yes, Craig Charles, who also starred in a related comedy sketch or interview.

Then the strand simply petered out. While two Standing Room Only spin-offs aired in June (“The Platinum Parrots” – an “awards” show – and “Soccer, Stars and Strips” on the World Cup) the last time the DEF II name appeared was on Monday 23 May 1994. Unbeknown to viewers at the time, it was the end. Backstage manoeuvres had replaced Janet Street-Porter (now head of independent production, entertainment group) with John Whiston, and powers that be moved to enact a major overhaul of all BBC2 youth output. Why, and to what end? Why had other recent youth-orientated shows such as 100 Per Cent and The Living Soap been run on Friday nights instead of within DEF II where they so obviously belonged? And why was there this distinct impression of the strand being simply left to wither and die through late 1993 and early 1994, starved of attention, money and support?

The world in which DEF II slowly faded away was completely different from that into which it had been pitched in 1988. Context had always played a vital role in what was expected, what was permitted, of youth television: whether as something to react against, challenge, and subvert – or to work with, to compromise, and co-opt. To truly understand the significance of DEF II it’s necessary to look beyond it and take stock of more general, far-reaching changes in youth TV – both during the strand’s lifetime, and also on through the 1990s.

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