The Big Guns

Steve Williams on the opening night of BBC3

First published March 2003

A new channel’s supposed to launch with a couple of weeks of test transmissions, and then on the day itself a countdown clock on the screen to build up the anticipation. This wasn’t the case with BBC3, for obvious reasons. As it shares a transponder with the CBBC channel, which broadcasts between 7am and 7pm each day, for most of Sunday 9 February the space where BBC3 would appear was filled (on Freeview, at least) with just a screen of computer-generated text telling us to come back at 7pm. It wasn’t until 6.58pm that a proper BBC3 caption appeared on screen, and then at 7pm on the dot, the channel began transmitting for the first time.

It wasn’t hard to be underwhelmed – replacing BBC Choice, three of the four programmes that made up the two-hour launch special were new editions of series that hadn’t only appeared on Choice before, but also BBC1. But this at least meant that there were enough recognisable names around to make it worth our while tuning in. Chief among them was Johnny Vaughan, just over four years on from performing the same function on the opening night of Film Four. Sat behind a desk, he worked as continuity announcer throughout the evening – a good way to bind together the disparate strands. Vaughan promised that the first night’s line-up was so good that we’d think they’d “cynically loaded it with fancy one-offs to lure you in”, but claimed that this wasn’t the case and the schedule was exactly the sort of thing you’d see on a typical night on BBC3. The cynical may suggest that this was partly because every programme would be repeated several times over.

After a well-edited trailer, and the first cock-up of the evening (when a link-up with Colin Paterson in LA couldn’t happen), the first proper programme of the evening meant that Johnny had to leave his desk and walk around Television Centre to reach the studio for Johnny Vaughan Tonight. This is the third series of the chat show, but the first to be screened exclusively on BBC3. It remains a likeable show, helped this time round by the appearance of the wonderful Lauren Laverne as Johnny’s band leader and sidekick. The first guest was Johnny Vegas, who rather inevitably ended up taking over the whole show, but while it was all fairly amusing, it didn’t really feel like anything special – this was just the same Johnny Vaughan Tonight that we’d already seen on BBC1. There was also a sketch with Justin Timberlake heading into space that seemed rather uncomfortable a week after the Columbia tragedy. But on the whole, this was a solid, enjoyable opener.

At 7.40pm came the first of a two-part live special of Dermot O’Leary’s music show Re:Covered. Sum 41, Big Brovaz and Turin Brakes were the guests who each sang their current single and a cover of their choosing, and the whole thing worked very well – it was nicely filmed, the music sounded good, and Dermot and his guests seemed refreshingly unpretentious about music. Then it was a special edition of Liquid News, with regular host Colin Paterson broadcasting live from Los Angeles and asking “What better way to launch BBC3 than with a Young Guns II reunion?” Guests Keifer Sutherland and Christian Slater both seemed fairly frosty and unresponsive, but it’s a testament to Paterson’s quick wit that he was able to keep the chat going without it being embarrassing. Perhaps the oddest aspect was that Slater got to promote his appearance on the series Alias – which Channel 4 were screening while BBC3 was launching.

The first genuinely new show followed at 8.10pm, and Vaughan was joined in the studio by Matt Lucas and David Walliams to introduce the first episode of Little Britain. Based on the Radio 4 series, this is a gloriously silly sketch show that was the funniest thing broadcast all night. It may not seem very BBC3 – the format was fairly traditional, and it’s perhaps hard to see the channel’s target audience really appreciating a series of jokes about Dennis Waterman. But this was an excellent, brilliantly written debut, unsurprising given Lucas and Walliams’ track record – the similarly amusing Rock Profile and, of course, Lucas’ work on Shooting Stars – and the fact that Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Big Train) was directing. The only disappointment is that the rest of the series now doesn’t appear until the autumn. This was then followed by the second part of Re:Covered, where Dermot announced that the new series would begin in April. This may have been a “typical night” on BBC3, but it appeared to be a “typical night” much later in the year.

At 9pm the BBC2 simulcast ended and we were told, if we weren’t already, to re-tune to BBC3, where there was another three hours of entertainment for digital viewers. To persuade us to switch over, Charlie Higson appeared in a Swiss Toni sketch where, in the middle, the action stopped and continued on BBC3 alone. A bigger draw, though, would have been the appearance of a new show from Steve Coogan. Paul and Pauline Calf’s Cheese and Ham Sandwich was a one-off special exclusive to BBC3 (indeed, unlike most of the opening night’s output, it hasn’t as yet been repeated on the analogue channels) with two of Coogan’s most popular characters appearing in their first TV show since 1995. Recorded live at the Neptune Theatre in Liverpool, the script and performance were well up to standard, with the Pauline Calf routine in particular proving that the characters are still relevant and realistic. Yet while it was immensely entertaining, it again failed to really explain what we were getting from BBC3 that we couldn’t find anywhere else.

Hence the following show was perhaps the most important of the evening. Vaughan announced that BBC3 wasn’t just about entertainment, it was also there to inform – “we must do this, by law!” And to prove it, here was an example of BBC3′s factual output. Body Hits is a science series that aims to show us what various “youthful” things (smoking, shagging, etc) actually do to our body. First up was the effects of alcohol, and as you’d expect from a BBC science programme, a lot of information was given over. But throughout the show it was never clear what Dr John Marsden was telling us that Robert Winston hadn’t already done on his BBC1 series. Sure, we had a self-consciously “funky” presenter in Marsden (He wears a T-shirt! He drinks tequila!) and the experiments were carried out on some self-consciously “funky” punters (They’re in a band!), but we also got an array of diagrams and graphs. It’s certainly a solid, well-made series, but the question remains whether its intended audience would actually bother to watch it. At the end of the day, this is still a science programme. It was followed by the first of the evening’s 60 Seconds bulletins – something else carried over from Choice, wrapping up the top stories in a minute. It’s competently delivered, with the same sort of style as Newsbeat on Radio 1, and if it encourages one viewer to listen to the news then presumably it’s done its job.

The biggest low of the night came next. Dom Joly was signed by the BBC last year after Trigger Happy TV had been a huge success on Channel 4, with Joly claiming that the Corporation were allowing him to do something completely different. Hence we get This is Dom Joly, a studio-based chat show where the joke is that “Dom Joly” is an egotistical, unpleasant individual who’s the worst possible choice to be a chat show host, bullying and insulting his celebrity guests. Joly says that we’re supposed to wonder whether the show is genuine or not, but the whole thing comes over as being achingly contrived and hugely unfunny. Joly’s performance throughout is also misjudged, overdoing the unpleasantness and simply coming over as unwatchable. Yet what does Joly actually do? He’s not a stand-up comedian, he’s not an actor, and he has little background in scripted comedy – so he just stands there and ladles on the irony. The whole concept of a spoof chat show seems old hat as well. Judging by this, it looks as if Channel 4 let him go at just the right moment.

Then it was time for new drama. Burn It was produced by Red Productions, the production company du jour after shows like Queer as Folk and Clocking Off. This tells the story of three best mates from Manchester hitting 30 and finding their lives and relationships changing completely. The acting is good – with the exception of the stunt casting of Melanie B – and it certainly looks great. The problem is that it all seems a bit Red-by-numbers – if you’ve seen any of their other series you can more or less guess the situations and issues that are about to come up. Besides the swearing, there’s not a lot here we haven’t seen before. It’s also hard to empathise with the characters, who come over as fairly unlikable. Still, it’s competently made, and if this is a pointer to what the rest of BBC3′s drama output will consist of, then it’s a decent enough start – it’s certainly different to the sort of stuff you’d see on E4 and Sky One. Then the next 60 Seconds bulletin was followed by Colin Paterson trying to get some more out of Sutherland and Slater.

Monkey Dust shares a theme tune with The Entertainers, and a concept with programmes like jam. BBC3 has a commitment to new British animation, and this is the first result. Recent attempts to create a home-grown comedy show along the same lines as The Simpsons and South Park have not been a success (take Stressed Eric as an example) – perhaps because, given the expense and the fact that most are co-produced with foreign companies, it has to be blanded-out to appeal to absolutely everybody. Monkey Dust is different, though – it’s almost entirely British, it’s post-watershed and it uses proper comedy writers to turn out the scripts; indeed the head writer and producer is Harry Thompson, a respected figure in the world of comedy. Unfortunately, the programme just isn’t funny. It seems to be following in the footsteps of people like Noble and Silver, aiming to unsettle and repulse as much as entertain. Sketches include a divorced father killing himself, a foul-mouthed baby and a paedophile trying to attract young girls on the internet – it’s all very daring, yes, but where are the jokes? We’ve seen too much of this style of (anti)humour, and it’s getting tiresome.

The final new show of launch night was Three Non-Blondes, which in advance sounded as if it was likely to be the worst of the lot – another hidden camera series, only this time the participants were black. However it actually turned out to be fairly amusing and likeable. The huge bonus is that the trio are good actresses, and there’s a lot of warmth about the whole thing – they’re always the butt of the jokes rather than the general public. This at least means that some of the fairly hackneyed situations come across as fresh and funny. It’s not going to change the face of comedy and become a hit of Trigger Happy-style proportions, but it is an amiable, inoffensive half-hour.

Launch night officially finished at 12.15am, but this was immediately followed by a repeat of every programme keeping the channel on-air until 5.25am. Overall this was a solid, professional opening gambit – it all went smoothly and it was a well paced, varied and fairly entertaining line-up of programmes. The hit-to-miss ratio was surprisingly good, with only one real stinker (Dom Joly), which is better than most recent channel launches have managed to turn out. Inevitably – and despite Vaughan’s comments – they’d stuck the big guns up front for the evening, but this was only to be expected. The only failure seemed to be properly defining exactly what BBC3 was for – there didn’t seem to be a lot here you couldn’t see on BBC2, there was just more of it. But maybe a first night wasn’t the place for experimenting.