Little-Watched TV

Steve Williams on BBC3 two years on

First published March 2005

BBC3 seems to have received more criticism in its first two years than most of the other networks have received in two decades. Indeed, were you to believe the likes of Media Guardian, you may be forgiven for thinking the channel has been renamed “the little-watched BBC3″. However with quality programmes like Little Britain and Bodies enjoying massive critical acclaim, it seems that nobody’s sure what to think about the BBC’s youngest channel.

On Sunday 9 February 2003 OTT reviewed the entire opening night’s output, and liked much of what it saw (apart from Dom Joly). However, as we said back then, “whether the schedule will look the same in six months’ time is another question – but then most new channels … often make big changes after the first few months when it becomes obvious that some ideas haven’t worked.” Hence, on the occasion of the network’s second anniversary, we alighted on the nearest Sunday to the birthday – 6 February 2005 – and watched the whole evening’s programming again. As it enters its third year, how is it doing?

7pm – 10pm

Perhaps surprisingly, little has changed behind the scenes since 2003. BBC3 has the same logo, the same (appalling) continuity announcers and the same controller, though Stuart Murphy is being touted for the now-vacant job at the helm of BBC1. And as it has since day, er, two, at 7pm, before proper programmes begin, the evening’s output starts with a 60 Seconds update.

The 60 Seconds bulletins attempt to sum up the latest headlines in a minute (there’s an on-screen clock counting down throughout). Not a new idea – Channel 5 did the same thing when it launched – its appearance every hour until midnight is a handy way of showing BBC3 is serious about current affairs. The bulletins stick to the Corporation’s news agenda well enough, though there’s an obvious promotion for sport and entertainment stories, and everything clearly has to be distilled to the bare minimum. As a way to catch up with the headlines it works, but whether it’s necessary is another question – the stories don’t change at any point during the evening.

Outside 60 Seconds, BBC3′s news output has undergone perhaps the most changes of any of its programming. The flagship weekday programme started life as The News Show, screened each night at 7.45pm, though this awkward scheduling didn’t help build audiences and it regularly suffered the ignominy of a zero rating. After a couple of relaunches and timeslot changes, the current format (in use for the last year or so) is billed as The Seven O’clock News and enjoys a meatier half-hour running time. More importantly, it’s finally got a respectable anchor in Radio 4′s Eddie Mair. He is not perhaps the most BBC3 figure – he’s noticeably middle-class and middle-aged – but his wry, sardonic persona is obviously different to your average newsreader and can make for a refreshing take on the day’s events. The ratings haven’t noticeably increased, though – yet being the first programme on air means it doesn’t enjoy any inheritance from another show and thus viewers have to seek it out; not the ideal situation for a bulletin hoping to attract those who don’t watch the news. While it would be nice to see this intelligent, lively programme succeed, the odds are stacked against it.

The revamped broadcast has a larger budget than previously thanks to the axing in April 2004 of the network’s other daily show, Liquid News. The ending of this series, perhaps the best-known BBC3 “brand”, emphasised that Stuart Murphy was happy to make major changes in the hunt for a more effective schedule. Yet while the regular show has come to an end, its spin-off series Liquid Assets does live on, albeit in the form of repeats, and this is the first full programme on 6 February.

The purpose of Liquid Assets is to examine the bank balances of the stars and discover how they make and spend their cash – the mix of celebrity and information is something that BBC3 just loves. In this instalment Max Flint travels to Hollywood to trace the career of Jennifer Lopez, interviewing a former husband, a wedding planner and, excitingly, her eyebrow plucker among others. As with most of the Liquid News reporters, Flint has a lightness of touch and healthy cynicism that tempers much of the hyperbole you can sometimes get from celebrity reportage. However there doesn’t seem to be enough to this series, the programme coming across as little more than a bog-standard pop profile. Sure, there’s an emphasis on cash in the interviews, totting up figures throughout to come up with an estimate of how much money J-Lo actually has, but there isn’t a lot that we haven’t already learnt. Indeed, the final conclusion is, basically, once she didn’t have lots of money, and now she has truckloads. Fancy that.

Another documentary follows at 8pm. Who Rules the Roost? is one of BBC3′s growing slate of parenting programmes – a genre that says much about the type of audience the channel is aimed at. This particular programme is a format-based “social experiment” along the same lines as those that seem to fill every slot on Channel 4. Here, wife Sarb hopes to give up work and look after her two kids full-time, but husband Baljit wants her to continue and feels he has much to offer the family himself. As such, they each spend a fortnight in sole charge of the household to see just how good a parent they are.

If this were Channel 4, there would no doubt be a number of rules and gimmicks added to the mix here, plus an emphasis on confrontation and disharmony. But this is the polite and sensible BBC3, and therefore the cameras simply eavesdrop on the family while they do their own thing, with the nearest thing we get to an argument is Sarb’s complaints about the standards of Baljit’s packed lunch – “He knows I don’t have a whole apple, I have it cut up”. There’s no shouting matches (though screaming toddlers are no easier on the ear) and few set pieces, other than Sarb trying to pluck up the courage to empty the kitchen bin. The easy-going nature is perhaps best summed up by the conclusion, where there’s a compromise between Sarb working part-time and Baljit doing more around the house. It’s perhaps refreshing to have a documentary such as this, full of people being pleasant to each other, but it does mean there isn’t that little spark to make it a must-watch programme.

The same could be said for the first brand new programme of the evening, The Bachelor at 9pm. Based on an American format, the concept is virtually identical to the ITV1 flop Mr Right, as 20 women live together in a villa in Marbella and, throughout the course of the series, are whittled down to one who gets the honour of a relationship with the titular Anthony Thomas. Unlike Ulrika’s version, though, this show is seemingly successful, as it’s now on its third series.

Fortunately for this reviewer, tonight’s instalment is a “story so far” edition, where host Jeremy Milnes welcomes back the 18 previously eliminated contestants to discuss what they made of the experience and which of the remaining two is going to win. But, unfortunately for this reviewer, one of the 18 turns out to be a former work colleague, whose appearance distracts somewhat from the rest of the programme.

Even without watching out for Karen, it is tough to come into any series six shows into the run, and so it’s hard to work out exactly what this show’s appeal is. “The Bachelor” himself seems to be fairly uncharismatic, while many of the women don’t even seem that bothered about “winning” him. Still, it all looks very impressive, the filmic picture quality and Spanish settings making it appear a bit more glamorous, and there’s plenty of bitching between the girls for those that enjoy that sort of thing. Milnes tries to interrogate the contestants, in that terribly intense way of his, about their feelings for Anthony and each other, to add a bit of pop-psychology to an otherwise flimsy hour of television. As with all the shows so far this evening, though, there’s nothing to keep you hooked throughout the run. So far BBC3′s output has been of sufficient quality, but there’s little personality in the programmes.

10pm – 12.30am

This problem should be rectified with the next few hours devoted to comedy. BBC3 has had its most success in this genre, with its commitment to new ideas and talent helping to create some intriguing series, many of which – The Smoking Room, My Life in Film and Outlaws, among others – have transferred to the terrestrial channels to critical acclaim. So let the comedy commence – but first it’s Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.

Unbelievably on its fifth – though final – series, tonight sees the sixth of a mind-numbing 14 new episodes. This marathon run has seen series creator Susan Nickson farm out the writing chores among a number of people, with tonight’s instalment penned by Daniel Peak. However, it’s hard to differentiate between this and, basically, every other episode of the series, with the usual mix of innuendo, shouting and unpleasantness. Having not watched an episode for some time, the first line – Janet announcing, “I like Fanny” – proved that little has moved on in the intervening period (hilariously, Janet was referring to the name as a possibility for her new baby).

What’s puzzling about this show is that, given it seems to be simply a vehicle for smut and shallowness, there is a regular attempt to inject drama into proceedings, with a continuing storyline throughout the series based on Jonny and Janet’s impending wedding, and regular bursts of both sentimentality and violence in the individual episodes. This could suggest a three-dimensional show, providing something other than cheap laughs. Not here, though, as the unlikeable cast and iffy writing only supplies an oil-and-water blend of crassness and Hollyoaks-esque soap, with characters that you just don’t care about. Tonight’s plot about Jonny’s stag night added nothing to the thousand other sitcoms that have used this storyline, with nobody turning up and Jonny ending up chained to a lamppost naked; perhaps the quintessential Two Pints punchline.

Susan Nickson has been writing for television for over a decade, with her first work, an annoying “Parents? Cuh!”-style monologue, winning a Channel 4 young writers’ competition while she was still a teenager. At the time, this reviewer was churning out equally annoying “Parents? Cuh!”-style stuff in his diary, and as such has never much cared for her after she got to do it on the telly. However Nickson is clearly appreciated by BBC3, as following Two Pints at 10.30pm is the next in the series of Twisted Tales, also penned by her.

Twisted Tales is something you tend not to see much on television these days – an anthology series of single, half-hour plays; like Tales of the Unexpected only with the emphasis much more on humour. Nickson’s contribution to the series sees unlikeable twentysomething Kelly trapped in limbo while in a coma following an attack on the street, and the writer’s trademark scatological style is much apparent (announcing before a date that she’s “trimmed the ‘tache but left a few spider’s legs … don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard”). Fortunately the likeable – and ubiquitous – Mark Benton helps remove some of the unpleasantness from the script. This isn’t a particularly good half-hour but it’s refreshing to see the channel innovating with formats.

It seems as if you can’t get an evening on BBC3 at the moment without an episode of Little Britain, and indeed that’s what we get at 11pm. There’s little to add about Lucas and Walliams that hasn’t already been said, and it’s unsurprising the channel trades so much on what’s clearly its biggest hit – much like Sky One offers up wall-to-wall Simpsons and E4 continuous Friends. At least BBC3′s staple show is both intelligent and British. That said, it could be argued this second series seems to have lost some of the innovation and freshness of the first run, often seeming to rely on repetition and gross-out humour rather than the whimsy and sheer silliness of the earlier instalments. Yet it’s still hugely enjoyable, if not quite so welcome on its hundredth repeat.

Another seemingly ubiquitous figure on our screens follows at 11.30pm, Johnny Vegas, in the next instalment of the sitcom Ideal. This is the first production from the BBC’s new comedy unit in Manchester, though there is little to make this obvious on screen as the action takes place entirely within the same four walls. Vegas plays Moz, a small-time drug dealer, and the comedy revolves around his interactions with his various customers in his squalid flat. With fades-to-black and the odd dialogue-free scene, it’s perhaps appropriately a very slow-moving series, and also a grim one. A continuing storyline throughout the series regarding a severed hand provides a dramatic sub-plot, although a lot of the jokes stem from simple visual humour (Vegas using the hand to scratch records). The odd sharp line aside, though, Ideal is on the whole too slow and bleak to really entertain.

The final comedy show of the night, at midnight, couldn’t be more different, rocketing through the gags. The Comic Side of 7 Days is a topical series that uses perhaps the simplest format of any comedy show – comedians (sat side-on in an “I Love …”-esque pose) make jokes about the week’s news, in between various quickies such as “seven things” lists along the same lines as David Letterman’s Top Tens. The quality is, predictably, quite variable, and when Gina Yashere and Mark Steel are talking about Tony Blair’s appearance on T4 with the most predictable “down with the kids” quips imaginable, it seems indistinguishable from all other attempts at topical humour. Fortunately, the majority of the other contributors are more amusing, while the quickies are helped by the fact they’re very quick indeed, and voice-over artists Emma Kennedy and Robert Webb have the right sort of sardonic delivery to add a bit of bite. There’s a decent hit ratio among the jokes (“Seven reasons Michael Jackson will get off … He’s got guilt written all over his face, but he doesn’t have a face”) and the pre-watershed slot of the original transmission on Thursdays means it can’t rely on crudity to get laughs. It all adds up to a likeable, entertaining series.

12.30am – 3.55am

Anyone struggling to stay awake at half past midnight could be forgiven for thinking they’re watching another episode of Little Britain. However the Vicky Pollard tribute act announcing that she’s been “banned from every pub in Tiverton” is in fact part of the documentary Can’t Stop … Losing My Cool. A curious programme, the first 45 minutes are devoted to lurid reconstructions of rage situations, reaching a low point where a bloke smirks his way through an anecdote about smashing a fellow motorist around the face with a metal bar during a road rage attack. In between these are comments on why we get angry from rent-a-psychologist Geoffrey Beattie and the mid-Atlantic-accented, curiously-named Stokes Jones. The final 15 minutes sees some of the contributors brought together on an anger management course that, irony of ironies, grinds to a halt when everyone falls out with the leader. This serves as a fitting conclusion to an hour when nobody seems to have learnt anything, including the viewer.

Repeats of Who Rules the Roost?, Liquid Assets and Twisted Tales fill the rest of the small hours before a 4am closedown. It would be fair to say that this wasn’t BBC3′s finest evening, though while only Little Britain and The Comic Side of 7 Days were particularly good, just two programmes were truly bad (Two Pints and Can’t Stop …). The rest were just mediocre, though it’s obvious that every one did at least achieve something of the BBC3 remit, whether it was encouraging new talent or providing some information.

Trying to attract a demographic that watches less TV than all the others is always going to be tough work – DEF II illustrated that nearly two decades ago, with the odd inspired hit accompanied by a number of ill-conceived and unsuccessful ventures. The ratio is about the same with BBC3. But with nine hours a day to kill, this was always going to be the case. The channel is about as successful as BBC1 and BBC2, and two years in, seems to have uncovered a growing number of programmes that both inform and entertain. Furthermore, it has not changed substantially from its first few weeks. This is particularly impressive given its tough remit – and compare it to its nearest rival E4, where the number of successful home-grown programmes it has produced can be counted on the fingers of one hand, in twice as long a timeframe.

On its second birthday, we can look with optimism to the future of BBC3. Especially as Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps is about to finish.