To Hell and Back

Steve Williams on the worst of British television from the last 10 years

First published April 2002

10 years ago, BBC2 presented TV Hell – an evening of unsuccessful, unpopular and underwhelming programmes. Conversely, the night was incredibly amusing and interesting. How could this happen when you’re dealing with piss-poor, useless telly? Well, of course TV Hell was looking at the laughably bad – programmes like The Borgias and Churchill’s People.

But what of the genuinely bad pieces of television? What would an actual night of TV Hell bring – a night of programmes guaranteed to get you to turn off the telly and go and do something less painful instead? Not “so bad it’s good”, more “so bad it makes you want to phone up the broadcasters and petition for it’s removal”. OTT has therefore taken it upon itself to provide a guide to television producers of the sort of thing we never want to see on our screens again. For the sake of brevity, we’ve restricted our choices to those programmes which went out in the last decade.

1. “If you like that, you’ll love this!”

Definition: TV producers try and get more mileage from a winning format

Key example: The Best Show in the World … Probably (1998)

Nothing on television is more important than ideas. If you have a killer format, your show can run and run successfully for many years. Unfortunately, it can also lead to copycat programmes. Take, for example, the case of Have I Got News For You. While basically Radio 4′s News Quiz transferred to the telly, HIGNFY managed to hit upon a winning formula which has led to the programme remaining consistently popular (though maybe not consistently funny) for well over a decade. More importantly for TV producers, it represented good value for money – all that was needed was a desk and some funny panellists, and that would serve you for a long time. More success came from They Think It’s All Over and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which applied the formula to sport and pop music respectively, as well as adding some innovations of their own.

However this cost-effectiveness also meant that for a while, any company that had a slot to fill looked towards the panel game as something to do. BBC1′s The Best Show in the World … Probably was so derivative of the programmes that had gone before that the viewer could almost see the “Property: Angus Deayton” tags on the items. Based around advertising, all the familiar aspects were there – a smug host in a suit (Tony Hawks), two veterans of the stand-up circuit as team captains (Fred Macauley, Alan Davies) and fellow comedians (Dominic Holland et al) as panellists. The quiz incorporated a missing words rounds (as seen on HIGNFY), an electronic pencil round (TTIAO) and a what happens next round (every panel game ever). Added to the mix was a smattering of “funny” adverts from the past and abroad (Carrott’s Commercial Breakdown). Six weeks of sleepwalking from the participants ensued. And according to the credits, it took three people to devise!

Other members of this category include Channel 5′s Food Fight (1998 – basically Have I Got Food For You), the same channel’s Tibs and Fibs (1997 – Have I Got Medicine For You), BBC1′s Bob Mills-fronted Not a Lot of People Know That (1998 – Have I Got “1001 Amazing Facts for Kids”-Style Questions For You) and Channel 4′s Space Cadets (1997 – Have I Got Jokes about Klingons For You) which attempted to mine humour from rotten old bits of science fiction, booking cast members from Babylon Five and Star Trek in an attempt to give it a bit of credibility while also hiring Craig Charles to make knob jokes.

Other unimpressive mixes of formats include BBC1′s Party of a Lifetime (1998), which attempted to be the ultimate in makeover shows by taking elements of every single one. Your Kids Are In Charge (2000) was simply junior Friends Like These in all but name, while Steve Wright’s People Show (1994 – 95) nicked bits from every music, chat and variety show going. And as for Last Chance Lottery (1997) – Don’t Forget Your Lottery Ticket, more like.

A further example can be seen with BBC Manchester’s seemingly endless attempts to spin off from A Question of Sport. Interestingly, as far back as 1972 Richard Baker could be seen on BBC1 presenting A Question of News, and then in 1988 Tom O’Connor fronted A Question of Entertainment, which was then reformatted as That’s Showbusiness and proved vaguely successful. The most recent spin-offs changed nothing but the arrangement of the theme tune and the fourth word – A Question of Pop (2000 – 01) was quite good fun, but A Question of EastEnders (2000) and, especially, A Question of TV (2001) certainly weren’t.

Also worth noting is the TFI/Word-style Friday evening shows, the most famous of which is probably The Girlie Show (1996 – 97) but the worst was undoubtedly Frontal (2000) which bizarrely seemed to be recreating the notorious Club X. The most recent set of bastard offspring are those which attempt to move on from all-or-nothing quiz shows. The Syndicate (2000) tried to bring an element of tactics and menace to the programme, but was very obviously just Masterteam all over again. Meanwhile The People Versus (2000 – 01) and Shafted (2001) were desperate attempts by ITV to prove that lightning could strike twice, but both drifted into obscurity and mysterious disappearances.

2. “You don’t look like ‘em, George!”

Definition: Industry beanos best left untelevised

Key example: The Perrier Awards (2001)

No, we’re not including that famous Brit Awards show from 1989, as not only does this fall outside our timeframe, but also managed to be so inept and disorganised that it became truly captivating television. What we’re concerned about are the award ceremonies that are either so smug and insular that the viewer is purple with rage at the lack of respect for those watching at home, or those so unatmospheric and frosty that the viewers squirm with embarrassment on the host’s behalf.

Channel 4′s live coverage of the presentation of the 2001 Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival falls squarely in the first category. The festival is legendary for its tales of debauchery and drunkenness, so one could suspect that they were asking for trouble by broadcasting live at midnight on a Saturday. The next mistake was with the choice of presenters – Iain Lee and Jenny Eclair were a hopeless pairing, especially as Lee’s shtick is “everything’s shit” and Jenny Eclair’s is “everything’s brilliant”; leading to a double act so frosty and unresponsive that they may as well have been on opposite sides of the planet. Unsurprisingly, given both the time and the fact everyone hates Iain Lee, the production team were struggling for guests, so Ricky Gervais was interviewed twice, once by Eclair and once by Lee. The second of these encounters was a hopeless attempt at banter by two people without an ounce of charm between them. The other guest was Richard Herring who was interviewed while roaring drunk. Then, when Garth Merengi won the award, he delivered his speech entirely in character, leading the viewer to think that if he wasn’t that bothered about winning, why should we be?

Other industry junkets include the Indie Awards, the ceremony honouring the best independently-produced programmes on television. The 1995 event was televised on Pebble Mill, but seemingly nobody told the presenters Jeremy Clarkson and Sarah Greene who delivered a script consisting almost entirely of impenetrable in-jokes about Denise O’Donoghue. Meanwhile in the latter category, we must mention 2001′s BAFTA Television Awards, with Angus Deayton putting in an inept performance as MC, stumbling over his script and relying on his autocue so much he may not have been able to say as much as “hello” if it had broken (he’d previously given us a sneak preview of this performance when he died on his arse in 2000′s BBC2 Awards). The whole ceremony was rotten, though, with ham-fisted editing – at one point Angus was rewound on air – and extremely inappropriate applause during the obituary sequence with various drunken industry people applauding their “favourites”. Perhaps Angus was simply paying tribute to Lenny Henry, who’d died on his arse while fronting the same ceremony in 1997.

3. “Hope you like our new direction!”

Definition: Change is not always for the better

Key example: Telly Addicts (1998)

There’s always the problem in television when a previously popular show starts showing its age and the viewing figures gently decline. In some cases, a little tinkering is all that’s needed, but on other occasions a radical overhaul is decided upon. Sometimes this works, but sometimes, it’s a bit like Telly Addicts. Noel Edmonds’ TV quiz had been running for 13 years and was mostly amiable entertainment, with two teams of workmates or family members sitting on sofas and answering gentle posers on archive telly. However Edmonds seemed to think that this “quiz league”-style format wasn’t quite dynamic enough for the go-ahead digital age, and thus the 1998 series was completely different in all but name.

The sofas, jumpers and hoofer-doofer of the previous series were all thrown away, and replaced by various cheap-looking chrome sets with contestants awkwardly perched on stools. Rather than a straight Q & A format, various games were included, and each one was on its own stage, thus leading to some patented Noel Edmonds pointless running about. Many of the games had only the most tenuous connection to television. Each week’s winners won a holiday, and there was no final or sense of progression, thus turning the whole thing into just another cheap quiz show, albeit one where the questions were about telly. Unsurprisingly, after one series of this, the programme ended for good.

The Big Breakfast‘s various relaunches also come under this category, the most notorious being that in 1996 where the hopeless Sharron Davies and Rick Adams were recruited, and the programme attempted to aim for the “family audience” – forgetting that GMTV on the other side was doing exactly the same thing. With programmes like this, a change of onscreen personnel can often have a huge effect – when Paul Tonkinson et al replaced Johnny and Denise in 2001, it only helped to emphasise how flimsy the whole concept was without some strong presenters. Of course every Big Breakfast relaunch was normally followed a few months later by the return to the chair-in-front-of-the-French-windows set, along with “Snap, Cackle and Pop”, “Down Your Doorstep”, et al.

Similarly Emma Ledden and Steve Wilson had a lot to live up to when they took over Live & Kicking in 1999, while a more radical relaunch a year later lost everything that was any good about the show. Meanwhile Top of the Pops‘ 2001 revamp is notable for including a new Liquid News segment which lasted a whole one programme.

4. “Please make it stop!”

Definition: Why mess with a “winning” format?

Key example: Masterchef (1990 – present)

The opposite category to that detailed above is when programmes singularly fail to bring in any new ideas at all and simply stick to the same template week in, week out. Masterchef (“The Grand Prix for British Chefs”) is a perfect example of a programme getting stuck in a rut and each episode being indistinguishable from the last. After a decade of precisely no new innovations, the viewer could probably have been expected to recite Loyd Grossman’s script along with him, and a new episode could easily have been replaced by a repeat with few people noticing. Even so, when a new look was decided upon in 2001, with a change in format, presenter and slot, Grossman claimed he couldn’t see why any change was needed – despite the fact you could easily predict what would happen in each show, even down to which camera angle was coming next.

Masterchef‘s inability to change was not helped by its slot on Sunday afternoon, a televisual wasteland where a programme can run for several years with very few people noticing. Said slot was also the home for Channel 5′s Exclusive (1997 – present) for most of its run – part of C5′s bizarre idea not to axe any programme, regardless of how badly it was doing, and instead simply leave it to die slowly out of the way. See also The Jack Docherty Show (1997 – 99).

Meanwhile seemingly realising that the Telly Addicts revamp was a disaster, Noel decided to do virtually nothing to change Noel’s House Party (1991 – 99). An innovative, hugely professional show when it began, the later series were an absolute mess, with the same piss-poor ideas being flogged for all they were worth. NTV is a good example of the programme’s inability to keep viewers’ interest – at the start, this simple format (unsuspecting viewer suddenly finds themselves on television) made for amusing and memorable television. However later the programme came up with more and more complex set-ups to trick the victim, in many cases simply showing off how impressive their technology was and leaving the hapless viewer in virtually a walk-on role. In the last few series, despite constant assurances from Edmonds, the show never solved its myriad problems.

Many Saturday night shows have the same problems. How many series of Blind Date (1985 – present) have started with the promise that the programme will be “more romantic”, and how many have then followed exactly the same format as the umpteen previous runs? Have I Got News For You (1990 – present), meanwhile, has now lasted 12 years with almost no change to the set, the titles, the theme tune, the personnel and Angus Deayton’s script. Other Friday night “favourites” that could be included here are the ultra-complacent TFI Friday (1996 – 2000) and Later with Jools Holland (1992 – present) – the jam-along-with-Jools opening wasn’t the slightest bit interesting or entertaining the first time round, never mind the two hundredth.

Also worth noting are those sitcoms that return after a long break to see if they remain relevant for a new generation. The performance of Grace and Favour (1992 – 93), Agony Again (1995), The Liver Birds (1996) and The Legacy of Reginald Perrin (1996) suggest that it would be easier to show a repeat. Sometimes programmes stagger on for such a while it’s amazing to recall exactly how long they went on for. Were Smith and Jones really still doing sketch shows in 1998? And can you remember anything amusing they did in the last few years?

A special mention must go to the Commercial Breakdown series (1989 – present) which takes the idea of a format to such lengths that each series contains mostly the same adverts. The presenters have changed – Jasper Carrott, Patrick Kielty, Rory McGrath, Jo Brand, Ruby Wax – but the clips haven’t. “When you ask for Durex in Australia, you get a popular brand of sticky tape …”

5. Right presenter, wrong show

Definition: TV companies try desperately to find formats for contracted celebs

Key example: The Gaby Roslin Show (1996)

When a broadcaster finds a popular presenter, it’s only right to assume that they’ll try and find more and more for them to do. Gaby Roslin was a much-loved figure at the helm of The Big Breakfast, and her stints on The Real Holiday Show and Survival emphasised her appeal. When she left Lock Keepers Cottages in 1996, C4 were keen to keep hold of her, and gave her a high-profile chat show to run on peak time Saturday nights. A popular presenter joined by some big names and using her charm to get them to open up would surely make for fascinating and compelling television. Indeed, the programme was fascinating – as an example of a presenter completely out of her depth.

The first major problem was the fact that it was on post-watershed on a channel best known for challenging programmes. As someone who made a career out of being wholesome and unthreatening, she didn’t have the gravitas that was needed. Gaby was great at dealing with kids and the bewildered, but not great with the very famous and she often seemed completely overwhelmed by her guests. You simply couldn’t watch because you knew that if a guest came on drunk, or started libelling someone else, Gaby simply wouldn’t be able to cope. Not for nothing did one reviewer call it “The saddest sight of the week”.

The show also had trouble booking guests – Gaby had built up a reputation for putting members of the public at ease, but here she had to talk to either C-list American actors (Laura Dern) or cheap comedians (Lee Hurst). An interview in the final programme seemed to sum up the series, when Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey were guesting. Each guest was introduced via a montage of clips, and Clunes and Morrissey’s entrance was backed by Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back in Town. When they walked onto the set, Gaby’s opening gambit was “The boys are back in town!”, to which Clunes simply replied “Yes”, and Gaby then said “It’s Saturday night!”, and Clunes said “Yes it is, well spotted”. This non-interview carried on for a while until Martin Clunes said “erection” and Gaby was unable to continue for quite some time. After this series, Gaby moved over to the BBC and the less pressurised world of Children in Need and Whatever You Want.

More recently, ‘Orrible (2001) began Johnny Vaughan’s BBC career, and very nearly ended it as well. Other stars have been saddled with long-term deals with broadcasters and end up fronting any old rubbish – note the ITV career of poor old Phillip Schofield, where among his jobs were talking to psychics on Predictions (1997), linking dusty old comedy clips on Schofield’s TV Gold (1993 – 98) and even introducing “21st century snooker” in Tenball (1995). Watch out for Ant and Dec possibly filling this role in the future, if Slap Bang (2001) – basically SM:TV in the evening and in front of an audience – is anything to go by.

6. Wrong presenter, right show

Definition: It could have been great, but then they hired…

Key example: Pets Win Prizes (1995 – 96)

As mentioned above, sometimes a presenter can really make a show – would The Big Breakfast really have been the success it was if Paul Ross or Mark Little sitting where Chris Evans was on day one? However, sometimes a decent format can be scuppered by an ill-judged choice of host or botched execution.

Some may argue whether Pets Win Prizes was a “decent format”, but the original series in 1994 was certainly the oddest programme seen on Saturday night television for some years. In many ways it was the perfect vehicle for Danny Baker and his love of the obscure, and the production seemed to know it was, essentially, ridiculous. Few who saw it could forget the Shire Horses Pulling Pints of Beer game, especially Danny’s commentary which basically consisted of him saying “It’s shire horses pulling pints of beer!” over and over again.

Unfortunately when Danny left before the second series (apparently because he refused to go “aawww” at the animals), his replacement was Dale Winton who can be a competent and professional presenter. However, he began to take the programme seriously, and without Danny’s sense of the ridiculous, it soon became obvious that we were just watching rubbish. The production didn’t help, with “celebrity” guests being dragged on for various pointless reasons (Garry Bushell umpiring a dog tennis match) and the between-rounds fillers moving from archive footage of circus animals to viewers’ home videos of their pets doing cute and cuddly things. Presumably the BBC had noticed the weirdness of the first run and decided it was too confusing for a Saturday teatime. But for a while there we thought we’d won.

When Dale got the job on Pets Win Prizes some speculated it was a consolation prize for his failure to win the race for the next Generation Game host. After Brucie’s departure in 1994 there was a lot of speculation over his replacement – Julian Clary was mentioned (by people who remembered Larry Grayson, no doubt), while it was also thought this could be the incentive for Michael Barrymore to finally leave ITV. Or maybe the new Radio 1 breakfast DJ Chris Evans could bring a new approach to the format? In the end, Jim Davidson was appointed as presenter, and while he fronted the show for seven years, the viewing figures steadily declined and all the affection and respect that the Gen Game had amassed quickly dissipated, because he never shook off the image as the sexist, aggressive comedian.

In other examples, Sharron Davies must rank as the very worst of the many useless Big Breakfast presenters – her role on the programme effectively consisting of sitting in a chair and reading out a list of what was coming up later. Meanwhile it may be surprising to suggest that Richard Littlejohn was ever “much-missed”, but when fronting Channel 4′s Wanted (1996 – 97) he was, by all accounts, a good host of this often confusing format. His replacement was former MTV presenter Ray Cokes – once ubiquitous in “next big thing” lists – who proved to be an almost unmitigated disaster, managing to be both out of his depth and hugely smug.

Some programmes can be scuppered by bad choices of presenters right at the start. ITV’s action game show Scavengers (1994 – 95), for example, could have been an exciting and entertaining series (well, you never know) but as nobody could believe in John Leslie – then almost straight out of Blue Peter – as a hard-edged macho space commander, it was doomed to failure. However it does deserve a mention for its hastily-commissioned second series, which in some regions went out in that hallowed slot of 9.25am on Monday mornings. It could be said that the same thing happened with Mark Austin and, yes, John Leslie again on Survivor (2001).

Families at War (1998 – 99), on the other hand, was a witty and imaginative attempt to do something new on Saturday evening which didn’t come off. Its creators Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer told the BBC that they didn’t want to present it themselves, and instead a more established figure should have been in charge. The BBC said that without them, they wouldn’t do it, and so it turned out that the duo were plunged straight into Saturday teatime BBC1. The mass audience decided that they didn’t want to see them at that time, they wanted Cilla Black, and the series duly flopped – not helped by the BBC’s ludicrous scheduling of the programme at 5.45pm.

7. Yes, Chris!

Definition: Keeping stars sweet with their self-indulfent pet projects

Key example: Tee Time (1998)

In these days of “golden handcuffs” deals and stars owning their own production companies, the “talent” has more control over what they do than ever before. Sometimes this could be a good thing – an actor or presenter believes in the stuff that they’re doing. However, sometimes it can be nothing short of a disaster – stars suggest that as well as doing a new series of their popular programme, they could also do a show about the subject they’re really interested in.

Thus it was in 1998 that Chris Evans didn’t just present two series of TFI Friday, but also a travelogue series where he visited golf courses around the world and, er, played golf in them. Before the series began Evans said that he’d been playing the game for years and that he truly believed that it was a sport that everyone could play. However Tee Time had two major failings – people who liked Chris Evans didn’t like golf and people who liked golf didn’t like Chris Evans. Also fitting in this category is Prince Edward’s attempt to get us all playing Real Tennis (1995).

In some cases when a writer or production team have a hit on their hands it’s often the case that they get the opportunity to decide upon the direction of their next series. That’s why the extremely popular Howard’s Way was followed by Trainer (1991 – 92) and, it could be argued, Father Ted begat Hippies (1999). However one of the best (i.e., worst) has to be Ice Warriors (1998), which was basically sold as Gladiators-on-ice. Here the programme’s problem was basically that you can’t do much on ice other than simply skate along it really fast. To add to this, of course, was the ludicrous and po-faced “fantasy” setting, which nobody took very seriously at all. Another Gladiators-style show, Grudge Match (1999 – 2000), came over as a bizarre mix of Gladiators-style stunts and Beadle’s About-style practical jokes, and impressed nobody at all.

Indeed another “Give us more!” disaster came with International Gladiators in 1996, only this time thanks to situations beyond its control. Gladiators was a huge hit in the mid ’90s, and the first series of the international spin-off in 1995 was also a big success. However the second run saw all the British contestants go out at the first hurdle, and the general public weren’t interested in seeing foreign contestants do battle with foreign Gladiators – a swift rescheduling to the afternoon was the result.

8. Are we having fun yet?

Definition: Never forget those watching at home

Key example: Red Alert (1999 – 2000)

Of all the TV flops in the last decade, few were quite as inept as Red Alert, a textbook example in how not to make a television programme. It started in November 1999 amid huge optimism, and an impressive pedigree. Ginger Television had produced perhaps the only credible Saturday night programme of the 1990s, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, and it was hoped that their credibility could be married with the BBC’s experience to create a ratings juggernaut, ready to flatten Blind Date once and for all. The basic idea was that four streets battled it out and the winners would all go away on a huge holiday.

There were, however, thousands of problems, many of which were caused by the fact the programme was broadcast live and the two presenters – Lulu and Terry Alderton – were inexperienced and fairly unlikeable. It was also hugely disorganised and chaotic, with musical acts and special guests just turning up, and various games either being poorly explained or too complicated for the setting. One game, which saw a camera placed in a street and households invited to come out and win prizes (nicked straight from Toothbrush) only appeared in one show before being dropped. The final round was normally bungled thanks to Lulu’s ineptitude and the fact the set was far too large, and as each “team” had about a hundred people in it, it was almost impossible to care who won.

Perhaps the best example of the show’s weakness was the decision to replace Alan Dedicoat with darts commentator Sid Waddell. This meant that during the lottery draw, the numbers were greeted with Sid going “21! That’s seven double seven!” which was utterly pointless and confusing. Unsurprisingly Sid was dropped after show one, and he suggested this was because they didn’t like his accent – when he’d been fired purely because he was useless. Deadly was back behind the mike soon after.

After six awful programmes, this could have been it, but Ginger’s contract with the BBC meant that it returned a month or so later for another run. Here the show was completely revamped, with Lulu now responsible for introducing the musical acts and Terry Alderton looking after the games. However the whole show was even more pointless than before – bands appeared and performed their new singles, much like they’d done on every other show that week, and Lulu sung a song twice in every programme, simply because she was The Famous Singer Lulu and that’s what she had to do. Meanwhile the quiz (now between two streets, and with three “representatives” doing the bulk of the work, but still impossible to care about the winners) was hugely dreary, with a Screen Test-style “watch this film carefully” observation round and, ridiculously, an arm wrestling round. Where two people arm-wrestled. And that was it.

Perhaps the most irksome thing about Red Alert was that the audience seemed to be having a brilliant time, but at home we felt completely ignored. This reason is also why Top of the Pops‘ Star Bar is such a bad idea – what do we gain from seeing various liggers sitting around drinking beer? It also fails because it’s an actual working bar with no microphones, and presenters and guests (including people like Britney Spears) being drowned out by incessant chatter. The first few episodes of The Saturday Show, meanwhile, had many flaws, of which the greatest was that all the “games” involved members of the audience and there was no way the viewer could join in.

9. Playing to your strengths

Definition: TV channels attempt to do something the other side does better

Key example: Your Best Shot (1993)

Yes, John Birt’s tenure as Director General of the BBC was in no way a brilliant success. However, it wasn’t a complete failure as one of his early triumphs was the almost complete removal of cod-ITV cheapo light entertainment from BBC1′s schedules. During the 1980s, the Beeb’s game shows and variety programmes were fairly awful – normally cheap and nasty formats with cheap and nasty prizes to be won (folding bikes, bunches of flowers). ITV’s variety output almost always had a bigger budget, leading to more impressive sets and better prizes. The BBC never really overcame the impression that variety was one of its least favourite departments, and the programmes weren’t worth spending much time and money on.

As we entered the 1990s, BBC1 still featured the likes of Little and Large, Takeover Bid, Every Second Counts and the rest – most in a particularly unfashionable and outdated style. Some of the programmes made during this period rank among the very worst examples of the genre. Your Best Shot was a major flop, being watched by virtually nobody in its Friday night slot, and disappearing after just five weeks.

It was unfortunate that it turned out to be Marti Caine’s final series, as she didn’t deserve such a sprawling, unoriginal mess to go out on. Each 50 minute instalment contained a number of items, all poorly thought-out and dreary. A celebrity swapped places with a member of the public, two people who shared the same job challenged each other (two bill posters attempting to stick up a hoarding the quickest, for example) with breathless updates from Frances Dodge, and members of the public were brought up on stage to take part in various pointless quizzes, offering prizes of – wooh! – book tokens. This was light entertainment in the pre-Toothbrush era.

Around the same time, Chris Tarrant’s The Main Event (1993) was a BBC1 game show where families sitting at home were paired with “celebrity” guests (sample guest – Gordon Honeycombe) sitting in the studio. A fairly novel twist on the usual format, perhaps, but the games they played were everything but novel, with every round ripped off another game show – including a charades round. This one only lasted one series, which was more than the following year’s Hit the Road. Hit the Road span off a Gotcha scenario on Noel’s House Party where celebrities were tricked into participating in a “treasure hunt”-style game show. This time the format was spun off into a real programme, but it did nothing that the childrens’ series Go Getters didn’t do better and with rather more intelligence. At least one episode of this programme was never transmitted.

Perhaps the BBC’s oddest decision in the 1990s was the hiring of Bobby Davro. Mr Nankeville was used, firstly, in Public Enemy Number One (1992), a cheap Saturday night series where celebrities (Tony Blackburn, Peter Stringfellow) were invited to predict the outcome of sub-Beadle stunts or risk a forfeit. Davro’s second BBC venture was an adaptation of his stage show Rock with Laughter (1993), a variety show of the most cliched and archaic kind, with guests such as The Grumbleweeds participating in unfunny musical parodies. This programme was postponed on at least two occasions, finally being screened a year after it was recorded – and after the variety department had closed down.

However it wasn’t quite the end of this style of programming. The BBC’s second oddest decision in the 1990s was probably the hiring of Hale and Pace. Their first BBC gig was Jobs for the Boys (1997 – 99), which was vaguely engaging, but crucially involved Hale and Pace not being comedians, which is what they were there for. They left ITV to do some pre-watershed, family-based entertainment, but then came the excrutiatingly-titled h&p@bbc (1999), a miscellany of bizarre items.

Features included Celebrity Quiz, where celebrities were quizzed (hence the name) throughout the show, and points were given, but no winner was ever announced. Various filmed segments saw the duo simply meander around various towns in an attempt to create humour from “ordinary people” while members of the audience were dragged up on stage to participate in pointless games. The programme was so badly edited Gareth and Norman didn’t say “hello” at the start or “goodbye” at the end, and the odd 40 minute length led many to suspect that this was intended to be somewhat longer but the editors couldn’t find enough transmittable material. Despite the “family” format, it first went out at 9.30pm, but drifted further back in the schedules until the final programme went out at 11.50pm. Hale and Pace haven’t made another series for the BBC since.

It’s not just light entertainment where the BBC suffers in comparison to ITV. During the mid ’90s, the Corporation attempted to match the commercial channel’s stable of popular drama, but failed – thanks to such by-the-numbers stuff as Dangerfield, Backup and, most notably, The Vet (1995 – 96). This was memorably described by one Radio Times correspondent as “PeakVetBeat”.

10. Hype!

Definition: You can’t make us watch what we don’t like

Key example: A Year in Provence (1993)

Sometimes a programme can be perfectly watchable in its own right, but the publicity that surrounds it almost repels the viewer and builds it up for a spectacular fall. The Premiership (2001 – present) for example, was not a great programme by any means, but scheduling it slap bang in peak viewing time and heralding it as the most exciting programming decision for years meant that it had to get the mix right straight away, and it clearly didn’t.

But A Year in Provence tops it because this was hyped-up by all as the biggest drama of 1993. Indeed, it looked like it couldn’t fail, as it was based on a top-selling book and starred John Thaw, one of the nation’s favourite actors. So the Radio Times felt secure in the knowledge that their readers would lap up their three supplements on where to go and what to do in Provence. However by the time we’d reached week three the programme had become a national laughing stock. Presumably the mix was all wrong, neither working as comedy nor drama, but just a serious of vaguely humorous vignettes. Ironically the programme was running at the same time as Eldorado. Rhodes (1996) and Seaforth (1994) also collapsed under the pressure of the whole of the BBC saying “this can’t fail!”.

Another programme that fell foul of an over-enthusiastic publicity machine was BBC1′s sitcom Chalk (1997). Some people thought this series was funny, others didn’t, but the BBC didn’t help by trailing it as the best comedy show since Fawlty Towers, almost encouraging reviewers to take pot-shots at it. Worse still, the Corporation foolishly commissioned a second series before the first had even gone out – they were so sure it would be a huge hit. This turned up within six months – but now moved from the 9.30pm slot to a much later placing. If it hadn’t been so overexposed and talked up, it may have been able to succeed; it could have got over its teething troubles, and been “discovered” by a smaller but more loyal audience, but unfortunately everyone saw it on day one and most didn’t like it.

This commissioning procedure happened a lot in the late ’90s, and for a time almost guaranteed an embarrassing flop – note also A Prince Among Men (1997 – 98), starring Chris Barrie as an egotistical footballer-turned-businessman. Unlike Chalk, virtually everyone disliked this show (it hardly sounded like a winning format) but this too was committed to another run, which again arrived within about six months of the first series. This did so badly the final episodes went out on Sunday afternoons. In fact this run originally went out opposite ITV’s Holding the Baby (1997 – 98), which in this case appeared to have been recommissioned because it was the nearest thing to a hit comedy ITV had seen in years. It only boosted the other channels though, as this too bombed and was dropped. It resurfaced three months later in a slot opposite EastEnders, a slot which was then taken over by the second series of Loved By You (1997 – 98), which had suffered exactly the same fate.

Special Sub-Section: I Have Been In A Cave, With My Eyes Closed And My Fingers In My Ears

Sometimes the publicity for a series is not necessarily excessive, but just stupid. If a series of trailers gives away every single aspect of the series the viewer can feel like they’ve seen the whole thing before it even appears. Eldorado (1992 – 93) had thousands of problems, but one of the most crucial could have been the fact that the first episode revolved almost entirely around Bunny’s return from London with his new wife Fizz. The idea here, obviously, was that we’d be desperate to see what they were like, but unfortunately Fizz was on the cover of that week’s Radio Times, and Bunny had been included in all the publicity, so everyone in the world knew what was going to happen.

Other programmes made more subtle, but still elementary, mistakes. The first episode of Kiss Me Kate (1998) is a case in point, as the main plot involved the departure of Amanda Holden’s character and her replacement by a harridan. Unfortunately, Holden had appeared in the title sequence and all the publicity for the programme, thus suggesting that she would probably return. A similar misjudgement came in the opening episode of BBC1′s Pilgrims Rest (1997) which revolved entirely around whether Gwen Taylor – the major star of the series – would stay to run Pilgrims Rest, a restaurant that would otherwise have gone out of business. You may like to ponder what would have happened in the remaining five episodes if she’d said “no”.