The 100 Greatest TV Characters

Sunday, May 6, 2001 by

As a purveyor of fine TV criticism I felt duty bound to lend my watching support to Channel 4′s latest Bank Holiday compartmentalisation of popular culture.

I think, beforehand, most of us had concluded that we were becoming heartily sick of these numerical clipaganzas. The decision to have Ardal O’Hanlon as our party host only served to add to the impending nausea. I know more about these people than he does, they are my friends, so why does he insist on butting his oar in just as the conversation looks as if it ‘s about to develop into something interesting? For God’s sake, they could have appeased us all very easily by handing the presentational duties to someone we actually like. What’s wrong with Johnny Ball, or Derek Griffiths? Or even Fred Dineage, or Richard Whiteley? Joe Public wouldn’t have minded, and it would have been the perfect sop to us.

Casting aside in built prejudices is – in truth – not that difficult to do for a programme like this. Whilst we are still in the middle of the nostalgia storm, the opportunity to reflect upon some of the greatest TV moments is still – strangely enough – appetising, and even though the accepted format of vox populi and light-hearted link man is now very tiresome, I found myself still a sucker for a glimpse again at a bit of great TV. It all began a little quietly though. A brief early cheer for Brian Potter (how did he get in there?) was stifled as the realisation dawned that the programme seemed to have only just started and we were already at number 96. Four down, and nothing particularly meaningful had been communicated. Watching with a keen certainty that bloody Del Boy would top the charts (unless those pesky Doctor Who fans had been out block voting again) I found myself being dragged into a game of fictional character one up-manship. My greatest triumph occurred as Edge of Darkness‘s Darius Jedburgh came in a whole six places higher than Philip Marlowe from The Singing Detective. I’d always felt the latter programme had been overexposed and over praised. Here – however arbitrarily – (and boy this was arbitrary) a few TV scores could be settled.

Typically, this programme was to prove most enjoyable when dealing with programmes or characters you had a special affinity for. So for me, The 100 Greatest TV Characters was at its peak of watchability during those minutes in which the 91st, 84th, 58th, 37th, 28th, 7th and 6th most popular TV characters graced our screens. In particular, Bleasdale continued his recent – and welcomed – willingness to discuss some of his greatest works in an open and interesting way. Tellingly though, the intervening periods upon which we were subjected to celebrations ofBirds of a Feather‘s Dorien, Inspector Frost and Ab Fab‘s Patsy became a chore. In the past such programmes have worked best when they have forced you to grudgingly re-assess that which you have taken an irrational dislike to. Here, the necessarily celebrative hyperbole dished out for the likes of Hyacinth Bucket (six places higher than Yosser Hughes for goodness sake!) was irritating in the extreme. This was perfect fast forward TV. If you didn’t much care for the subject matter there was nothing here to make you wish to linger. Onwards to the next number. Furthermore, in many cases it seemed that Channel 4 had obtained only partial clearance for footage to accompany each character. Thus it was that eventual number one Homer Simpson was represented by footage taken from only one, early and rather misrepresentative episode. Blackadder fared little better with viewers never introduced to his first or fourth incarnations.

So what of the selection itself? Well this was an exercise in re-arranging names. Voters were invited to select their top 10 favourite characters from a predetermined list. Thus, there was no recourse for fans of The Phantom Flan Flinger or Alf from Home and Away. As such the selection, whilst trying to retain an element of diversity, trod faithfully down the path of accepted TV Greats. It was perhaps the familiarity of the cast list that ultimately prevented The 100 Greatest TV Characters from becoming a truly interesting programme. Nonetheless, there was some merit to this rather mainstream, straitjacketed approach: as much I love him, I suspect that given a free vote Darius Jedburgh would never have made the final cut, whereas the virulent Raquel Wolstenholme would have certainly been in there – just above Casualty‘s Charlie, no doubt.

Funnily enough Wolstenholme was on my short list for the five characters we most love to hate. In this we were afforded a blank palette upon which to work, but disappointingly the selections made were – in the main – rather predictable. My own criteria had been to select characters that had been badly realised within the context of the programme they appeared in (Raquel), or incorrectly assumed to be dear to our hearts by the programme makers (Raquel again). Admittedly this was to deliberately misunderstand the brief, but I for one am tired of the predictable invective afforded to the likes of Ian Beale and Ken Barlow. The selection of Phil Mitchell represented the only genuine expression of disbelief and disinterest in a supposedly popular character. I feel sure this was not a vote of confidence for his new tough persona, rather derision for the implausible character development of the elder Mitchell since brother Grant was tow-roped into the Thames.

Of course, the list of the Top 20, or Top 10 Greatest TV Characters found its way in to the middle pages of most of the papers, and in truth it is for easy column inches that this type of programme works best. The grist for the daily chatter mill, TV seems to be absorbing all of our most favourite pub conversations at the moment and turning them into programme formats. Whilst the subject matter is still appealing, the across-the-bar style adopted has become so unremittingly ubiquitous that one now feels inclined to go for the home brew option: abandon the mediated memories, stick your Fawlty Towers video in the machine and pundit the night away.


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