Top Ten TV Bastards

Saturday, April 20, 2002 by

Do you remember 2000? What a year it was – it was the year of the best nostalgia programmes of all time. I Love the Seventies was an entertaining, well-produced series. Better still, Channel 4′s Top Ten was one of the best programmes for years, by turns fascinating, informative, entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. Unfortunately the thing about nostalgia is that by its very nature it can’t go on forever, and after I Love… dwindled into smug irrelevance, now Top Ten is a shadow of the excellent show it once was.

Admittedly it was always going to be hard to work out where the series could go when it ran out of musical genres to cover, but a change in format to look at TV could have been the shot in the arm it needed. However, it’s had the opposite effect and has simply hastened the show’s decline. The major problem for me is that the episodes are mostly based around fictional characters – in loose categories such as Villains, Bitches and Losers. These characters are almost exclusively drawn from soaps, drama series and sitcoms, and as such means we very rarely get to see what made Top Ten great – the brilliantly chosen archive clips from other shows (like Tony Blackburn introducing The Wurzels on Top of the Pops (“Let’s have half a pint of that lovely scrumpy they call cider!”) or John Peel telling us that in years to come, we’ll be pretending we liked Napalm Death as well).

Instead, we simply see the characters in their original contexts, and this simply isn’t as interesting. Take number 10 in this episode – Jason Turner from Footballers Wives. We simply saw him in scenes from the series, but if you liked Footballers Wives you’ll have already seen the clips and if you didn’t like it (I didn’t) you won’t want to. These were interspersed with the actor who played Turner and various other people from the programme pointing out what he did, but we can see that by looking at the clips. In the music-based shows, a feature on – say – Smokie was entertaining even if you didn’t like Smokie, because the clips were so funny, the narration was so waspish and the whole nostalgic nature of the show meant they normally came up with something interesting. The music was, perhaps, of secondary importance. Here if you’re not interested in the featured programme, there’s nothing to make you stay tuned at all.

The idea of basing them around specific people also seems flawed – the list means nothing much at all. In the last series, there was some claim that it was voted on “by the viewing public”, but now there’s no such caveat – it seems they’re just allocated in a random order (if that’s the case, it’s not done very well, as the Footballers Wives sequence was followed by a feature on a character from Bad Girls, which is made by the same company and very similar). So being number one is basically meaningless. It also means that series are distilled into just one aspect – there was more to early EastEnders than just Dirty Den, he was just a part of it. When you talk about a TV programme, you don’t just talk about one character, you talk about the whole thing. There are also far, far too many EastEnders characters (more or less one a week), and as I don’t watch it, I find talking about that programme the most boring thing in the world.

It would surely have been more fitting for Top Tens to feature categories like the Top Ten Game Shows or the Top Ten Sitcoms. This would surely mean that there’s more opportunity to show the fascinating and funny archive footage that made this series so watchable in the first place, and would actually make more sense as a chart, whether it was based on viewing figures, or the length of time each programme ran. Simply by concentrating on characters we’re not told anything. Don’t just tell us Dirty Den was a bastard, tell us why he was a bastard, what he meant for the series, how he was developed, and so on. Otherwise we could make the show ourselves with a VHS of the programme in question and a loudmouth mate who used to watch it.

Perhaps the worst thing about the series is that it seems to have completely forgotten why we used to watch it. Of the Top Ten Bastards, seven of them have been on TV in the last five years, and we’ve seen them in action several hundred times. Throughout the whole of the TV run, it’s picked people that are in the public eye temporarily – here we had both Footballers Wives and Ricky Gervais’ character from the hugely overrated The Office, whereas in Bitches we saw Anne Robinson, and Big Brother‘s Nasty Nick turned up in the Villains chart. Quite simply we’ve heard enough of these people, and it makes this show look bad – rather than looking beyond the hype, as the music-based shows did, this is being taken in by it, jumping on to any old passing bandwagon. Where’s the smart, independent Top Ten we used to know? What’s this telling us that we can’t read in Heat magazine?

This series is inferior to previous runs in almost every aspect – previously the pundits were those who had a knowledge of the subject and were involved in them, or if not were there because they were simply damn funny (most notably Stuart Maconie, of course). Pundits in a nostalgia show are not necessarily a bad thing – someone like Maconie, or David Quantick, or Peter Kay, is always worth listening to because they’re always amusing, and are often more welcome than better qualified but deeply boring people.

However tonight we got Gina Yashere. Over and over again. It’s hard to see why Yashere gets hired for absolutely everything these days, she seems to have no discernible talent apart from always sounding hugely irritating with a foghorn voice. She had absolutely nothing worthwhile to say about any of the subjects tonight, and was no more qualified to talk about it than anyone off the street – they may at least have been amusing. She was supported by the smug and unlikeable Jackie Clune and the hopeless Stephen Merchant who came on to discuss The Office, which he co-wrote, but then hung around to give his twopenn’orth on everything, regardless of whether he had anything interesting to add (“Mister Bronson wore a wig?!” – oh, piss off).

Nostalgia television has had a terribly bad press recently, but I remain convinced that there’s a lot of mileage left in it. The year-based Top Ten shows made 18 months ago were truly brilliant and I’d have been happy if they’d simply produced a show on every year of the last few decades – there’s enough funny and interesting things to talk about. However this run is lazy, ill-conceived and badly produced, and it’s a real shame because a while ago, Top Ten was the best programme on telly. Bastards.


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