Time to re­think Sat­ur­day night en­ter­tain­ment

The Sunday Telegraph - - Arts -

There was a time when Sat­ur­day night TV was bathed in a golden light. Au­di­ences in their tens of mil­lions watched pro­grammes that dis­played va­ri­ety in both senses of the word. There were the shiny floor shows such as Op­por­tu­nity Knocks and The Gen­er­a­tion Game, knock­about fun which felt some­how in­clu­sive and oddly glam­orous; com­edy gold such as The Two Ron­nies and dra­mas such as The Duchess of Duke Street and The Onedin Line, soapy pe­riod sagas which un­furled over ca­pa­cious three-month runs. I don’t think this is nos­tal­gia (al­though it’s odd now to think that view­ers were hooked by The Onedin Line, which fol­lowed the for­tunes of a 19th cen­tury fam­ily of ship­ping mag­nates). The Sat­ur­day night TV line-up was skil­fully var­ied and pop­ulist with­out be­ing tacky.

But over the past 25 years, we have seen a di­min­ish­ing qual­ity in the over­all pack­age, and this has truly reached a nadir with the BBC’s cur­rent Sat­ur­day night of­fer­ing, which in­cludes the dire one-two of All To­gether Now, a screechy and achingly in­clu­sive sing­ing com­pe­ti­tion where the only fris­son of ex­cite­ment comes from the in­clu­sion of a for­mer Spice Girl, and dreary fu­tur­is­tic drama Hard Sun. How has this hap­pened? It has some­thing to do with frag­men­ta­tion of the fam­ily unit. The mar­ke­teers, for­ever mind­ful of view­ing trends, have tried to ex­ploit this so that pro­grammes are cre­ated to ap­peal to smaller and smaller sub­sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion, cre­at­ing niches and de­stroy­ing the orig­i­nal in­ten­tion of TV in the first place.

But there should be a way for Sat­ur­day night TV to thrive again: af­ter all, it is, still, for all our mod­ern view­ing habits, a night when we con­gre­gate. The con­tin­ued suc­cess of that rat­ings jug­ger­naut Strictly Come Danc­ing both bears that out and points to a way for­ward: a lot of its ini­tial suc­cess was due to the warmth and show­man­ship of the late orig­i­nal pre­sen­ter Bruce Forsyth, but Strictly has car­ried on thriv­ing be­yond his ten­ure thanks to a cer­tain home­spun charm which brasher be­he­moths such as The X Fac­tor lack.

Con­versely, most re­cent com­mis­sions in the light en­ter­tain­ment mould have failed to pass muster – par­tic­u­larly in the realm of the TV tal­ent con­test. The BBC has been es­pe­cially be­lea­guered here. They lost The Voice to ITV and have tried on sev­eral oc­ca­sions to find a suit­able re­place­ment – Pitch Bat­tle, Let it Shine and, now, All To­gether Now. But with ITV’s The X Fac­tor also on an ir­re­versible de­cline, the cor­po­ra­tion needs to try some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent, rather than at­tempt­ing vainly to re­cap­ture past glo­ries. As co­me­dian Mickey Flanagan said: “Too of­ten, I put on Sat­ur­day night TV and it’s al­ways some­one try­ing to sing their way out of the ghetto – ‘If I don’t get this, Nanna won’t get her new knees’.”

A suc­cess­ful va­ri­ety show hosted by a co­me­dian feels like the holy grail and has eluded the BBC for many years. They have tried to turn Michael McIn­tyre into a sort of Sat­ur­day night ev­ery­man, but his sta­dium star per­sona seems too big for the in­ti­macy that tele­vi­sion de­mands. Per­haps what we re­ally need is a main­stream sketch se­ries, akin to French and Saun­ders.

Sat­ur­day night drama has been even less suc­cess­ful. ITV have given up al­to­gether, while the BBC is strait­jack­eted by the year-round pres­ence of Ca­su­alty, an ab­so­lutely won­der­ful show in its day, but now in need of a mercy killing. In the past year, there has been a dis­tinctly odd de­ci­sion to sched­ule edgy hard-boiled weird­ness at prime time. Last year we had Taboo, Tom Hardy’s blokeish at­tempt to add gore and grit to the cos­tume drama, and cur­rently there is Hard Sun, a wretch­edly po-faced apoc­a­lyp­tic drama which makes you yearn for the End of Days. Some­one, some­where, prob­a­bly thinks that these shows are a ri­val to what peo­ple are watch­ing on Net­flix (now a Sat­ur­day night rit­ual for many who choose to stay in), but the re­al­ity is that no one is tun­ing in. The last episode of Hard Sun was watched by a mere 1.8mil­lion view­ers, which judg­ing by its glossi­ness and star cast­ing (Jim Sturgess, Ag­y­ness Deyn), does not rep­re­sent ter­ri­bly good value for money.

What the BBC needs is to shift such shows as Poldark and Call the Mid­wife from Sun­day to Sat­ur­day nights – or at least pro­vide new equiv­a­lents. These are ex­actly the sort of shows which were such shin­ing jew­els of the cor­po­ra­tion’s sched­ules in the Seven­ties and Eight­ies: cosy to a de­gree, but de­cep­tively am­bi­tious in scope and with a rous­ing moral mes­sage to take you nicely into Sun­day morn­ing.

I don’t want to turn back the clock: Bri­tain is an ever-chang­ing so­ci­ety and tele­vi­sion must, of course, re­flect that. But I don’t think that the things that en­ter­tain us in 2018 have changed so much (apart from ca­sual big­otry of course), and time­less en­ter­tain­ment is what we need at the week­end. I still raise a smile when I think of Mr Blobby squash­ing Noel Ed­monds. It’s slap­stick, cer­tainly, but pure po­etry when you com­pare it to Geri Horner sway­ing along to a ter­ri­ble cover of Guns N’ Roses. It’s time to go back to the draw­ing board.

A new nadir: Rob Beck­ett and Geri Horner, pre­sen­ters of All To­gether Now

The good old days: Bruce Forsyth and Anthea Red­fern on The Gen­er­a­tion Game

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