Time to rethink Saturday night entertainment
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