Shiny Shelf

State of Teleplay: BBC1 and BBC2

By Eddie Robson on 28 December 2005

This year, BBC1 is able to rest easy in the knowledge that it has played host to the TV success of the year in the form of ‘Doctor Who’. It’s amazing now to think that reviews of the first episode were mixed: as soon as it became clear that the audience was responding very warmly to the show’s return, it was more or less plaudits all the way, and these have continued to the better-than-Corrie ratings performance of the Christmas special. I almost fear that it’s too much too soon, that people will tire of the saturation, but as unabashed fans of the programme we at the Shelf are enjoying it while it lasts.

But, although BBC1 is generally improving at the moment, ‘Doctor Who’ has helped cover for a number of other problems in prime-time drama. ‘EastEnders’ has promised to pull itself out of the pit of sub-Guy Ritchie gibberish that it has sunk into, but this has not yet materialised; ‘Casualty @ Holby City’ forsook any sense of dramatic integrity in favour of the gimmick of letting the viewers vote on who lived and who died. It must be said that ‘Casualty’ still scored higher ratings than ‘Doctor Who’ pretty much every week, so there’s no case to be made for bringing it to an end, but BBC1 should be working on new approaches to its prime-time drama.

In fact, there needs to be a new approach to prime-time generally, which for the past decade or so has been too trend-led: first we had a flood of docu-soaps, then it was all home improvement, now there are loads of diet and childcare things. The ideal show in this sense is ‘Honey We’re Killing The Kids’, which is about children who have poor diets and uses as its centrepiece some neat morphing which projects what the kids will look like if their diets don’t improve. Neat as it is, it doesn’t add an ounce of credibility to the programme, and instead shamelessly manipulates the parents’ reactions by not only showing their kids as fat adults, but also showing the kids as fat adults with terrible hair, appalling clothes and gormless expressions. It’s notable that when the show’s ‘experts’ project the ‘good’ future at the end of the show, the kids are much more stylish.

This sort of ‘bandwagon’ TV, where several shows try to copy a cheap success by adding their own gimmick (or not), is probably inevitable and an easy way for channels to chase ratings. However, as the BBC has sensibly been talking about surrendering the losing battle for ratings and starting to justify its existence in terms of ‘reach’ (that’s what percentage of the audience watch something on your channel in a week), there’s no need for it to offer multiple versions of the same format.

BBC1’s comedy commissions have been generally uninspiring as ever, with rubbish like ‘Blessed’ and ‘Carrie and Barry’ leading to the desperate move of giving Boycie out of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ his own show. BBC1 can at least hold up ‘Love Soup’, which was far from perfect and will have had many viewers hurling their remotes at the screen with its rather self-consciously bleak conclusion, but was a brave commission which offered plenty of good moments.

It’s the sort of thing you used to expect to see on BBC2, and they could arguably do with it right now. With an increasing number of viewers seeing stuff first on BBC3, many of the shows that are exclusive to BBC2 are rather middle-of-the-road (although there have been a number of exceptions, such as ‘Help’, ‘Look Around You’ and ‘Extras’). In fact, BBC2 is generally rather middle-of-the-road these days: the spectre of Jane Root’s time as controller still hangs over it, and although Root undoubtedly put the channel back in the ratings and introduced some successful big events into the programming, under her stewardship BBC2 got a bit dull. And it’s still a bit dull.

The loss of ‘The Simpsons’ to Channel 4 was a blow, particularly since the programme had been employed to fill the 6pm slot every weeknight in the absence of any decent ideas. 6pm to 7:30pm used to be a vital part of BBC2’s identity, the space where it aired youth-orientated programming and cult TV with a niche but loyal audience. It worked really well. Following the disaster of the ‘Ask the Family’ revival, it’s filled with quiz shows and now just seems like an extension of daytime.

You’d hardly call it an emergency, but there’s a mild crisis at BBC2 these days. As the BBC’s ‘other’ channel it used to be the Corporation’s home of esoterica, but now there are other other channels. BBC3 is taking over its role as a producer of risk-taking comedy, whilst BBC4 deals with the cerebral stuff. As a consequence BBC2 is becoming rather like a version of BBC1 with a slightly higher common denominator (the arts programmes I’ve seen on BBC2 this year have been no more in-depth than BBC1’s although that said I didn’t see ‘Soul Deep’ which I heard was very good indeed).

You may have noticed, and possibly even care, that I use numerals when referring to the BBC channels, rather than spelling them out as the BBC insist upon doing on all publicity material. This is because, even though the BBC changed them all to spelled-out a few years ago, I’m sure they’ll change them all back at some point and I’m going to be consistent about it even if they aren’t.

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By Eddie Robson

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