Thursday, 28 April 2011

Not So Much a Blog About 10 O’Clock Live, More a Blog About TW3

That was 10 O’Clock Live. It's over. They've let it go. A cast of largely well-liked, acceptably left-field stars tried its best to tackle that deadliest of formats, the weekly live topical comedy programme, but couldn't make it work. Predictably, the show was dogged at every turn of its perilous journey by the ghost of its monolithic, David Frost-fronted ancestor, That Was the Week that Was.

TW3 has been invoked at the birth of every major new topical satire on British television since Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life – which was, to be fair, a direct sequel to the original.* But anything vaguely topical, live and supposedly “edgy”, from The 11 O’Clock Show to OTT, has had TW3's sainted name invoked and been found wanting by comparison, increasingly by pundits too young to have seen TW3 in the first place.

10 O'Clock Live did, however, have more in common with its great-great-grandfather than most. Someone at Zeppotron must have looked at old copies of the show, with its audience of bright young things seated in the round and flaunted on camera at every opportunity, and copied the layout precisely. Similarly, the TW3 cast's frantic to-ing and fro-ing across the studio floor to hit their marks for a quickie sketch about Aldermaston has been resurrected, admittedly with tuition fees replacing the bomb, but retaining the panicky, breathless, prop-policeman's-helmet-slightly-askew mania of its progenitor. These two aspects, funnily enough, have been the targets of a large proportion of 10 O’Clock Live's opprobrium.

TW3 had good notices from the off. The Observer approved of its lack of “Corporation cosiness”. The Times was likewise pleasantly surprised by its “sulphurous wit, with no trace of snide self-satisfaction”, although other voices in the paper claimed it only stood out thanks to the blandness of TV entertainment in general. One Times pundit made a list of recommendations for improvement that Zeppotron producers might find familiar, including cutting the running time by a quarter of an hour, making better use of Millicent Martin, and recording it instead of broadcasting live. (It also recommended canning the audience, though for the opposite reason to 10 O'Clock Live: “as a rule it seldom moves a muscle”.) Broadsheet opinion waned as the series went on and pundits found affecting boredom with the team to be an exciting new critical stance, but press opinion (and the opinion of a significant number of MPs) was on TW3's side.

TW3's venerators are keen to give the impression the programme was wall-to-wall Bernard Levin high-minded righteousness, but it was just as much about Roy Kinnear with his flies undone, and sketches making liberal use of the words “bum” and “po”. TW3 was far from being an island of serious political inquiry in a sea of showbiz froth. Despite being technically a current affairs show, it had light ent. sensibilities running through it like a little stick of Blackpool rock. Channel 4 would have been crucified if they'd had the temerity to boost their offering by publishing a flimsy booklet packed with moody photos of the cast in a variety of ingratiating poses, with a few thousand words of tooth-rottingly bland promo copy threaded between them by the coolest typographers the budget will allow. But the Beeb did just that for TW3. “The producer is Mr Ned Sherrin, who was born in Dorset, where the cider apples grow.” Try that today, even on a website, and see how far you'd make it down Charlotte Street.

This is, in part, why watching what remains of the programmes today is such a strange, detached experience. Aside from trying to detect any remaining traces of the thrill of the Zeitgeist, as if the picture's being bounced back at us from some distant star, the modern viewer can only sagely note the issues raised and cheer the cast's can-do bravery, while recalling various members in their other, more retrospectively accessible roles. Many people are put off by the famous Millicent Martin opening numbers, which combine the last vestiges of a cabaret tradition too innocently fruity for many modern palates with a set of worthy soundbite lyrics that valued satirical swipe way above scansion:

That was the week that was,
Get out and grow your hops.
Old Maudling's budget's done -
It's turned a nation of shopkeepers into a nation of boozing shops!

To give them their due, this had to be written and learned more or less on the day, and fair play to Martin for fitting those five additional syllables into the rhythm while remaining intelligible. But away from the heat of the moment, the modern listener is, if anything, inclined to wince with mild embarrassment on the sixties' behalf. This was, however, proper, youthful innocence: the oldest regular cast member, Lance Percival, was still a reasonably sprightly 35. Frost, at the show's opening, was just over 23½ years old.

To try and judge the value, both in humour and social terms, of jokes about Reginald Maudling's tax policies from a distance of nearly half a century is pointless. “Ah, but you weren't there!” is the standard defence for anyone defending the entertainment of their youth against the snorts of their unimpressed juniors, but here it actually carries some weight. All you can usefully do is itemise the fallout, and in those terms it's inarguable that TW3, with its regular audiences of over 3 million, worked, in the sense that it was watched by a huge minority, raised questions in the house with the same ease Frost can still raise celebrity chums, and regularly made the news itself - mostly for the right reasons, having made the right enemies. (It also made several on-air counter-attacks against its critics, which could be seen as self-indulgent, but at least provided a bit of conversation between programme and public - something the inflexible professionalism of today's model would never allow. Contrast the bare girders and pipework of the original with the latter's shiny floors.)

Satire on TV needs, above all, to be big. It has to be seen, heard and talked about by as many people as possible. It has to make people who are missing out, who aren't “on side”, to feel they're somehow lacking for being in the dark. (TW3 was an unashamedly exclusive club – Martin often performed her opening monologue in front of a giant blow-up of the show's studio audience admittance ticket. “Have you got yours yet?”) Satire needs all the pomp and momentum of propaganda, without (hopefully) any of the former's political irresponsibility. To put it in slightly cynical terms, it's as much about marketing as it is about mirth. Which should make it water off a duck's back to today's generation of virally-minded producers, right? Wrong. Still, perhaps next time round we'll get a Topical Calypso.

* Although TW3 wasn't the first of its kind. Associated-Rediffusion began broadcasting What the Public Wants... a month earlier, but its unremarkable audience-free sketch format, combined with material hobbled by commercial television's rather more stringent libel restrictions, meant it loped along with sketches about Father Christmas being mistaken for a UFO and taken out by the RAF, before being canned within two months. (“A feeble and irritating little show” - The Times.)

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