wheels fall off

I’m not the kind of northerner who breaks out in Peter Kay sketches when conversation dries up at parties.

“So….erm…well, I see you’ve got a pretty hefty hatchback out front. That for the big shop, eh? BIG SHOP!! Isn’t Bombay Mix fancy?  They don’t do gravy down south you know!!”

I do look pastwards so often there’s a crick in my neck and most of the contemporary points of reference  can be traced back to the current comedy listings of Radio 4 Extra. I deny any childhood memory of watching All Clued Up whilst eating artic roll.

(Which I absolutely did. With my gran. In a house with a chain for the Warden)

As such I’m always happy to remember all those things which the past gave me – the Grandstand theme tune, what SOHCAHTOA stands for and the inability to shake off the anger at having a winning McDonalds/Trivial Pursuit scratchcard posted into an empty shop by bigger, harder, punchier lads…Er..yes, well as such I’m always happy but the problem with looking back is discovering how things never quite look as good as a cynical old grump.

When ITV recently repeated dozens of 80s and 90s cult children’s television faves some looked far fresher than most. It’s not abnormal, it’s to be expected. Cream always rises, be that music, films or even cheesy TV “guilty secrets”.

Of course some of those faded classics have done so because it’s deserved. Not to break out into end of the pier comedian again but, Wagon Wheels, eh? Weren’t they just awful? All mushy, two-tone slabs of processed mush, not quite biscuit, not quite pumice stone. Disco crisps, too, while I’m here. Oh come on, Disco crisps could hardly pass digestion – it was like swallowing a 50p coin drenched in caster sugar.

This is not hindsight; this is growing up. This is accepting that there are time capsules planted in the brain during childhood which are worth jettisoning, like accepting your father plodding to the back of the garden to say goodbye to Fido. What remains is that which would always have been considered as top quality – such as the vast majority of Belinda Carlisle’s back catalogue, say. Or Spangles.

Finding a joyous, trouble free paradise in the past is colouring memories with contemporary prejudice, and whilst it’s natural for people to do that when reminiscing, it’s unhealthy to base arguments on those invented truths. I know what my father used to say about his youth in the 1950s and 1960s – he was born just after the Second World War – and it’s not always pleasant.

And thus I make my way to Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (as they no longer want to be called). The basic core UKIP thinking is, “the past is another country”, based on the conceit that the UK is no longer the UK whilst the past almost certainly is. Farage talks about his ultimate aim being the return of the UK as a democratic country, just as it used to be, with all those unelected, unaccountable censors of the theatre and that. The UK of the wayback machine seen by Farage is one which is unimaginable to us now, even if you’re prone to calling the Coalition some kind of time-machine to the 1950s. We enjoy far more wealth, generally, better health, broadly, greater diversity and broader, deeper job opportunities than at any time in the recent past, and you don’t have to go far away from my dad’s memories of Wigan in the 1960s to have that proven.

But Farage doesn’t want to go back to the 1960s, or the 1970s, or at least not specifically. The UKIP aim is for Britain to be pulled into a nethertime, a space between reality and nostalgia, where the UK “ruled itself”. There’s not been much of that for generations, and until the 1960s and the great liberalisation of abortion law, sexual equality legislation and lowering of the voting age, most of the “independent” United Kingdom was an insular Edwardian island complacent and dismissive.

We’ve always been Atlantic rather than European in attitude – especially post-1945 – which comes out in 21st century Britain in our language, our television programme formats, and so on. We jump to the American cough, especially when invading Middle East countries on false prospectuses. Our scoffing at the French or the Germans copies the American sneering of Canada and Mexico, and for the most part our denial over European economic strength and liberal attitudes mirrors how the USA tends not to respect their cousins over its northern border. But in being anti-European in addition to anti-future, as UKIP seem to be, they’re swapping one paranoid fear for one uncertain reality. I’d rather not be the unofficial 51st state of the USA, thanks all the same, but UKIP clearly prefers this island of ours to be an Atlantic annexe than a European player, so far enoughski on that, Nige, replacing one uneasy alliance with another one.

I would say “this is me being unfair on old Nigel Farage, bless”, and after all he has ruled out ever getting into a Coalition with David Cameron. But that’s the point, I guess; delusion. That’s all UKIP end up talking about – delusion. They’re deluded if they think they’ll ever get an MP, or even a Council of their own, or even any kind of thanks for pulling us out of a Union with our closest neighbours. That Farage thinks he is to have any say at the next election is as laughable as the memory of one-half of my family choosing to sit around the television set, of our own accord, to watch “Telly Addicts”.

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Threedom

One of the greatest crime dramas you’ve never watched has returned to the iPlayer, capitalising on the soon to be launched second series. Amongst other programmes in the schedule around it are travelogues from Orkney, dead-pan comedy Nurse Jackie, the Proms, and an edition of Top of the Pops from 1976, featuring Thin Lizzy. Earlier this year, the channel dedicated almost an entire month to broadcasting subtitled comedy-drama from Iceland. Tomorrow, the story of Italian-language crime fiction and on Wednesday a look at submarines in cinema history. The crime drama, incidentally, is Denmark’s The Killing, famous for the chunky-knit Faroese jumpers worn by lead star Sarah Lund.

All this, and as they say, so much more, is found on the BBC digital channel, BBC Four. Paid for through the licence fee, it’s remit is as much souped-up BBC Two as it is SKY Arts, the Sunday Times, and BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends. If you’re worried that watching a decent enough documentary on BBC Two could put you within channel-hopping distance of Jeremy Clarkson, then this is the network for you.

Or at least it might be the channel for you, for now. With the safeguarded 6Music clusterfruitcake still leaving a bitter taste in their collective mouths, the suits at Auntie Beeb are diving back onto the buffet trolly. Facts are facts, after all, and the fact is the BBC needs to find cost cuttings. And find them fast – the licence fee is guaranteed for six years, though frozen, and that all adds up to a reduction in real terms. Easy targets could cause the usual suspects to start biting, hard, and not just particularly sharp of tooth around the whole argument of the Corporation’s funding. Big ticket sporting events, bigger ticket celebrity pay packets and phenomenally successful though populist prime-time entertainment shows are all easy targets for the BBC’s enemies – if the network is to compete in multi-channel Britain without an ever increasing revenue stream, those enemies require rapid and effective placating.

Over on BBC Four, the cuts are already showing. Original dramas will be shrunk in number, and mostly shoved across to BBC Two. Non-English imports will struggle to survive at all. Bought-in documentaries will doubtlessly increase. Live music reduced to “Radio 3 with pictures”, twice the work for presenters, less outlay for producers.

The argument from within the Corporation itself is tricky to reconcile with the long held assumption that Auntie doesn’t do ratings wars. “It’s your BBC!”, Terry Wogan would recall in a mocking voice, turning the once often heard slogan into a punchline, often when another multi-million pound splurge is outed by the newspapers. This year, the BBC announced that their youth-orientated channel BBC Three would be given greater broadcasting hours, and the money to go with it, for the temporary transformation into BBC Olympics. Further, the channel would continue to enjoy greater amount of investment for new talent – so whilst “The Thick of It” and “Getting On” did very well for Four, it will be more “Two Pints of Lager” and “The King is Dead” for your licence fee pounds from next year.

Selling the BBC Three “youth” angle is easy for the buzz word compendiums which walk around Television Centre these days. Defending “60 Second News”, the producers underline the traditional journalistic approach to slashing the events of the day into haiku. The great quote – for all the wrong reasons – is “so much TV news assumes knowledge on the viewer’s part”, but that is not how BBC Three works.”

In the light of the riots in London and elsewhere, such forthcoming arguments as “Three verses Four” becomes somewhat harder to balance. In short, the BBC does a great service in providing Three, recognising that BBC One will always be more stable, family orientated, more mainstream. BBC Three has helped young writers and actors, given coverage to womens football and wheelchair ballrooom dancing (no, really) and ensures that fans of “Family Guy” and “American Dad” don’t have to sit through “Newsnight” for one episode each, every week, in the graveyard slots on BBC Two.

It’s the channel which people love to hate, usually for reasons of thinly veiled condescension. How unfortunate that well meaning critics could be hitting the network at the wrong time. “Down with what the youth want!” cry the establishment, newspaper columnists, the middle-class Twitter hive mind. “It’s all just too vulgar”

Looked at from afar, it does appear the BBC Three formula of “shock, awe, and celebrity” sets itself apart from its broadsheet near-neighbour and all of the other BBC output. It’s not too much to say “It’s not exactly SKY One, is it?”. On Monday, BBC Three gave you the option to watch a ‘make under’ programme with a Lady Gaga lookalike, followed by reruns of “Eastenders” and “Little Britain”. On Wednesday there was a ‘secret wedding’ reality show and the film “Sliding Doors”. Tomorrow, an episode of “Total Wipeout” and a rerun of “EastEnders”.

But, wait. Go back a few days to “Young, Dumb, and Living Off Mum”, in which spoiled teenagers are filmed cleaning youth hostels for minimum wage, as part of a “life lesson reality show”. Tomorrow, Cherry Healey (no, me neither, the name sounds like a brand of ice cream), investigates body-image issues amongst young women. On the 24th, there’s “Good Will Hunting”. Not exactly “The Hangover II”.

Despite its brash logo and ‘street’ outer-skin, the depth of BBC Three saves itself the bother of arguing back against the broad-brush side swipes. Yes, it is very different from other BBC output, and of course BBC Four is far closer to the Reithian manifesto. If there was only one to save, I’d choose Four, and not just because of the occasional chance to revisit “Wallander”. I am older than the BBC Three target audience, but can still see that many of its exploitation programming is not exactly doing the Beeb much of a favour. Could you see why there’s not a 24-hour “T4 Channel”? It just wouldn’t stretch that far.

BBC Four causes Auntie a headache because of its cost and audience viewing figures. Generally, stripped of the Proms and “The Killing”, Four costs more money to run, and attracts far fewer regular, loyal viewers. BBC Three is cheap, popular, and serves a part of the population well who have spent months slogan shouting (and rock throwing, shop looting) against the various establishment icons. The potential for BBC Four is huge – though what the BBC could do with Three at a time when the Government aren’t exactly striking a confident pose in front of youth unrest is the opportunity to educate, entertain, and inform, Generation Internet.

Standing up for the very best of the BBC is easy. I’m a supporter of the licence fee, I watch far more BBC Four than any other channel, and I do struggle to justify the output of Three if pressed to look at its entire schedule over any given month. However, from a neutral point of view, it seems obvious why the cost-cutting is looking at taking money away from Four; the danger of perception has always shaken the suits at Television Centre. “Beeb Throws Your Licence Fee Into Subtitled Nonsense!” at a time when your teenage target audience feel alienated and ignored? If the BBC can balance the books, and in conjunction with all their executives, take an average viewer to and from BBC Four in small doses, then the possibilities could all turn out okay. It cannot be easy – the Beeb may save Four and face accusations of snobbery and detachment, or save Three and be slammed for dumbing down. The struggle at the heart is snobbery – is it somehow prejudiced against the core audience of Three to suggest they need more history, drama, and subtitled films?

In November 2009, the danger at the time was from a Conservative Party hinting that the licence fee could be “top sliced”. Back then, my suggestion was to go for BBC Three for the obvious cost-saving options. Context is all – to choose one over the other will damage the Beeb and alienate millions of viewers. I would prefer the investment needed for BBC Olympic be transferred into more Sarah Lund and 70s prog rock….but perhaps that point of view is precisely the problem.

All that glistens

The BBC has been on the wrong side of soap opera publicity this month (only one week in), with mass-appeal programmes attracting the wrong kind of focus and commentary. The soap suds were well and truly whipped with perennial gloom half hour Eastenders, with its cot-death storyline curtailed following 6,000 complaints about the additional narrative element involving a ‘baby swap’ and mental instability.

Across on Radio 4, where listeners are often less likely to take to the complaints forms and Basildon Bonds unless it is absolutely necessary, the ‘everyday tales of rural folk’ took a leftfield (see what I did there, geddit, etc) turn with the death of Nigel Pargetter. Former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer coined the phrase “Shock Armitage to the Core”, inevitably reduced to the Twitter hahstag “sattc”, to describe the storyline which was kept under wraps (unusually for a soap opera) until the moment it happened. When it did happen, all the usual soap opera tropes were there – I listened waiting for someone to say “Please, Nigel, don’t go onto the slippy, icy roof at night in a storm, for you might fall off”, and I wasn’t that disappointed…

Both these examples show the attraction of, and problems with, soap operas as mass-market audience magnets. That Eastenders has felt the need to run with a cot-death storyline for prime-time television is a topic for another debate; that they chose to include a baby-swap element indicates part desperation (like it or not, the Beeb has to participate in the ratings war) and part acknowledgement of the hyper-reality of soap storylines (real life is never as interesting for those who don’t live in a street or square with weekly murders, affairs and morality price-wars).

The Eastenders storyline is now being wound up faster and sooner than originally intended The ‘power of the ‘net’ didn’t quite force the producers hand, though interestingly it was the founder of Mumsnet who led the charge against the BBC with claims of inappropriate sensationalism. How many television programmes have now been subjected to social media users running campaigns and groups for or against specific elements of output? Should producers be concerned by this viewer power revolution? I am reminded of Mark Gatiss’ remark about live-tweeting during television programmes; it’s best not to watch what viewers are saying in real time to broadcast, it’d drive a writer mad.

So is this just ‘Points of View gone feral’? Certainly it seems that way for Radio 4 and The Archers, where the death of Nigel has been called ‘an anti-climax’ after weeks of publicity and heavy hints in newspapers (though Twitter and Facebook did play a part in whipping up suggestions for what exactly would cause Ambridge to shake to its core, running from a gun rampage to a character turning on the radio, hearing the Archers themetune and causing a time-vortex across central Cambridgeshire).

Soaps are very rarely failures for channels with the time and investment to keep them high profile. When Channel 5 launched, they did so with a soap (“Family Affairs”) and when that soap began to falter, killed off the main family for an effective relaunch. ITV capitalised on kitch being cool with relaunched (and dream sequenced) Crossroads. For the BBC, Eastenders and Archers are testament to quality and patience, loyalty and treating audiences with as much respect as possible. Why these recent surges in criticism matter is because the last point has not been upheld, like a contract not being respected.

For the Beeb, shaky confidence in soaps matters. These two incidents should recall, however briefly, the one instance of Auntie getting it completely wrong, the launch and plane-into-mountain collapse of Eldorado in 1993.

This ‘sun, sea and scandal’ soap (opening credits somewhat truncated here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmUpuMcQlUU) bumped Wogan off the schedules and was promoted across the BBC as the best soap launch since Eastenders in 1985. To cut costs (it was filmed entirely on location), producers used untried actors and simplistic filming techniques. The results were disastrous. It would close its doors in 1994, a million or plenty thrown away, leaving the Corporation red-faced through shame rather than sun-tan.

Notable elements of the Eldorado disaster are legendary. The international cast had many who could not speak fluent English, so were given entire scenes (often 3 or 4 minutes long) of dialogue in their native tongue without subtitles. To help viewers in the UK understand what was going on, contrived scenes appeared later on with laden dialogue (“So, Swedish girl, you are having problems with your partner, maybe you should tell me all about it before your next Swedish-language scene with him?”

What is still known as the ‘Eldorado effect’ hampered production. If you want to know what a swimming pool sounds like through a boom mic, watch old episodes, as the lapping water would be louder than the actor’s voice. Filming in bare villas, not studios, meant echoing footsteps and laughter sounded unusually flat, or lifeless.

Ultimately, the programme finished because viewers did not feel engrossed in the lives of the ‘everyday folk’ soaps need for success. Ex-pats living abroad, shacking up with 17-year old girls or having a bemused Spanish speaking waitress as a live-in lover at your exclusive villa, did not give the mid-90s soap audience (generally those suffering from the recession) much attraction to tune-in.

Pre-internet campaign groups, all pro-Eldorado viewers could do was demonstrate outside Television Centre demanding Alan Yentob’s head on a stick. There was little sympathy.

For Eastenders today, the cot-death storyline will bruise the brand but not hoik the show off the screens anytime soon. The BBC has forgotten about the core audience now being joined by a multitude of on-line keyboard warriors ready for action whenever outrage is afoot. Eldorado was badly written, terribly acted and too well-meaning to be saved. But nothing is too big to fail, as we are learning to our costs. It’s only television, granted. If it’s not scaring too many horses (unless it’s supposed to, like the Archers or Emmerdale), just switch off…

Wide Awake Clubs

So the curtain falls, all woolly and soft, sewn together with silly string and tabloid newspaper. GMTV started its life as the sedate and sensible successor to TVAM, which had made the transition from the very same starting point to pretty much where GMTV would end a generation-or-so later. As this clip shows, there wasn’t a whiff of a sofa or Fiona Phillips’ surgical questioning techniques – “So, Corrs, where did you first meet?” – when the second breakfast television franchise launched…

Breakfast telly in the UK has been a story of limited successes and so many failures. GMTV ended up copying the TVAM sofa-and-slebs model, because it works for the bleary eyed mothers and students who watched. BBC Breakfast has steered towards the format having been diluted from blue desks and stirring opening titles to sofas and magazine format tie-ins.

Channel 4 would find its gold with The Big Breakfast – although only for its middle period before its erratic demise. Four initially launched Channel 4 Daily, a magazine programme which today looks like a cross between EuroNews and The Day Today. Its attempt to become a ‘moving newspaper’ has been mimicked and copied since, ambitious though it was to adopt the sound of a broadsheet Sunday in daily broadcasting. It even included a segment where specially commissioned pieces of modern art would be discussed between presenters in the hope that viewers would do the same. No wonder it didn’t quite have the staying power of its hyperactive successor…

GMTV finally found its feet, in slippers and treading on marshmallow. Cosy and simple, nevertheless vital for politicians, soap actors and pop stars. It was turned effortlessly into This Morning for the dawn brigade, successful enough to be copied despite becoming no different from its predecessor.

The Big Breakfast changed the shape and character of morning telly – although its summer roadshows had been borrowed wholesale from Radio One, its popularity peak was based purely on presenters rather than content. It was successful and its blueprints was copied by others with nothing like the same results. Nobody remembers RI:SE, just as viewers probably have put the BBs own relaunch attempts firmly to the back of their minds – Paul Tomkinson and Donna Air, folks, how could we abandon them so much like used tissues?!.

For the replacement to GMTV, the bosses at ITV have effectively asked the presenters of a latter day Nationwide to front a 21st century TVAM. Adrian Chiles, the chummy friend-down-the-pub hoiked from Match of the Day 2 where he was West Brom’s representative on earth, will take the role of Eamonn Holmes. His partner will be Christine Bleakley, the current squeeze for Frank Lampard (when he isn’t….oh wait, injunction, yeah…) will tone her gloss and tan down enough for the commuter crowd viewers. They have ‘chemistry’, we are told, which is telly speak for ‘they act like a married couple who only get enough sex with other partners’.

Some elements of the breakfast telly agenda seem outdated – why stick with newspaper reviews with readership falling? A summary of popular blog lead stories could alter the sticky relationship between bloggers and TV bosses. Regional output is woefully misused, a few tie-ins with their regional radio stations could lift the BBC Breakfast programming into something distinctive and relevant to viewers. Much to the chagrin of digital radio manufacturers, the majority of the population choose car radios to wake up properly with breakfast DJs.

Saturday children’s shows – Live and Kicking, Going Live – were seen as no longer being fit for the schedules. Their brand of entertainment and music can’t be reinvented, it would be seen as a retrograde step. I can see morning telly going the same way, with the new Daybreak being the last of its kind. Morning schedules will meld and assimilate, the BBC should look at saving money with a full BBC One/News link with help from their radio colleagues. Where we find ourselves in the 21st century is Chiles and Bleakley as the last incarnation of Bough and Scott, to glance at before running off to the bus with toast in mouth and bus-stop in view…

Five Alive

Ready for the new series of “Snog, Marry, Deport” ?

It is rumoured that Richard Desmond, he the big chief at the Daily Express and Daily Star, in addition to a collection of top-shelf magazines of the one-handed entertainment variety, is at the front of the queue outside the RTL offices with a big bid for British television channel Five. If this sale goes ahead, and the Guardian is suggesting OFCOM and the Competition Commission may be having words, British television may undergo one of its biggest character shifts in generations….and all at a time when the future of the BBC looks a bit cloudier than usual.

Desmond is no fly-by-night suit. His media empire is certainly impressive, albeit one built on both extreme prejudice and porn. Both the Express and Star have spent the last 6 months becoming increasingly less subtle with their language and tone, reaching a peak (or the depths) with the former’s use of the word “Ethnics” on the front page last week. It really does grate on the teeth, doesn’t it? The Star has used the sensationalist (and untrue) headline “They’ve taken all our jobs” this year, right out of the text book of the most knuckle-dragging of extreme types.

It is worth noting, too, that the Express is home to such a regular collection of pet hates and conspirliloon articles that, if read too quickly or flicked through at speed, would give a casual reader the impression that Diana died of House Price Cancer. Whatever voice the Express and Star claim to use these days, it’s neither one of the sound majority or reasoned few. And the threat now comes from a home-grown media tycoon making his way into national television in what could be a “pincer movement” with the increasingly hyperbolic SKY News.

Channel Five, as was, launched as the final jigsaw piece in the grand plan of what was the very analogue-obsessed Broadcasting Act. Launched on a promise of “football, films and fucking”, the rebranded Five sounds like the perfect place for Desmond…but we now better than that, don’t we? With broadcasting regulations tighter than before, and the likelihood of an overtly prejudice programme not high in the first few months, Five may improve from its import heavy output at first….

…I just dread for its future in the long-run. Now I appreciate that Five has never been the place to expect The World At War or subtitled films (well, of a certain kind, mayhaps, it’s just a man like Desmond with his back-catalogue comes to the table with a certain….well, prejudice. Neither the Express nor Star hide their colours – offensive and prejudiced beyond the reasonable tone of national, mainstream newspapers.

While I’m here, I have been somewhat baffled by the reaction – largely on-line – to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s hint that the BBC licence fee could be cut. Given that most complaints normally come from people who WANT it cut, I guess it is true that you really cannot please all people all of the time. In an age of austerity, why should the BBC not have a cut in its income stream? I love the BBC, have always stood up for it against the whingers and whiners, it’s just so typical to hear the “save the BBC” calls come up on the basis of “teh evil Tories” suggesting a cut in paying for Auntie.

Look at commercial television – mayhaps Sky Arts as a potentially exciting exception – and look at the output of the BBC. Wonder what Five could turn into under the watchful eye of the proprietor of the Express (“ETHNIC BABY BOOM CRISIS”). Don’t dismiss the maxim “be careful what you wish for”.

Plus ça change…

Maybe I should not be so surprised. Word hits the newspapers that the planned Leaders Debates prior to the next UK general election have been “negotiated to death

I dare say this quote was spoken in the same style as a soap opera “baddie”, who having pushed his wife down the stairs assures a worried sibling that “Mummy just slipped.”

Labour didn’t want these debates in the first place. That much was obvious by the very slow reaction – such as it was – from Gordon Brown. His bulldozing interview technique would have killed any spontaneity in the debates anyway, had the audience not been filled by party hacks and ordered not to ask questions.

In the US, Presidential Debates are often stifled by rules and contracts as thick as Whitaker’s Almanack. What a pity the UK version has gone the same way. There is a lot more to do by way of attracting audiences to politics in general, never mind specific television programmes, so although the debates were flawed in theory they could have done some good in practice.

Critics of the Leaders Debates always assumed the UK model wouldn’t fit. “It would be like being caught wanking to ‘Pants Off, Dance Off'”, that sort of thing. My optimism for all things modern, new, and different looked at these televised debates with less cynical eyes; in good hands, all three leaders would have seen their reputations enhanced. David Cameron could have even been shown real-time repeats of his previous answers to assist in stopping his usual trick of contradicting himself mid-programme.

Alas, these events are clearly not likely to happen. If the suits don’t get in the way, either the Champions League or just-as-vital-no-really Eurovision Song Contest are scheduled for the run-up to polling day. Another small glimmer of modernisation in UK politics is extinguished.

….plus c’est la même chose.

Vote for Songs, Vote for Change

Someone have a word with Simon Cowell. If he of the high-trousers wants an international X-Factor, he’s better off saving his money. There already exists a multi-national amateur singing contest, it’s called Eurovision and at almost 60 it’s had ten-times the life span of most talent show careers.

But…all the same, Cowell knows when he’s onto a winner. Not that the “final 4” in the current run of the X-Factor is exactly over running with talent. The main prize has rarely been given to someone who deserves it (see, for that matter, most talent shows, namely Eurovision and the fancy dress contest at a hotel in Split back in 1991. I’m not bitter but damn it, all the winners did was wrap themselves in out-of-date Beano comics……)

Sorry, back to the X-Factor. The apparent favourite is Daryl, who has the satisfied arrogance of a libel lawyer with an ability to add extra long notes to the end of everything he sings like some form of computer character “special move”. He’s up against a one-time contestant on Deal Or No Deal, called Olly Murs, who has been forced to warble the same old selections from The Greatest Copyright Free Swing and Blues Album…Ever! while being talked about as “one of the lads”. When he was made to perform (and/or murder) George Michael’s “Fastlove” in a tight shirt and AIDS awareness ribbon I wonder exactly what had happened to the “one of the lads” demographic. Maybe Simon had been off that week. He often is.

A squat gnome-faced 12 year old called Joe, who should have never been allowed near a microphone on pain of death, has been consistently voted through despite the (very) annoying habit of turning every song into a theatrical pastiche. You know Mitch Benn? You know how everything Mitch Benn does is a) unfunny, and b) forced, and c) unfunny and forced and annoying and unfunny? Joe is RIGHT up there with the forced, annoying, unfunny Mitch Benn. He’s likely to win. It’s just not right. If Simon Callow wants a winner – and it’s likely he doesn’t really give two-hoots now there’s the opportunity to reinvent the Eurovision wheel – then Stacy “Essex girl who actually lives in the London Borough of Dagenham but why ruin a USP” Soloman is the one on whom a fiver should be placed at the bookies.

Okay, Stacy does sound like an over polished Hazel Dean, but compared with the other three – Mr Arrogant Warbler, Mr Ambiguous, Mr Mitch Benn – she’s the only one who has a singing voice worth hearing more than once. Just.

Voting for any of these potential one-hit wonders is not something I am likely to do, all that said. My real focus is on actual voting and actual democracy, with long-term consequences and all that stuff. I am annoyed to the highest limits with the news that chicken-scared Labour MPs are attempting to force Gordon Brown into rushing changes to the Westminster voting system through Parliament to trap the Conservatives into looking like “status quo stick-in-the-muds”. In short, Labour MPs who may well lose their seats in 2010 (and so they should) hope that switching to AV will a) keep them in a cushy job for a few more years, and b) stuff the Tories ever ruling with a working majority ever again.

As a liberal, a democrat, and a Liberal Democrat, my life-long dream has been to see the introduction of a fairer voting system for Westminster. AV is not my first choice by any stretch. I would much prefer STV. But of course, STV means Labour are not likely to keep the big bad Tories out of office. And for some robotic ultra-loyal Labour MPs, they would rather keep their careers nice and feather lined (so hence this cynical attempt to force through a Tory blocking measure before March 28th), than actually deal with the inadequacies of the FPTP system.

Using “politics as usual” techniques to suggest “politics is really changing” is the lowest form of Westminster game playing. It’s little wonder Yes, Minister and Thick Of It make me cringe so much; they are so much like the real goings on inside the corridors of power they may as well be broadcast as news.

It’s enough to make me give up on politics all together and become a talent show judge.

telly addicts

So, farewell then, analogue television.

From tomorrow in two English regions, and Wales, the second installment of the national switch-off begins. For people of all ages an era ends: for my generation it is perhaps the final installment of a gradual up-grade process from the four channels in the 80s, through basic Cable television, to the ability to pause live programming in a fashion not even predicted by the usually excitable studio of Tomorrow’s World.

Looking back through my memory banks shows just how important in my life the box in the corner of the room has been. As a child, I was particularly over-excited by regional-opt outs, icons and logos, anything it would seem except the programmes themselves. The faintest echo of the Children In Need “Let’s go round the regions” anthem still filters around my head, a triumph of my anorak nature and the ability of the Beeb to write a catchy tune which could withstand the slight delays inherent in switching from the studios in Edinburgh to a car-park outside Eccles. If you want to help – DRUM – help Children In Need. It’s all flooding back….

In the early years of cable television in this area, I would tiptoe to the front room to channel flick until the sun came up. In later years it was, I concede, more to do with the promise of untold thrills during The Adult Channel’s preview adverts, although at first even the chance of watching a channel close down that wasn’t the BBC interested me something rotten. In those days – how odd does that sound, and yet how true! – BBC One still closed down, playing the national anthem over a spinning globe before fading to black.

As a defender of the licence fee I hope talk of “top slicing” the funding to other channels does not occur if the consequence is a weaker, lesser BBC. That most of my viewing and listening comes from the BBC is not just an unwillingness to channel-surf; I happen to prefer most of the Corporation’s output to that on ITV and, sadly I have to say, a lot of what is now broadcast on Channel 4. There was a time when it felt daring and exciting to watch 4, often with the sound turned down and a pillow under my bedroom door to ensure nobody spotted I was watching The Word, or the “red light zone” themed programming seemingly broadcast for the benefit of my youthful development (if I can phrase it that way).

Channel 4 maintains some high standards, although even its own time flagship programmes Cutting Edge, and Dispatches, have become sensationalist and boring.

Tomorrow will mark the next-step in the advancing of Britain’s digital broadcasting age. I must look back with some nostalgia at the advances of yesteryear which somehow seem terribly quaint by today’s standards: flick a switch on a channel now to access the all-day broadcasting schedules of a hundred channels, on the former Cable North West service there was one screen with a scrolling schedule information display and a 30-minute cut-off.

Maybe the box in the corner will be pushed back even further into the shadows if television-on-demand, iPlayer, downloads and so on continue to become more popular with the viewing public. Maybe television itself will cease to be thought of in terms of separate channels and networks as commitment to single brands continues to dissolve. All I know is, the manner of watching the screen has certainly changed beyond all recognition but the little child inside is still humming the theme tune to Live & Kicking and wondering if he’ll ever see the HTVWales logo again…..