Goggle Eyed

Chris Harris's Telly Page

Let's face it, whether you're sitting in front of the TV, the gogglebox, the boob tube, the glass teat, the small screen, the black mirror, the idiot box, the tube, or just the plain old telly - you're indulging in one of the nation's favourite pastimes.

Well, yeah, I am getting old and grumpy, but that's besides the point.

I was exposed to a lot of American television in its native format when I lived in Florida. That's enough to put anyone off TV for life: I used to tell people how the experience really made me appreciate how good the television is in the U.K.

But about fifteen years ago I realised I was watching a lot less television than I used to. Much less. At the same time I realised I was paying through the nose for a lot of things I just wasn't interested in watching, introduced by continuity announcers who all appeared to have degrees in being patronising. So I cancelled my subscription to Sky (the UK's main pay-TV provider). It felt really good - because I was no longer being driven to watch things just because I'd paid a lot of money for the privilege. I still had a huge number of channels to choose from, because I connected a different box to my dish and started to receive loads of channels from Germany, Austria, France and beyond. And I realised that I actually enjoyed watching shows on those channels more than I did those on UK TV. That got me thinking.

I tried to figure out whether I'm just getting older and grumpier, or if UK TV really is getting worse.

I realised that this is very much down to a matter of taste, so don't expect any sweeping arguments for a resurrection of the "golden age" of earlier programming, whatever your particular golden age might be. I'm quite well aware that audiences change, and that now that I'm approaching 60 there are precious few channels that are interested in engaging my attention as a viewer. Over the last decade I've felt increasingly disenfranchised, and I'm not happy about it. The thing about most German channels I watch is that they don't generate that same feeling of disenfranchisement. It feels like I'm the person that they're talking to. The fact that many programs begin by addressing their audience as "liebe zuschauer" or "dear viewer" is also one of the most endearing things ever.

European channels are much, much less frantic than their British equivalents. That appeals to me in a big way. The infatuation with hand-held camera work makes many UK shows look like the entire crew have overdosed on coffee. I have a sneaking suspicion that the whole trend caught on over here because film crews realised they could talk their director out of insisting that they lugged heavy camera tripods around everywhere. It's a nice effect in moderation, but nobody does it in moderation any more. Meanwhile, over in Scandinavia, viewers can sit down to watch a four-hour programme that consists of nothing except than the view out of the front window of a train travelling from Bergen to Oslo in Norway. I adore slow TV. I can't believe I'm particularly unusual in having an attention span that's measured in minutes or hours rather than seconds, but here in the UK television producers aren't interested in folks like me. BBC Three's news programme lasts for just sixty seconds. Are they taking the piss?

That train journey was filmed in high definition - and that is one thing that I have appreciated a lot over the past decade or so. I finally caved in and bought a flat screen TV and not only has it freed up a large chunk of the living room, I actually enjoy watching it. The box for European TV has been joined by a FreeSat box and the programmes that I do watch these days look absolutely stunning. Even there, though, things aren't as good as they could be: the bandwidth for each HD channel was cut down about six months after I bought the box, and I really noticed the drop in image quality.

The main problem for me, I think, is that I've amassed a certain amount of knowledge and experience about random things over the years. These days, a lot of the folks writing, presenting or producing programmes are a lot younger than I am. They don't know the same stuff. So there are times when someone asserts something on TV that I know is wrong. This is a big factor in driving people to talk about the dumbing down of television, I think. It's because these days, a lot of the folks watching TV are smarter than the folks making the programmes.

For example, back in the day most folks in front of the camera were either ex-forces (like Raymond Baxter) or were the product of an education system that favoured the classics. The tech people in the studio had a science background. Science programmes were made by scientists. Arts programmes were made by people who had a fine arts background. These days, universities offer degrees in media - a laudable change, but it means that media graduates don't have the same understanding of the world - or of the subjects they're making programmes about. For example, the graphics teams at the BBC News channel love to create channel bumpers that show information flowing into the organization's buildings and satellite dishes in the form of lots of glowing lines. It used to really wind me up, because the lines would just flow into the receiver at the top of the dish rather than being collected by the dish itself. I get grumpy because that means a news channel is portraying the world as one person thinks it should work, rather than how things actually are. I'm sure you're familiar with the problem.

The rapid pace of the media over here is also reflected on things like attention to detail. Most local BBC news offices have a less-than-refreshing attitude to details like spelling. In some cases checking simple facts seems to be beyond your average television journalist. It's painfully obvious that most have never seen the inside of a library - it's much faster using the internet, after all. Unfortunately, the information on the Internet isn't always as accurate. In fact, a large proportion of information on the net is complete drivel. The gullibility of the typical man in the street is amazing - have a look at some of the rubbish that the folks at Snopes have debunked.

Okay, I'm drifting way off-topic here. I do occasionally stumble across an interesting programme. BBC Four is a firm favourite with me and I've watched some great programmes recently there. While a lot of my favourites listed below are no longer being made, there are some current programmes on the list.

But to close this section, indulge me as I rant and rave for a bit.

I am utterly sick to death of the apparent need for everything to be plastered with red dots, logos, information bars, requests to phone in and vote, and general clutter that's there for the TV company's satisfaction, not mine. Do the folks at BBC Four, Pick TV or E4 genuinely believe that we won't know that we're watching their shiny new channel rather than BBC1 or ITV without a graphic on the screen continuously telling us that we are?

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  • The camera operator doesn't know what a tripod is for
  • The camera operator has just discovered what a zoom lens is for
  • The channel broadcasts each show more than once in a pathetic attempt to boost ratings
  • It shows members of the public in either "amusing" or "life threatening" situations, or both
  • Stuart Maconie, Emma B and Davina McCall did an "I love this show" TV special about it
  • Johnny Knoxville is in it
  • It has pointless sound effects (stand up, BBC's "Blue Planet")
  • It involves buying, selling, or decorating houses
  • It involves buying or selling antiques
  • The show involves phone-in voting and audience interaction
  • Jonathan Ross is in it
  • There's a canned laugh track
  • It's about something that the people being interviewed have absolutely nothing to do with
  • It's about something that the people being interviewed know absolutely nothing about

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  • Let word of mouth do your advertising, not relentless plugging
  • If it's a talk show, bring back Michael Parkinson to do it
  • If it's a documentary, don't turn it into a dramatic mini-movie
  • If it's a documentary, use people who know what they're talking about
  • If it's a documentary, use graphics that are actually relevant and accurate
  • If it's a reality TV show, sack the production company and go and do something else instead
  • If it's a music show, make the artists perform live, and without backing tracks
  • If it's a kids show, get Cat Deeley to present it
  • Give a new show a year to find its niche, but...
  • Call it quits when the show loses its edge
  • Bring back Tiswas!

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Probably the only TV programme being made at the moment that I'd put in the "unmissable" category. Both Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson bring their A-game to the show, and so does everyone else. Una Stubbs is a joy to watch as Mrs Hudson. Nobody else could possibly out-Sherlock Sherlock as effectively as his elder brother Mycroft, and Mark Gatiss is perfect in the role. Glorious television.

Another programme that's still on air, and still managing to be entertaining, original - and, above all else, inspiring. Kevin McCloud is the perfect presenter: knoweldgeable, affable, and compassionate when things go wrong (which they sometimes do).

Yes, I know I need to get out more. Yes, I know it's not been on TV for years. But it had the best writing on television, an able, talented and extremely good-looking cast, knowing cultural references coming out of its ears, a thing about rabbits, a bonkers yet all-encompassing mythos, and a rabid fan following whose affection for the show eclipses even that of Star Trek. And that's saying something.

I've got the whole thing on DVD. Because why wouldn't I?

Another show that hasn't been on TV for a very long time, and another show where I ended up buying the box set. The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5 (link above) is one of those not-so-rare cases on the internet - a fan site for a programme which has more resources and information than the show's official site ever managed. The enthusiasm for the programme is evident in the immense resource which is available here. I never thought I'd say it, but B5 was better than any of the last three Star Trek series.

Why? Because of the writing. Aside from bringing in writers like Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman, the show'd creator Joe Straczynski had the whole five-year story arc plotted out from the beginning - to the extent that he could set up a story in one episode and then provide the payoff two or three years later (the appearance of sister station Babylon 4 in one episode is a perfect example of his craft). Other shows made similar claims about their coherent story arc, and five-year plans, but as time progressed it usually became very evident that they were making it up as they went along. Yes, Lost, I'm looking at you. JMS's series just got better and better as time went on.

A show where the main star died days after filming the final episode is always going to have a certain mystique, but when it was a show as utterly engaging and fun as Father Ted, it moves beyond mystique and becomes truly legendary. The inhabitants of the Parochial House on Craggy Island - Father Ted Crilly, Father Dougal McGuire, Father Jack Hackett and their housekeeper Mrs Doyle are some of the most inspired comedic creations every to appear on television.

How good is it? Look, it's got Brian Eno playing a priest in one episode, that's how good it is.

Another one in the "I've got the box set" category.

One of the most commonly-used internet words - "Spam" - owes its peculiar use to this comedy series, for reasons which any fan will be able to tell you at great length. Dressing up as a viking may well also be involved.

As a child of the 1960s, my teenage years and my sense of humour were powerfully shaped by this television series. Not only do I have the box set of all the shows, I also have the films, the books, and the albums. And I can quote huge tracts of them all, as can a lot of my contemporaries.

Probably the best traditional animation crew on the planet have been responsible for the continuing adventures of inventor Wallace (the inimitable and wonderful Peter Sallis) and his faithful dog Gromit. Pure joy.

W & G is one of the few cases where a spinoff series - Shaun The Sheep - is every bit as good as its parent show.

And they're all made in Bristol!

I don't know why, but the character of Vyvian in The Young Ones was a real hero of mine in the early 1980's. Weird, eh? Still, he did have great taste in music. The high spot of each episode was usually Alexei Sayle coming on and ranting for two minutes.

Imagine a cross between a Tex Avery cartoon and reality television and you'll have a vague idea of something which bears no relation at all to the programme itself...

Got the box set? Check.

Filmed down the road in Bristol? Check.

When I lived in Tampa, 3rd Rock seemed to be on TV every night and as I didn't always have a lot to do in the evenings I would sit down and watch it. I got hooked very quickly. And yes, I have the box set, complete with a set of 3D glasses!

John Lithgow is one of Hollywood's heavy hitters - he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and then forged a career on stage as well as on film (and let's not forget, he played Doctor Emilio Lizardo in Buckaroo Banzai), but he surprised everybody by creating the amazing character of Dick Solomon on a show about three aliens visiting Earth to study our civilization.

He's a joy to watch in every scene. So are the rest of the cast: French Stewart, Kristen Johnston, Jane Curtin and a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays Tommy, the oldest person on the show, an inspired comedic touch.) It's a science fiction premise, and there are some hilarious jokes referring to the genre. My absolute favourite is when the aliens' boss The Big Giant Head arrives in town. Both Shatner and Lithgow played the same character in the Twilight Zone story Nightmare at 20,000 feet; Shatner in the original TV episode, Lithgow in the 1983 movie adaptation.


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