Sharp Set 

1 January 2002

We enthusiasts of television presentation like nothing better than to put our feet up, dunk a Hob-Nob in a cup of Earl Grey tea and watch how the broadcasting organisations present themselves to us.

Trailer, caption, ident and announcement are savoured – or maybe not – and then, when the programmes start, we pop out to see if there’s any crisps in the cupboard, or tins of Devon custard. In effect, this is the exact reverse of what we are meant to do – surely we’ve got to watch whatever delights are sent into the ether?

Apparently, there are many writers and performers who agree that these presentation trinkets, the broadcasting equivalent of street furniture, are to be treated irreverently, and I for one agree with them. After all, if an ITV company, for example, decide to use a logo depicting their international aspirations, or local origins, and come across to some as portentous, pompous or just plain daft, they may be emphasising their company’s status as a conduit of all that is light and life but you can bet someone is waiting to send it up.

Too smashed

In 1956, Spike Milligan decided to submit the Associated-Rediffusion adastral to an indignity of one kind or another at the beginning of “A Show Called Fred” – in one of the few remaining pieces of footage (on the video “Spiked”) it’s smashed to pieces!

Milligan was amongst the first to send up the BBC announcers’ role on “The Goon Show”, giving Andrew Timothy or Wallace Greenslade lines to say that actually brought them into the show, and even the plot, and allowed them to extemporise to a certain extent. At the time, a definite no-no on the very tightly scripted and carefully censored Auntie under the rule of its famous “Green Book”. But there was definitely a whiff of revolution in the air at that time and this was reflected on the air.

Square centre

Parodies of television programmes were frequent – a BBC-era Benny Hill “Juke Box Jury” skit sticks in the mind – but to take the Michael out of the Beeb was probably not on at the time, unless it was Michael Bentine’s “It’s A Square World”. The then-new Television Centre was sent into space by Bentine – a libertine act so typical of the Sixties, when all that was sacred was swept away, or so it seemed.

From the early 60s, with the coming of “TW3”, presentation gimmicks were sent up. After all, this was raw material ripe for exploitation. David Frost once did a parody on A-R’s scheduling of old films, saying that the company were putting them on as classic movies – a sharp comment by that will-o’the-wisp Frost, previously an A-R trainee, then later to have success with “The Frost Programme” made by Rediffusion London.

In 1965, the third incarnation of the “Satire Boom” was “BBC-3” – a dig at BBC-2, only eighteen months old at that point and still regarded as a minority channel. Was the implication that BBC-3 was for a smaller minority? The only problem is that I have no recollection of the programme, and neither do many others, other than they remember that Kenneth Tynan, in the context of a discussion on censorship in the theatre, used the word ‘fuck’ on television for the first time.

Madness and continuity

The coming of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” brought together the members of two previous programmes, “At Last The 1948 Show” and “Do Not Adjust Your Set” – which were references to presentation and programme policy (“The 1948 Show” was rumoured to have been left on the shelf for 19 years while the TV executive decided to run it or not according to John Cleese).

Apart from the Oxbridge connection, there was a willingness to take the form and content of television and shake it up as much as possible – programme formats, especially current affairs, were ridiculed (a parody of “This Week”, even down to the Sibelius theme tune, was retitled “Ethel The Frog”, and “World Forum”, appearing to be a discussion between great political leaders, degenerated into a game show in which Lenin failed to win a three piece suite). And then there was the use of the BBC-1 globe, with strange announcements like “we interrupt this programme to make it as annoying as possible for you”, or in one instance, having a continuity announcer, on the edge of a breakdown, struggle to say “This is BBC-1”.

It became impossible to tell where the programme ended or began, and it made some of the programmes look a bit strange that were scheduled after it, especially as some of the BBC’s familiar faces appeared in “Python”, like Jimmy Hill and Richard Baker. Eric Idle, in “Rutland Weekend Television”, took this idea a stage further, sending up not only programmes and presentation but having BBC-2 make announcements that the station was handing over the next half-hour to RWT, which confused viewers no end. Before we switch to the other side, as it were, a brief mention for “EBC-1” (Emu’s Broadcasting Company) from 1976-78. That’s all it’s getting!

A choice of viewing

Meanwhile, over on ITV, Ronnie Barker had been seen on screen at the start of “Hark At Barker” doing monologues which were parodies, for the most part, of continuity announcements (expanded later in “The Two Ronnies”). Denise Coffey, the female lead from “Do Not Adjust Your Set” had appeared in 1979 in a revival of the format – executed extremely well too – called “End Of Part One”. This mixed more of the same – continuity, captions, and a deliberately deconstructed LWT ident – into a childrens’ show that adults could enjoy, and it’s significant that it was produced by Humphrey Barclay, who had produced “Do Not Adjust Your Set” in its first season. (By the way, for some reason, Denise Coffey seems to always be involved in shows with parody titles – there was even a BBC Radio children’s show called “The Last In The Present Series”).

The use of the imaginary TV station has always been a useful device since John Bird’s series “With Bird – Will Travel”, and a lot of kids’ telly used it, like “TTV” (Tea Time Television) “WYSIWIG” and “CB TV Channel 14” as a framework.

Well worn television

It seemed a good way of presenting a number of differing items in a time-limited format, using a lot of the presentation tricks that were already well worn.

Sending up television has lost a lot of its shock value, and the only time I see anything like parody is when there is a clip show or “I Love…” compilation. It’s all been done. Or has it? “KYTV” parodied satellite television, in particular the way in which some items became dumbed down; “The Day Today” became the ultimate news satire; “Knowing Me Knowing You” ripped chat-show culture to shreds, especially with the excruciating Alan Partridge. Then there was “Brass Eye”, Chris Morris’ biting series taking current affairs to the nth degree, and sometimes causing controversy.

I’ll round off with my favourite TV joke, from “Naked Video”: the BBC-1 globe turns, while the announcer says something like; “This is BBC-1. The Russians have launched a nuclear offensive against the West, and missiles will be impacting in four minutes. You are advised to head for your fall-out shelter immediately. That’s except for viewers in Scotland.”

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