AROUND this time last year, I wrote a silly blog for The Scotsman’s website about the BBC’s attempt to bring back Jim’ll Fix It for Christmas.
Like half the country, I’d heard the jokes and rumours about Jimmy Savile, but assumed that if they were true “someone” would have done something about it, so my blog described him as “a one-off who could never be replaced” and cheerfully described the introduction of new host Shane Richie as “a travesty”.
What a difference a year makes. Now we know that the original was the real travesty, part of a cover-up campaign which lasted decades and caused enduring damage. The on-going fallout of the Jimmy Savile exposé has had many facets, from the crisis in journalism at Newsnight and the inglorious and brief reign of George Entwistle as BBC director general, to the police enquiries which have implicated several other famous names in grim accusations.
But for those of us not directly involved in the industry or the sad history, one unavoidable aspect is a change in how we think about the TV of the recent past. For some time it has been a byword for comical nostalgia, even for those too young to remember the gaudy light entertainment of the 1970s. Now, for a while at least, it feels like a giant question mark hangs over it all: not just the terrible scandals of Savile, but the exposure of the casual, ingrained sexism which the coverage prompted many to speak out about, not just backstage at Top Of The Pops or Radio One, but reflected in many walks of life. Watching those old programmes now feels deeply uncomfortable.
And it’s been an uncomfortable year all round for the BBC, a strange mix of triumphs (like their sterling Olympics coverage and the associated brilliant new Shakespeare productions, The Hollow Crown) and disasters (the soggy, misjudged waffle around the Queen’s Jubilee cruise, the stream of video-only interviews after the Breakfast programme moved to Salford and the embarrassment of The Voice’s flop, requiring an urgent revamp before it returns). But then, it’s been a bad year for the media in general, so in some ways the public broadcaster’s trials don’t stand in such clear relief as they might.
Sky was accused of fiddling tax, received hundreds of complaints about perennially inappropriate newsreader Kay Burley making people searching for a missing girl cry on camera and, above all, lost its chairman James Murdoch as a result of the phone-hacking scandal. But the digital channel did win praise for its investment in new British comedy, signing up big names like Steve Coogan, Chris O’Dowd and Ruth Jones.
Channel 4 marked its 30th anniversary this year. Once radical and experimental, its reliance on repetitive reality show formats has been dragging it down for years; but unexpectedly winning the rights to show the Paralympics turned out to be just the boost it needed. After a very popular Olympics, British audiences’ appetite for more sporting victories and admirable athletes proved enough to make C4’s informed, fun coverage a big hit and may, hopefully, pave the way to a new Channel 4. Or at least an ongoing series for Adam Hills.
Many reality show formats are clearly dying: ITV’s X Factor is, apparently, in “crisis talks” with Simon Cowell due to being rubbish, though I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here sustained interest with some thanks to colourful characters, as did Strictly Come Dancing with its emphasis on “good clean fun” family entertainment.
Possibly the longest-running ‘reality’ programme, the seven-yearly documentary series Up returned for a fascinating instalment, 56 Up, while Patrick Moore’s death brought to an end The Sky At Night’s stint as the longest-running programme with the same presenter. We also saw the final switch-off of the analogue signal – we’re all digital TV people now – and the end of Ceefax, surprising everyone who thought it had gone years ago.
And in Scotland, ITV and STV made up their row, enabling viewers to see all those network programmes that had gone missing in the last few years (and realising just how silly Downton Abbey really is).
While there are some programmes to look forward to already next year, it feels as if British TV is in a time of transition. Slashed budgets, tired formats and too many copycat ideas clutter the schedules. But in many ways the old adage is still true: we may not have the best TV in the world, but probably it’s still the least worst.