Where was Ant? The whole clan had been assembled on the sofa under a three-line whip ruling that we all watch TV together as a family. But what was the point, reasoned our six-year-old daughter, if Ant McPartlin, one half of the two-headed light-entertainment money-making monster, wasn’t going to bother turning up for Saturday Night Takeaway?
How do I explain this? How do I tell the kids that he’d crashed his car and staggered back to rehab? No need. “A girl at school said that her mum said that he’s [allegedly] taken too many pills,” declared the nine-year-old. “So where does that leave your big idea, Dad? The idea that because telly was better when you were a boy, when it was a cuddly, communal experience … when less-was-more regarding the number of channels but that was a good thing … when the presenters were paternalistic, quite bossy, borderline domineering but that was just what the nation needed and we neither knew nor cared about their private lives because celebrity culture wasn’t the big, slavering, insatiable beastie it is now? Come on, Dad, you need to tell us … ”
All right, I exaggerate for comic effect, but not by much. Broadcasters are currently harking back to those days – we’re specifically talking the 1970s – even more than I do on a weekly basis and there’s no bigger nostalgist than your correspondent.
On the same day it was announced that Fanny Cradock was making a comeback, so was Bruce Forsyth. Okay, not literally as both these small-screen giants are in TV Heaven now, but The Generation Game is returning to the BBC with Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins as presenters and Cradock’s cookery shows are to be re-heated for the iPlayer generation.
Enough already, I’m full! Too many programmes from the golden age are being revived, re-booted and re-made. Many others are being served up exactly as they were. Now it’s possible I might enjoy some of these shows all over again, but this would have to be on my own, curtains drawn, with a packet of Twiglets or a box of Matchmakers. That won’t ever happen, though. The kids rule the TV in our house and, invited to discover the slow, simple pleasures of The Generation Game’s conveyor belt, they would simply laugh and ridicule me.
The Gen Game – and I bet that’s what the twerpish trend-spotters sent up in W1A call it – was part of pre-Ant and Dec classic Saturday night. The perfect line-up included unconventional US crime busters (Ironside, Kojak) and conventional British ones (Dixon of Dock Green, Juliet Bravo). The Two Ronnies, the football highlights and Parkinson were unbudgeable. Strictly speaking the night of nights began with Jim’ll Fix It but we don’t mention that programme anymore, so the start-point for the dream schedule, the idiot-lantern apotheosis, is regarded as Brucie’s rapid mince centre-stage, chin jutting, as he implored Anthea Redfern to “give us a twirl”.
Rapid mince – did Cradock have a recipe for that? Well, I don’t remember it featuring because Fanny wanted to change hearts and stomachs. Rid us of our reliance on the safe and the traditional. Rid housewives of the notion that the cooker enslaved them when in fact it could empower. They were to think of it as a fast car or, since the Space Race was ongoing, a rocket capsule.
The link between Fanny and Brucie was probably the fondue set. You could win one on The Generation Game and Cradock would show you what to do with it. Suddenly your three-day-week, three-channels-only existence burned with new and exciting possibilities and the government-enforced power cuts were no impediment to them.
As exotic as fondue sets were – all that bumping of forks as the pot sizzled during dinner parties was potentially a prelude to wife-swapping – The Generation Game’s prizes were modestly BBC and always something aspirational would be counterbalanced by something improving (eg, handsome encyclopedias). So how will the conveyor belt look next to Saturday Night Takeaway’s lavish holidays in Florida?
How will the charm of the original – the bashfulness and blundering of the contestants – survive in this era of TV-ready exhibitionists? (Answer: it won’t). And what about the presenter-assistant dynamic? Anthea never quite clambered inside the conveyor belt with a spanner if the cuddly toy had snarled up the mechanics, but you know that in such an eventuality it would be her job. Mel and Sue, you imagine, will have a more equal relationship, though I’m afraid I won’t be watching.
The Generation Game was very much of its time, which was not so distant from the variety age. Its disinterment, and that of other old shows, is self-celebration by the Beeb masking a shortage of new ideas. I loved The Old Grey Whistle Test first time round when I wanted to rebel against the concept of family viewing: here was something wild and long-haired and groovy. But when it returned recently my grown-up sophistication told me that Bob Harris wasn’t the incisive interviewer I’d originally thought, rather an outcisive outerviewer. Meanwhile, the updated version of Porridge was just dreadful.
Did Fanny have a recipe for porridge? Can’t remember that either. But you know what? Her Christmas editions – uploaded onto iPlayer last December – were a riot and I may just have room for the cheese and wine party special that’s coming soon.
Stabbing a festive goose with a fork, she advised: “Imagine this is someone you’ve never really liked but you’re too well-bred to say what you think of them.” And in this presenter-assistant relationship – one unique in television – any malfunctioning of the oven or just some routine de-greasing would necessitate her husband Johnnie, hen-pecked or rather goose-jabbed, getting right down to it.