Back in 1994 Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris contrived a wicked send-up of television news with The Day Today, but I laughed loudest after the BBC show had finished broadcasting. Morris’s unctuous delivery as the anchorman, Steve Coogan’s bampot turns as sports presenter Alan Partridge, the self-important theme music and the computer-generated credits which never stopped were supposed to be exaggerated versions of small-screen techniques and tics. Maybe America and some excitable Latin countries delivered news like this, but we were far more sophisticated. Well, weren’t we ...?
Then the parody became the style. The Day Today became de rigueur the day after. Titles sequences started to go on and on and bloody on. Despatches became more portentous. “Feel the warmth of our sincerity,” the newsmen seemed to be saying. “The hand of history is on our shoulders.” Didn’t they realise the programme was a joke?
But it wasn’t Iannucci and Morris’s first news spoof. The Day Today grew out of On the Hour, a radio version, just as funny, with a regular slot devoted to “local news”. “In your region, in your region,” went the jaunty jingle before the headlines were imparted. What would they be? This was typical of the lead item, in squeaky, stammering tones: “A cardboard box blew along Main Street today ... ”
Phew, I thought, that was close. I may have reported on some epicly parochial affairs back when I was a cub reporter on the Dalkeith Advertiser or Musselburgh News, but I never had to space-fill in the first week of the summer trades holidays quite like that. And to be fair to STV2, just before I start being possibly unfair to the doomed channel, it didn’t either. But it was very local. At any given moment, I half-expected to see one of my neighbours turn up in a voxpop or the school lollypop woman hosting an afternoon cookery show. Local was the raison d’etre, I realise it was in the same spirit as that part of the tea-time news on the main STV channel which is editionised: Edinburgh stories for Edinburgh viewers, Glasgow stories for Glasgow viewers. But is this really what TV should be doing?
I was about to make a cheap joke. I almost wrote “Edinburgh pothole stories” and “Glasgow pothole stories”. Then I remembered that just as people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, so you shouldn’t throw stones at glass screens behind which reporters are beavering away, like all hacks, and that very few of us haven’t been parish-pump and frothy and trivial at some point in our careers.
But I repeat: while I can be local, I see no need for TV to be. Local is not what I watch TV for and it never has been. I grew up in the 1960s and was therefore in thrall to the goggle-box, the crystal bucket and those times when it was the idiot-lantern. I watched, transfixed, as cameras were trained on slurry tips (the Aberfan disaster), needles of rock (Dougal Haston etc climbing the Old Man of Hoy) and grey nothingness (the surface of the Moon). Nothing happened for ages but I didn’t budge an inch.
This is a different telly generation: less wide-eyed, more travelled, less time on its hands, more sussed – but more cynical, too. It probably doesn’t need TV to be a window on the world (this one and others 238,900 miles away) as mine did, with a safari-suited Alan Whicker striding across airport runways and into strange lands, moustache bristling at the prospect of exciting new experiences. But this generation clearly doesn’t need STV2 either. It doesn’t need to see the re-runs of Taggart it never watched first time round and it certainly doesn’t want High Road dug out from under the Cowcaddens compost-heap, a wobbly-walled soap opera rebranded as “classic drama” on the basis of all the time that’s passed, and in the hope no one would notice.
This generation, if it’s interested in Scottish culture and the face the country presents, but even if it isn’t and just wanted to watch something vaguely contemporary, might wonder why STV2 wasn’t able to tell any new stories from Scotland.
Money, I suppose. I assume it was the annual budget coming in around 17s 6d and not a lack of vision and ambition which meant there was so little original programming. But if a station can’t make its own shows or enough of them – and particularly in Scotland, birthplace of John Logie Baird – what is the point of being a station at all?
STV2, the last time I looked, was filling the air-time with hoary old movies, a bought-in soap from Ireland and crime documentaries imported from countries where cops will have their own versions of the fraternal Sauchiehall Street greeting: “There’s been a murder.” You wonder if the channel grabbed all this stuff at a trade fair for hard-up stations. And you might ask if the fair took its name from a quip from the doyen of telly critics, Clive James: “More gloop from the schlock-hopper.” Wade through the gloop and you might have found Live at 5, a tea-time chat show which was at least indigenous. But less than 100 watched the first editions and STV2 never really recovered from that underwhelming start a year ago.
This is the age of brilliant, high-end TV programmes and if there was ever a good moment to launch a pawky wee Scottish channel this wasn’t it. But probably STV2 wasn’t pawky enough. It was local in a way it shouldn’t have been, and not local enough in the way it should.
News just in: “A cardboard box blew along Main Street today ... ”