Aidan Smith: History of TV puts comic heroes in their place

Rab C Nesbitt, played by Gregor Fisher, might feature in a top 100 compilation of the funniest TV shows, but superlatives are not the stuff of Phil Normans TV history. Picture: BBCRab C Nesbitt, played by Gregor Fisher, might feature in a top 100 compilation of the funniest TV shows, but superlatives are not the stuff of Phil Normans TV history. Picture: BBC
Rab C Nesbitt, played by Gregor Fisher, might feature in a top 100 compilation of the funniest TV shows, but superlatives are not the stuff of Phil Normans TV history. Picture: BBC
For all that we invented TV, a new book suggests a lesser role and a big dilemma if we ever go it alone, writes Aidan Smith

When Neil MacGregor, the Glasgow-born director of the British Museum, told the story of civilisation in a radio programme called A History of the World in 100 Objects, you just knew it wouldn’t end there. There have been countless rip-off books which have plundered the format but whether any of them has enriched civilisation is a moot point.

Still, when A History of Television in 100 Programmes landed on my desk, I was intrigued. We invented the goggle-box, and if you like, gained a head start on everyone else – surely in all the years since John Logie Baird’s first tele-recording demo with a cabbage we’ve managed to produce the odd landmark programme worthy of inclusion in the great roll-call? Alas no, and we should know that planting the first flag comes with no guarantees. After all, England devised football and were then forced to watch almost everyone else learn how to play the game so much better.

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Of course, Phil Norman’s book is not definitive. It’s a subjective list like them all. There’s nothing to stop you compiling your own, and finding room for Tutti Frutti, Just a Boys’ Game or even – bless his manky semmit – Rab C Nesbitt. But Scotland’s no-show is even more perplexing when you study Norman’s methodology. He’s not interested in a Best of … compilation.

“A crudely calibrated Hundred Greatest, a solemn Hall of Fame, would give only a fraction of the picture,” he writes. “This book aims to celebrate and mimic the serendipitous joy of that scheduling jumble which, in the days of restricted channel numbers, threw up dizzy juxtapositions daily.

“This isn’t a book about how much ‘better’ television once was, but how much stranger it used to be – much braver, more foolhardy, unself-conscious and creatively energetic before commerce knocked those fascinating corners off its character.”

Therefore the question has to be asked, and I sense you straining to get in first here: how come the 100 doesn’t feature Thingummyjig, an STV production, obviously? Sydney Devine murdering country songs in a yellow Spandex jumpsuit? The static from his hip-thrusts likely to set fire to the hay bales on which the OAP audience is perched? The wee wifies gloriously unperturbed, and as they study the bold Sydney’s shoogling and shimmying, their only care coming when one nudges her friend to inquire: “Agnes, I hope you bought the lemon bonbons for the bus home?”

Regarding the kind of TV we want, Scotland faces such a dilemma right now: does it seek the safety of the bus or risk getting burned? Does it carry on making just a few programmes, some of them not very good, and continue complaining when the rest of TV’s output is deemed unrepresentative? Or does it unplug itself from the BBC and establish the Scottish Broadcasting Service with many more locally-produced shows better reflecting national mood and aspiration (while asking if it can please continue taking Strictly Come Dancing because everyone loves that)?

Now, the SBS isn’t on offer quite yet, and may never be, but if and when it comes, we seriously hope there will be something worth watching. I don’t think there will be much enthusiasm for shows trying too hard to be Scottish. If there’s anything worse than being patronised by a TV scheduler 300 miles away in Television Centre, it’s being told what’s good for you by one from just the other side of the Clyde’s Squiggly Bridge.

I’ve no doubt that Scotland could produce another Armando Iannucci or Peter Capaldi, but would they be interested in hanging around long enough to make small programmes for a local audience? And how local’s too local? Iannucci, when he went to London to make On the Hour with Chris Morris, spoofed local news like this: “A cardboard box blew along Main Street today.” A kind of devolved telly can already be found on STV in the station’s teatime bulletin, with east and west coast viewers getting their own headlines. Now, I live in Edinburgh but I also like hearing what’s going on with Glasgow’s cardboard boxes.

From the first flicker and crackle, our TV has been produced on the cheap, often heroically. STV’s first supremo, Roy (later Lord) Thomson, famously called the franchise “a licence to print money”, but as Kenneth Roy reminds us in his book The Invisible Spirit: a Life of Post-War Scotland, Thomson didn’t throw much of it at the programmes. Lunchtime variety show The One O’Clock Gang could only hire the cheapest comics and when the boss found out that a five-piece band had been booked, he promptly fired four of them and bought a Wurlitzer organ. If we ever get a Scottish Broadcasting Service my pick for director-general would be Stanley Baxter with Iannucci as his deputy and Peter McDougall (of the aforementioned Just a Boys’ Game) as Head of Drama. The great Baxter would regularly blow a light-entertainment department’s entire budget on one dance number – everyone done up like giant Lees Macaroon Bars. That’s the kind of boldness we would need but alas Stanley is 89 now and even McDougall is 68.

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Once you understand the criteria for A History of Television in 100 Programmes, the book starts to makes sense and it’s entirely appropriate for Crossroads, The Singing, Ringing Tree and – one I’m devastated to have missed – Kingsley Amis Goes Pop to be included along with more predictable picks such as I, Claudius, Life on Earth and The Sopranos.

The Tube gets in there and Muriel Gray was one of the presenters. So too Nationwide for whom Donnie MacLeod was a kenspeckle presence. But that’s pretty much our lot.

No-one in Scotland doubts the contribution to the gaiety of this nation made by Mary Marquis and her beehive and Arthur Montford and his test card-patterned jackets but they and others are superstars of the regional opt-out. Before the arrangement becomes permanent, some might need assurances that no more exposure will be given to Sydney Devine’s bonbons.