We open this week with a letter from May, 2003.
Dear Mr Jones
Sorry I can’t help you, but I’ve severed all links with my TV time, and the
constant requests to become an archive!
This was Frank writing, in his own hand, to my friend Ian Jones, who’d requested an interview for his book on the history of breakfast television, Morning Glory (now available, friends, on Kindle, and it’s highly recommended1). With the mightily named Good Morning Britain currently lurking just below the horizon – ITV are preparing to relaunch their tea’n’toast show yet again – the cannily timed The Battle for Britain’s Breakfast (BBC2 Tuesday, 9pm) succeeded where Ian had failed. Against all hope… cue Frank2!
I’m glad it happened. Bough’s involvement was like a consecration for a simply terrific documentary. Right from the opening, full of explosive soundbites (“People would come into my office and cry”) and a title sequence that presented the warring factions of the BBC and TV-am on a military sand table, it was clear this was a exceptionally well-crafted effort. A few weeks back I mentioned the story of Spitting Image as one of the greatest in British television. But this one is better, and it’s done an excellent service here. Once Bough had dispensed with his obligatory “last time we had dinner, can we now have lunch, to talk about breakfast?” anecdote, he was there recalling life on the front lines. How journalists had told the captain of the newly launched Breakfast Time that Frostie and the Famous Five were “gonna bury you”.
But the augurs were ill from the beginning for David Frost, who appeared at his most linguistically limp trailing Good Morning Britain with: “We’ll be live on the ‘ITV-one’ button from February one”. When TV-am did arrive – that first hour unpromisingly titled Daybreak – it began with an hour of three grey-haired men and a 12-minute Norman Tebbit interview. At his first commercial break, David grabbed Anna Ford and Angela Rippon’s knees in a lumpen show of bonhomie. “The presenters were grossly overpaid,” recalled Jonathan Aitken. “By themselves.” Click to BBC1 and Frank and Selina wondered: “How do you get a pint of milk through a letter box?” Back to the ‘ITV-one’ button: “…It was evidence of what a proletarian society Russia was.” Despite mustering the crew of the Ark Royal to spell out a ginormous ‘Britain’ in the opening titles, TV-am was sunk.
I probably knew every beat of what happened next – the arrival of Greg Dyke, Roland Rat, Bruce Gyngell, the coming of Anne and Nick, – but (Ian’s book aside, and if you’d prefer an actual paper copy, that’s possible too) it’s never been told as marvelously as this. Clips from ‘The World of Melanie Parker’ proved, at last, this hadn’t been a cheese-dream. We had a pained Peter Jay admitting he regretted “bitterly” that Angela Rippon spoke out about his ousting and also ended up on the outside. And there was Breakfast Time Svengali Ron Neill candidly reporting the BBC’s schadenfreude at all of the above: “We were very chirpy and cheerful and – dare I say? – a little bit pleased with ourselves.”
Because it had to end somewhere, this documentary chose to take the decommissioning of Breakfast Time in 1989 as it’s final line. Fair, and far, enough. The sun had set on a certain kind of programme-making, where conviviality and reassurance were at premium. Whatever is about to arise on ITV, it won’t be anything like that.
Ian Jones got a credit on the show, by the way, for additional research. I like to think his overture back in 2003 softened up Bough.
The other morning I walked to work listening to ‘Because of You’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners (Featuring Kevin Rowland)3. The opportunity didn’t present itself to steal a Golden Wonder from a lady chatting to her pal. Or, indeed, to kiss a policewoman. But it felt like both of these things could be just around the corner.
Brush Strokes (Drama, weekdays, 7pm) never seemed like the obvious next step for Esmonde and Larbey after creating the bottled-up Ever Decreasing Circles. At least in concept: the adventures of chirpy, Cockney painter-and-decorator cum Don Juan (Karl Howman, fantastic as Jacko). However, up close it’s as delicately detailed as the depiction of Martin Bryce’s suburban ennui. Certainly there’s that same underlying desperation, as Jacko’s gentle compliments provide chinks of light in desperate housewives’ lives. And some of the dialogue is positively baroque. “How could I possibly vow to cleave only unto one?” ponders our hero. Here’s another: “There’s a touch of the Cassius in you, Eric.”
Granted, the gender politics play differently today – a letter from one of Jacko’s clients complaining of “sexual overtures” is a laugh riot – but times change and there doesn’t seem much point labouring on that. What’s more killingly 1980s is the cast: Howman, Mike Walling, Howard Lew Lewis (as Elmo, TV’s definitive comedy barman), Jackie Lye, Marsha Fitzalan. They’re like a Vietnam generation of actors, all of whom should have gone on to enjoy long and prolific careers in television. Lest we forget. It was lovely to see them all again. And it’s lovely how Jacko just manages to finish painting that wall as Sydney Lotterby’s name wafts by.
It’s doubtful any show sets out to be considered as affable, but I felt that’s as good as it got for The Trip to Italy (BBC2 Friday, 10pm). And affable is not bad, is it? “I’m not as affable as perhaps I’ve given people cause to think,” said Rob Brydon. Oh well. For anyone who doubted the previous series, The Trip in 2010, there’d be nothing in this to convert them. All resolutely loose and low-key, built entirely on the presumption of our interest as Brydon and Steve Coogan defaulted into dueling Michael Caines. I liked it enough though. There’s a place in my TV-watching schedule for affability.
Which is probably why I won’t continue with Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm). I don’t have any particular aversion to the trade, but I’m not sure I want to spend any more time with the likes of thickly coiffured Gary pounding through W1 and W4 and being horrid to his assistant Ernesto. The plinky plonky incidental music and bits of light comedy (Gary struggling to get into that locked room) worked hard to manufacture a feeling of levity, of us entering a quirky parallel world. A place where Lewis in Exeter is a bit of a monster, like the man in The Call Centre. But actually he isn’t. He seemed okay, really. It was all kind of okay. But a few doors down from affable.