It’s the point!

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In 1993, my then-partner Stuart Maconie and I had a meeting in a loud Chinatown pub that’s since changed its name and become a gay bar (actually, maybe it was always a gay bar but we didn’t notice) with a gigantic, enterprising young television writer and an also-fairly-tall, equally enterprising comic actor, both in their early, postgraduate 20s. (We were both nearer to 30.) They had an idea for a radio show in which Stuart and I would play our broadcasting selves, or versions of our broadcasting selves, and the comic actor – whose name we took to be David Williams, but which he’d just changed to Walliams to avoid a clash at Equity – would play a parade of people who called in. It was a genial meeting. We were keen. We liked the men. They seemed to like us. The idea never went to the next stage, and other meetings and projects got in the way for all four of us. At the time, Stuart and I were most excited about having met the writer, Richard, who we discovered was the younger brother of Suede’s bassist Mat Osman. Mat was very much the famous Osman in 1993, and Stuart and I knew Suede well. Look! (Mat isn’t in this photo, but you get the gist of our familiarity with the younger, cooler, arseless gentlemen of Britain’s most happening band.)

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We crossed paths with the less famous, non-bass-playing Osman a year or so later, when we were put up for an audition by our new showbiz agent. This took place at the production company Heyland International, who made the computer game show GamesMaster and were looking for two new presenters for a similar but nightly show called GamesWorld. Richard worked there as a researcher – his first proper job in TV, I have since learned. If we took his presence as a lucky charm, we were wrong to do so. We gave it our best shot, commentating on some gameplay, but even though Stuart and I loved playing on the NES in my flat, we were out of depth.

All of which makes me feel a lot older, and dovetails nicely into an appreciation of Pointless, the BBC daytime quiz show that has recently passed its 1,000th edition and leaves all other daytime quiz shows in the dust. While surely nobody could object to the ease with which Alexander (“Xander”) Armstrong has slipped into the role of quiz show host, it is the high regard and public profile Pointless has bestowed upon Richard Osman that is its most important and unexpected achievement. He was, after all, a backroom boy at Endemol UK, the production company which conceived the format and according to origins fable only filled in as co-presenter in a demo for the BBC. (Execs liked him so much, they commissioned him into the format. Had he not been, he would still be one of the six who can lay claim to the format.) Quiz show hosts are traditionally drawn from the pool of recognisable entertainment figures, usually comic – think of Bob Monkhouse, Terry Wogan, Les Dawson, Bruce Forsyth, Lily Savage, Chris Tarrant, Bradley Walsh and even, latterly, Mark Williams and Mark Benton – but in the case of Pointless, a star has been born.

I have my Mum and Dad to thank for getting me hooked on Pointless. Each time I go back to Northampton to visit them and stay overnight, I willingly succumb to their routine of catching up with their favourite shows, which includes Pointless, The Chase and Only Connect, but it’s the former that proved the revelation. Its low-key geniality is deceptive; this is a true test of general knowledge in pairs and singly that’s about so much more than getting the “right” answer. While the early rounds, which eliminate two out of the four opening pairs of pals, siblings, relatives and partners, can be built around a straightforward binary right-or-wrong answer to the clue, anagram or picture, the best are those that offer up a potential pool of answers, such as US Presidents whose surname comes alphabetically between Bush and Reagan. The “pointless” part is the pivot – indeed, its “point”; whatever the composition of each round (or “pass”), the more obscure your answer, the less points you notch up.

I have been attached to Pointless for a long time now – although I cannot claim to have been in at the ground floor (a claim I cannot make for The Great British Bake Off, or Masterchef: The Professionals either, but both became staples once I saw the light) – and once you’re in, there are repeats and Celebrities editions to catch up with. It’s the gift that goes on giving. While it’s fun to see the celebrities paired up in themed shows, it’s the civilian shows that really describe the comfort and joy of the format. As the world gets darker – and I can’t remember a time since the 80s when it felt so irredeemably insane – Pointless becomes ever more of a beacon.

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It’s eight affable people who, whether academic or self-taught, take sufficient note of the world around them to take an educated guess at some assorted subjects (“Words” “Famous People” “Countries”), be they celebrities or non-celebrities – and in fact, the non-celebrities are nearly always more impressive, if not, in the case of sportspeople, more competitive. (Rhona Cameron is one of very few celebs to actually embarrass themselves on the show by being too triumphant, and for failing to stay on her mark.) When Pointless began, in 2009, the world was a much happier place. As events have ground grimly on in the intervening years, its place in the world seems ever more vital to our sanity. Even after a hard day at the coalface of sanity in the face of almost insurmountable vulgarity, avarice and violence, Pointless calms the nerves. The banter between Armstrong and Osman – warm, spontaneous, genuine, without malice – is a balm for a broken world.

The duo are co-hosting this year’s Radio Times Covers Party next week. After the ceremony, I shall be accosting that young researcher in person and volunteering for the next Pointless Celebrities with a radio theme. I got two pointless answers in the final last night – cast members of the film Rush.

If only Osman and Armstrong could co-host Earth.

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The tube

The return of Telly Addict. Can it really have been a whole week since the first “soft launch” broadcast pilot went live under my new roof at UKTV’s YouTube site? I have yet to wean myself off the “refresh” key, as it’s a new toy to me. There was no way of monitoring views on the Guardian website, but YouTube make it too easy to fixate and tap. We’re also under a whole new dictatorship of stats, so when I ask if you wouldn’t mind awfully clicking on “like” and “subscribe”, be gentle with me. I’m new here. It’s fortuitous that Celebrity Masterchef gets a nod this week. Regular viewers will know that I have no defences against this brand and have even succumbed to Masterchef The Professionals, thus swelling my portfolio. It’s a tired old dig to remark that you have not heard of some of the “celebrities” on Celebrity-prefixed formats, but having been on Celebrity Mastermind myself (I came second), I can hardly mither. Not knowing who this young gentleman was is my failing, not his.

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He’s Marcus Butler, 24, and he has over 4.5 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, despite not enunciating his words very well. He seems nice enough. hey, I am over the moon to have had 817 views of the first Telly Addict. But give me time. (Oh, I watched the first of Marcus’s clips, and it seemed to be about him saying that men should be more empathic of women, and then trying to put on a pair of tights as if to prove what a hard life women have. It was pretty thin stuff.) I am not in competition with Marcus Butler. I’m not in competition with anybody. I review three or four programmes that I watched last week, which this week also includes: the series finale of Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic), the series finale of The Good Wife (More4), and, to please my UKTV overlords, the new series of format-of-formats Taskmaster (Dave), which I raved about on Telly Addict long before UKTV came to my rescue. Also, a tip of the hat to The Secret Life of a Bus Garage (ITV), which is on ITV Hub here. It’s a heart-warming, pre-Brexit vision of a functioning South West London multicultural utopia, in a place of work where 50 languages are spoken. I hope everybody we see on the show still has a job and has not started getting sly abuse from emboldened thickos.

Get clicking.

Stop of the Pops

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I love Top of The Pops (BBC Four). I realised how very much I loved it when, a year after Jimmy Savile’s death, the nauseating truth began to unfold and any editions of the nation’s favourite chart show presented by the grim reaper were understandably taken out of circulation. (He hosted around 300 editions between 1964 and 2006, including the first and the last.) In 2012, the year Operation Yewtree began, BBC Four were in full nostalgic swing with real-time repeats of Top of The Pops on Thursday nights, by then most of the way into 1977, a chance for those of a certain age to relive their youth. Sinister, telltale gaps started to appear in what had previously been an unbroken weekly virtual reality experience. Gary Glitter, arrested that October and jailed in February 2013, was already persona non grata in archival terms, and had long since been wiped from pop history. But now, with good reason, we lost any editions the monstrous Savile hosted or co-hosted. The subsequent arrest of Dave Lee Travis in November 2013 removed another batch of Pops shows (he was eventually convicted of one count of indecent assault in 2014). The arrest and imprisonment of Rolf Harris made less of a mark on the archive as he’d stopped having hits by the late 70s (although the mid-90s edition where he performs Stairway To Heaven will most likely now not be shown – if we get that far).

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Even though Paul Gambaccini was acquitted of any wrongdoing, his arrest in 2013 temporarily cast doubt over editions he presented. Disaster averted there, thankfully. And now Tony Blackburn has been sacked by the BBC (not arrested, by the way, but fired from the BBC because his testimony to Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into Savile differed from the Corporation’s version of events over an allegation made in 1971 which Blackburn denies and which he claims the BBC never interviewed him about at the time, hence the disparity, hence the overreacton by Tony Hall). This, we have to assume, takes the many shows he presented off the table, which certainly includes a couple in the early 80s, otherwise packed with fabulous music from a peppy time when the studio seemed less like a mausoleum and more like a balloon factory. All of this makes you grateful for Peter Powell, John Peel, Paul Burnett, Simon Bates, Kid Jensen, Steve Wright and indeed any Top Of The Pops presenter never to have had a knock at the door from Inspector Knacker. (Incidentally, Blackburn has threatened legal action against his former employers and continues to broadcast on local commercial radio in Kent.)

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We’re into the 80s now, so at least we can put history’s most sexually suspect decade behind us. The very glimpse of a presenter with his arms around teenage girls now makes us shudder, however innocently, even if it speaks of no greater crime than being an adult male working in the entertainment industry between the years 1970-79. The tactile culture, an implicit patriarchy where young women were still called “girls” or “birds”, was not helped by the weekly cavort by Legs & Co, all-female dance troupe, often scantily clad (some weeks, even into the 80s, Legs & Co are essentially in bras and pants), and, one may assume, filmed by all-male camera crews; the creepy male gaze in full effect. It really was another time, another place. I was a child during the 70s and not expected to be sexually anything, never mind sexually enlightened; I gorged on TOTP, weekly, because it had all the pop acts and bands on that were in the charts. It was a simple contract.

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As an adult, I have been all over the BBC Four reruns. Top of the Pops has become again a must-see treat, every Thursday. With all the episodes that have been retired due to unforeseen sexual assault and predatory paedophilia, it’s an incomplete experience, but one that I still cherish; even if, let’s be brutally honest, there’s nothing to top the sheer plurality of a 1970s Pops, with its feverish mix of glam rock, rock’n’roll revivalism, punk, disco, soul, funk, novelty singles and end-of-the-pier holiday cabaret music sung by people who looked like your auntie and uncles. Apparently, there is still a chart, but it’s not on telly every week, and it’s bent out of shape by downloads and the X-Factor, and I haven’t heard of most of the people who top it (or if I have, I don’t much care about them, as they don’t seem to be able to make a record without one of the other people “featuring” on it).

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To an extent, yes, I live in the past, and TOTP enables that illusion for 30 blessed minutes. The past is a foreign country, and a half-hour cross-section of its popular music gives me a Proustian rush and a snapshot of a more innocent time. (I realise the very idea of “innocence” is now tainted by grim findings, but you know what I mean). To give you a clue as to how far out of synch we are now with real-time TOTP, the editions now showing are from August 1981 – we’re five months into the future in the past! BBC Four have been occasionally showing two a week, as if to sweep these valuable time capsules under the carpet (or maybe just to clear the decks for the Proms and the more-important festival season). The writing may well be on the wall. The Top Of The Pops balloon may be about to go up. History has been rewritten by the victims, and we must respect that. But I so wish the BBC could afford to sit an editor down in a suite for a year and carefully edit out any sexual miscreants from archived shows, so that we could at least watch the music without the links.

For the record, I wrote about Savile in my other blog in October 2012, before Yewtree’s findings.

Stop Press: see comments below for insight into why editing out miscreants might not work.