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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Zen arcade 2016

Behold, the promised Telly Addict: Zen Roundup of The Year! Officially Telly Addict #26, the 26th Telly Addict of my half-year contract with UKTV, who resurrected the show and treated it with care, attention, love, personnel, marketing and doughnuts during that allotted time – so a big thanks to all who sailed in her, not least Dave, Joel, Matt, Cherish and Justine (upstairs). It’s not over yet, but there will be a hiatus, during which I shall endeavour to maintain the blog, and with a prevailing wind and a bit of luck, the Telly Addict brand will continue in a modified form. You watch this space, and I’ll keep watching the glowing box in the corner of the room.

Rather than spoil the show, here are a few screengrabs in the traditional style that, I think, cumulatively say “the second half of 2016 in televisual terms”. If you want to ease our passage into the New Year, all comments, views, thumbs-ups, “likes” and shares either here, on YouTube, or on Twitter, will help make the case for its free-to-air return. There will be no crowdsourcing – I don’t feel comfortable begging for money – but where there’s an audience, there’s a way. If you haven’t watched all the 25 previous Telly Addicts yet, why not go back and do so: every hit helps. If you find a TA with a lowly view-total of around a thousand to 1,500 , give the runt a glance.

Thanks for watching thus far. See you on the other side.

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You have been watching

Apologies for the delay of the blog entry of the 25th Telly Addict, which will be the last regular Telly Addict of 2016. After this week’s promised Zen round-up, which is going to be a corker, we’re taking a break. But Telly Addict will return in 2017. Look out for some special Telly Addicts in the New Year, and – fingers crossed, MPs lobbied, YouTube clips and blog entries “liked”, “shared” and Tweeted – we’ll be back under the same UKTV umbrella, the one which has kept Telly Addict dry for the last 26 weeks, after the Guardian made it homeless in April. (I have genuinely cancelled my subscription to the newspaper.)

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In the last regular Telly Addict, a review of the finale of The Missing (BBC Two), which ought to be far enough in the past now for some footage of three main characters walking through the woods in what is actually Belgium for tax reasons no longer to constitute an active spoiler. I loved this second series, perhaps even more than the first, which for me was at least one episode short of an eight episode drama. This one confidently expanded to fill the slot, and even went so far as to reveal the villain in episode six, without losing our rapt attention. Fantastic work, Jack and Harry Williams, and director Ben Chanan. The cast were top-flight, too: Roger Allam, David Morrissey, Tchéky Karyo, Anastasia Hille, Keeley Hawes (an actress so often called upon to be sad and vexed who will be smiling again in the New Year in The Durrells), Laura Fraser and Derek Riddell.

It’s ongoing, but I’m enjoying the sheer, unvarnished gloom of Rillington Place (BBC Two). Those of us who hold the movie version with Richard Attenborough dear were always going to have trouble erasing his eerie performance from our minds, but Tim  Roth, whispering his way to the gallows, gives him a run for his money, with Samantha Morton particularly strong as Ethel. Considering this is the season to be jolly, there’s not much in the drama department to support that cliché. (Even the Christmas Radio Times seems to be filled with murder and melancholy. Maybe that reflects the shitty year we’ve had.)

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A little treat to remedy the mood: We Have Been Watching (Gold), a simple knock-off of Gogglebox except with the stars of comedy watching comedy, in a couple of cases, comedies they are literally in. It works because of the rapport between the couples doing the watching. We share their excitement as, say, the Father Ted logo fades up.

The happiest bits come from Him and Her, Sarah Solemani and Russell Tovey, who seem to be the very best of pals, and the saddest bits come from Ricky Tomlinson, forced to watch the clip of him and Caroline Aherne from the 1999 Royle Family Christmas special, which has all sorts of emotions flying about and making the party hats look ironic.

Quite how three working MPs fit in to all this festivity and murder, I don’t know, but here they are, Nick Clegg, Naz Shah and the fictional character Jacob Rees-Mogg in MPs: Behind Closed Doors (Channel 5), a valuable one-off doc showing the three of them in surgery, dealing with the people who elected them, or didn’t, including some persuasive and adamant constituents who won’t take no for an answer. Not that politicians ever say yes or no, they just waffle and prevaricate and avoid confirmation or denial. Which is why Nick Clegg comes across the best. Give it a spin on catch-up. You’ll be proud to be part of the electorate, even if you disagree with the assessment that Jacob Rees-Mogg is “quite human.”

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Also recommended, if you have a strong heart as it’s very sad, is UB40: Promises & Lies (BBC Four, where else?), anything but a standard rock doc. I had caught wind of there now being two UB40s, but I had no idea how this split had destroyed the Campbell family, and how ongoing the acrimony seems to be. It’s on iPlayer for a couple more weeks, and needs to be seen.

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The final Telly Addict of the year, and for now, will be up on Thursday, that bumper round-up I was talking about. A year like the one we’ve had requires extra Zen.

Back after the break

 

Please do click on this link and visit the YouTube page, as our future depends on your support!

On 12 April, 2016, the Guardian ran its last edition of Telly Addict. My weekly fixed-shot, to-camera review of what was on the television the week before had run for 249 episodes, beginning in May 2011, and named after my TV review column in the still-missed Word magazine, which ran between 2004 and 2006 (itself named after the BBC quiz show Telly Addicts, on which my family had appeared in 1990). It had been a good innings, and Telly Addict had survived a number of opaque regime changes in the multimedia department, which seemed to exist as a kind of republic within the vast Guardian kingdom. Reviewing TV for the website certainly didn’t bestow upon me any sort of journalistic legitimacy at the newspaper itself, where I remained largely on the outside of the glass, looking in. I will always be grateful to have had the chance to make a short film about TV every week, pretty much without a break, for five years, and under the banner of a world-class news brand.

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Producer Matt Hall (whom I’d known since my earliest days in the media when we worked on the old Radio Five) called me in, in March 2011, and we made a couple of modest pilots. (Quite why I was getting to do this and not one of the paper’s regular TV writers was a mystery.) This is a rare still from one of the first two non-broadcast pilots. As you can see, the chair was visible, and so were my arms. These were cropped out in a tighter shot that, give or take the angle I sat at, remained fixed for the next five years. We went live on 6 May, 2011; I reviewed two BBC dramas, Exile and The Shadow Line, and a brand new fantasy from HBO which I understand is still going. Matt left a couple of years in, leaving me without an executive champion at the department, but the whole operation was so self-contained, with one overworked member of staff thanklessly lighting, shooting, directing, producing and editing (for the larger part of its life, Andy, for the final year, Mona), we just sort of carried on doing it and nobody “upstairs” seemed to mind, or perhaps notice. It was not always easy to find Telly Addict in the maelstrom of a constantly refreshed newspaper website (with a rare 24-hour window of promotion at the very foot of the homepage and then all bets were off) and when they rolled out a major redesign of the site I was among a large constituency who could no longer view Telly Addict comfortably on a Mac (which I suspect lost us a lot of regular viewers). But I did my best to promote it through the usual means. I loved doing it, and I loved the finished product.

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The writing was on the wall in the final six months, when budgets everywhere were being cut, and the Guardian Film Show (a much longer programme that involved three Guardian staffers or contracted freelancers a week, which started the same time as Telly Addict) went first. The final Telly Addict went up on 12 April, a sad review of the past five years, and the laments, farewells and tributes poured in below the line – where, over five years, I like to think we’d evolved an uncharacteristically sensible, positive, witty, well-informed and largely troll-free community. This was one of the reasons I launched this blog. It was a way of staying in touch with that community (or the most steadfast of its acolytes).

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The good news is, Telly Addict is reborn. Last week, it was “soft-launched” at its new home, broadcaster UKTV (umbrella over the boutique channels Dave, Gold, W, Yesterday, Really, Alibi, Eden, Good Food and Home), who are expanding their online presence, with previews, clips and self-produced shorts on their YouTube channel. The first edition [above] is effectively the broadcast pilot. I hope you like it. The show will now run every Tuesday. Normal service, you might say, is resumed. There is a tyranny of stats on YouTube, of course. Nobody at the Guardian ever seemed to want to tell me how many people watched Telly Addict. Well, there’s no hiding place any more.

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I’m sure the “likes” and “dislikes” will give me nightmares, but overall, it already feels great to have a new home. After all, UKTV make television programmes. And Telly Addict is a television programme about other people’s television programmes. And the folk who work there are real TV enthusiasts, with a certain spring in their step which is not always a given in television. (I’ve worked with their channels as a moderator at a number of events in the past.)

On the matter of my obligation to review shows that are on UKTV, I will only be reviewing new or returning or “event” shows that I might I have reviewed on Telly Addict anyway, and I have 100% editorial independence. Frankly, if I don’t like a new sitcom on Gold, I won’t cover it (if you know anything about me as a critic, you’ll know that I do not slag programmes off for the sport of it; I prefer to celebrate the best of what’s on the telly). The other upside is that there are no ads on the UKTV YouTube channel, whereas the Guardian tagged each episode with an embedded ad that you couldn’t skip.

For the record, all 249 episode of Telly Addict for the Guardian remained archived here.

You can see why we held back any big announcements or press releases or flypasts on Thursday and Friday this week, so next week it is. It’s great to be back. You will recognise one or two of the shirts.