Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Searching, In Vain, For A New Idea

This is another one from the Telly Topping archives - an extended version of a Deep Thought article wot yer actual wrote for TV Zone and which was first published in December 2007. I've got one or two more of these lying about on disc which I might put up here on the blog one day ... if I feel like it.

In December 1970, during his infamously foul-mouthed and soul-bearing post-Beatles-split interview with Jenn Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine, alcoholic, wife-beating Scouse junkie John Lennon was asked for his views, if any, on The Beatles only major rival for the title of "the best Goddamn band in the whole Goddamn world. Bar Goddamn none. Baby." “Mick Jagger's a fucking joke" Lennon noted, with his customary acid wit spiked to unusual levels of in-your-face creativity by a lethal combination of primal scream therapy and lots of heroin. "I'd like to list what we did and what The Stones did two months later on every album.”
Imitation may, indeed, be the sincerest form of flattery but there was remarkably little cheerful goodwill around and about in July 2007 when the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson, accused ITV of "copycatting" BBC shows and formats in a widely quoted interview with Ariel the BBC's in-house magazine. Thompson claimed that the recently concluded ITV series Tycoon was "very like The Apprentice … and there's possibly a bit of Dragons Den in there". How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? was, similarly, cited in the BBC’s annual report as one of the networks strategic programming highlights of the year - along with the usual suspects Doctor Who, Top Gear, anything David Attenborough touches, et cetera. But, it was also said to be yet another example of the corporation's programmes being adapted. The ITV show Grease Is The Word, which went head-to-head with Maria on Saturday nights during the spring of 2007, was considered by many – both within the industry and, indeed, outside - to be nothing more than a spoiler for, and a pale imitation of, the BBC show. And one which, with some glee on the part of the Beeb, spectacularly failed to find much of an audience. Although Thompson claimed that he was “flattered” by such blatant mimicry, an audience-research project commissioned for the BBC's annual report suggested that viewers wanted more innovation and unique content in TV shows. Only fifty one per cent of respondents thought the BBC was being sufficiently innovative.

Once a few jokes about Thompson going on to accuse ITV of "looking at my exam paper" and, subsequently, threatening to "snitch ITV up to the teacher - like a dirty stinking Copper's nark - if they don't pack it in" had done the rounds, a serious study of his claims was attempted by that den of Communists and malcontents, the Gruniad Morning Star. They quoted an alleged nameless ITV 'insider' - notice, 'insiders' are always nameless, it goes with the territory - as suggesting that such accusations were nothing new. "Television endlessly invents and re-invents itself and there are as many examples of BBC copycat [ITV] programming. Graham Norton's When Will I Be Famous? was launched as a spoiler for Britain's Got Talent but [it] didn't hit the mark. Fame Academy wasn't a million miles [away] from Pop Idol and Dance X is hardly revolutionary." Yet in March 2007 – just two months after taking over at ITV - former BBC chairman Michael Grade admitted that a lack of creativity at ITV had led to the commercial broadcaster quite openly copying successful programming from elsewhere. "We’ve been very quick to copy other people’s formats and stick the word ‘Celebrity’ on the front," he said, promising that such conceits would end under his tenure.

When it comes to reality programming such repetition is, possibly, to be expected. There are, after all, only so many different situations into which willing participants (celebrity or otherwise) can be placed for entertainment, humiliation or novelty value before the viewer becomes satiated with an overkill of content-over-style. Hence the “safety in the tried and tested” principle. When it comes to drama, however, such charges of borrowed ideas and formats are not new. But they are becoming more sustained.

ITV’s big drama hit of summer 2007 was a superb three-part story of the psychological and emotional torture of child abduction and the subsequently strained legal process, Torn. It had a genuine quality cast (Holly Aird from Waking The Dead, Nicola Walker from [spooks] and Bradley Walsh to name but three), a mass of pre-publicity and it went straight to DVD on the back of the initial airing which produced some of ITV’s best drama ratings in months. It was also, both conceptually and, to an extent in terms of content, uncomfortably close to aspects of the BBC’s big hit of February 2007, Five Days.

An even more pointed example of such perceived unoriginality in commissioning and presentation occurred in October 2007 with ITV’s one-off modernist adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Again, a quality cast. Again brave, dangerous, experimental telly … just as the Steven Moffat's exceptional six-part modern adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jekyll had been for the BBC four months earlier.

Of course, it must be repeated that such formatting in TV circles has been around for years. In the 1960s, it seemed that every BBC sitcom format would inevitably produce a slightly cruder, less well characterised - but often equally, if not more popular - ITV variant on the back of it. Thus Steptoe & Son begat The Dustbinmen, Till Death Us Do Part sired Curry & Chips, The Liver Birds and The Likely Lads mothered and fathered an entire sub-genre of flat-share comedies which reached their creative zenith in Rising Damp and their creative nadir in Queenie's Castle. And so on. Even the BBC’s staple sitcom staple of arch Middle Class suburban whimsy best exemplified by Meet The Wife and The Good Life had numerous ITV clones. Most of them starring Patrick Cargill.

In drama, however, trends were never quite as easy to pigeonhole. Whilst there are examples of the cross-pollination within certain TV genres, and whilst it’s equally important to stress that such cross-pollination often cut both ways (the BBC’s mind-numbingly awful attempt to ape the success of Thames' The Sweeney via the thoroughly wretched Target, for instance), there was seldom anything as blatantly formulaic as, for example, the commissioning of Primeval. This seemed to happen only after somebody in a relative position of authority at ITV had finally stopped moaning about the success of Doctor Who and decided that it was high time they had one of them there time travel shows too. Just as one of his or her predesessors had done thirty years previously with The Tomorrow People. Plus ca change, plus ca la meme choice.

The events of October 2007 took this entire copycatting scenario to new and quite baffling levels. The BBC had just suffered a summer of scandals as everything from the choice of the name of the new Blue Peter cat to whether the Queen storms into, or out of, photo-shoots became subjects of huge national interest and much media comment. The BBC's board of governors (a spineless bunch of a lickerty-split cowards at the best of times), inevitably perhaps, over-reacted to revelations about a few relatively small-scale bits of sharp-practice with a network-wide blanket ban on all viewer and listener competitions. Something that affected pretty much everything from the output of almost all BBC local radio stations to Match Of The Day’s Goal of the Month competition which had run, uninterrupted, from 1964 until the beginning of this season. The collective look on Mssrs Lineker, Hansen and Shearer’s faces as it was announced the August competition would be “just for fun” spoke volumes. Un. Be. Leaveable.

But all of that suddenly paled into something approaching the insignificance it always should have been with the subsequent revelation that several very prominent ITV game shows were being accused of defrauding millions of pounds from viewers in a variety of elaborate premium-line phone-in scams. And, that the Serious Fraud Office was interested. As Wor Ant and Wor Dec squirmed on their Executive Producer titles and Michael Grade coughed with embarrassment at the size of the problem he’d inherited, a familiar mantra was heard within the corridors of Television Centre. “See, it’s true. Everything the BBC does, ITV does two months later.”