Saturday, February 28, 2009

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - Out, Out, Out!

Rehabilitation of a long-disliked public figure can sometimes come from the oddest of directions. As mentioned in the last set of Top Telly Tips, I was very much looking forward to the BBC's film-drama Margaret (broadcast on BBC2 last Thursday). And, very good it was too - your actual proper BBC drama. Loosely based on John Campbell's two-volume biography of Thatcher published in 2000 and 2003 it was, according to the Beeb themselves 'an intimate portrayal of a woman on the brink of ruin; a very human story about the private Margaret behind the public persona as she loses her grip on the power she which has strived so hard to achieve.'

I was a bit worried before watching the film that it might be too similar in both style and tone to Granada's excellent Thatcher: The Final Days (1991), which covered, essentially, the same story. But the structure (with much use of flashbacks) made Margaret easily different enough to stand on its own merits. One of the other prime source texts for the piece (specifically, the back-stage shenanigans) appeared to be The Alan Clark Diaries (particularly the extensive details of the secret meeting held at Tristan Garel-Jones' home on the night after the first ballot when, most commentators now agree, three quarters of the cabinet got together and decided to, effectively, stage a coup). To be honest, Margaret really belongs in the same drama sub-genre as that clutch of excellent recent BBC4 bio-pics about important media nostalgia figures (Most Sincerely, Curse of Steptoe, Fear of Fanny etc.). Madly entertaining, loads of fun for political wonks who enjoy all the reference-spotting but, ultimately, still a work of fiction.

It was aided by an excellent - albeit, slightly mannered - performance from Lindsey Duncan in the title role. Indeed, it could be argued the actress was a shade too convincing at times – Lindsay managed to bring out the inate coldness of Thatcher; that icy stare and harsh voice although, thankfully, unlike Sylvia Sim in Thatcher: The Final Days she elected not to go down the impressionistic route... 'Lindsay Duncan makes an admirably vindictive Thatcher' noted Caitlin Moran in her Times review, before adding that 'If this was the Thatcher years replayed as Dynasty, then Geoffrey Howe was Krystle.'

Richard Cottan’s script was - broadly - sympathetic towards Mrs Thatcher. Though Duncan was superb throughout and portrayed the emotion that was in the script very well, the private, more vulnerable Maggie was, for many people who lived through the 1980s I think, a bit hard harder to swallow than the Maggie who shouted down her cabinet colleagues and played them off against each other for sport with an arrogant grin.

There was a very interesting article from the Guardian which suggested that some scenes that were, perhaps, more critical of Thatcher herself (including one, in particular, concerning the Falklands) were dropped from an earlier draft of the script:

I wouldn't mind betting one of the early drafts will be finding its way online sometime soon if our old chum "the insider" feels as strongly about it as this report suggests. It was certainly curious, though, that the Falklands (as an issue and as a political carrying card) was virtually ignored - except for a couple of throwaway references in one scene. For a lot of people (both supporters and detractors) that remains the single defining point of her decade as Prime Minister. Is it possible that, twenty odd years after Tumbledown and the Ian Curteis Falklands Play debacle the BBC are still cautious about even going near the subject for fear of offending somebody?

Of course, this is an era that I lived though and, as a consequence, for me some of the issues raised in the film have, perhaps, a far greater raw resonance than someone younger for whom this is all ancient history, no different from the issues covered in Rome or The Tudors. With regard to the 1983 election, arguably Thatcher's greatest ever political triumph, for example, it's possible that younger readers may not recall there were considerable exterior factors – not least in the South Atlantic - at work in the eventual outcome. The Tories may well have won in 1983 anyway (a week is a long time in politics, never mind fourteen months and the Labour party was a disorganised, self-imploding mess with a hobby of eating its own young in public at the time) but in April 1982, five minutes before a bunch of Argentinean scrap-men landed on South Georgia, that particular Conservative government was about as popular as the Black Death.

While Duncan made an admirable, in places unexpectedly tender, in others recognisably vindictive Thatcher - 'You don't make friends with your enemies, you destroy them' she spat, her face red and quivering with rage when asked to share a campaign platform with her nemesis Ted Heath - it was John Sessions as Geoffrey Howe who, in some ways, stole the show. Cottan's script and Sessions' astonishing performance made Howe - whom many people probably still remember as little more than a softly spoken 'yes man' (Alan Clark memorably describes him as 'a door mouse!') - come across as the ultimate dark maven of destiny. It was he, and not Michael Heseltine, who set Thatcher on the straight road to destruction - her destiny perhaps decided in the moment eighteen months earlier when, acting like a spoilt child, she imperiously told him 'Go fetch my shawl, Geoffrey' during an official function. Bigger empires have tumbled over lesser sleights.

Of the supporting cast, the always-reliable Ian McDiarmid was absolutely perfect as a tired, wryly caustic Denis. Some of the other performances possibly leaned a smidgen into the Rory Bremner territory, although on a subsequent Newsnight special three contemporaries of Michael Heseltine (David Steel, Roy Hattersley and Jonathan Aitken) all said that Oliver Cotton's performance was very close to the real life Hezza. Which, if true, would appear to suggest we all had a hell of a lucky escape. The excellent Michael Cochrane (one of my favourite actors over many years) was magnetic as a grumpy, thoroughly pissed-off and fatally loyal Alan Clark. James Fox gave a similarly well-nuanced performance as adviser Charles Powell whilst Robert Hardy was very good as a shadowy Willie Whitelaw, managing to easily disprove the frequently-voiced assertion that his acting style has only two volumes (loud and very loud). Kevin McNally not only looked the part but also managed to get Kenneth Clarke's manner and speech perfectly: 'No-one wants to see you humiliated, Margaret!' Also of note was Nicholas Rowe's Malcolm Rifkind. I haven’t seen Rowe in much recently - both he and McNally were also in Kenneth Brannagh's excellent 2005 drama Shackleton (as, indeed was Hardy). John Major, played by Michael Maloney – another actor I admire and whom I haven’t seen for far too long in anything approaching the quality of this - came across as a cold, scheming minor Bond villain (aided by an equally manipulative Kenneth Baker, played by Paul Jesson). The impression given was of a good old fashioned palace coup – initiated by committee - meticulously planned, staged with quiet dramatic brilliance, using stooges and fall-guys to do all the dirty work whilst leaving the Crown Prince, waiting twiddling his thumbs (or, in this case, having his wisdom teeth out) in the wings, to swoop in and save the nation. Never quite thought of Major in that way, myself. And, Maloney went down the Lindsay Duncan route and didn’t even attempt to get the Major-voice accurate which may have been a blessing in disguise. I somehow can't imagine a Blofeldian figure who speaks like a Star Trek fan.

And then, there was good old reliable boot-boy Norman Tebbit. Roy Marsden portrayed him as little short of a shouting bully. Mind you, again to go back to Alan Clark's diaries, that's exactly how Tebbit is usually portrayed in those. Indeed, a lot of his dialogue in the film seemed to have been drawn, almost ver batum, from stuff that's quoted in the diaries ... except that in a lot of cases, they actually cut down on the number of expletives used. (I met Tebbit once. Very odd man. Superb orator of course, and hugely popular in the country with that most curious of British creatures the working-class Tory - like my late-father, fr instance. Nasty, coarse and confrontational he may have been but, in many ways, he was infinitely preferable to the grey army of non-entities – many of whom were featured here - who replaced him in the 1990s.)

I particularly enjoyed the, now infamous, sight of that oily little twat John Selwyn Gummer (nicely played by Ian Hughes as a man who appeared as wet as a slap in the face with a haddock) blubbling like a girl as he tried to persuade Thatcher to quit with dignity. One can never get too much of a sight like that.

There was an odd little scene, too, with the great Rosemary Leach playing the Queen as some kind of vaguely mad old lady from down the road. And the portrayal of Carol Thatcher as a butter-wouldn't-melt frumpy little daddy's girl who could've used a decent hug from mum once in a while seemed utterly hilarious in light of some of the allegations that her many apologists have been making of late following Golly-gate about the BBC having, allegedly, 'had it in for her for years because of how much they hate her mother.' Oh, be still my sides... God save us all from Tory conspiracy theories. (Note, none of these apologists have yet offered a convincing explanation as to how, if the Beeb had/has such a collective hate-on for the Thatcher family, Carol was even employed by The ONE Show in the first place.)

It should be noted that the actor playing John Sergeant (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) appeared rather too old for the part and also looked not a little unlike a drummer with Motörhead. The sequence featuring him, however, led to the best single line of the film - Denis watching the events on TV and saying, in best pantomime tradition, "she's behind you, you pinko prat!"

Mind you, to this day I still don't know why the real John Sergeant didn't deck that blunt uppity bastard Bernard Ingham (played here, as … a blunt uppity bastard, by the excellent Phillip Jackson) right in the mush on national telly for throwing his weight around like some puffed up Mussolini. Who the Hell did Ingham think he was? He wasn't even a politician, he was a mere civil servant, a hired-hand, with no more right to tell the press where to stand when asking the Prime Minister to account for herself than he did to tell me which way to vote. After holding his tongue that night, not batting an eyelid to Arlene Phillips' jibes must've been a piece of piss for the Sarge.

The film pointed out, in a rather nice piece of dramatic juxtaposition I thought, that Thatcher's downfall was achieved by pretty much the same sort of backstage manoeuvering that Thatch herself (with more than a shade of help from Airey Neave and co.) did to Ted Heath in 1974. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Hell hath no fury, it would seem, like a backbencher crapping in their own pants because they can see an election on the horizon and their majority isn't looking healthy.

There has long been a theory - which has found some support on the fringes of Labour circles - that there was a deliberate 'scorched earth' policy going on by the Tory upper echelons during 1990-91 in the sure knowledge that something like Black Wednesday was just around the corner and that, an election in 1992 might well have been one worth losing. Certainly losing it would turn out to be the best thing that could ever have happen to Labour. This 'plan', such as it was, was said to have been scuppered not least because they (you know, 'They') had no power to stop a leadership election. I'm not talking about the MPs - they were mere transient figures – rather the theory refers to the actual power in the Tory party (at least in those days anyway), the money men. The James Goldsmiths, Conrad Blacks, Lord McAlpines, Rupert Murdochs and the like. The people who, on the night of the 1992 election at an infamous party at McAlpine's house, allegedly saved their biggest cheer for Chris Patten losing his seat. There's a very good piece on this subject in Brian Cathcart's Were You Still Up For Portillo? (Penguin, 1997). It argues that, essentially, the two things these people didn't count on in 1992 was, firstly, John Major and his soapbox and, secondly, the British people's last minute changes of heart when they actually got into the polling stations. It's not a wholly convincing conspiracy theory, of course - few conspiracy theories that don't involve the CIA actually are - not least because most of those people supposedly involved had something a vested interest in the Conservatives remaining in power at that time. But, it's a good laugh to speculate.

The reasons for Margaret Thatcher's removal from office when it happened were many, varied and complex. In trying to give voice to that situation any drama would have struggled to fit in even a fraction of them. I did think, however, that Margaret took a very sensible decision to use their last flashback sequence to highlight one reason that, many of those who have commented upon those events from an insider's point of view, have said might have been the final nail in her coffin. Not many people in the parliamentary party actually LIKED her all that much when push came to shove. Many admired her, certainly. Almost all of them respected her - even if grudgingly. Most feared her and her wrath (and many had very good reason to). But she was always something of an outsider to much of the party (the flashbacks to her election as leader in 1975 make that abundantly clear). And, added to that of course, when you rule with a rod of iron, intimidate and bully your colleagues to your way of thinking (Clark suggests that for the last three years he was in the cabinet she effectively used Geoffrey Howe as a doormat on an almost daily basis) and build your entire public persona around being someone who is inflexible, unbending and, most importantly, ALWAYS RIGHT(!) - "You turn if you want to, the lady's not for turning" and all that - then it's hard not to conclude that, sooner or later, when those same colleagues get even the slightest scent of weakness, they will pounce and they will rip you to pieces. It's the basic law of animal survival - a metaphor that Margaret took quite literally. A recurring motif was a voiceover of the young Margaret solemnly intoning Rudyard Kipling's poem The Law of the Jungle – 'The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack' - reminding the viewer that Thatcher was not the only player in the Thatcher Years.

It’s hard not to wonder if Thatcher wasn't grinning from ear-to-ear as most of those who caused her downfall thmselves went down in flames during Tony Blair’s Great Cull of '97. As she, herself, had found seven years earlier, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

Thatcher's resignation was one of the defining "Kennedy moments" for my generation. I was working for the Employment Service at the time. (My bosses during the years 1983-90 included, at various times, several 'players' in this drama Tebbit, Alan Clark, William Waldergrave and Tom King). That day, in November 1990, when we heard the news, we shut the office early, went to the pub and had a effing party! That evening, I went to a rave at Whitley Bay ice rink where the Happy Mondays were headlining. Shaun Ryder's opening line was 'it's okay, kids, don't worry. Maggie doesn't live here anymore!'

Now, like Nixon and like Idi Amin, thanks to the power of the biopic, she's back. We've missed the milk-snatching, union-bashing, Belgrano-sinking, shrieking old harridan Little Englander something fierce, so we have. Politics has never been the same without you ma’am. And for that, we should all, probably, be grateful.

Retro For The Nation: Stuff You Don't See In Team Photographs Anymore. Part, The Second.

Number Two (... in an occasional, on-going, series):
Disco-Shit, baby!

This is Scunthorpe United's 1970-71 First Team Squad - and, yes, that is indeed a twelve year old Kevin Keegan second from the left in the second row, sporting a very fine showroom dummy bouffant and a rather appealing wide-eyed-and-innocent expression on his dish. But, it is not future England captains, European Footballer of the Years and Newcastle United icons that so much concern us here, dear blog reader. Rather, it's the overpowering stench of Pagan Man and Head and Shoulder shampoo that must have wafted through the dressing room and corridors of The Old Show Ground in them a-far off days. It must've minged till yer eyes watered.

The front row proves two - fine - examples of the Charlie Cooke (Chelsea and Scotland)-style of early 1970s footballer look. Impressive Zapata moustache; neat, nicely-parted hair, showing the early signs of having gone from being washed, once a fortnight, with wire-wool and carbolic to yer actual use of 'product' and, (though it was still early days, of course) starting to become fashionably collar-length ('just like them poufs off Top Of The Pops, Arthur. I'm tellin' ya, I can't tell the centre-halves from the inside-rights these days'); shorts slung low on the hips, giving the visual impression of being a rebel without a cause but with a devastating body-swerve and decent cross-to-the-back-stick. (And, total bonus for all the ladies, casually fantastic down the local discothèque grooving to Atomic Rooster in ones twenty-seven inch Dan Dares before nipping back to ones Get Carter-style pad for a quick game of Hide The Sausage.) The guy standing between our two proto-members of Cockney Rebel, give one a hint of just how far we had come in such a short space of time. I'll bet he was the midfield hard-man. Albeit, the influence of Slade can certainly be detected in his significant use of sideburns as a weapon and a buffer-zone.

Two rows further back, directly behind Little Kev, are two marginally different, but equally popular, 'Disco-Shit, baby' looks. There's the Peter Sutcliffe-lookalike sporting the full 'tashe, sidies and goatee 'Jesus of Nazareth' look which always went so well when wearing either an Afghan coat or a crushed-velvet flares and That Shirt combination and, always, reeking of Old Spice. Or, playing keyboards with Hawkwind for that matter. Next to him is, it would appear, someone who once failed an audition for The Temptations (probably because he was, like, white) but, decided to keep the Psychedelic Shack-era hairstyle anyway. Add in two really ugly goalkeepers (one with massive ears which probably gave him an inferiority complex and explains why he was playing for Scunthorpe and not, you know, somebody decent) and the vaguely cool-looking blond kid in the front row who looks like he's the one in the team who listens to The Rolling Stones and you've got, pretty much, a microcosm of 1971 Alpha-Male typology.

Next time on Stuff You Simply Don't See In Football Team Photographs Anymore, a team full of dirty, cheating bastards.
     ... Hang on ... That'll be this lot, then, surely?
Or. alternatively, something you definitely don't see nowadays, Newcastle United with a trophy.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

You Can't See A Beard On The Radio

So, for the second time in two days dear blog reader, today's comedy sketch on The Alfie Joey Show (2:10 GMT approximately) was written by me. And, yer actual Keith Telly Topping was in this one as well, playing his stock role of 'Mister Geordie Blokie.' It was actually inspired by the entry on this virry blog two days ago about the lovely Gail Trimble's struggles against the ignorant scum in British society. And, indeed, in British journalism. That brings me to a query. Somebody - I think it was young Graeme, actually - asked me in an e-mail the other day if I just did the Top Telly Tips on the afternoon show or whether I contributed 'other stuff' as well. So, this is a useful point at which to reveal the full extent of my BBC Newcastle sketch CV to date:-

- Man Who Sings 'I've Got You Under My Skin' Very Badly Indeed in The Mystery Voice Sketch - 5 September 2008
- Mister Geordie Bloke in The Terry Venables Might Be Newcastle's Next Manager, If You Don't Like It Go See a Doctor Sketch - 25 September 2008
- Cyberleader/The Master in The Who's Going To Be The New Doctor Who Sketch - 30 October 2008
- Rocky Balboa in Mackem Geordie Movies: Rocky III - 6 November 2008
- The Narrator in The Inappropriate Comedians Doing Shakespeare Sketch - 17 February 2009

- MP who shouts 'Can You Do Stevie Wonder tomorrow?' in The Gordon Brown Copies Barack Obama And Quotes Sam Cooke Sketch - 6 November 2008
- Police Sergeant in The Christiano Ronaldo's Car Crash Sketch - 9 January 2009
- A Tragically Welsh/Pakistani Mark Hughes in The Machester City's Transfer Targets Sketch - 22 January 2009
- The Prosecuting Counsel in The Michael Jackson Gets Sued Over The Thriller Video Sketch - 30 January 2009
- Sting in The Jimmy Nail BAFTA Award Sketch - 19 February 2009
- Mister Geordie Blokie from Thickman College/Announcer - The University Challenge For The Universally Challenged Sketch - 26 February 2009

Writer Only:
- The At Home With The Stings Sketch - 21 November 2008
- The EastEnders Casting Session Sketch - 25 February 2009

Seek 'em out at your own peril!

Also, today's talking point on the show was as follows: 'Last night President Obama, when presenting an award, called Stevie Wonder's music "the soundtrack of my youth," saying he found in it "peace and inspiration, especially in difficult times." He then mirrored his wife's comments, saying: "I think it's fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me. We might not have married." Is there any music or a singer who have been pivotal (even life changing) in your life?' Whilst in the office and asked this question by the lad himself I replied, thus: 'Keith Telly Topping and his top teenage years, and far beyond, were shaped, changed, politicised and romanticised by the words and the voices of Paul Weller, Joe Strummer, Morrissey and Julian Cope. And he still buys new releases by all of them. Except Joe, obviously. He's dead. And, actually, Morrissey as well cos he was never the same after he stopped writing with Johnny Marr.' Almost poetic, that. Almost. I was very much hoping that Alfie, for once, would quote this in full. So, imagine my surprise when Alife did, indeed, quote me near enough ver batum (it can be heard around twenty five minutes into today's show if anybody wants to check it out on Listen Again - it's immediately before Aretha Franklin). Then, of course, he went and spoiled it by revealing that, this morning, I'd been spotted in the office singing along to Whitney Houston's 'The Greatest Love of All.' The snitching little Mackem toerag! (... And I say that with genuine love and affection). It is true though. When did I become middle-aged? Did I miss that memo?

Lastly in what is, I must say, a rather self-aggrandising blog entry (I'll put that right next time, trust me. I've bought a new bag of self-deprecation today from Morrison's, specially). As some of my Facebook pals will know, I've been experimenting with some facial fungus over the last few weeks.

I quite liked it and I got a few pleasantly 'in-favour' comments from some of the girls in the office (to be fair, they were probably just humouring me). But, ultimately, I came to the conclusion that something my mother said not long after I started growing it was correct. People with ginger hair, by and large, don't suit beards. It makes them look like they've got a dirty face! So, now it's gone.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Three Into Five Won't Go

Fascinating piece by James Robinson in today's Media Gruniad. 'ITV has drawn up a radical plan for a three-way merger with Channel Four and Channel Five that would prompt one of the biggest shake-ups in British broadcasting history,' it claims. 'Executives from ITV, which is expected to report a huge drop in profits when it unveils its annual results for 2008 next week, believe merging the UK's three main advertiser-funded commercial broadcasters may be the only way to guarantee its survival in the face of the most challenging market conditions for a generation. ITV executives are thought to have outlined the plan to government along with several other options.' One of ITV's alleged proposals - and, remember, these claims made by Robinson are, as yet, unsubstantiated, is to roll the three main advertiser-funded commercial channels – ITV, Channel Four and Five – into one, creating a broadcasting giant which would rival the BBC in scale and scope. This combined operation would save hundreds of millions of pounds by merging back-office functions and cutting jobs, which would allow it to continue to invest in programming across its three main terrestrial channels and smaller digital outlets, including ITV2, Film4 and Five USA. However, the new broadcaster would control well over sixty per cent of the British TV advertising market, and the government would have to set aside competition law for the merger to take place. It would also infuriate commercial rivals, most notably BSkyB, in which Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is the largest shareholder, which would face a powerful new competitor. One of ITV's - alleged - alternative proposals is to turn Channel Four into a fully fledged public service broadcaster that would no longer be funded by advertising. The assumption behind this option is that a significant proportion of Channel Four's commercial revenue would then flow to ITV, which is suffering from a dramatic fall in advertising as the economy deteriorates. ITV is widely expected to confirm that revenues have fallen by up to twenty per cent in the past few months when it updates the City on Wednesday, 4 March.

Both options have allegedly been described as 'seismic' by alleged - though nameless and, therefore, quite possibly fictitious - industry 'sources', and may be designed to drive home to the government the scale of the crisis that ITV is facing. ITV executives, led by chairman and chief executive Michael Grade, are trying to persuade the government to remove more of its expensive public service obligations and abolish the contract rights renewal regime, which governs airtime trading deals with advertisers. The radical ITV proposals are likely to feed into communications minister Lord Carter's final Digital Britain report, due to be published in early summer. Last month Carter's interim Digital Britain report backed the idea of creating a new commercially funded public service broadcasting body, with Channel Four at its heart, to provide competition to the BBC. Carter and media regulator Ofcom have both indicated that their preferred way of achieving this is a partnership between Channel Four and BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm.

The next most favoured option is a merger between Channel Four and Five – or possibly another media company, including ITV. Yesterday Carter revealed that other companies apart from Five were interested in a tie-up with Channel Four. 'Have we had approaches from other private sector parties that look on paper to have come up with ideas that could work? Yes, we have,' he said. There are rumours that US media companies are examining a bid for Channel Four. Under the terms of its terrestrial licences issued by Ofcom, ITV must make a proportion of programmes outside London and produce local news bulletins, although it has already implemented plans to reduce its regional news output.

Many of those PSB commitments have already been scrapped but ITV is also calling for the removal of CRR, the system that caps how much advertisers pay for airtime on ITV. CRR was put in place when Carlton and Granada merged to form ITV plc in 2003 to assuage the concerns of advertisers worried that the new company, which at the time controlled more than fifty per cent of British TV advertising, would abuse its market power. The new, proposed, ITV/Channel Four/Five combine - if it goes ahead - would wield even more clout, but the fact it has, allegedly, been mooted at government levels demonstrates just how great the dramatic decline in ITV's fortunes over the past year to eighteen months had been. ITV is likely to announce up to five hundred redundancies from its four thousand five hundred-strong workforce during the next week, less than six months after the last rounds of significant job cuts, which, then, led to the departure of approximately one thousand staff.
Like many large companies, ITV is also struggling with a growing pension fund deficit and there is a fear its share price could tumble again next week. ITV's share price has already tumbled from one hundred and forty pence at the time of the Granada/Carlton merger to twenty three pence at yesterday's close and further falls could make it more difficult to service it debts. The company is also likely to introduce measures previously ruled out by Grade, including trimming its one billion smackers programming budget in order to save costs. Some dramas, including an expensive remake of Passage To India and Wire In The Blood - a particular favourite of this blogger - have already been axed whilst The Bill, a primetime fixture for more than twenty years, will soon be cut from two episodes a week to one. ITV had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication." All this comes on the same day that Broadcast have announced that Five are to shed a third of its workforce.

In other TV news, ITV have just announced that News At Ten is going Monday-Friday from next month instead of the current Monday-Thursday.

Dale Winton has,reportedly, been given a seven hundred and fifty grand contract by the BBC for two years to host In It To Win It and a new lottery format We Know Where You Live.

The Sun are reporting the worst-kept news in the broadcasting industry, that ITV have axed Demons after Philip Glenister quit. Because it was shit and no one was watching it, basically.

Meanwhile, the BBC are alleged to be bringing back sequels two of their great drama successes of the last couple of years, Five Days/Hunter and Criminal Justice.

And, switching media, Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon will share hosting duties of the long-running BBC Radio 4 comedy panel show I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue this summer. The new series will be broadcast in June and will be the first outing of the show since host Humphrey Lyttelton died in June last year, aged eighty six due to surgery complications.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Little Learning Is A Dangerous Thing

This weekend, ITV’s latest crass, paint-by-numbers Chris Tarrant vehicle, The Colour Of Money, got a first night audience of just over three-and-a-half-million overnight viewers – a further reason (if they didn't have enough reasons already) for ITV's bosses to be crying into their collective muesli on Monday morning. Last night, the final of the BBC's University Challenge achieved one of its best ever overnight audiences in a thirty year-plus history - almost five and a half million. It would be wonderful, at this point, for this blogger to be able to write an lengthy essay about how this simple statistic clearly proved that people in Britain are far deeper and have more thirst for knowledge than they are often given credit for by the shallow media. Keith Telly Topping could try pulling in evidence from the success of shows like Qi (and, indeed, pretty much everything else Stephen Fry does) and Balderdash and Piffle and mention the way in which most recent reality show formats have, to a greater or lesser degree, died on their feet. Sadly, this blogger suspects this is too simplistic a claim to make. Even for a one-trick blogger like himself. Not least because, one of the main reasons for the enormous ratings for this particular episode of University Challenge was the attendant publicity surrounding it.

Two vastly different young women hit the headlines in Great Britain this weekend - and the contrast between them has been the focus of articles in several national newspapers in the days since. Jade Goody, who - it is suggested in the Daily Scum Mail, for one - 'made a fortune from her ignorance' and Gail Trimble, the sparkling graduate from Oxford and the star of this series of University Challenge who has, it would appear, become vilified by a section of society for that most dreadful of crimes, in British eyes at least, 'being smart.' In the case of the former, Britain - it would seem from the depth and range of media coverage - is now well-and-truly captivated by life and impending death of a young woman who is famous only for 'being famous' and her wedding to (again to quote an exterior source here) 'a violent ex-convict' who was only given permission to spend his wedding night with his bride because somebody at the Home Office didn't fancy any bad publicity from the tabloids and bent the rules covering his court-imposed curfew. Jade Goody has been given a million pounds for exclusive photographic rights of the ceremony and had her wedding (which reportedly cost three hundred and fifteen thousand smackers) paid for by 'well-wishers.' Complete strangers queued up to leave presents at the doors of the palatial country estate where the marriage took place. Meanwhile Gail Trimble, the girl who scored eight hundred and twenty five of the one thousand two hundred and thirty five points amassed by Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on their all-conquering road to the final of University Challenge - has become a new public pariah. At least, in the eyes of 'some people of no importance on the Internet.' Across the country, several bloggers have given out the kind of stick usually reserved for child molesters and mass murderers to a woman whose knowledge extends from the works of Rudyard Kipling to Kazakhstan banknotes and from Homer’s Iliad to Homer Simpson.

'Smug,' 'irritating,' 'a vicious bitch' and 'a horse-toothed snob' are, apparently, just some of the nicer comments that Gail has attracted from the darker corners of blogland. And, it would appear, that with every insult there emerges a new member of the growing ranks of a nasty, hard-faced and insecure tribe of people who, seemingly, need to be comforted in their own numbing lack of knowledge, rather than be impressed by someone else's brilliance. You have to be a pretty shallow and wretched individual if, the moment a smart woman come along, you are so threatened by this that you're allowed to attack her for being 'smug' and 'snobbish.' That 'snobbish' jibe is a particularly depressing one to see. To associate intelligence with class, and to damn them both, is a truly wicked lie and, in and of itself, a piece of quite sick inverted snobbery. If you are working class and you wrote - or, indeed, even think - that about Gail, publicly or privately, or anything even remotely like it then let me assure you, you do not represent this blogger or anybody that he knows. That Gail was, according to media reports, privately educated should be neither here or there when it comes to praising her achievement.

This blogger finds himself, at this point, somewhat conflicted. Because the very organ that is giving Gail the most support from the kind of green-eyed worthless scum that have set themselves against her is the loathsome Daily  Scum Mail. And, for once, Keith Telly Topping actually finds himself agreeing with them. Which is, trust me, horrible. This blogger does not agree with every word, of course – how could he? This is the Daily Scum Mail we're talking about, after all – and he particularly disagrees with their using their championing of Gail to have yet another go at 'fifty years of failed Socialism and comprehensive education' whilst seemingly oblivious to the fact that some of us who came out of the comprehensive system can, actually, string a sentence or two together. Just as more than a handful people who went to Eton or Winchester, would (and do) have considerable difficultly tying their own shoelaces. 'It's not where you're from, it's where you're at,' as Ian Brown (Salford Comprehensive … probably) once, very wisely, noted. Being the Scum Mail, of course, they have also completely misunderstood the nature of blogging and bloggers in assuming that people who write blogs which have a pop at Gail are the kind of people who, by and large, would lionise Jade Goody. Not even close. Indeed, Jade will probably be getting it twice as hard and for twice as long from the self-same people. Blogging, and this blogger hold his own hand up here as much as the next man, is an artifice which positively invites cynicism in all areas. It's far easier to tell the world - as if the world is even remotely interested - about all of the stuff that you don't like as enthusing about what you actually do. It's something Keith Telly Topping tries to avoid as much as possible on From The North but, no one is innocent, this blogger wholly included.

Jade Goody's story is an undeniably tragic one but - and, again, this blogger can't believe that he is actually quoting the vile and odious Daily Scum Mail - 'how extraordinarily inverted our values have become when she is treated like some modern-day Joan of Arc staring death in the face, while another young woman has bile poured upon her for the wicked sin of intelligence.' Well, yeah. Guy's got a point, you know? Even a broken clock is correct twice a day. As for the other newspapers, the Sun tried to stitch Gail up the other day (on the same day that their front page was entirely devoted to Jade Goody's wedding) by ambushing her in the street and asking her five questions along the lines of 'who is Moscow Chelski FC's manager?' And 'what the name of the thirteen year old who has recently fathered a child?' Gail, bless her, didn't know the answer to any of them - and there's no earthly reason why she should, she's not a computer, for goodness sake. But in best Supersoaraway scum Sun style we then got a wickedly sneering story in yesterday's paper about how, whilst 'Clever-Clogs Gail' (their phrase, this blogger hastens to add, not his) might know her dead Greek poets, but she doesn't know that Duffy won a Brit last week. Well, spank her bare bottom with a dirty great belt for such shocking lack of priorities …

This blogger has disliked the media circus surrounding Jade Goody since she first appeared in Big Brother seven years ago. Keith Telly Topping has nothing against the women, per se and it would be callous of anyone with a beating heart in their chest to feel anything other than sympathy for a mother dying so young. But, that doesn't draw any attention away from the fact that she has achieved little of any lasting merit or value in her short life. So, there's another thing to feel conflicted about. This blogger is sorry that the lass is dying and he feels even sadder for her two little boys who are going to grow up without a mother but Keith Telly Topping is really not sure about whether she has been 'exploited' as many people have claimed over the last few weeks. Everybody who goes on Big Brother know exactly what they are getting into and most of them go on there willingly for exactly those reasons - to become 'famous for being famous' as quickly as possible. And now, we've had 'Jade, the Wedding' get ready for, well, you can imagine a whole string of stories over the next few months: 'Jade, the second to last interview,' 'Jade: if only I'd had more time to see my little boys grow up,' 'Jade: My dad never loved me,' 'Jade: I regret nothing,' 'Jade: The Final Interview,' 'Jade: The Final hours,' 'Jade: The Funeral.' Et cetera. Who, exactly, is exploiting whom, here?

And, of course, we've also got people like Gordon Brown praising Jade for 'her courage and determination' in fighting the disease. Having, seemingly forgotten that almost two years ago to the day he was publicly criticising the same woman over - let us never forget - a series of perfectly vile and obscene racist remarks she made against her fellow Celebrity Big Brother contestant Shilpa Shetty. Something for which Jade was - publicly - castigated by the very newspapers which are now scrambling over each other to get another exclusive about her and get a dmaned good lick of her metaphorical arsehole. The Prime Minister and the tabloids, it should be noted, are not the only ones who have been doing that sort of hypocritical about-face either. Because now she's seemingly become a surrogate Princess Diana all of a sudden it really doesn't look good to be seen criticising her. This blogger notices that Dave aren't playing that episode of Top Gear in which Jezza Clarkson described Jade as 'a pig-faced waste of blood and organs' anything like as much as they used to. Jade's perceived shortcomings in the way of saying or doing anything remotely worth hearing are, it would seem, exactly what she became celebrated for in the first place. The reason why she became so famous was precisely because, unlike Gail Trimble, she didn't/doesn't know much about anything. The country ridiculed her in 2002 when she was heard to say on Big Brother that Cambridge was in London, called East Anglia 'East Angular' and is alleged to have thought that it was a foreign country. But that didn't stop some people from queuing up to buy her perfume range and her two - yes, two - autobiographies. Bobby Robson was in his seventies before he wrote his first one, and he got England to a World Cup Semi-Final. One can, this blogger supposes, if we're being charitable here, see how much easier it is for a person to take somebody like Jade for a role model ahead of a Gail Trimble. If you are pig-shit ignorant and know nothing and see someone getting rich and famous for exactly that reason, then you become automatically validated yourself. You, too, could become the next made-it-ma, top-of-the-world poster boy or girl for 'I’m fick and it never held me back none, innit?'

This blogger repeats, I am sorry the lass is dying, really I am. And I'm sorry it's the undignified horror of cancer which is going to take her. Keith Telly Topping wouldn't wish that on anyone (and, as someone whose father died from cancer and whose mother is currently in remission from cancer he means that as sincerely as it's humanly possible to). But I'm not gonna go overboard and suddenly find her some kind of misunderstood saint. Jade is, I'm afraid, a classic example of crass Twenty First Century z-list celebrity culture - get rich, quick, by doing as little as humanly possible and using absolutely no inherent talent or intelligence whatsoever. She got everything she wanted by being an obnoxious, loud, crude court jester and she was, seemingly, quite happy to play that role to the hilt. Until she said the wrong thing, at which point everybody - almost overnight - got sick of her. Then, she herself became sick, and - in the blink of an eye - she was back in the public's affections. The public, this blogger thinks, have to ask themselves a lot of hard questions about that. Both the decision to be so judgemental in the first place and then, the decision to quietly forget all about that like it never happened when they found out she was dying.

One can hardly blame Jade Goody herself for taking the money on offer from various sources, of course - particularly in the period since her terminal cancer was diagnosed. She has said that she wants to ensure a nest egg for her children. That's entirely understandable. But, again, it's hard not to shake ones head in disbelief about a culture which celebrates empty achievements. One which allows people to disguise their mawkish fascination with the thinnest of veneers of sympathy. It's one thing to swim in the shallowness of celebrity culture. But, what the Internet attacks on Gail Trimble seem to show is that it's not enough for some people to merely praise abject stupidity as a means of getting ahead in life. You need to go further. Intelligence itself must be attacked and spat upon and damned. Stamp it out, before any more people get infected with it and start getting uppity ideas above their station.

It's striking how most of the people who have laid-into Gail seem to treat her as some kind of outrageous freak of nature – 'I get the feeling that she may well celebrate alone,' said one - no doubt perfect - example of humanity at its peak on an online message board. In fact, Gail is a very pretty girl who has, reports all suggest, a long-standing boyfriend, many friends at university and a stable, loving family at home. The naysayers, it seems, need to assure themselves that vacuousness and shoulder-shrugging is the norm in this society. That the really unattractive (and, desperately uncool) thing to be in 2009 is brainy. A 'girly swot.'

Gail is clearly not only very intelligent, with four A-levels and a first-class degree in Classics, but she also seems to possess all the attributes of a broad education that the Scum Mail argues used to make 'good' British schools the envy of the world. But, not 'bad' British schools ... on council estates, full of horrid 'common people,' of course. Oh no. Very hot water. That said, Gail didn't just know the answers to academic questions about Latin, Maths and Shakespeare - subjects that many people, from all sorts of schools, study for A-level. She could also answer questions about subjects as diverse as the works of Hilaire Belloc and Rudyard Kipling and aspects of pop culture. Then, of course, the Scum Mail went and spoiled it (as you kind of knew they would) by asserting: 'You used to be able to take a taste for reading and an interest in the outside world for granted in the average Briton. Now you're considered a Nobel Prize-winning freak if you know the first few elements in the periodic table, or can remember a line of Macbeth.' Typical arrant nonsense from a newspaper which itself has done far more to foster the ugly caricature of the insular, arrogant Little Englander who takes no notice of the outside world whatsoever than anyone else. And also, this blogger must say, rather disingenuous to many people who can tell you that the atomic weight of Hydrogen is one just as easily as they can name West Ham's manager or Oasis's last hit single. All knowledge is power, it doesn't have subdivisions within it. Intelligence should be our first weapon/stop revelling in rejection. Paul Weller. Shearwater Comprehensive, Woking.

Keith Telly Topping thinks that he would like Gail Trimble in person tremendously - this blogger certainly likes everything that she stands for. From the evidence of the interviews she has been doing this week, I think she'd be bloody good company for a dinner party or an evening in the local pub. She is, clearly, a young lady with a very good sense of humour, telling BBC Breakfast that her brother had received a Facebook message from Nuts magazine asking if they could get Gail's e-mail address as they wanted her to do a 'tasteful' photo-shoot. His reply to the magazine was 'Seriously mate, would you give your sister's contact details to Nuts?' Nice one.

Again, this blogger finds this horrible to contemplate but, as the Daily Scum Mail noted, fifty years ago Gail would not have been subject to the kind of abuse she's been getting. In fact, she probably would not have been all that remarkable. As she, herself, notes if you grow up interested in stuff, read a bit, watch a lot of TV documentaries and try to be aware of what's going on in the world, then you will, like as not, end up with a fairly broad general knowledge. Pub quiz teams and trivia buffs up and down the country know that and have done for years. She is on a far greater level than most of those, of course, but if you were a teenage girl wouldn't you want aspire to be like Gail Trimble? Or, would you sooner cut out all of the hard work and try to look pretty and marry a footballer instead? The Scum Mail's article concluded with the following thought: In 1960, a university professor earned as much as a Liverpool footballer (about twenty quid a week, roughly). If Gail Trimble, now studying for her doctorate in Latin literature, eventually becomes a tenured professor, she is unlikely to earn in an entire lifetime what Steven Gerrard will be paid in a single season - or, indeed, what Jade Goody earned over the course of this last weekend. And, tragically, you don't need to have a massive IQ to work out why, these days, many teenagers grow up believing that intelligence is, generally speaking, for idiots.

Having never been to university his very self (this blogger had to bring a living wage into the home, blah, blah, blah), yer actual Keith Telly Topping didn't have the opportunity to go on University Challenge. As regular blog readers may know, however, he did once appear on Fifteen To One with William G Stewart. He made the final three and then blew his chances on a question about National Insurance (which was ironic as he was working for the Employment Service at the time). Tragically, nobody ever insulted him for his worthless - albeit brief - display of knowledge of inane trivia on national television. Now's your chance, dear blog reader. Trust this blogger when he tells you that he is a far more deserving target for your withering sarcasm than Gail Trimble.

Yer actual Keith Telly Topping. Walker Comprehensive, Newcastle. Currently reading the Daily Scum Mail. And - genuinely - feeling unclean as a consequence.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Week Nine: Welcome To The World Of Tomorrow!

These days, it's becoming increasingly difficult to escape an inevitable - not to mention crushing - realisation that life is, well let’s be honest here, a huge and towering disappointment in oh so many ways. It’s 2009, people of Britain: Where is the world that we were all promised when we were growing up in the 1970s? Where are our jet-pack and our motorised rocket-pants? Where are our colonies on the moon? Why don’t we have Star Trek-style transportation capabilities yet which would cut Transatlantic flight times from eight hours to, you know, eight seconds? Why hasn’t time-travel become a reality for the masses? I want to visit Anicent Rome and I want to visit it NOW! Why isn’t Jason King the President of the World? I mean, he’d be SO good at it. Why isn't Bill Oddie funny anymore (except when he doesn't mean to be)? When did all music stop having proper tunes (like it did in't maaa day with 'White Riot', 'Borstal Breakout', 'In the City' and 'Holidays in the Sun') and turn into blippy-bloppy noises like you get out of a Space Invader? No, I’m afraid that life appears, once again, to have handed us Fortysomethings with a right rotten bum-deal. What did we get instead of the things that James Burke and Raymond Baxter promised us - jet-packs, food in pills and robots doing our hoovering and making the tea? We got the Big Brother house, flesh-eating Ebola, the Gulf War, McDonald’s Happy Meals and Edward Woodward soon to star in EastEnders. It’s all wrong on so many levels, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t even know where to start. Still, let’s look on the bright side, it could be far worse. We could be French. That doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

And so we come to another week of Top Telly Tips. Another batch of programmes that veer wildly from the very good, through the “half-way decent” and the “not-bad-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing”, to the average, the below-average, the tripe, the below-tripe and … The Jeremy Kyle Show. This picture on the left, taken two decades before I was even born, surely sums up the current state of most sensible people's attitudes towards British television far better than anything I can convey. Still, that is, after all, what I get paid for so let’s be having you, week. What have you got for me this time around?

Friday 27 February
Nine o’clock see the return to ITV of Moving Wallpaper, the office-based sitcom about a TV production company. Last year, it concerned the making of the truly dreadful soap opera Echo Beach in one of the most disastrous forced marriages TV has ever attempted. It didn’t work. Moving Wallpaper was pretty funny and got good reviews (even if the ratings were hardly spectacular), Echo Beach - which immediately followed it - was simply lousy and was cancelled almost immediately. So, now Moving Wallpaper returns to resume its comedy behind-the-scenes tales of fictional television folk. With the cancellation of Echo Beach, quite rightly dismissed (just as in real-life) because "it was shit and nobody watched it," according to producer Jonathan Pope (the excellent Ben Miller), the neurotic production team anxiously awaits news about the future. The first series, whilst undeniably clever and superbly observed was, perhaps, too TV-insidery for a broad audience. ITV has said that this year Moving Wallpaper will revolve around the production of a one-off "zombie show" called Renaissance. Miller, so good on Qi last week, is as watchable in this as ever as, as long as he's on form, this show remains worth half an hour of anyone's time.

Saturday 28 February
Sometimes, the title of a show tells you, literally, everything you need to know about it. This is definitely the case with Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock – 9:00 BBC4. In this, as you might expect from the title, the satirist, observational comedian and all-round good bloke Paul Merton explores Alfred Hitchcock's early British films from the late 20s and early 30s. Paul sees Hitchcock as a man immersed in the visual language of cinema (much as American had the "camera poets" like John Ford and John Huston). A director who knew how to use camera movement and lighting for dramatic purpose. Paul, who both presents and directs the film, sees "the Master of Suspense" as the man who understood how to use movement (both physical and conceptual) better than any other director since. For Hitchcock, heavily influenced by the German Expressionist cinema, pictures were always far more important than dialogue. Using clips and archive interviews with Hitch himself and with those who worked with him including actress Anna Massey (Barry Foster’s murder victim in Frenzy) and cinematographer Gil Taylor, Merton weaves together a playful narrative of the director's early career, revealing a man with an, often misunderstood, dark sense of humour. This is one of those great odd-couple matchings that TV occasionallythrows up. To wit: I like Paul Merton and I like Alfred Hitchcock. Should be good, then!

In Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway – 7:45 ITV – Wor Anthony and Wor December are joined by American songstress Katy Perry who will perform her new single ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ apparently. Great. Never heard of her. Anyway, in a brand new feature - Escape From Takeaway Prison - twelve prisoners will be reduced to nine. By means of televised state execution, one hopes. Plus, there's a new Grab the Ads game in which one lucky member of the studio audience will be given the chance to win the contents of the commercial breaks. Albeit, tragically, this is occurring during a period when just about the only things getting advertised on ITV at all are Injury Lawyers 4U. Which means that what the person will actually win is a broken leg, which they’ll then get a tenner's compensation for. All of this, of course, coming in the week that it's been widely reported the duo are in discussions with the BBC about a possible return to the broadcaster that gave them their first big break. If you’re expecting to get the kind of money you were getting at ITV lads, trust me, it ain’t gonna happen.

Sunday 1 March
Marine biologist and professional diver Monty Halls turns his back on city life to become a 21st-century beachcomber on the west coast of Scotland in Monty Halls' Great Escape – 9:00 BBC2. Inspired by his childhood love of otters (is that strictly legal?), Monty moves into a run-down cattle shed overlooking an isolated beach. With the help of a team of locals, he soon turns it into a comfortable, if basic, home. The spring weather is the best anyone can remember and Monty is soon having loads of fun bringing the croft to life, with a crystal-clear sea inviting him in to explore. Yeah, I like the sound of this. If nothing else, again, the cinematography should be worth a bit of your time. Interesting chap, Monty – former Royal Marine, he’s filmed crocodiles in Belize, dived with the Giant Humboldt squid AND survived a close encounter with the deadly killer Miranda Krestovnikoff. Not many have lived to tell that tale...

Monday 2 March
Hexham-born Kevin Whately, famous for playing working-class characters in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Inspector Morse has, in fact, a surprisingly affluent family history which he explores in the final episode of the current series of Who Do You Think You Are? – 9:00 BBC1. Kevin begins in Newcastle (where else?!) investigating the careers of his grandmother Doris, an opera singer, and her father, Fred Phillips the self-made 'fishing king of the North-East.' Subsequently, Kevin discovers another of his forebears on his father's side was an 18th-century turkey trader (a kind of Georgian Bernard Matthews, if you will) and that his ancestors, the Thomson brothers, were among the richest and most powerful men of the 17th century who picked the right side to fight on in the English Civil War. Now, here’s a good Did You Know? for you – did you know that early in his career Kevin auditioned as a presenter on Blue Peter but lost out to Peter Duncan?

It would appear to be pretty much all Geordie Bloke Telly tonight at 9:00 as Five have the start of a new series of Extreme Fishing with Robson Green. Robson ventures out on the rapids of British Columbia in search of caviar-rich sturgeon and salmon. He also meets a group of intrepid commercial fishermen and enters an angling competition with a difference. Now, I know we took the mickey a lot out of this show last year – mainly due to its very silly title, admittedly – but, in actual fact it turned out to be a rather entertaining little romp. Robson obviously loves his subject and is very enthusiastic about it which is always a help in these kind of things.

Channel 4’s Toffs and Crims series – which has been compelling viewing – concludes at 8:00 with The Real Pink Panther. This is a profile of the sixth Marquis of Bristol, Lord Victor Hervey who, in the 1930s, cast himself in the role of criminal mastermind. He was thought to have used aristocratic connections to plan a series of jewellery robberies. Hervey also set up a finance firm in 1936 as a front for arms dealing with General Franco during the Spanish Civil War and investigations, led by the famed Scotland Yard detective Robert Fabian, also unearthed allegations of drug-running. When eventually arrested, as ringleader, Hervey was jailed for three years at the Old Bailey. He confessed to being the brains behind a gang of former public schoolboy thieves, known as The Mayfair Playboys, who - in one particularly nasty episode beat up and robbed a Cartier jewel salesman in the Hyde Park hotel. Their attack was so vicious that two of the gang were sentenced to be flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails. When Hervey was released on licence in 1941 he set up a film company but police suspected he was back to his old tricks though they could never prove it. An informant tipped off the police that Hervey's black Rolls-Royce was supposedly used as a getaway vehicle by four masked men who broke into Hever Castle, the home of Lord Astor, bound and gagged the night-watchman and made off with historic treasures includeing Henry VIII’s signet ring, Elizabeth I’s prayer book and a book of psalms owned by Anne Boleyn. Police kept watch on Hervey’s houseboat, the Dry Martini, moored at Thames Ditton, for weeks hoping to catch him with the loot but they could never prove any definitive links to criminal activities. In later life, Hervey achieved some respectability as a businessman and rebuilt the family fortune via publishing and estates in the West Indies. Declassified police documents, however, reveal he may have still been heavily involved in crime.

Tuesday 3 March
New Homes from Hell 2009 – 8:00 ITV - follows the stories of people whose luxury properties have, quite literally, ruined their lives, including families who invested their money into improving their homes, only to have their dreams dashed by cirumstances and incompetence. In this episode, we see one new high-tech house which was scuppered by rotten building work and a hidden mine shaft as well as the London riverside penthouse which is costing millions of pounds in repairs. We also meet the interior-designer-turned-property-developer who ended up squatting in her own Norfolk farmhouse.

Why are people embarrassed about their bodies? Horizon takes a group of volunteers and subjects them to a series of psychological and physical tests to challenge attitudes to the naked human form in What's the Problem with Nudity? – 9:00 BBC2. Humans are the only creatures that can be 'naked' - but why, how and when did humans lose their fur? The answers may be found in unexpected places: the chest hair of Finnish students, the genetic history of lice, the sweat of an unusual monkey – and, as usual with just about everything Horizon covers - this “may hold the key to the success of the human species.” Just for once wouldn’t it be nice if they did a show which focused on something really important? Like finding out something which "may be the key to why Newcastle United haven’t won a trophy (except for the Intertoto Cup) for forty years"? Now THAT would be public service broadcasting.

CSI – 9:00 Five – continues its merry way now well into an eighth season. Tonight’s episode Young Man With A Horn (no jokes please) takes a very modern phenomena - the killing of a teenage singing sensation from a reality TV show – as the starting point for a story in which the CSI team re-examine a 1950s murder case packed with scandal, mystery and intrigue which shocked Las Vegas society. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, in episodes currently being show in the US (we’re about eight to ten weeks behind) that great black actor Larry Fishburne has joined the team to replace the sadly departed Bill Petersen. The good – albeit completely expected – news is that he’s tremendous in it. The even better news is that his arrival has seemingly given the show a real burst of adrenalin and the last five or six episodes with him in them have been among the best CSI has produced in years.

Wednesday 4 March
Here's something a bit different. In today’s Top Telly Tips slot we’re actually going to look at some shows which are on tomorrow afternoon. We don’t normally cover daytime TV in Top Telly Tips (because it’s our direct oppositon, mainly) but it does seem to be one of the few real growth areas in broadcasting at the moment. Particularly with more and more people, sadly, finding themselves with increased time on their hands because of the current economic crisis.

Anyway, essentially terrestrial daytime telly – the bits of it that aren’t repeats of Diagnosis Murder, that is - can be split, basically, into three distinct areas: Infotainment, Tittle-Tattle and … Infortainment-As-Tittle-Tattle.

In the case of the first category BBC1 specialises in those "sell some of your old junk, it's a right good laugh"-type shows like Cash in the Attic (11:30) and Bargain Hunt (12:15) which are harmless enough in their own way. They’re a bit averice-like at times, perhaps although they’re nowhere near as blatant about it as The Antiques Roadshow. But, they’re amiably presented and feature some realitvely nice and normal "ordinary people." They’re certainly preferable to the second genre of shows that daytime TV specialises in.

Trisha Goddard (in Trisha, 10:30 on Five) desperately wants to be “Britain’s Oprah Winfrey.” Jeremy Kyle (in The Jeremy Kyle Show, 9:25 on ITV) desperately wants to be “Britain’s Jerry Springer”. Neither get even half-way to succeeding although Kyle, arguably, comes closer with a show that is often offensively patronising and usually ends in a huge slanging match. I really dislike daytime chat shows – they’re often sanctimonious, intrusive tabloidesque nonsense of the worst kind. The sort of thing that gives TV a bad name. Genuinely, I’d like to know, who on Earth would put themselves through the embarrassment and ignominy of telling the intimate details of their personal lives to an audience of baying voyeurs and hundreds of thousands of strangers at home. It’s cold, impersonal, and smacks of a desperation to gets ones face on TV no matter what the cost.

Lastly, if you put elements of the two styles together, you end up with Loose Women (12:30 on ITV), a British take on the US gossip-show for ladies The View. It’s actually quite entertaining if you’re in the right mood and they do feature some very good guests – who, occasionally get a word in edgeways between Lynda, Jane, jackie and Andrea comparing nail-varnish tip and “phwoar!”ing Rupert Penry-Jones.

This was Keith Telly Topping reporting from the arid desert that is daytime TV. Tomorrow, we’ll be back where it counts, in the hours of darkness.

Thursday 5 March
Billy Connolly continues his journey through some of the more remote regions of Canada, via the fabled North West Passage in Billy Connolly: Journey to the Edge of the World (9:00 ITV). Normally this route is impossible because the sea is completely iced up, but with the changing climate, the ice has now started to melt for a few weeks each summer. Thus, Billy gets the chance of a lifetime to explore a part of the Arctic seen by just a handful of people. Isn’t it interesting that, as we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, like Michael Palin, there's now a whole generation out there only know Bill through these travel shows (and, the odd dreadful Hollywood film that he's in) rather than his stand-up. As evidenced by some of the reviews this show has been getting in the press lately (“Oh, there’s that nice old duffer Mr Connolly off on his travels again!”)

Britain's booming curry industry is now worth more than three billion pounds annually. In Cash and Curry – 7:30 BBC2 - Saira Khan meets those making millions from curry, including the ready meal king Sir Gulam Noon and the Cobra beer magnate Lord Karan Bilimoria. Saira also talks to a team with ambitions to modernise the high street curry experience. While there are around fifteen thousand Indian restaurants and takeaways in Britain, no-one has yet done for Indian food what Strada or Pizza Express has done for Italian cuisine. I like a nice Chicken Tikka Masala with Mushroom Pilaw and a Naan Bread, myself. Just thought I'd throw that in if anyone fancies buying me one!

There’s a fantastic episode of Bones on Sky One at 9:00. The Grave Digger, a serial killer who kidnaps his victims and then burries them alive, returns and kidnaps Agent Booth. Last year, you may remember, he had Bones and Jack Hodgins buried in a car up to their necks in horrible nastiness before they were rescued. Can Brennan and her team find Booth before it's too late? It’s almost impossible to believe that this clever, witty, really well-acted drama started out with such low expectations attached to it by pretty much everyone (myself very much included). It’s now turned into one of the best US imports, right up there with things like House and Lost. I really like the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously, either. It's something we in Britain could learn a lot from. A bit of self-depracation can go a long way.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Doctor Who: Ratings/Audience Share FAQ [an update]

I've been asked by regular blog-reader Roy if I can update the Unofficial Doctor Who Forum Ratings, Audience Share, AI, scheduling and “future of Doctor Who” FAQ which I last posted sometime in early 2008. Glad to be of service.

The Unofficial Doctor Who Forum Ratings, Audience Share, AI, scheduling and “future of Doctor Who” FAQ. Ver 4B.02 [Last update 18 February 2009]

- So, Mel Smith is the new Doctor?
We already did that joke some months ago.

- What is the purpose of this here FAQ?
To hopefully prevent any “6.9 million, is that good?” and “I read in the Sun that Doctor Who is being cancelled, is this true?”-type questions from Newbies.

Hello lovely Newbies! Many of your potential questions will hopefully be answered here, so please take a moment to check. Anything that isn’t covered, by all means feel free to ask.

After all, we’d rather avoid this kind of thing if at all possible.

- Is this where I say how much I enjoyed, or didn’t enjoy, last night’s episode?
No. You’ll be wanting ‘Rant the Episode’ which can usually be found next door.

- What are these “ratings figures” of which you speak?
An indication of the total number of people who watched a particular television show.

- How are ratings figures calculated?
That’s quite a complex question to answer in just a few short words.

- Do TV companies ask everyone in country what they watched? Or, do all TV sets have a little black box inside them that transmits whatever I’m watching to some Big Brother-type-geezer in a bunker in Whitehall who collates this information for nefarious skulduggery…?
No. At least, not as far as we know.

- What’s the deal, then…?
Television ratings are calculated through a process called “random sampling.”

Across the country approximately 11,500 viewers in over 5,100 homes – covering various widespread demographic, social and occupational groups - provide a company called the B.A.R.B (Broadcasters Audience Research Board) with details of which television shows they watch - and when they watch them - via an electronic control box. Any programme watched in a B.A.R.B household for more than fifteen minutes are thus part of the ratings. From the supplied statistics, ratings figures are extrapolated.

- So if there are, say, four people in a household that’s part of the B.A.R.B survey group and the TV is tuned to BBC1 for more than fifteen minutes, are all four of those people counted as "viewers" of that particular show?
Those households which are part of the B.A.R.B. survey, as noted, have an electronic control box to store data on what programmes they watch. They also have to feed in the precise number of viewers for each programme that they watch.

Such boxes have a button for each regular viewer within the household – remember, we’re talking about an average of 2.3 people per household. This has to be pressed to register that an individual is watching a particular show. There is also a facility to add any guests who happen to be at the householder’s gaff which requires specific details of the age and gender of such non-regular viewers.

The moral of this story is, therefore, if you find out that someone you know (even vaguely) is part of the B.A.R.B survey, make an excuse to be around their drum at 7pm on a Saturday and make damn certain they’re tuned to BBC1.

- I heard in 2005 that the episode ‘Rose’ got nine million viewers. But, then I saw later that a figure of over ten million was being widely quoted. Which of these two figures was correct?
Actually, they both were. Initial ratings for all TV shows are announced usually on the morning after an episode has first broadcast. These are called “overnights” in the industry and are, essentially, exactly that; a rough initial estimate figure based on the number of people who said that they watched the show as it was being broadcast.

However, some viewers choose to record TV programmes on video or recordable DVD (or on one of those flashy SkyPlus-box-thingies which I don’t know how to operate) to watch some time later because they are out at the time or they are watching something on another channel or, simply, because they are doing something else entirely. These are called “time-shift” viewers and are, subsequently, added to the initial overnight figure.

Ten days after it has been broadcast, a Doctor Who episode’s final – consolidated - ratings figure will be given.

During the 2008 season of Doctor Who, for example, on average the overnight figure raised by between six and seven hundred thousand viewers per episode for the final ratings figure thanks to such time-shifts. (The time-shift for the Christmas Day 2008 episode was an astonishing 1.4 million viewers.)

It’s also worth pointing out that overnight ratings use a slightly smaller sample of the audience than the consolidated figures. That’s why it is possible for the final ratings figure to – on odd occasions – actually be lower than the overnights. This rarely happens because any discrepancy is usually cancelled out by time-shifting. However for live events, like the News or the National Lottery, which people are unlikely to record, the final figure can sometime be lower than the overnight figure.

- The five minute breakdowns for last night’s audience appear to suggest that a large section of the audience turned off Doctor Who shortly before it ended. What’s all that about?
No, they don’t. Five minute breakdowns tell you what the average audience was for a show in five minute chunks. You’ll see them presented as following:
18:55 - 8.83m
19:00 - 9.05m

That means between 18:55 and 18:59 and 59 seconds an average of 8.83 million people were watching and between 19:00 and 19:04 and 59 seconds an average of 9.05 million were watching.

What often happens with the last five minutes of a Doctor Who episodes is that you’ll get something like:
19:05 - 7.90m

Whereby it appears that the show has suddenly lost a million viewers during the final moments. However, what has actually happened is that the show has finished sometime during a five minute period, not right at the end of it (say 19:07 or 19:08). The audience figure, however, remains an average taken right across the five minutes. Obviously, as soon as Doctor Who ends, some viewers will decide to immediately switch over to another channel (possibly to BBC3 to watch Doctor Who Confidential).

- So, ratings tell you whether an episode of a TV Series was any good?
No, they don’t do that. They do, however, tell you whether it was popular. A slightly different thing, but an important one nontheless.

- Last night’s episode of Doctor Who got six/seven/eight/nine/ten million viewers. Is that good?
That’s also a hard question to answer in just a sentence.

- Why is it a hard question to answer?
Because a raw ratings figure provides no overall context.

Let’s put it this way, if I was to say to you “Show X got an audience of four million last night, is it a hit or a miss?” the answer to that question is wholly dependent on, for example, when in the year Show X was shown. Consider the following:

- Four million viewers on a Monday night in the middle of summer is a pretty decent ratings figure.
- Four million viewers at peak time on a Saturday night in the middle of winter would be a ratings disaster.
- Four million viewers on a digital-only channel would be the biggest audience in the history of that particular part of the medium.
- Four million viewers for an episode of Coronation Street would be one of the smallest audiences in the history of that show.
… and so on.

Raw figures can tell you a lot but, sometimes, they can tell you next to nothing.

The best way to work out if a ratings figure is good, bad or any number of shades of grey in between, is to take it in conjunction with the audience share.

- What’s the audience share?
The audience share is the percentage of the total number of viewers watching television at any one time that watched one particular programme.

If, for example, there are only fifteen million people watching TV at a given time then your show is not going to get ten million of them. It doesn’t matter what it is or what it’s up against this simply will not happen. We live in a multi-channel age, it’s very rare the days for shows to get even 50% of available viewers.

[Note: On Christmas Day 2007, both Doctor Who and EastEnders achieved a 50%+ Audience Shares, something Doctor Who repeated at Christmas 2008. Just to illustrate how unusual that is, those was just the fourth and fifth occasions during the entire TV year of 2007 that any show broke the 50% barrier.]

In blunt terms - in relation to drama at least - anything with an audience share at or above 30% is normally considered a certified 24-carat success within the industry. Doctor Who writer Matt Jones - who has worked extensively within TV production over the last few years - has noted that on any occasion when a programme achieves an audience share of above 30% “champagne corks will be popping in the production office.”

To date, the lowest audience share that any Doctor Who episode has achieved since it returned to the BBC in March 2005 was 25% for one episode in 2008. Most Doctor Who episode audience shares have been closer to 35 – 40% which are truly extraordinary figures for this day and age.

- So, the audience share is more important than the ratings?
No. They’re both important figures. But, when taken together, they tell a much more accurate story than separately.

- So why don’t the BBC put Doctor Who on during the winter, it would surely get higher ratings that way?
It possibly would but that’s not, necessarily the BBC’s main objective.

This is a tricky subject to discuss dispassionately because most people on this forum approach scheduling with a, somewhat faux-naïf emotional head on rather than a more logical approach:

To be blunt, there IS – quite clearly - a finite audience for Doctor Who. It’s about thirteen million people. 'Voyage of the Damned' and 'The Next Doctor' have proved that. There are a lot of people out there in audienceland who wouldn't watch Doctor Who if it was on opposite The News in Welsh and all the other TV stations closed down early to make way for it.

The argument for putting the show on during the winter seems to run something like this: "If we're getting eight million in April and May imagine what we'd be getting in January." If we're completely honest, we'd probably still be getting about eight million!

Whilst Doctor Who is one of the most important things in the world to us lot, it's ONLY ONE SHOW to the BBC (albeit, a very successful and profitable one). The BBC could - in theory - move Doctor Who to January and possibly put another million on the audience. We’ll ignore, for a moment, the utter logistical nightmare of having to change productions dates to accommodate such a move.

But, from the BBC's point of view the equation is a complete no-brainer. They have a show that is doing fantastically well - in a traditionally very-hard-to-do-well-in slot. Do the BBC move Doctor Who to earlier in the year with no obvious replacement for its current slot? Or, do they leave it exactly where it is and hope they get the same result next year?

- Doctor Who is repeated on one of the BBC’s digital channels, is it not?
Twice, in fact, on BBC3. Once on the Sunday immediately after transmission and again the following Friday.

- Are the ratings for those broadcasts counted in with the overnights or the consolidated ratings figures to give one big super-dooper over-all total?
No - although you can be certain the BBC are not unaware of the numbers these mutli-channel repeats are pulling in (particularly the Sunday evening one which in 2007 and 2008 was getting – in BBC3 terms, at least – amazing figures of over one million per episode).

Internal research carried out by the BBC suggests that an average of between 90 and 95% of viewers for these repeats are “new” viewers as opposed to “repeat” viewers. So, if you want to do it yourself, just add about 90% of whatever the two repeat figures are to the consolidated figure and you’ve got a rough idea of how many people watched a particular episode in total. That figure is called an episode’s “reach.”

It would appear that many people these days are using the Sunday BBC3 repeat as, in effect, a “safety net” in case they’re out on Saturday and thus miss first transmission. That’s yet another reason why an overnight ratings figure of, say, 5.4 or 6.2 million for an episode in the middle of a very hot Saturday in May or June shouldn’t, necessarily, be regarded as disappointing.

Occasional fluctuations in Doctor Who's overnight rating figures during 2006, 2007 and 2008 say far more about exterior factors like the uniquely hot springs Britain experienced in those three years than they do about anything related to television itself.

Put simply, most "normal" TV rules simply do not apply to Doctor Who. It has a reasonably fixed weekly audience reach of somewhere between eight and ten million (somewhat higher for special occasions like the Christmas specials and the season openers and finales). But, unlike the reasonably fixed weekly audience reach for most other shows, Doctor Who's reasonably fixed weekly audience appear to be sussed and techno-savvy enough to realise they don't, necessarily, have to watch the series there and then but can find it in other places and at other times. Given that it's a show about time travel, that's really rather comforting! We now know, roughly, how many people Doctor Who is going to be watched by on an average week. Just not, necessarily, how many it's going to be watched by on an average Saturday night. Because there, genuinely, doesn't seem to be any such thing anymore. When everything is in its favour in terms of the opposition, the weather, the time slot etc. - then Doctor Who's overnight ratings figures will be huge. When everything isn't in its favour, then they won't be huge, they'll be merely above average. But those viewers don't just go away, they watch the series at another time and through another media.

- Too Sunny, Less Share?
C’est la vie. Babe.

- I just don’t get these excuses about the weather. Surely people know what time the show is on and, regardless of the weather, if they want to watch it they will?
That ignores one basic truism - most of the core audience of Doctor Who are not rabid bonkers fanpersons like us lot but rather “normal people” who sometimes have “other things to do” than to make sure they're in the house when a television show starts.

On the other hand, they do – apparently - have alternative ways of watching TV than "being there at the time" such as the previously mentioned video or DVD recorder or SkyPlus boxes or online, via iPlayer. Or, they are aware that the episode will be repeated twice in the next six days on BBC3 (once, within 26 hours of the first transmission). It’s a horrible thing for many of us to accept but - it would appear - not everyone's entire life is structured around the broadcast times for Doctor Who.

- Give me an example.
Okay. On 31 May 2008 the Doctor Who episode ‘Silence in the Library’ was scheduled against ITV’s finale of the popular talent show Britain’s Got Talent. As a direct consequence, this episode achieved the lowest overnight rating figure since the show’s return in 2005 – 5.4 million viewers. Even though that figure was still a perfectly acceptable one for most TV drama these days, some fans were still very disappointed with it and, unfortunately, spent the next day forecasting doom and gloom and the end of the series being on the horizon. Ten days later final consolidated figures, taking into account people who had recorded the episode and watched it later, upped that figure to 6.27m. The 27th most watched piece of television of the week.

On Sunday 1 June, the episode was repeated on BBC3 and achieved an audience of 1.35m. A second repeat, on Friday 6 June brought in a further 600,00 viewers whilst 550,00 people watched the episode on iPlayer. So, to sum up, even on its WORST WEEK EVER, Doctor Who still had a combined audience somewhere in a region of eight million viewers, plus. Not bad for what one Doctor Who Forum contributor described at the time as 'a show in crisis!'

- Why was the first half of series four broadcast before 7 o’clock?
This decision was an experiment by the BBC (initiated by the then-head of BBC1 Peter Fincham and not, as suggested by some of the louder voices in fandom, his temporary replacement Roly Keating) to see if they could kick-off the evening with a big audience and then retain the bulk of it for later – especially given where ITV have scheduled one of their own big-hitters, Britain’s Got Talent. Whilst Doctor Who’s audience did decrease after a huge opening couple of weeks on overnights, the following show - I’d Do Anything – greatly benefited from having such a strong lead-in.

A 6:20 start for Doctor Who does make sense to the BBC because it increases the amount of Saturday night that the BBC have a ratings lead over ITV. Having Doctor Who on at seven o’clock is good for Doctor Who but, from the BBC’s point of view isn't as good as having two shows - Doctor Who and whatever follows it - beating their ITV opposition instead of Doctor Who winning its later slot but whatever precedes it getting crushed.

It's about maximising your audience right across the night, not just in one forty five minute slot.

- What about BBC’s iPlayer?
Season four was the first year to be broadcast since the introduction of iPlayer. Although exact figures are only available in fortnightly chunks at present – see Marcus’s excellent “Season Four Ratings” thread here figures indicate an average iPlayer audience of approximately 500,000 per episode across the season.

- Any of the other ratings figures I should keep my eye open for?
The Under 16s – usually in the 1.5 million range. That’s an absolutely key-demographic for Doctor Who. And a very successful one.

- So, what about the AI figure I keep hearing about?
AI stands for “Appreciation Index.” Again, this is a statistic arrived at through random sampling. What it basically boils down to is a bunch of people who watched a particular show are asked how much they liked it (or, indeed, didn’t like it) and give it marks out of ten accordingly.

GFK NOP Media supply the BBC Audience Research Unit with data measuring audience response to all terrestrial and selected non-terrestrial television programmes. The panel consists of 15,000 adults and a separate panel of 1,500 children.

These responses are particularly useful for TV companies concerning shows from niché markets –shows which do not get massive ratings figures or audience share but which do have a very good reception from those people who watch them. Nature programmes and things like Time Team or Qi are classic examples of the type of shows for whom the Appreciation Index could have been specifically designed.

It is, therefore, perfectly possible for a show to have received what in other circumstances could be considered decidedly average ratings but to still be regarded as “successful” within the industry if their AI figure is consistently good. Many of the American import shows on Sky One and Five, for instance - Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Bones, Prison Break and the various CSI series – often get AI figures around the 90 mark, albeit with a small, but very dedicated, audience.

It's rather more unusual for a series to be very popular in ratings terms but also to get excellent AI figures, although Doctor Who, Waking the Dead, Spooks and Top Gear are examples of BBC shows which regularly achieve just that.

An AI figure is calculated from responses and is presented as a score out of 100 (not as a percentage as often incorrectly stated).

- What’s a “good” AI figure?
To quote, directly, from The BBC Producers Guide to AI

“The average AI is in the mid 70s, between 73 and 76.”

[Footnote: The average AI score for drama shows is slightly higher - seemingly around 77 or 78. In 2007 I saw an internal BBC memo relating to the first episode of Jekyll having received an AI score of 79 which the memo described as “slightly below average for drama in this slot.” This suggests that the top end of “average” AI for certain drama slots can be as high as 80 and that the science of analysing AI scores – like that of ratings analysis - is evolving all the time.]

“The top ranked programme over the last five years (1999-2004) has been a 92 with the lowest recorded score a 29.”

[Another footnote: Since this was written there have been a couple of cases of shows achieving a score lower than 29 and on 7 October 2007 an episode of The Sopranos on E4 received a mind-boggling AI score of 96 (since matched by an episode of Prison Break on Sky). The highest AI score for an episode of Doctor Who currently stands at 95 for a repeat of ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ on BBC3 during early 2009.]

“Any score in excess of 85 is excellent. Any score in excess of 90 is exceptional.

Any programme that falls below 60 has received a poor AI. Any score below 55 is very poor.”

Since Doctor Who returned in March 2005, the lowest recorded overnight AI figure for a first night broadcast of an episode has been and “slightly-below-average-but-still-nowhere-near-bad” 76 (for 'Love and Monsters') and the highest two exceptional 91s (‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’).

In 2008, Doctor Who received AI figures consistently in the top-80s-low-90s (it averaged 88 across the whole season).

It has been speculated – without a vast amount of supporting evidence, to be fair - that these days Doctor Who may be largely the recipient of a “brand vote” from many AI jurists – that is, a standard, default “eight-out-of-ten” score based on their general appreciation of the show as an entity rather than of a particular episode’s worth, per se.

The fact that episodes like ‘Partners in Crime’ and 'The Unicorn And The Wasp' – which (to a small degree) split opinion within fandom - all seemed equally popular with the general public as fan-adored episodes such as ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Blink’ may say far more about Doctor Who fandom than it does about the general public.

- All of this would appear to suggest that Doctor Who is currently doing “very well”?
That would, indeed, seem to be correct. The BBC have invested a huge amount of time and resources not only in the show itself but also in various spin-offs (Doctor Who Confidential, Torchwood, Sarah Jane Interferes) and in its - very profitable - associated merchandising.

During most weeks when it is broadcast, Doctor Who is in the Top Ten most watched shows on British television – on occasions it has even been in the Top Three – with only the country’s two most popular soap operas Coronation Street and EastEnders gaining higher ratings.

Taking ratings scores for multi-episode shows separately, Doctor Who has only been outside the Top 20 most watched episodes of the week on British TV on a handful of occasions from its first fifty episodes and never outside the Top 30.

For the last three years between April and July Doctor Who has largely dominated the Saturday TV night schedules, almost every week being the single highest rated show (drama or otherwise) of the night and with the highest audience share, beating such well-regarded series as the BBC’s flagship medical drama Casualty. Apart from that one week - in June 2008 when it went head-to-head the final of Britain’s Got Talent - it has comfortably seen off everything that ITV have tried opposite it, including such popular ratings successes as Ant and Dec's Saturday Takeaway and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? And, for three Christmas Days running, the hugely popular soap opera Emmerdale.

(When it was up against Britain's Got Talent and therefore, let’s repeat on its worst ever day, Doctor Who still managed an overnight audience of almost five and a half million and an overnight 25% audience share. Both of which were seen as hugely disappointing by some particularly loud or agenda-driven fans but which, in isolation, would have still be excellent figures for any other drama show in any slot across the week.)

- Criminy!
You think that’s impressive? The Christmas Day 2007 episode of Doctor Who was the second most watched bit of British television in the entire year (beaten only by the episode of EastEnders that immediately followed it). The Christmas Day 2008 episode of Doctor Who was the fifth most watched bit of television in that entire year.

The ratings-spanking that Doctor Who gave Celebrity Wrestling in April and May 2005 also remains a television industry legend to this day and the cause of much celebration from those of us who feel that drama should always out-perform dumbed-down, crass, lowest-common-denominator reality TV.

Doctor Who, in additional to being a huge commercial success has also been critically acclaimed by numerous reviewers in the popular, the quality and the genre press and has won BAFTA, National Television, Royal Television Society and Hugo awards and several other popular polls.

So, that would appear to be a cautious “yeah, it’s doing all right…”

- So what you seem to be saying is that Doctor Who is getting more popular each year?
Pretty much.

- Got any figures to back that up?
Sure have.

Doctor Who (2005 - present) Final consolidated BARB ratings
Series averages:
S1 - 16.9 - Average weekly chart postion (BARB)
S2 - 12.8 - Average weekly chart postion (BARB)
S3 - 12.6 - Average weekly chart postion (BARB)
S4 - 9.6 - Average weekly chart postion (BARB)

7.94m - Series 1 (2005) Final BARB rating average
7.86m - Series 2 (2006) Final BARB rating average
7.68m - Series 3 (2007) Final BARB rating average
8.42m - Series 4 (2008) Final BARB rating average

8.62m - Series 1 (2005) Total weekly audience average*
8.77m - Series 2 (2006) Total weekly audience average*
8.87m - Series 3 (2007) Total weekly audience average*
9.88m - Series 4 (2008) Total weekly audience average*

1.23m - Series 1 (2005) Under 16's final BARB average
1.40m - Series 2 (2006) Under 16's final BARB average
1.50m - Series 3 (2007) Under 16's final BARB average
1.64m - Series 4 (2008) Under 16's final BARB average

575,000 - Series 1 (2005) Doctor Who Confidential final BARB average
655,000 - Series 2 (2006) Doctor Who Confidential final BARB average
700,000 - Series 3 (2007) Doctor Who Confidential final BARB average
757,000 - Series 4 (2008) Doctor Who Confidential final BARB average

82.8 - Series 1 (2005) average AI
84.4 - Series 2 (2006) average AI
86.2 - Series 3 (2007) average AI
87.9 - Series 4 (2008) average AI *

The total weekly audience is comprised by adding 95% of the BBC3 figures to the final BARB rating.

Series 1 includes "Rose"
Series 2 includes "The Christmas Invasion"
Series 3 includes "The Runaway Bride"
Series 4 includes "Voyage of the Damned"
Series 4 includes "Doctor Who Confidential: Kylie Special"

Excludes iPlayer (series 4)

(Thanks to the very excellent Andy Parish for providing these averages.)

- So, what’s the deal with Season Five?
That was formally commissioned by the BBC in August 2007 and had already been budgeted. It will be filmed during summer and autumn of 2009 and broadcast in spring 2010.

- Why the year long gap?
Much of the background to the decision was first publicly revealed in Russell Davies and Ben Cook’s A Writer’s Tale published in 2008 (although it had been the source of huge speculation previously). Essentially, it was because after four years of almost constant production, everyone involved in Doctor Who was completely shagged out and needed a nice holiday. Russell mentions in the book that he promised David Tennant and the production team after ‘Doomsday’ was filmed (in Spring 2006) that they would have a big finish to series four followed by a break to allow a new production team to prepare series five. David Tennant was only approached to play the role of Hamlet by the RSC after his appearance on Who Do You Think You Are? in September 2006.

Nevertheless this gap will be - partially - filled by a series of Doctor Who “special” episodes which will be filmed early in 2009 and broadcast later in the year.

Remember, if you’re thinking about getting a stroppy chimney-on over your lack of a full season in 2009 - as though the BBC owes you a personal debt to produce fourteen episodes of Doctor Who every year come what may - on 1 June 2007, the BBC issued a press statement which concluded: "The BBC has a long-term commitment to Doctor Who.”

- What about season Six?
Don’t get greedy!
I would probably expect an announcement about the formal commissioning of a sixth season sometime during early 2010. Certainly it has been widely reported in several national newspapers that Matt Smith has signed a three year contract with the BBC with an option to a further two years thereafter which would appear to suggest that the BBC at least expect the show to still be around in five years time.

Russell Davies recently noted in the Doctor Who magazine that Doctor Who’s position has never been more secure within the BBC than it is right at this moment and that it will be for a very long time to come.

- Isn’t he supposed to be going?
He is. But the moment has been prepared for.

- Who’s going to replace him?
That would be The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat (thou shalt worship no other Gods before he).

- Who’s going to replace David Tennant, then?
Matt Smith. Nice lad. Lovely hair. Used to play for Notts Forest.

- What happens now?
Doctor Who will return at Easter 2009 in 'Planet of the Dead.'
The Unofficial Doctor Who Forum Ratings, Audience Share, AI, scheduling and “future of Doctor Who” FAQ will return to The Doctor Who Forum one day afterwards.