The sorry state of the UK’s dumbed-down TV is forcing me to watch period drama

That’s it then. There’s nothing for it. I guess I’m going to have to watch Downton Abbey.

Having set my stall out long ago against costume romps, the latest viewing figures for British TV are so depressing that they leave me with no choice but to cave in.

How did it come to this? Well, the sad truth is that ITV’s flagship period drama – the most successful since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited – is actually the only proper programme in the top 10 most-watched shows of 2011.

According to figures just released by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb), reality TV and ‘talent’ shows account for six of the top 10 slots.

The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent each grab two places while Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity (Get Me Out Of Here) also chart.

Now, as a staunch supporter of our very own Stoke’s Top Talent, I’ve got nothing against variety competitions. If they do what they say on the tin, that is.

But the X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent aren’t anything of the sort.

They are, first and foremost, entertainment programmes and anyone who doesn’t understand that simple conceit is being emotionally mugged.

Let’s face it: If they were genuine talent competitions then the likes of Jedward and Wagner would never have got anywhere near a television camera.

They were put through to the finals in order that we would all sit around asking each other why they had made it to the finals.

As one of the few people in the UK not under the spell of PJ and Duncan – sorry, I mean Ant and Dec – I have to say I’m A Celebrity (Get Me Out Of Here) also leaves me cold.

Morecambe and Wise they are not and if I want to watch people eating a kangaroo’s testicles I can observe the queue for pies at any League Two stadium that Port Vale visit.

As for Strictly (I’m told you’re supposed to shorten the title) I have no real objection other than the fact that it seems a tad self-indulgent of the BBC to throw its own presenters into the mix with the so-called celebrities.

For example, no sooner had Alex Jones finished fawning over the latest guest on the unfathomably random One Show than she was all sequins and cleavage doing a rumba.

When you take out the boring annual Coronation Street set-piece and the yearly Eastenders misery-fest that leaves only Downton and the Royal Wedding – which topped the chart with an average of 13.59 million viewers but doesn’t really count as it’s a one-off event.

I’m afraid to say that, had it not been for William and Kate’s nuptials, Simon Cowell’s empire would have reigned supreme once again.

What a depressing thought.

Granted, I’m not your archetypal television watcher: If a programme doesn’t contain space ships, the supernatural, an archaeological dig, cricket, Port Vale or Bon Jovi then it’s unlikely to be on my radar.

However, once in a while a fine piece of drama or a brilliant new comedy will grab my attention.

For example, programmes such as the excellent Band Of Brothers or current hit shows such as Boardwalk Empire or Game Of Thrones made the cut.

Of course, the aforementioned sweeping epics were made by U.S. network HBO because neither the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 nor Channel 5 have the resource or the gumption to pull off anything so cinematic.

The truth is I haven’t watched terrestrial telly for a long time and so I have to ask: Did IQs drop sharply while I was away?

Along with the shows I dismissed earlier there is even more vacuous tripe to avoid like Big Brother, Geordie Shore and The Only Way Is Essex.

I’ve clearly turned prematurely into a curmudgeonly old git because it seems to me that warm and engaging family programmes (Auf Wiedersehen Pet/The Darling Buds Of May) and non-offensive and clever comedies (Only Fools and Horses/Blackadder) are now considered too bland.

Meanwhile brainless is the new mainstream as we continue to worship at the cult of celebrity.

We’ve got more channels to choose from than we’ve ever had yet the only time the nation properly comes together is to watch warbling non-entities or Z-list celebrities wretching over a plate of cockroaches.

It’s so bad I’m almost looking forward to the Olympics. Yes, OK, and Downton Abbey.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Advertisements

Our performers could teach Simon Cowell a thing or two

The queue for Stoke's Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

The queue for Stoke’s Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

Sunday was a long day. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Even as we neared the finish and the clock struck eight o’clock, I didn’t want the auditions to end.

At that point, the frantic early morning registration for this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition was a distant memory.

Yet people were still huddled in groups around the auditorium, cheering and clapping enthusiastically: paying punters who had sat there for the best part of 10 hours and wanted to see it through to the bitter end.

I didn’t need to be there. I don’t start judging until the week of the heats when 50 finalists will battle it out in Hanley for the ultimate prize.

I was on a reconnaissance mission. I know that, come the week of September 7, this competition will be on everyone’s lips, and I want to be ready.

Sixteen months ago, the idea of having a variety contest here in the Potteries was just that… an idea. But anyone who witnessed last year’s dramatic climax at The Regent theatre will tell you that this concept, this show, is here to stay.

Even our Editor was left genuinely speechless by the standard that night (and that’s saying something).

Yes, the world and his dog might have gone potty recently over a certain Susan Boyle who came a close second in the final of Britain’s Got Talent.

Not me. I’ll let you into a secret. Whisper it quietly, but Stoke’s Top Talent is better.

OK, we may not have the pyrotechnics of ITV’s ratings winner and the trousers of our resident ‘Mr Nasty’ – Kevin Wood – may not be quite as tight as Simon Cowell’s.

But, by the same token, audiences who pay good money to watch our final 50 acts later this year will certainly get their money’s worth.

There will be no deluded, talentless individuals selected for the judges to belittle; no blokes who think that chucking wheelbarrows around qualifies as entertainment; no random picks to be humiliated in front of a live theatre audience.

Every single one of the finalists will be there on merit.

Of course, for many entrants, the auditions themselves represent their moment in the sun.

For countless youngsters, their minute-and-a-half in front of Jonny Wilkes and the other judges is just the spur they need to carry on singing or dancing – and to maybe try to improve for next year.

No-one leaves in tears. Everyone exits the stage with endorsements, advice and applause ringing in their ears. Which is just as it should be.

Take it from me, it takes some bottle to stand on that stage at the Victoria Hall and belt out 90 seconds of vocals or throw yourself into a street dance routine in front of hundreds of people you don’t know and judges who do this kind of thing for a living.

I saw every act and all the emotions etched on the faces of young and old alike.

I sat on the side of the stage and yet I confess I still have absolutely no idea how Birches Head magician Ben Cardall could predict which playing cards the three judges would choose out of his pack of 52.

I’m also not too proud to say I shed a tear when six-year-old Magenta Lee, of Madeley, sang Where Is Love? from Oliver!

You could have heard a pin drop.

Apparently, they’re doing a similar competition in Milton Keynes this year where the local theatre is owned by the same group.

I wish them luck. They’re going to need it.

I dare say the spies from down south who were watching our auditions on Sunday would have hit the M6 with their tails well and truly between their legs.

Why? Because nowhere else in the country can do what Stoke-on-Trent does with a competition like this.

We may be an introspective little city comprised of six disparate towns, but by God we know how to come together to champion the underdog.

When the final 50 are announced in next Monday’s Sentinel, I suggest you book your tickets for The Regent pretty sharpish.

Even if you never normally visit the theatre, it’s time to shop local and support the acts from your communities.

It’s Sneyd Green versus Kidsgrove, Longton versus Alsager, Tunstall versus Biddulph – and it’s bloody marvellous.

In fact, I’d like to extend a personal invitation to a certain Potteries pop superstar who just happens to have moved back to the UK.

Come on, Rob. Get yourself up Hanley with Jonny and your dad for the finals night on September 12.

You’d be really proud and we’d all love to see you.

Just for once, let us entertain you, Mr Williams.