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

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How Abbey’s ‘ginger ninja’ is doing us proud in panto land

Had it not been for the fact that Aylesbury has a new theatre I doubt I’d ever have visited the county town of Buckinghamshire.

But that’s where a certain Pete Conway and I headed down to in order to watch the pantomime we had appeared in up Hanley a couple of years ago be re-created by virtually the same cast.

The Aylesbury Waterside Theatre is a modern architectural wonder – all wood panelling, slate floors and sumptuous seating.

Granted, it’s not The Regent, but I can think of worse places to spend an evening.

Four seats to the right of me was actor Warwick Davis of Star Wars and Willow fame.

Three seats to the left of me was the national treasure that is David Jason. I brought him some popcorn to say thank you purely for the ‘Play it cool, Trig, play it cool’ scene in Only Fools And Horses.

But it wasn’t these showbiz luminaries I’d gone to see – it was my mate Wilkesy and the cast of Dick Whittington.

It’s basically Stoke’s patented panto on tour – the same lead (our Jonny), the same dame (Christian Patterson), the same villain (Steve Serlin) and many members of the original ensemble.

The show was great – even without my now legendarily-rubbish dancing – and although Jonny was missing his partisan Stokie crowd the ‘Ay up me ducks’ went down a treat.

Pete and I could still remember our lines off-by-heart and even though we saw the jokes coming a mile off they still cracked us up.

But the highlight of the night for me was seeing another local lad do his thing in front of hundreds of people.

Aaron Corden and his cousin Andrew, from Abbey Hulton, were runners-up in the Stoke’s Top Talent contest at The Regent in September 2009.

Both had applied to attend vocational courses at Stoke-on-Trent College until Phil ‘The Power’’ Taylor and Potteries businessman Will Bark stepped in and agreed to fund courses for them at the prestigious Bodywork Company Dance Studios.

Since then the lads have repaid this generosity by knuckling down and chasing their dreams hard.

Take Aaron, for example. In the last two years he has been a backing dancer for none other than Take That and the Black Eyed Peas.

Last year he was named best student and won a scholarship at Bodywork which meant that his course fees were paid for. Now the ‘ginger ninja’, as I like to call him, is one of the ensemble dancers in Dick Whittington – with a very proud Jonny Wilkes looking on.

Even to my untrained eye two years ago, it was obvious Aaron was a bit special – combining astonishing athletic ability with an admirable work ethic.

Unfortunately, having landed a role in Dick Whittington at The Regent, he broke his leg very early in the run and then had to watch from the sidelines as we all had a ball and yours truly made a fool of himself.

During panto rehearsals at The Regent I remember sitting in the auditorium talking to Aaron and being blown away by his enthusiasm and how grateful he was for the opportunity to be on stage.
On the X-Factor it is a pre-requisite that everyone has to say the dream of becoming an entertainer means the world to them.

Aaron Corden is someone who not only talks this talk – he walks the walk too.

Let’s not forget that he and his cousin Andrew were completely self-taught – learning dance routines and moves by watching videos of artists like Michael Jackson on the internet.

Now, with just a year of his college course to go, Aaron is hot property and has more than earned his role in the Aylesbury re-run of the panto he missed out on.

He’s a break-dancing rat, a shark in the ultra-violet scene and does all sorts of other bits ’n bobs during the show which require him to do quick costume changes.

According to a fellow dancer in the panto Aaron is the best student in his year and, such is his prowess, I’m sure the theatre-goers of Aylesbury just assume he’s been doing what he does for ages.

It makes me incredibly proud to see a young lad from Stoke-on-Trent using his God-given talent to give our Jonny a run for his money by brightening up the festive season for so many people.
There are, of course, no guarantees in an industry where even established names often live a hand-to-mouth existence.

But if natural ability, hard work and application are anything to go by then this 19-year-old from the Abbey has a very bright future ahead of him in musical theatre.

Happy Christmas, Aaron: This one’s for you, mate.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Chip butties, late nights and a few timeless classics

Back in the days before the internet and mobile telephones made the world a much smaller place, the telly was king.
And before the advent of satellite TV a handful of stations dictated what was beamed into our living rooms.
In ratings terms, the 1980s represented the golden era of the small screen in the UK – with shows grabbing mind-boggling viewing figures which today’s TV executives can only dream of.
Take, for example, the infamous snarling Dirty Den divorces Angie in Eastenders on Christmas Day, 1986, which was watched by an estimated 30.1 million people (if you include the repeat showing).
The following year it was Corrie which held us captivated – with 26.6 million viewers switching on to see Hilda Ogden say farewell to The Street on December 25.
I’m not saying TV shows were better during the Eighties because they certainly didn’t have the budgets of many modern-day productions.
But back then, because of the simple lack of choice, most of us watched the same ‘events’ at the same time.
Then we went to school, work or the pub and talked about them with people who had shared the moment.
In truth I was never much of a soap watcher. I had a brief flirtation with Jane from Neighbours during my school days – simply because of the novelty factor of it being an Aussie show which the rest of my class were watching.
The daddy of all soaps, for me, was actually Dallas which I’m delighted to say returns to our screens next year.
The antics of the oil-rich Ewing clan made for mighty fine viewing in the early Eighties – with scheming, larger-than-life characters contrasting sharply with the majesty of the specially-constructed Southfork ranch.
In November 1980 more than 21 million of us discovered who had shot JR (not Hartley) but I suspect Channel 5 would be deliriously happy if a quarter of that number tune in to next year’s reboot. Of course, if it’s rubbish they can always pretend Pam has had another bad dream.
Because I was a lad growing up in the 1980s a couple of other American shows were firm favourites of mine.
Despite it’s frankly ludicrous plot, hammy acting and the fact that 12,000 rounds were dispensed from a Kalashnikov in each episode but no-one ever got hurt – the A-Team was essential viewing in our house on a Saturday night.
I just pity the fool who felt it necessary to trample all over my generation’s cherished memories with last year’s woeful movie.
Another U.S. must-see of mine featured David Hasslehoff and his talking black car KITT fighting for truth, justice and the American perm. To be honest, I grew to prefer Airwolf – sort of like Knight Rider but with a helicopter and a better theme tune – but I have to doff the cap to ‘The Hoff’ for starting the ball rolling.
All of my other favourite TV shows from the decade of decadence were British-made affairs and I won’t have a word said against any of them.
The first was a show whose premise was the unlikely pairing of an elegant English detective and a tough New York cop – both working for an elite unit of the Metropolitan Police.
It may not have been as hard-hitting as other cop shows but Dempsey and Makepeace had a cool bloke and a gorgeous leading lady.
OK. I’ll admit to answering the phone with the word ‘Yo’ for a while in homage to Michael Brandon’s Dempsey but, in truth, I watched it for the love of Makepeace – AKA Glynis Barber – a woman for whom I’d still happily take a bullet.
I’m claiming another crime-fighting show for the Eighties – although it began in the late Seventies.
The Professionals, which centred around a far tougher double-act in Bodie and Doyle (the excellent Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw before he became a luvvie), focused on a fictional counter-bad guys unit.
I well remember my delight on Christmas Day morning in 1982 when my younger brother Matt and I opened up our toy Professionals Crimebuster Kits – complete with all-important CI5 I.D. cards, guns, watches, fingerprint kit and a working black and white camera. Best present ever, that.
The next show reminds me of creeping back downstairs after Matt had fallen asleep on Friday nights in 1983/84 to eat chip butties and watch one of the best British comedy dramas ever made.
As the son of a joiner, Auf Wiedersehen Pet featured working class heroes to whom I could certainly relate and, for a couple of years, this show was the highlight of my week.
In terms of comedy, I enjoyed the anarchic nature of The Young Ones immensely but, in truth, it was the gentle humour of cockney wide-boys the Trotters which made me laugh out loud.
Only Fools And Horses is one of the few shows which genuinely deserves the label ‘a timeless classic’.
It is little wonder we consider David Jason a national treasure.
Last but by no means least on my list of favourite 80s shows is another comedy which managed to fuse history and razor wit together to create one of the most quotable sitcoms of all time.
Rowan Atkinson’s sneering, morally-ambivalent Blackadder is a work of genius which I can watch over and over again.
Indeed, part of the fun is pre-empting the laugh lines and still finding them hysterically funny.
I sometimes wonder what Edmund would have to say about the television comedy on offer these days.
Not much, I suspect. Other than to blame Baldrick and punch him in the face.