TV-ing it    3                                                                                                                                                                    Posted 9th August 2013

 "Crossroads" must over the years have irreparably damaged many viewers' sense of reality. It is the continuing story of a motel in an alternative universe where God apparently ran out of materials about the second day and went off to do something else. The result is that everybody lives in corners. People sidle through doors, say a few words and sidle back out. Nobody moves more than a few yards in case they fall off the edge of the programme.

The tightness of the sets, like furnished window-sills, seems by a kind of Darwinian conditioning to have affected the way they speak. Incidental chat is forbidden. They all talk with manic concentration about the interconnecting trivia of the plot without ever deviating into credible irrelevance.

Yet the way the actors are denied any semblance of a real life has its own special poignancy. For a start, the programme has gone on for so long that it has been possible to see the actors age as real people within the plastic carapaces of the parts they play.

The effect is disturbing, like watching an epic dramatisation of Auden's line, "In headaches and in worry vaguely life leaks away." The one who haunts me most is Ronald Allen as David Hunter. He seems a nice man. To have seen a lage part of a career devoted to walking in and out of countless half-rooms, mouthing wooden platitudes and looking concerned about nonsense, while time steals remorselessly up on him, is as bleak as anything by Beckett. It's like watching a man spend his life in a revolving door.

The valium-dispenser made some strange offerings this week. One of the strangest was "On The Green". This is a game involving a putting surface, a scoreboard with little lights, a set of golf-clubs and two teams of celebrity panellists who proved slightly less amusing than the bag of golf-clubs.

By the time Donny McLeod had finished explaining the ludicrously involved rules, several weeks had passed. By the time the series of daft and remarkably unengaging games had been played, senility through boredom was setting in. The whole thing was roughly as much fun as having your toenails pulled out with a pair of pliers.

But teams of dedicated experts continue to study the chemistry of audience reaction, trying to find the right formula. "Britain's Strongest Man"should provide them with some negative guidelines.

Bristling with the sort of huge men who make one a crowd, this is the kind of programme you instinctively hesitate to criticise in case a couple of the participants get delivered to your door in a pantechnicon.

But, having put my emigration papers in order, I will proceed. Initially, there were two things wrong with it. One was Derek Hobson and the other was Barbara Windsor. Beyond that, the organisers made the elementary error of mistaking difficulty for entertainment.

Apart from the tug o'war, where proceedings were galvanised by is sense of real and immediate contest, most of the events, though doubtless punishing, were strangely abstruse. They succeeded in making physical strength seem an esoteric craft, as if you were watching a group of specialists taking a Ph.D. in muscles.

For me the best of the programmes based on a contest is still "Mastermind" - the Torquemada Show. Eight years after its inception, that bare and simple format still works.

It can be gruesomely rivetting. This week, coming for the first time from Northern Ireland, it showed us a mature student slowly beginning to wonder why he had chosen Billie Holiday as his specialist subject. In fact, at one point he seemed to be
wondering who Billie Holiday was.

While his head unravelled before our very eyes, his face was trying to convince us that everything was fine. A desperate smile kept reopening like a wound that wouldn't heal.

In contrast, the winner of this semi-final, Philip Jenkins, sat in the hotseat as if it were an armchair and answered just about everything so effortlessly that you were left with no sense of where the limits of his knowledge might be located.

His memory is as fast as a telescopic rifle. A question just needs to poke its head over the horizon to be bagged by him.
If the bookies are quoting odds for the final, I know where my money's going.

Unquestionably the most advanced manufacturers of television as a way of putting time dreamlessly to sleep are the Americans. It is hard to find many of their imports which have sufficient abrasiveness to let the mind even feel then going over.

In the line of duty, I subjected myself to a couple of them this week "The Little House on the Prairie" is a direct assault on the tear-ducts. People keep having difficulty talking past the lumps in their throats that seem to be an essential part of the props. They fight back their tears a lot and fall sniffing into one another's arms. It took about 10 minutes for my own eyes to clear.

"Star Trek" offers the opposite danger. Whereas the Ingalls family invite you to emote over everything, the crew of the Starship Enterprise seem to suggest that repression is good for you. When crises occur, those astronauts know what a man must do. He must stare.

Captain Kirk stares intensely at Mr Spock. Mr Spock stares quizzically at Captain Kirk. Bones stares at both of them. They all move to another part of the solar system and stare some more. Between stares they talk a strange high-flown Americanese, as if they were rewriting the Bible as a Reader's Digest book.

With all these programmes, time passes. The worry is that with it there may also pass such tastebuds as you possess, so that you finish up unable to tell bromide from the elixir of life. Like some of the GP's pills, telly can get to be addictive.

(To read the next post in this series click here.)

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