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Saturday, 7 February 2009

It’s Time To Go Nationwide, BBC4


Did we like it?
Across our screen paraded skateboarding ducks, record-breaking brickies, Hugh Scully being accosted in MFI, a yacht race powered only by the hot air from Frank Bough’s mouth and Mrs Thatcher squirming – TV highlights all, but was it really enough to justify a one-hour special of BBC4’s inexorably suffocating celebrations of BBC mediocrity, as if the viewers will be blinkered to the crude cost-cutting because of the licence-fee shortfall, while Andrew Lloyd-Webber continues to be venerated like the earthly avatar of Apollo.

What was good about it?
• Richard Stilgoe – we have fond memories of him from our childhood as one of those TV eccentrics who beguiled you with their frenetic urge to inform and entertain but to do so in their own idiosyncratic manner. We can still remember the theme tune to kids’ game show Finders Keepers in which Stilgoe prodded away at his synthesiser, droning in a hypnotic monotone as if availing to invoke Beelzebub.
• In this retrospective we got to see him nearer the start of his TV career, composing barbed little ditties about the vagaries of corporate amorality to the downtrodden consumer.
• Over a period of 14 years, it’s probable that any programme can collect together highlights to fill an hour (we recall that paean to solemnity Heartbeat managed such a feat recently), and these moments were funny or interesting – the skateboarding duck, Mrs Thatcher being taken to task about the Falklands War and a jealous Shetland Pony kick out at two presenters who, as a jape, trotted round his field dressed as a pantomime horse.
• The best bit, though, was James Hogg became a castaway on a remote island; he had to fish or trap his own food and shelter from the elements in nooks and crannies and, before he went insane, returning to a hero’s welcome.
• Seeing the very young John Humphrys and John Craven in an early episode of the programme.
• Despite his Lucifer-esque Fall, we still regard Frank Bough as a TV paternal figure, with his reassuring smile and easy manner, and so it was pleasing to see him enjoying his retirement.

What was bad about it?
• Was there any point to the programme? The highlights could have been tied up and spat out in a 15 minute bloc to fill in after Horizon. It’s not Nationwide’s fault in itself; it simply was a programme made for its time that was of its time – any glossy rejuvenation of the show simply illuminated the fact that it’s so badly dated. We wonder if this series of revisions of history will stretch to such redundant leviathans like Panorama, which was akin to slipping into a visual void for 50 minutes on a Monday evening (although it was still 10 times better than it is now),
• Efforts were made to illustrate how forward-thinking and innovative Nationwide was with such things as the public asking politicians questions live on air or focusing on Dead Donkey stories that clog the end of news bulletins with a tidal wave of saccharine and those cloying, ingratiating smiles that pierce the cerebrum with their self-consciously winsome stupidity that GMTV has turned into an art form.
• But none of this mattered – the ideas weren’t bolts from the blue, they were simply progressions along the path to viewer-generated content, which, while fun, are the Anti-Christ of journalism. Aside from the odd viewer, such as Diana Gould’s interrogation of Margaret Thatcher, viewers are more often than not cowed by the politicians, who are well-versed at facing far more adroit adversaries across the Dispatch Box in Parliament. The (near) contemporary equivalent is Tony Blair being interviewed by Fiona Phillips.
• The origin of that national embarrassment the BBC news presenters do Children In Need was exhumed in the form of the Nationwide pantomime with Dennis Healey on piano. Jeremy Vine in suspenders is mild in comparison.
• Esther Rantzen hinted at the “chauvinism” of Nationwide, but this was only superficially explored. We were assured by all the male presenters, and Sue Lawley, about the great atmosphere behind the scenes. Yet this neglected one of the most interesting social changes that had occurred since the programme was in its prime – although perhaps it hasn’t changed that much as the male presenters were predominantly old and haggard while the female presenters were young and doe-eyed (though, we have no doubt, were formidable journalists, too).
• The indulgent attitude of producer Ron Neil that painted Nationwide as the circus clowns putting the noses out of joint of the rest of the “mostly Oxbridge” current affairs team that produced Panorama. Again, our recollections are a little hazy, but we remember Panorama and Nationwide as two sides of the same very grey coin.
• Nobody mentioned that towards the end of its run, it began at 6.22pm, which always struck us as weird.

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