Sunday is supposed to be education night on British TV, but this week Friday stepped in and taught us three important lessons. First, that it’s possible to take a good, and fairly original, programme idea and turn it into one of the worst shows ever seen on TV. Second, that it’s possible to do your career some good on one channel one minute, then send it hurtling down the toilet (literally) on another the next. And third, that it was possible, after all, to come up with an even nastier game show than ITV’s trapdoor-toting Russian Roulette.
The idea behind Distraction is a good one; see how well quiz show contestants can answer questions while being distracted in various ways. The problem lies in the methods of distraction, which this week included public humiliation of a level not seen on terrestrial TV before, and criminal damage rendered “a laugh”, and thus semi-legitimised, by its execution in a TV studio.
Compering this lot was Jimmy Carr, the baby-faced comedian who’d been seen moments earlier over on BBC1, doing a creditable job of guest-hosting Have I Got News For You. With him were four up-for-it hopefuls, vying for the star prize of a VW Beetle car. The first distraction, it emerged, was a row of toilet cubicles, complete with bogrolls, chains and just-about-adequate modesty panels.
Either they were very good actors, or there was an element of genuine shock as the contestants were told to drop their pants and squat on the pans. Instead of pressing buzzers, they had to piss in order to answer a question. And thus Channel 4 treated us to the sight and (amplified) sound of young men and women urinating in front of a studio audience (plus however many viewers had insufficient self-respect to flip to another channel), for the right to answer questions of the calibre of “What is eight plus one?”.
After two more eliminating rounds, the lone survivor found himself fighting to keep his newly-won Beetle from being wrecked by two skilled vandals. He answered correctly to save his windscreen and headlights, but flunked on wing mirrors and paintwork, so the vandals set to work, taking out the mirrors with baseball bats, and giving the body an aerosol job. The camera lingered lovingly on the damage, just as it had on the embarrassed face of the woman pissing herself earlier on.
Let’s hope that anyone spurred on to a bit of vandalism by this “cool” show takes it out on the cars of whoever was responsible for showing it. Let’s hope that Jimmy Carr is never seen on TV again, as a warning to other post-ironic smart-arses that subjecting the public to ritual degradation of this severity isn’t clever. And let’s hope that OfCom give Channel 4’s licence to Sky (or Bravo, or Men & Motors), so we can get some better-quality programming on the terrestrial platform.
Distraction, Channel 4
A few hosts – Dermot O’Leary, the late Christopher Price and Ant And Dec – are, or were, able to make the most dreadful programmes bearable through their very presence alone. And Distraction host Jimmy Carr also falls into that category, but Carr has a bigger job on his hands than any of the others as Distraction is one of the worst shows on television.
With an incongruent set – a stately drawing room – the idea of Distraction is that contestants answer questions while being diverted in some way. Not since Strike It Lucky has the best part of a quiz show been the introduction of the contestants. Carr reads out a genuine scenario one of the contestants has been in and than asks another who they think it was. It tells you very little about the person, but does allow Carr to ridicule them with his softly toned yet barbed observations.
At the start of the second half, Carr, perhaps aware of how poor the show really is, defends it by defiantly stating: “At Distraction we’ve been accused of dumbing down TV, but for those of you who don’t approve of this kind of populist entertainment show, and wish we were slightly more high brow: go and read a book you bender” in an effort to attribute the problem with the viewer rather than the show.
But the problem of Distraction isn’t one of dumbing down more a lack of imagination. Jackass is the dumbest show on the box, yet succeeds because some of the stunts have a spark of originality in them, a quality lacking in Distraction. The sight of three lines of fat naturists ready to be dressed by contestants is far more dispiriting than it is revolting. Any hilarity to be gleaned from such a spectacle was exhausted by the first series of Eurotrash (although perhaps someone should tell Chris Tarrant this).
Meanwhile, shooting contestants with fruit, excrement and eggs could have come straight out of Jackass, and in fact it probably did.
Hopes are raised at the start of the final round, where the winning contestant Sam is given the chance to win £5,000, after Carr announces that Sam can answer questions on either volcanoes or cutlery. Will this be filled with brilliantly surreal questions akin to the wonderful Shooting Stars? Sadly, no. Sam chooses volcanoes and gets questions like: “When volcanoes erupt they blow their tops, but which 80s tennis player was famous for blowing his top?” and “Dormant volcanoes are said to be sleeping, but which minging MP did John Major sleep with?” The distraction in this round was the best of the show – as Sam pondered the questions his cash was burning in five toasters – but it couldn’t cleanse the memory of what had gone on before it.
There is little point decrying Distraction as a low point in television history in the same way as the decadent The Word, or the even more appalling Something For The Weekend, because as soon as Jimmy Carr imminently moves on to bigger and better things, Distraction will cease to exist and be forgotten very quickly.