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Now into its second series on Channel 4, TV Heaven Telly Hell marks something of a watershed in television nostalgia. Whereas programmes like Noel Edmonds' Telly Addicts, We Love TV and Television's Greatest Hits presented by Philip Schofield, were devised to celebrate and warmly recall television past, TV Heaven Telly Hell is plainly intended to lambast it. Some television is well deserving of a bit of a pasting, and while there's no denying that It's A Knockout is never going to be placed on a pedestal with television greats such as Fawlty Towers, The Singing Detective or The Forsyte Saga, the series was a great success story, was well liked at the time and garnered consistently good viewing figures. That must mean something, eh? Clearly not, if there's a cheap laugh or ten to be had at its expense.

Sean LockAnyway, let's get down to business. Comedian Sean Lock, TV Heaven Telly Hell's regular presenter, has a burgeoning CV and has worked with the great and the good on the comedy circuit since his television debut on Newman and Baddiel in Pieces in 1993. Since then he's written for and performed with the likes of Bill Bailey (a personal favourite of mine), Lee Evans, Mark Lamarr and Harry Hill. His own stand-up act has lead to his being nominated for accolades such as the Perrier Comedy Award and Lock was presented with the gong for Best Live Comic at The British Comedy Awards in 2000. In other words, Sean Lock is a hot property right now and justifiably so - which makes it a pity that he's reduced to fronting sardonic programmes like this one, which seem to exist solely to sneer. TV Heaven Telly Hell proves a diverting and mildly entertaining show which owes much of any appeal it has to Lock's input, but compared to other entertainment shows that cater to the same audience demographic, such as Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Have I Got News for You, it feels somewhat cynical and mean-spirited.

TV Heaven Telly Hell is not without its progenitors, of course, notably TV Heaven, transmitted on Channel 4 back in February 1992 and presented by the genial and much missed Frank Muir, plus TV Hell, hosted by comedians Angus Deayton and Paul Merton, and broadcast on August Bank Holiday on BBC2, also in 1992. Call me cynical, but I wonder where Objective Productions dreamt up the name for their series??? Answers on a postcard to Objective Productions... It also has to be said that TV Heaven Telly Hell owes a huge debt to the BBC's popular Room 101, in fact so much so that it feels like a clone of that long-running series. Sean Lock plays devil's advocate from time to time, disagreeing with the interviewee's points, but his stance seems intended more to provoke further caustic comments on the subject than to genuinely state a case for the defence. Sad to say, if a TV show is mentioned in the programme, it's junk by definition - seemingly even if it's the programme that the guest likes. TV Heaven Telly Hell is pretty much endemic of a lot of what's wrong with modern television. It gleefully puts itself on a pedestal as though it is somehow automatically superior to anything that was made in the 'bad old days' of non-anamorphic pictures, analogue transmissions, primitive equipment, monaural sound and, dare I say it, black and white pictures. Modern TV tends to deal in the extremes of 'love' and 'hate', with no middle ground. Ultimately, it's disappointing, because very little gets a fair evaluation these days on television - it's all so hopelessly tabloid, glib and self-important.

Jack DeeThe first programme in TV Heaven Telly Hell's second season aired at 11.05pm on Monday 23rd July 2007 and featured Sean Lock's fellow comedian, Jack Dee, well-known for his dour, curmudgeonly stage persona, airing his views on television, old and new. Four programmes came up for discussion: City Hospital (a more than justifiable thumbs down, but with a couple of Brian Blessed clips that were concurrently nauseating and hilarious), A Question of Sport (a guilty pleasure of mine for years, and something of an easy target), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dee's sole concession to positivity) and It's A Knockout (which is why you're reading this review at JSFnetGB).

Needless to say, as was the case in TV Hell in 1992 (although it was despatched with considerably more affection in that instance), It's A Knockout was condemned to the TV scrapheap. As a fan, it's hard to accept this view, and while I often find myself on Jack Dee's wavelength, this did prove not to be one of those times (although his views about modern TV seem to echo my own, above). Admittedly, The Grand Knockout Tournament is far, far from being one of the top Knockout programmes and perhaps it is indeed deserving of a brickbat or two, but "probably the worst television ever made"? I could name a hundred programmes that are inferior, just by leafing through the Radio Times of any given week.

The other clip, used to illustrate the crime against humanity that It's A Knockout represented, was the classic 'penguins on a turntable' game from the 1974 Jeux Sans Frontières heat at Aix-les-Bains in France. This, as readers here will know, depicts a succession of hapless competitors thrashing about, slip-sliding away to the strains of Stuart Hall's hysterical commentary, which famously descends into uncontrollable, infectious laughter. The fact that Jack Dee appears incapable of seeing the funny side of it probably says more about him than it says about It's A Knockout. It's not only my definition of TV heaven, but also one of my favourite television clips of all time. I simply cannot watch it without getting a warm, nostalgic feeling for kinder, simpler times... whilst laughing so much that I only stop when I realise I've not been breathing for a minute and a half! I have to admit though that I was greatly amused by Dee and Lock's explanations for the strangled sounds emanating from Hall's microphone...

Sean Lock: "There's a noise he makes there, I've never heard anyone make! He sorts of goes... AAAARRRGGGGGHHHHHHHKKKKKK!!!! He's laughing so much, he's turning into a penguin!"

Jack Dee: "It's as if Eddie Waring has got him in some contraption and he's making it go tighter and tighter, and in the end, he just goes AAAAAAARRRRRAAAAAARRRRGGGHHH!!!!"

Highlight of the programme for me.

Before it passes into the television ether for a week, TV Heaven Telly Hell can't resist taking potshots at Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the programme cited by Jack Dee as a shining example of great TV. Clearly, even "the greatest TV programme ever made" can't escape the barbs in TV Heaven Telly Hell...

The whole show comes over as somewhat arrogant, basking in its own misplaced superiority. One day, It's A Knockout will get a fair, even handed appraisal on television, which notes its popularity, the innocent fun it presented, the athletic endeavours of its competitors, its irreplaceable presenters and referees, and the European television institution it became - but it looks like we have a long wait until that day. In the fullness of time, it will undoubtedly be It's A Knockout, not TV Heaven Telly Hell, that is fondly remembered in the history of the medium, and rightly so.

by Alan Hayes