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
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
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
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
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
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
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