The best Christmas TV wasn’t Christmas TV but catching up on a series I hadn't managed to see on its first or subsequent runs. Ross Noble’s Freewheelin reminded me of a kind of television they generally no longer make, except, perhaps, by accident. It is TV straight from the 1980s, when Channel 4 earned its reputation for innovation by simply making room in its schedule for the unexpected.
In Noble’s show, he travels around the UK based on random suggestions made to him via Twitter. In one episode he even travelled as far as visiting St Helens, though I can’t say I recognised the parts he visited. Unlike his visits to other towns, Noble avoided the shopping district. St Helens was portrayed as an utter dump. Perhaps it is, though that will be particularly evident if you choose to look at one derelict shop in some backstreet away from the centre of town.
In a way, it was a bit of a disappointment but not unexpected. This region has a reputation and you don’t often hear people talk about the famous writer, wit, or intellectual from St Helens. In the national psyche, we’re the stuff of twisted rugby players, boxers with flattened senses, and the comedian Johnny Vegas.
Vegas made a welcome appearance in the St Helen’s episode, though I suspect that was down to his friendship with Noble rather than the producer trying to fill the show with celebrities. Unfortunately, they did that also, which was the series’ one failing. The format’s strength is that it actually involved real people in everyday situations which Noble warped with his brand of spontaneous comedy. It’s actually gave a little attention to parts of the county that rarely get included in the TV schedules. Yet I guess it’s unsurprising that even the best show should betrays its ethos by sadly conformed to the usual TV formula of replacing real people with celebrities. Does a tour of the UK always have to involve a stop off at Paul Daniel’s house? It’s as though a tour of the UK couldn’t be complete without involving some luvvie from that other world. I’ve said it before that celebrities ruined Twitter but must they also ruin a TV based around Twitter. It seems that they must.
The other thing I’ve found myself watching over Christmas are Dave’s repeats of Have I Got News For You. In many respects, I agree with people who say its lots its edge and it’s a show that desperately needs a revamp. If it does, I don’t think it need be a huge change. Simply getting rid of the guest presenters would be a step in the right direction. By its very nature, satire is the comedy of the outsider. It’s the stuff of the alternative point of view. It’s why HIGNFY rightly belongs on BBC2 and not on the nation’s main TV channel. Like the alternative Queen’s speech, it should be about standing apart from the herd, directing scorn where scorn will sting. Now on BBC1 and hosted by many of the people it should set out to mock, the show has been co-opted by the establishment and it now rarely bites. Although I don’t like the man’s comedy but perhaps ideal host would be Frankie Boyle simply because he might upset a few people in the process. An even better host would be Stewart Lee, though I doubt if it would be his thing and he probably wouldn’t do it anyway. The problem with so much satire in the UK is that it’s become safely contained within establishment rules, appropriated by the establishment as if to control disenchantment. Gone are the days when politicians would step in to try to stop the broadcast of an episode of Spitting Image. Indeed, it’s a sign of how bad satire has become that I actually miss Spitting Image, which in its later years was itself a twisted version of its former self.
It also reminds me that over Christmas, I watched a biography about David Frost. Among the few things I took away from the show was the degree to which Frost was himself always destined for an establishment role. Although he made his name in satire, he wasn’t by nature satirical or, for that matter, either a writer or performer. The great Peter Cook was said to have resented the way Frost took the Fringe out of theatres and put it on TV.
It’s why I hope Ross Noble remains on the outside of that world. I hope he manages to stay disconnected from the London establishment. I had worried that Johnny Vegas might have become ‘too London’. When Noble met him, he was in a London pub, hundreds of miles away from where his career began in the St Helens Citadel. Then I read about him laying into the establishment at the typically woeful British Comedy Awards. You need to skip to four minutes to get the meat of the business…
Of course, part of this might just have been his usual shtick and I worry that the London set laugh because of the way he says things rather than the things he says. But what he says has real significance to me given I spend most of my days lamenting about the state of comedy writing in the UK.
Is it any surprise that the elected king and queen of British comedy should be Jack Whitehall and Miranda Hart? It makes me even more jaded and I have even less desire to write comedy or drawn cartoons, hence the reason I've spent most of my time over Christmas drawing bad caricatures on my upgraded Note. I don’t think I’ve ever been this frustrated in my own work, when my writing, typified by my Stan book, gets nowhere but two extremely unfunny but establishment figures are lauded as comic geniuses. It sickens me to watch Miranda claim Eric Morecambe as her own, somehow associating her mediocre talent to his unequaled star. I suppose it frustrates me that Johnny Vegas is laughed off as if he’s the eccentric uncle spoiling the party when he’s actually speaking truths from the heart that should be acknowledged as wisdom. If I’ve been critical of Vegas in the past, I suppose it was out of my own sense of frustration that my local area should be associated with the Vegas character. It seemed to play into all the southern prejudices that people around here are uneducated, boorish, and borderline alcoholic. Yet Michael Pennington has more humour talent in his little finger than Whitehall has displayed in his entire career. Whitehall, however, is the son of Michael Whitehall and there you have the truth of the world. So, for that one moment of sublime genius, Vegas wins my vote for comedian of the year. Not that it matters.