Monday, May 15, 2006


Never Watch the Full Stops

While The Avengers regularly hits the top ten of BBC4 ratings (such as they are), their reliable chart-topper has been the intelligent and amusing Stephen Fry not-so-much-a-panel-game-more-a-way-of-life QI, so it’s no surprise that – with QI off the air and their Avengers run having finished last week – the channel is gagging for a replacement. From the saturation advertising, Julian Fellowes’ Never Mind the Full Stops was clearly meant to be it. It’s not. With Ming doing superbly on Question Time also last Thursday night, we recorded the new show to watch later. It was our sacrifice so you needn’t.

It’s difficult to express just how badly this ghastly train wreck of a show failed. I first saw Julian Fellowes in the superb 1987 drama Knights of God – I was about the only one who watched it – set in an authoritarian Britain of, oh, about now, I think, where the charismatic leader had a messiah complex and was slowly going off his trolley while Mr Fellowes played the ambitious number two who was desperate for the top job and finally broke into open rebellion. Put this way it sounds like an everyday story of New Labour folk, but this one was set after a North-South civil war and the religious fascists in charge were at least played by more compelling actors (it turned out everything was saved by the monarchy, but I still think it’s terrific. How’s that for a recommendation? I must look out my blurry, ancient VHS copies taken from even more blurry, ancient Betamax copies sometime, or hope for a DVD). Anyway, after the scheming Brother Hugo, Mr Fellowes went on to play a succession of slimy, scheming Tories (you may remember him as not-Reggie-Maudling-goodness-me-no in Our Friends in the North or his rather more sympathetic laird in Monarch of the Glen), then surprised us all by writing an Oscar-winning script, making a new career as a charming raconteur and coming out as, gosh, a real and active Tory, when I’d assumed his diabolically effective caricatures marked him as a secret Marxist.

On the face of it, then, Julian Fellowes sounds a good candidate to host a prissy, intellectual but entertaining BBC4 show. My pedantic soul was delighted by all the trailers pointing out punctuation mistakes and misspellings, and I popped the programme on with high hopes. Conducting our post-mortem later, Richard and I found we’d both realised something was wrong before the first word was spoken. A set drenched in almost unbroken scarlet (glowing incandescently and with the occasional gold highlight) was clearly meant to be kitsch but looked simply horrible. Richard said ‘brothel,’ while I thought ‘kebab’. Either way, it wasn’t attractive. Even Julian’s chair was all wrong – a baroque metallic monstrosity reminiscent of Tim’s chair from The Goodies but barely rising above his back, making it too gaudy to be tasteful but not big enough to be glamorous.

Once Mr Fellowes and guests Ned Sherrin, Carol Thatcher, Janet Street-Porter and David Aaronovitch opened their mouths, little improved. Julian’s script was woefully ill-suited to him, desperately wanting to be QI, but not as warm, not as funny and not as clever, with too much shovelled in as off-cuts from Have I Got News For You. His unease was so palpable that I wonder if someone had said immediately before the cameras rolled, “You do know you’re hosting a show named after a punk rock group?” “It’s time for a round called ‘Apostrophe Now’,” he announced at one point with a look of great pain. “Oh, it’s marvellous, some of the stuff I’ve got.” Too often, rather than aping Mr Fry’s smug but endearingly posh and intermittently very rude style, Mr Fellowes came across as an angry old man railing at everything – the programme began, unflatteringly, with ‘Pet hates’ – and only came across well when reacting to still more intemperate guests. “You just like the sound of your own voice…” began Janet Street-Porter at one point, laying into him, only to be disarmed by “Well, it’s true – I adore it.” “That’s because I’m an old fart” was another moment where you sensed a more engaging Julian Fellowes breaking through, with no help from the script.

The panel game itself was pitiful. Rather than come up with an amusing caption by the end, their Have I Got News For You-style task was set in a more schoolmasterly way as devising a mnemonic for that not-very-tricky word ‘arithmetic’. If you’re watching BBC4 at all, let alone at 10.30 at night, you’re probably able to spell the word anyway. The rounds progressed slowly through simple punctuation, name-dropping, buzz-words – “A few years ago, this show would have been ‘cutting edge’. But not any more, oh no” was probably an unwise line about a programme that would fit right in to 1962, minus a few mildly rude words and a hideously garish set – and the obligatory mockery of John Prescott to rewriting passages with euphemisms and cacophemisms (perhaps cacophonisms, though my 1792-page dictionary makes no guess). The latter round displayed a particularly surreal take on the English language, as while I can accept that a cacophemism is the opposite of euphemism, making words blunter and more damaging than they need be, the word euphemism was here redefined as ‘absurdly positive spin’ rather than ‘making something unpleasant more palatable by making it less meaningful’. Still, at least I learnt that a ‘caret’ is one of those little upside-down Vs to indicate you’ve omitted a word.

The final round was introduced with “We end our show as always with the quick-fire round,” raising the hideous possibility that they’d recorded half a dozen of these and were showing the best one first. After the fairly random winners were announced, Mr Fellowes turned to camera and haltingly announced that “Well, we just actually have some time…” as if we were back to live broadcasting straight from the Fifties and he’d just been told to fill in for a minute. It turned out he was actually blowing his cue to introduce some ‘amusing’ spelling mistakes pictured around the country. Admittedly, the road-painters who’d produced giant ‘SOTP’ and ‘SHCOOL’ daubings were the most entertaining things in the whole half-hour, but being mean to a restaurant that had put up a hand-lettered notice with a couple of misspellings across a couple of dozen or so words seemed, well, simply mean. Like Mr Fellowes’ chair, it wasn’t a big enough disaster to be amusing.

Don’t tune in to see what this show is like. Amateurish and hectoring when it aims to be witty and incisive, it’s not ‘so bad it’s good’ – merely shoddy. Let’s hope they get the rights to air the black and white Mrs Peel Avengers stories or the Tara King episodes soon.

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