Friday, 31 October 2008

Themologists: Tony Hatch

Some People Are On The Telly loves theme music. That's why we have our own Blip Stream dedicated to the best music the tube has to offer. In our our occasional series we take a look at the work of the top themologists and celebrate their genius. Let's begin with Tony Hatch:

Pinner's favorite son, Tony Hatch is probably better known for the songs he wrote for female vocalist Petula Clarke. The pair released a string of hits including the memorable Downtown.

Hatch's first TV theme of note was for British soap opera Crossroads. The daily tales of ordinary folk at the Crossroads Motel was introduced by Hatch's unmistakable and beautifully simple piano melody which became synonymous with half an hour of total boredom once the tune came to an end:

The theme was famously cover by Paul McCartney & Wings on their album Venus And Mars... and was often used for the end credits for the programme. Hatch went on to compose many classic themes: Sportsnight, with its highly energised news theme on speed style that screamed "Exciting sport right now!" Other themes include Mrs & Mrs, The Champions and Hadleigh. However, as a soap opera them composer he has few rival's. Say what you like about the programme itself, but almost everyone with a television knows the theme to Neighbours and Emmerdale right? The former was written with his one time lover Jackie Trent with whom Hatch enjoyed a successful partnership both in and out of the studio. The latter piece is a particular favourite of mine. At least the original version is when it was called Emmerdale Farm before they drooped the Farm and the oboe for that matter:

These themes are sat firmly in our collective consciousness. Sadly, like many of the Themologists we will cover on this Blog, the music will endure far longer than the names behind them. Almost everyone you meet will recognise the tunes featured on this page. Few however, will know who is responsible for them. We'll finish on perhaps a lesser know piece by Tony Hatch.

The documentary series Man Alive was a long running current affairs programme on the BBC which began in the sixties and continued into the eighties. Check out the Wikipedia page for more information on the programme itself. I don't really remember too much of the show but the them tune is terribly familiar and an absolute belter in my opinion. Next time you're walking in the metropolis, pop this in your ears and enjoy the city. Take it away Maestro:


Tony Hatch Official Site.


Thursday, 30 October 2008

They Walk Among Us: Ross & Brand Meet The Zombies

Britain has become infected. A swarm of freaks walk among us. Befuddled and aimless, they shamble through existence feeding off the misery and humiliation of others. I am talking about The Bleaters.

The Bleaters revel in public outrage and thrive on contempt for other human beings. The Bleaters swarm from one moral panic to another, feast on its remains and infect others with their virus. They exist in all walks of life. They are builders, housewives, call centre workers, middle managers, senior managers, journalists, politicians. The list is endless. So desperate are they to give meaning to their own lives that they will happily poke their noses into other peoples, searching in vain for validation.

Their latest feast is on a 78 year old actor who was a victim to a very crude and extremely public practical joke by a comedian and a chat chow host. The perpetrators (Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand) have become objects of hatred by The Bleaters. While their favourite newspaper's circulation balloons, they gorge themselves on the crass ineptitude of and for a few moments, forget about house repossessions, global economic collapse, 50,000 Congolese rendered homeless because of civil war and countless dead from an Earthquake in Pakistan.

Ross & Brand is a classic, obvious case of mass delusion. It harks back to happier times when things like this mattered and it protects us from the reality of these uncertain and unpleasant times. Its an excuse for news editors to move away from the gloom and depression and swell the coffers a bit with some mindless tittle-tattle. It's an opportunity for politicians to blame someone else for something else or to promote their own agenda which probably has something to do with the TV Licence and shares in commercial television.

Backing them up is this mass of flesh, this rump. An ever expanding demograph of outraged, pointless boneheads who are only too happy to be angry and disgusted about anything they see or hear as long as someone has told them about it first. At the time of Ross & Brand's outburst, only two people complained. The thousands of others only heard about it in the Tabloids. Some would have read the transcripts, other seen the clips on YouTube and letched over the 23 year old burlesque dancer. However, only two of them were actually listening and were able to judge the incident in its full context. Everyone else allowed Sky News and the Daily Mail to establish it for them.

This latest media driven moment of BBC bashing and moral outrage is a perfect example of self consumption. The story is no longer about Ross, Brand, Sachs or his granddaughter Georgina Baillie (who couldn't get herself down to the Sun's studios quick enough). It has become a story about the story. The Bleaters have gone from complaining about the story to becoming the story itself. They are gorging on their own flesh like cannabilistic Zombies.

How glorious then that the schedulers at E4 chose to run Dead Set through the week with almost conspiratorial timing. Charlie Brooker's Zombie horror show tells the tale of the Big Brother House's attempt to survive a Zombie outbreak. While aficionados of the genre should approve, no one should lose sight of the real horror. We are all eating ourselves and screaming out in anguish while we watch it happen.


Friday, 24 October 2008

Harry Hill Starts

A glamorous brunette relaxes in her office chair and reaches for the hem of her skirt. Slowly she lifts the hem up her thigh to reveal, the top of her suspender, her naked flesh and… a piano keyboard grafted onto her ludicrously elongated thigh.

It's Saturday night on ITV but what decade is it and what programme are we watching? Is it the 1970’s and Morecambe and Wise? Nope, its 2008 and the first of the new series of Harry Hill’s TV Burp is back on the telly.

The thing is, I’m not actually watching it on Saturday early evening as an antidote to Strictly Come Dancing. I’m watching the late night narrative repeat on Monday. You can schedule this programme pretty much wherever you like and it doesn't seem out of place.

Hill and his production team are exploiting a formula as old as TV itself. The first TV clip show was introduced about two minutes after John Logie Baird invented the Television. Clip shows enjoy the merit of being cheap and of high quality thanks to all the hard work done by the makers of the shows that the clips are from. All that needs be done to finish things off is the links between the clips. So far, so hum-drum. That was until Hill came along and decided to use the format as a vehicle for his own brand of comedy mania.

The result is, not only a show as funny as Have I Got News For You but a lot more accessible. The comedy is cheeky but only in the Carry On sense. It's not political so is unlikely to rub people up the wrong way. There is no underlying message or agenda. It is the classic example of not sacrificing a good gag in order to make a point.

For the uninitiated it is difficult, perhaps, to understand how Hill’s surreal style of comedy could work in such a conservative format. However, the show’s real genius is how he merges the links into the clips by momentarily duping the audience into thinking they are still watching the clip only to find Hill wandering in to play Alison King’s (the aforementioned glamorous bruntte) leg like a piano, for example - albeit with strategically placed body doubles.

The hijinks don’t end there. Frequently, the actors or personalities will appear in Harry’s world (specifically his studio) or turn up in other show’s 'clips' or take part in an extended gag. Few, who saw it, will ever forget the cataract sequence:

There are set-pieces like this that are too numerous to mention and lose a lot in translation, frankly. You’d have to see them. Which brings us to another reason why this programme is so special. Once they’ve been transmitted, you most likely won’t get the chance to see them again. It takes a bit of doing to get the licences to broadcast all these clips from other TV shows from other networks. The possibility of these episodes being screened beyond the same week narrative repeats are remote and it’s hard to imagine the series being collected as a box set for the same reason.

That’s what makes the programme so precious, the fact that if you miss it, you’ve really missed it. This is a rarity in today’s on-demand/multi-channel TV landscape and make the TV Burp even more special.


Thursday, 23 October 2008

Brain Games: Part 2 - Only Connect

It's fair to say that while most TV quizzes are pitched at a level that give the contestant or viewer a feeling of reasonable intelligence, there's also an extreme minority that are capable of inducing so much mental paralysis that you're left with the reputation of a half-witted moron or at best an audience member for The Jeremy Kyle Show.

One such example is BBC2's University Challenge which, as discussed yesterday, is aimed at the sharpest academics in the country and considers any interlopers with an IQ of less than 300 to be intellectual timewasters.

Another example has recently surfaced on BBC4 and, ironically, is broadcast the moment University Challenge ends on a Monday night. It's a new series called Only Connect and is already following hard in the footsteps of its predecessor.

While the show has a similar approach to testing your brain to its limits, elsewhere there are a number of noticeable contrasts. For a start, the show is fronted by Victoria Coren, the altogether more affable alternative to Jeremy Paxman whose wit has thankfully been passed down undiminished from her father, the late, great Alan Coren.

There's also no studio audience which makes for a curiously silent programme at times, but is no worse off for it as there's a frequent need to rack your brain for an answer to a question without any interruption.

Only Connect also relies heavily on computer-generated captions to show those questions on-screen, and here's where the premise of the quiz is laid bare for all to see. Two teams of three people with a similar interest or background (i.e. Scrabble players, Naturists, that kind of thing) are given a series of clues about a topic which connects them (hence the title of the show).

In Round 1, the task is to guess what that connection is while in the second round the contestants try to ascertain the last missing item in a sequence based on a similarly mysterious subject.

Here the programme is a little more generous in its ability to appeal to the viewer as the subjects can be anything from 'American Presidents' to 'Christmas Number 1 Hit Records'. No requirement for having a PhD in Nuclear Physics is required to play this quiz, but a brain that can think logically certainly is, especially in Round 3.

This is where each team is presented with a grid showing sixteen words or phrases that can be sorted equally into four subjects. The snag, however, is that some of the words or phrases potentially fit into more than one subject. Take the following example (click pic for a larger version):

A quick scan of the choices available quickly shows a few possible groupings. 'Bread', 'Lolly', 'Brass' and 'Readies' could all be ways of referring to money, but what about 'Dosh'? That would make a list of five, so which one belongs to another category?

Therein lies the rub. Without the aid of a pen and paper, the teams have only two and a half minutes to identify the unique solution to the puzzle. It looks very straight-forward, but it's deceptively tricky, and as Ms. Coren herself says, a good sense of general knowledge is not enough here.

The final round of the game has a different format but is no less tricky. The teams are given a category up front and are shown four items that fit it - except all the vowels have been taken out and the remaining consonants regrouped. Confused? Here's an example for you to try...

If the subject was 'Film Musicals' and the clue said 'SN GNNT HRN', what would the answer be?

If you said 'Singing In The Rain', you'd be right. In addition, if you watched Only Connect and thought it had all the hallmarks of a show that could run and run, you'd also be right. At least that's the popular belief among people leaving comments on TV-related internet forums at the moment, and I for one agree.

Only Connect is a great quiz programme which offers a fun way of exercising the brain and lets you down gently if you don't happen to know some of the answers. The puzzles are perfectly formed, the presenter is splendidly jocular - in fact there's little at all to dislike here.

And while we might take umbrage at the way the BBC seems intent on making us going to bed with migraines through all this mental activity on a Monday night, there isn't really a case to be had. The BBC deserves great credit for giving us two engaging and entertaining quiz programmes to start our week with, and I'm sure many of us are very grateful for that.

Just pray to God they don't move Mastermind to Monday nights too...


Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Brain Games: Part 1 - University Challenge

You'd think the programme schedulers at the BBC would have sympathy on the Great British public, but don't you believe it.

As people across the land arrive home from work on a Monday evening, the first priority for many is to kick off their shoes and vegetate happily in front of the telly. Feet up on the couch and with full glass of Rioja in hand, there's a collective desire to recover from the start of the working week in an atmosphere of cosseted bliss where the TV provides gentle entertainment and mellow pleasantry.

What a shame, then, that the BBC has an altogether more sinister agenda for its license fee payers - to fry their brain with a relentless quiz-based attack on their mental equilibrium.

University Challenge, the trusty old workhorse of BBC2's Monday night schedule, continues to attract viewers of… how can we put this… a masochistic nature. And that's not meant to be an insult - moreover, the sort of people that watch University Challenge seek only to gain personal satisfaction from answering two or at best three of its ridiculously difficult questions during the half-hour it's shown.

Fronted by Jeremy Paxman, the show seeks to find the brainiest college or university in Britain just as it has done on and off since 1962. Each week, two teams convene in front of Paxman, a man whose authoritarian style of presentation is at times gloriously brusque to the point of being downright rude. More of which later…

The questions fielded by both teams cover any number of subjects including physics, mathematics, art and history, but all to an academic standard which would preclude the attempts of many ordinary mortals from answering correctly. Indeed some of the questions are so utterly long and convoluted that it's any wonder the show doesn't last twice as long in order to accommodate them. Here's a short example:

What term is used for the speed required for an object to travel in a parabolic orbit around a larger body and thus is the minimum speed required to overcome the larger body's gravitational attraction?
The answer - Scale Velocity - barely does it justice.

Fortunately Paxman is more sympathetic to those students who fail to provide a correct answer here than to a question about a well-known piece of classic literature of which he considers himself something of an expert. Contestants that prove less competent than he at identifying, say, the opening line to Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing' can expect a response so full of wrath that a lengthy spell of counselling on the part of the respondent is frankly inevitable.

And it's that which makes the achievement of answering one of Paxman's questions so deliciously enjoyable. If you're lucky, your best chance of doing so may come from one of the rare sorties into popular culture that occasionally arise.

Last week, a sizeable cross-section of the population moved nearer their TVs as one when the pictures of three computer game consoles from the 1980's and 90's were shown. Contestants and viewers alike were asked to identify them, and for many the momentary act of remembering a golden age spent playing a Super Nintendo or Sega Saturn was more reason than enough to justify watching the programme in the first place.

But boy is it hard work. University Challenge makes no allowance for ignorance or stupidity. If the programme has any message for its viewers, it has to be that if you can't answer any of the questions, watch something else or shut up.

Should you take the first option by switching to BBC4 when University Challenge ends, you'll only find a slightly less remorseless barrage on your senses than the one you've just experienced.

Only Connect merely repackages the quizzical challenge offered by Paxman and Co. in a way that skilfully lulls you into thinking you've found a show which is less taxing on the brain. How wrong you'd be to think that.

Only Connect is BBC4's way of completing your Monday night mental meltdown, and we'll be reviewing it in greater depth tomorrow in the second and final part of 'Brain Games'.


Monday, 20 October 2008

Stateside Schama

It was my absolute intention to write an incisive piece about the new BBC series The American Future: A history featuring Simon Schama. God knows I tried to focus on the beautiful photography, the well researched narration, and the sheer wonderment of discovering some of the lesser known passages of the USA's past. Yet for all that, I failed miserably for one specific reason... his name? Simon Schama.

I am, for my sins, a newcomer to the work of Mr. Schama. Perilously little of his previous series - A History of Britain, Rough Crossings, Simon Schama's Power of Art - have I seen, but in the wake of other America-related programmes (no doubt scheduled because of the upcoming Presidential elections) it seemed now was as good a time as any to get well acquainted.

Unfortunately I found myself strangely distracted by the presenter during the first episode of his new series. It's probably me, and if so, I apologise. I'm not normally one to become obsessed with a person's physical presence on-screen, but in Schama's case I'll have to make an exception.

First and foremost, I had to overcome my nagging curiosity: just why did the esteemed historian look so familiar? Had I seen him before or was there some mysterious celebrity twin brother of his doing the rounds on TV at the moment? For five to ten minutes I sat there in front of my TV totally preoccupied with where I'd seen him (or someone like him) before. It was then I realised there was more than a passing resemblance between Schama and Ian McKellen.

Ten minutes gone, then, and fifty more to look forward to - all of them, presumably, spent under the strange delusion that Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings trilogy was now trying to educate me on the subject of American history.

I was then struck by the palpable sense of seriousness with which Schama delivered his dialogue. Put simply, he reminded me of one of those old men that sits anxiously by their front room window waiting to hurl vitriol at any kid that dares kick their football over his garden fence. Each line was delivered with a tangible scowl and a belligerent air of authority. I suppose it was that which made him such an arresting person on my screen, really.

There's no doubt he's a man passionate about the subject he's describing, and his credentials as someone that's studied world history go without saying. I just found him an intriguing alternative to the Michael Palins and Clive Jameses of this world who obviously present a different kind of programme but nonetheless do so with a more positive persona and a lighter touch.

It may seem I'm being a little unfair. Underlying this struggle to come to terms with Schama the Man I had great admiration for the way he described the resourcefulness of the early settlers in the American West. The tale of how farmers made use of the natural environment, its rivers and wide open spaces for personal gain and prosperity was incredibly enlightening and very interesting indeed. Putting the struggles they faced into a modern-day context, seeking the similarities with the Americans of today, was done with great skill and was typical of the quality documentary-making the BBC remains excellent at.

And that was the point I fully intended to make, except the personality - for that is what Simon Schama now is - initially got in the way of my viewing pleasure. Maybe the effect of this sullen-faced professor will wear off as I watch the other three episodes in the series, but for now I'll have to deal with the presenter as an enigma in his own right.

He is without question an historian with as many compelling facets to his character as the very subject matters he discusses, and that makes him the sort of presenter you want to watch again and again.


Saturday, 18 October 2008

Read All About It: The story of Darts on ITV

This November sees the Grand Slam Of Darts on ITV for a second year. The tournament features the best players from the sports' two governing bodies - the PDC and the BDO.

The competition represents a rare moment of rapprochement between the two bodies that split acrimoniously in the early 90's. It also emphasises the return of the tungsten ticklers to ITV for the second consecutive year. In fact the Third Channel has announced a deal to screen the Grand Slam on ITV & ITV4 for the next three years.

In addition, there will be further live coverage of other PDC events: The European Championships, the Players Championship and a pro-celebrity tournament. Truly the PDC is making a big step onto a larger stage.

Many viewers will only be familiar with BDO Darts coverage on the BBC or PDC on Sky. There was a time, however, when ITV was the home of the game and it covered it enthusiastically throughout the 70's and 80's. The most prestigious competition at this time was the News Of The World Championship.

The News Of The World was an annual tournament, which began life during the inter-war years. It was the forerunner to the World Championships at the Lakeside in Surrey, which started in 1978. Before then, the NOTW winner was seen as the de facto World Champion.

ITV's coverage began in 1970. Early footage shows players with throwing actions which would be regarded as bizarre by today's standards in front of a packed Alexandra Palace teeming with raucous predominantly working men enjoying each others company. Cigarettes and alcohol were in attendance both on and off the oche.

Some of the players featured were real darting legends: John Lowe, Leighton Rees, Bobby George and Eric Bristow were just a few names that resonate through the ages.

The TV coverage was basic by today's multi-camera swishy graphic standards. However, the site of barmy drunken geezers screaming their heads off is a familiar one to fans of Darts on TV today. Your commentator was sports journalist Dave Lanning whose West Country lilt pre-dates the legendary Sid Waddell, a man synonymous with Darts on TV. Indeed Lanning can still be heard commentating on all the major PDC tournaments on Sky alongside Waddell.

The News Of The World was not the only darts competition on ITV. Numerous regional and international tournaments took place on the stage and in front of the cameras. Darts also featured in Yorkshire TV’s Indoor League produced by Waddell. The programme was hugely informed by working men’s culture and featured pub games like Skittles, Shove Ha’penny, Bar Billiards and of course Darts. Take a look at this clip to see how unashamedly, gloriously regional the programme is. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

Throughout the decade, coverage of the News Of The World continued, mostly on Saturday afternoon sports show World Of Sport presented by Dickie Davies. The image of the dart player as overweight boozer so classically lampooned by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones in their classic Not The Nine O Clock News sketch (below) was defined by the News Of The World Championship and consequently by ITV.

The tournament itself endured until 1990. By this time it had been superseeded by the World Championship. Despite a brief revival in the mid-nineties (to allow Phil Taylor the opportunity to win the trophy) it has been consigned to history.

Its demise pretty much coincided with the end of ITV's coverage of the sport. After that it was BBC all the way until a small group of elite players (including Taylor) deserted the BDO to form the WDC, which then became the PDC. There are now two World Championship tournaments and a never-ending debate as to which is the best.

The 90’s proved something of a wilderness period for Darts. While the BDO continued to screen their World Championships on the BBC, Sky soldiered on with the PDC. Eventually it paid off with big TV audiences, massive purses and loud boisterous crowds watching the modern greats John Part, Raymond van Barneveld, James Wade and of course Phil Taylor winning hundreds of thousands of pounds. In 2002, after years of waiting, Sky managed to capture the holy grail of the sport, the nine-dart finish. Something only recorded on the BBC. This time, it was live and somehow it sealed the games renaissance.

In recent years the PDC has became bolder in its ambitions and last year organised the Grand Slam, bringing top BDO players to be screened live on ITV. After a lengthy hiatus (interrupted by a one of match between Taylor and van Barneveld, then the BDO World Champion), darts is back and for these who don’t have Sky Sports, there is an opportunity to watch the best players in action for free. Game on.

ITV will be screening the European Championships from October 30th, the Pro-Celebrity Challenge from 14th November and the Grand Slam of Darts begins the next day. A further tournament will be screened in the New Year.

ITV Darts official website


Friday, 17 October 2008

Welcome to SPAOTT...

Yes, welcome everyone. This is Some People Are On The Telly - a website dedicated to the mutual enjoyment or otherwise of the medium that is television.

The bastard child of Some People Are On The Pitch and The Onion Bag, SPAOTT has come about through a desire to share our viewing habits with you, our like-minded audience.

We'll be writing about a broad range of subjects from programming to advertising, to continuity and all-out nostalgia. If you like what you see (or if you don't, quite honestly), leave us a comment after any of our articles. And that's not all...

Every so often, we'll be live-blogging some of our favourite shows on Twitter, which is where you can become part of what we'd like to think of as the biggest virtual front room ever. If you haven't already got a Twitter account, now's probably a good time to get one as it'll enable you to join us for a regular online experience we think you'll enjoy.

So there it is, without waffling on any longer than we have to. Some People Are On The Telly - the website that does for TV what Gary Glitter did for the Vietnamese Tourist Board.


Contact SPAOTT

If you'd like to send us your comments, complaints, compliments or if you'd like to write for us, send your message to the following address: spaott [at] the-onion-bag [dot] com.

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Football for the discerning enthusiast, featuring news, nostalgia, trivia - all served up with a decent side-order of humour.

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