Is this the root of the trouble with Tonight?
Milton Shulman, splenetic TV critic, looks at what’s wrong with the BBC’s flagship news show Tonight
INERTIA is television’s most prevalent disease. Nothing is more likely to bring on a fit of the vapours amongst TV planners than the suggestion that a popular programme has outlived its effectiveness.
Programme paralysis is particularly virulent in commercial TV circles where it would probably need a couple of deaths or retirements in the board rooms before Coronation, Emergency Ward 10, Sunday Night at the Palladium, Double Your Money or No Hiding Place were finally tossed into their well-deserved limbos.
But the BBC, to, suffers from this reluctance to change or abandon a once-successful formula. In their case they tend to cling less to the popular shows than the programmes that give give the Corporation its image of solid, responsible, semi-intellectual respectability.
There is much speculation these days about who will fill Stuart Hood’s vacant post as BBC’s Controller of TV Programmes. Proof of the need for some fresh mind in this job is the manner in which To-night [sic], the five-day topical magazine, has been allowed to deteriorate into a middle-class Tit-bits stuffed with incestuous techniques and in-jokes.
Although To-night has been on the air almost eight years, it reach the peak of its creative dynamism about four or five years ago. It then evolved its wry, oblique, irreverent approach to life.
It sought out with a purpose and some effectiveness some of the immoral and ludicrous aspects of British society. And in its imaginative use of film and the ranging quest of its cameras, it recognised the fact that TV is essentially a visual medium.
But my recent viewing of To-night shows that irrelevance has been replaced by a falsetto indignation about insignificant and manufactured issues, that its spotlighting of British life is largely concentrated on the quirky and the silly and that its aim to stimulate and titillate the eye has been all but abandoned.
The unexpected was once To-night’s most endearing feature. Predictability is now its most irritating fault.
There seem to be at least three Alan Whickers on the programme and if you exchanged the beard and the Scot’s [sic] burr, who could tell whether it was Fyfe Philpot or Trevor Robertson speaking?
The hallmark of a To-night item is a man in a mackintosh, carrying a hand-mike, walking menacingly down an empty rural lane or across a row of suburban houses towards a camera close-up and in an apocalyptic voice saying something like (my words) “This ground on which I’m standing hides a dream… for some a dream of hope and riches… but for others it has already proved a will-of-the-wisp, a Freudian aberration, a frustrating nightmare.”
In one week such unrestrained, highly coloured metaphors have rolled over a disused lead mine, and abandoned town in Australia, a toy factory, a church in Spitalfield.
Only the picture of an Australian town vacated after the collapse of the uranium boom was worth showing. Fyfe Robertson’s attempt to find a serious social issue in an ecclesiastical decision to spend £70,000 [£1.5m today, allowing for inflation -Ed] on a beetle-infested architecturally-exciting church was contentiously forced. But perhaps it was peripherally acceptable.
There was no excuse at all for including Christopher Brasher’s two contributions from Wales. His playing about with drums was embarrassing and his enthusiasm about some disused lead and zinc mines was inexplicable and even misleading. “A few tax concessions,” he said in conclusion, “and we could be digging our own minerals and cutting our import bill.” And perhaps going bankrupt in the process?
The programme, too, is plagued with eccentrics and odd inventions. Any foreigner watching it might well conclude that any attempt to drag such an odd-ball nation into the second half of the 20th century is doomed from the start.
There was the working-class home of a printer converted into a baroque, plaster-imitation of a miniature Victorian palace. There was Fyfe Robertson offering to sell us re-painted quarry locomotives for £100 [£2,500] each. There was the man who collected vintage Rolls-Royces, another chimney pots, and the fellow who was using chicken manure as a substitute for petrol.
There is, too, a ponderousness about the so-called funny items that is almost distressing. Magnus Magnusson trying to ridicule Italian politics, pretending to be lulled to sleep by an Oriental device or making up a new calendar were Teutonic and collegiate enough to have been the products of some “vitty shport” at Heidelburg University.
It is not only prestige that the BBC is losing with this near-parody of a once-exciting programme. Its dullness and specialist appeal gives the commercial channel and opportunity to pick up its mass audiences for the night.
Double Your Money and Take Your Pick have for years made the Top Ten largely because they were pitted against To-night. Even such relatively serious programmes as All Our Yesterdays and Cinema can reach Top Ten status with To-night as its opposition.
With the BBC trying to justify a higher licence fee, this almost wilful chucking away of audiences seems either short-sighted or stupid.
What To-night desperately needs is a change of time-slot, approach and editor. Moved to 10-30 p.m., it would be more likely to pick up the kind of audiences to which it is appealing and a fresh zest and look would obviously come with its late-night atmosphere.
It must stop living on its former glories and get rid of its obsession with the past and the eccentric. It should concentrate on the urgent, the vital and the genuine absurd. If it campaigns, it must make sure that the issue is really worth campaigning about and it must stop its present breathless, contentious, holier-than-thou approach to all God’s works and all God’s peoples.
It is obvious, on this record, that 29-year-old Derrick Amoore is hardly the Editor to take on such a renovation. Judged by To-night, he seems to be the oldest young man in the business.
The BBC might also stop to consider whether or not their current passion for youthful executives has not already gone too far.