There’s nothing wrong with good repeats

Instead of rubbish new productions, cash-strapped channels like ITV should plunder their vaults for some TV gold.

Patrick West
Columnist

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You would have thought that the financial crisis would have been good news for television.

After all, we are told, people are staying indoors a lot more these days, as an alternative to forking out for a meal or going to a deathlessly joy-free, no-smoking pub. A night in front of the telly is an infinitely cheaper option, and you can enjoy it with some bargain booze from the supermarket to drink yourself to death with, while smoking to your heart’s content without reprimand and giving your children lung cancer in the process.

But no, television’s doing badly. The industry blames this on a fall in advertising revenue, which seems logical enough. This week’s casualty has been Channel 4’s lunchtime news bulletin, which, along with More4’s similar programmes, is to be axed. At the same time, reports emerged this week that the Observer might close down, which is bad news for lefties around the country.

Elsewhere, a report by TV regulator Ofcom reveals that 46 per cent of older viewers think the content, quality and range of programmes across channels have worsened. Survey respondents complained about bad language and a fall in the number of hours of original programming aired on the five main channels: down three per cent since 2007 and six per cent since 2003.

Meanwhile, the hapless and hopeless ITV network has been forced to sell the website Friends Reunited for £25million, having acquired it for £175million only four years ago, just as social networking sites were beginning to make an impact. Had ITV been around in the past, I imagine the network would have decided to invest in shipping in 1913, or would have told investors to ‘buy! buy! buy!’ shares in 1928, being convinced of the invincibility of the Wall Street stock market.

Poor old ITV: it reminds you of that bloke in the old Volkswagen adverts from the 1980s, featuring the man who ‘put all his money on black and it came out red’. In other words, television’s woes are not the fault entirely of external factors; many of the industry’s troubles are self-inflicted.

Consider another story this week. Steve Misiura, a 31-year-old actor living in Brixton, south London, decided to watch every episode of Friends back-to-back in order to be entered into the Guniess Book of Records. Having watched 238 episodes of the sitcom over an 84-hour period, Misiura complained of experiencing hallucinations, delirium and nausea. ‘I love Friends, but this indeed hurt. At around 72 hours I wanted to die’, he explained (1).

This is hardly surprising. Could you go 84 hours of listening to Ross beginning every other interjection with the word ‘Hello?!’ or Phoebe singing her ‘Smelly Cat’ song for the thousandth time? Not to mention Ross and Rachel’s on-off-on-off-on-off, will-they-won’t-they-will-they-won’t-they relationship. Never mind Mr Misiura’s hallucinations: I’m surprised he’s not in a mental hospital right now.

But this story appears to confound the theory that people don’t like repeats on television. I think they just dislike crap repeats, as much as they dislike crap new television. This is where all the major channels have got it wrong. Viewers simply like good television, whether they’ve seen it before or not.

If we all allegedly hate repeats, then what accounts for the success of UKTV’s Dave and Yesterday channels? Their fare consists entirely of repeats, and it seems to do them no harm because they understand what kind of repeats people want to watch. The old, senile and unemployed want to watch comedy, war and period dramas. Consider BBC 1’s comparable approach: Last Sunday afternoon, the channel showed three reheated comedies in succession: ‘Allo ‘Allo, Keeping Up Appearances and The Green, Green Grass. I confess that I’m a bit partial to ‘Allo ‘Allo, but there’s only so many times you can be subjected to jokes about the ‘Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies’.

Considering its rich back-catalogue, why can’t the BBC just air some decent repeats? I don’t mind so much its daytime obsession with Murder She Wrote, Diagnosis: Murder and Monk, although I do find it a bit odd that the last two light-hearted murder series are based in California, where there is a death penalty for homicide. Somehow that makes the obligatory jovial ending a bit jarring.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with repeats of Midsomer Murders or Heartbeat. They’re fairly decent, comforting, throwaway shows that make old people happy. Rubbish contemporary programmes are the problem as much as awful repeats are. ITV’s mistake is not showing repeats of Heartbeat; its mistake is in recently cancelling the show altogether.

The BBC could make an effort by re-running shows such as its 1986 series The Monocled Mutineer, or its superlative 1985-1994 documentary The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years, or ITV its 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited or Thames Television’s 1973 epic The World At War. And why not have a revisitation of Spitting Image? It was a window to the 1980s and would make for telling viewing now.

While we’re at it, and with Channel 4’s problems in mind, why not just show repeats of the news? I have an old VHS tape of Star Wars: Episode IV, recorded in about 1982, and the most fascinating thing about it is not the dramatic opening scene or the finale’s attack on the Death Star or all the boring bits in between featuring two robots in the Tunisian desert, one who is fussy and one who is gay, but rather the ITN news bulletin taped afterwards. It features stories about violence in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East. Plus ça change, and all that.

ESPN have got it right in this department, re-running old FA Cup finals – for they too are a slice of social history, reminding us when the best soccer players were Irish or Scottish (Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy’s goals for Manchester United in the 1979 FA Cup final, and Liam Brady’s run in the same game that set up Alan Sunderland’s winner for Arsenal (2)), and that this whole notion of English football recently being ‘swamped’ by foreigners is a myth.

The British are essentially conservative, nostalgic people. And this is not a right-wing affectation. Why else do you think left-wing people have been talking and writing about the alleged pending demise of the Observer in such lachrymose terms? Because it is ‘the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper’. This is why we go on about ‘the war’ all the time, why we love history books and why no other country covers obituaries to quite the same degree as us. Why else did the death of First World War veteran Harry Patch garner such attention this month? Because he was old and he was in a war.

Old age and war. These are the two ingredients that make for good television. BBC and ITV and Channel 4 should stop blaming the global recession for everything. They should simply show some good television. And repeats of decent programmes are the way to go. But please, please, please, don’t let it be Only Fools And Horses. They can do so much better than that. Give us more decent repeats!

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV and radio

(1) Friends fan ‘hallucinates’ as he watches every episode ever made in record-breaking 84-hour TV marathon, Daily Mail, 6 August 2009

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