10 MARCH 2001, Page 52


Justified anger

Simon Hoggart

Before a big new series starts, the BBC likes to generate lots of excitement in the press. They got what they asked for a couple of weeks ago when John Cleese declared that working on The Human Face for BBC 1 had been 'a total nightmare'. He blamed 'needless interference, broken promises and misspent budgets'. Well, one is tempted to ask, why work for the BBC if you can't take a joke?

Of course he was right. The programme has its moments. Much of it is fascinating, such as the little girl whose facial muscles didn't work, so making it almost impossible for her to communicate with anyone. Having watched the first part, I've suddenly become terribly conscious of my own facial expressions, so I sit in front of people gurning like a drunken teenager snapped on holiday.

But if a camel is a horse designed by a committee, so this is a documentary directed by the same bunch. It was full of items that made you scratch your head in bewilderment. Why was it topped and tailed by a cockney singalong in a cockney pub with Cleese and the gang chanting 'When You're Smiling'? I doubt if an event like that has occurred anywhere, least of all in east London, at any time over the past 30 years. At least the Chas 'n' Dave beer ads are made to look ancient. And what would the fastidious Cleese be doing at such a grim gathering? And while we're at it, why did he throw a dead squirrel at Liz Hurley to evoke a look of fear? Why a squirrel? Wouldn't a rat have been more appropriate? And why was he introduced as 'Professor John Cheese'?

You could see the dabs of the bureaucrats all over it. 'We need more of a Monty Python flavour,' someone must have said, and the memo would have gone up and down the system, so that Deese was obliged to ask, 'How is it that so few soap operas feature crocodiles? It's because they have only one expression, and that's three less than Michael Palin.'

Then on for something much the same. Not all BBC bureaucracy is damaging and wasteful. You do need someone at some level to say to the creative folk, 'Look, the tap-dancing flamingos really don't work in a docu-soap about quantum theory,' or `No, the budget won't stretch to sending 300 children to Fiji for the beach scene.' The problem is that many of the people employed in Broadcasting House, from which most programme makers have long been excluded, have no function in life except as interfering busybodies. I've had some experience myself. The best strategy is to say, 'Ilmmm, yes, you make some excellent points, all well taken', then ignore the lot of them, while sending a stream of e-mails saying what an enormous help these footling suggestions have been. When the show is finally broadcast you pay lavish tribute to the fonctionnaire, who can then take credit for its success, if any. This cunning tactic probably doesn't work with high-profile programmes such as The Human Face; hence Mr Cleese's justified anger.

The new, sexy Crossroads (ITV) with self-standing sets began this week. (My brother Paul Hoggart of the Times, a partner in Hoggart & Hoggart, Television Critics to the Quality, once visited the old set and says that the scenery really did shake if you touched it.) It was a bit like that Fawhy

Towers the Americans tried to make without the Basil character. I enjoyed it more than I expected, though in a sort of postironic way, whatever that means. I liked spotting the clunkiest lines. Rocky: 'They told me it's going to be tough, it's all down to you. Still, I've never been one to shy away from a challenge,' was one. Or the wicked, womanising Jake Booth: 'If we play our cards right, next year we can be running this place.'

The jokes, too: 'That's the new porter.' `Mmm, he can carry my bags any time!' Or, 'Would you like to come out with me on Friday?' I'd rather die."So, how about Thursday?'

I like the clumsy way little nods are made at the past. 'Oh, the famous Meg Richardson! You know, people still talk about her!' someone improbably said. Even the new Crossroads four-star hotel, upgraded from the world's worst motel, is horribly familiar. You can see the individual sachets of Nescafe and UHT milk on the hot drinks tray, and the trouser press, designed to make a crease almost parallel to the one already there.

My main anxiety is that there is nobody there to like. They're all either bossy, or lecherous, or thieving, or drunk, or ill-tempered, or incompetent, or scheming, or nasty prissy little madams, or sometimes a combination of all those. Every soap, even Dallas, needs someone for us to identify with, or sympathise with, or even like, and I can't yet see one here.