19 JANUARY 2002, Page 46

Beguiling rubbish

Simon Hoggart

Nowadays, I hear, people talk a lot about 'good bad television', which means TV that's carefully made with expensive production values, but which is actually rubbish. Beguiling and fascinating rubbish to be sure, but rubbish all the same. It's like the old joke that ends: this is shit — but frightfully well cooked.'

Footballers' Wives (ITV) is classic good bad television. It's frightfully well cooked. The show resembles Dallas and Dynasty in many ways: ludicrously rich people spend their money in every tasteless and splashy way they can think of, and spend their time having illicit sex and plotting against each other. How can it fail? My theory is that sitcoms only work if you like the characters, or at least sympathise with them. Dramas like this only succeed if you hate everyone. Of all the main characters, only one, Donna, the teenage mum desperate to get back her adopted son, is remotely likeable. The rest are odious.

So was JR. That's why we loved him. Shows like this appeal to our dark side. We like to imagine that if we earned 150,000 a week we would buy a modest Georgian manor house, and fill it with fine paintings. But how do we know we wouldn't really, deep down, want to have a ranch-style estate, half a dozen Porsches, a string of racehorses, a mosaic of ourselves in the swimming-pool floor, and be able to hop naked into the jacuzzi with nymphomaniac 17-year-olds? It is a form of pornography: the message is, come on, you know you'd love to have all this, stop pretending you wouldn't. At the same time, we're told, these people are so dysfunctional and unhappy that you can be thankful you're not like them. We do have it both ways.

Good bad television has to shock whenever it can. So Footballers' Wives has already had a willy in the shower scene (not

that I'm offended, but it's still unusual in prime time), copulation in the toilet — a lot of the action, including the coke-snorting, takes place in the toilet — a Page 3 model whose breasts are set on fire, and (the same woman) a character called Chardonnay.

This is an interesting development. Possibly a series could be written in which every character is named after a wellknown grape variety. Shiraz, the sloe-eyed Persian temptress; Merlot, the dashing French businessman; and Gewurtztraminer, the Austrian body-builder who loves Shiraz but is unhappily married to the selfish Grenache.

Sorry, where was I? Footballers' Wives is in a bit of lull at present. In episode two, the plot seemed to slow down too much. I'm sorry about Chardonnay's breasts, but I found myself wishing she'd make up her mind about the wedding. And, truth be told, I don't really care whether Salvatore, the Italian heartthrob signing, is gay or not. Nor does the search for a new chairman intrigue me much.

ITV have clearly learned their lesson from the early-evening failure of The PremiershiP, and have ruthlessly kept almost all football out of Footballers' Wives. My main fear is that as good bad television goes it isn't quite bad enough.

It Shouldn't Happen To a TV Performer (ITV) was yet another bloopers show, but had a curious pathos to it. A ventriloquist called Paul Zerdin — a name new to me — described how he had flopped in front of a celebrity audience. 'Gloria Hunniford and Jeffrey Archer everyone was there,' he said, tragically. There was a tiny Scots comedian called Duggie Small, who won New Faces, then was catastrophic on Wogan. A battery fell out of a rubber chicken. 'Look, battery hen!' he said, and something died inside us all.

Bob Hope, our revenge on America for the War of Independence, appeared on the show, drying at an embarrassing moment. But Hope is always useless without his idiot boards. In Feminists and Flour Bombs (Channel 4), which described how women's libbers disrupted the 1970 Miss World contest, Hope flubbed uselessly as soon as the protest began. As ever, he had nothing in his head and nothing to say.

Richard Briers got himself written out of Monarch of the Glen (BBC 1). They blew his character up. This is a big risk for Monarch. Hector was so much the centre of everything, and his son Archie is so dull, the programme will have to paddle frantically to survive. I hope it does; Sundays will seem emptier without this example of good not-bad television.

How To Build A Human (BBC 2) was brilliant, informative, endlessly fascinating, a fine instance of good-good television. As I never tire of saying, only this medium can bring you this material. It's the kind of thing that makes you want to rush to the post office to pay your licence fee.