As I’m not really watching much television at the moment, I wasn’t aware until it caught my eye in the Radio Times listings that there’s actually five minutes set aside every Thursday at 8.00pm on BBC1 for live coverage of people clapping. Yes, you heard that right – it’s apparently for real; under the name ‘Clap for Our Carers’, this show simply as a concept sounds uncannily like one of the numerous silly pretend programmes I myself have invented in the endless spoof TV trailers I’ve put together over the years. Having never tuned-in – I might wait for the box-set – I can’t help but be curious. Is there a lengthy build-up beforehand, featuring interviews with retired ex-clappers and clips of classic clapping moments from the past before we join our commentary team and enjoy the latest event? Suddenly, ‘The World Sleeping Championships’ and ‘International Tongue-Holding’ (both of which I trailed around five years ago) don’t seem so far-fetched.
I’ve no idea what the ratings are for ‘Clap for Our Carers’, but it’s ironic that the viewing figures for mainstream TV channels have soared over the past month due to obvious reasons; this upsurge comes at a time when production on all of ITV’s and the BBC’s big-budget dramas and ongoing soaps has been suspended for the same reasons. Once all this is over, will both broadcasters look at their schedules and wonder if it’s worth investing in such productions if the public will just as easily flock in huge numbers to watch the likes of the far-from expensive ‘The Repair Shop’ – an innocuous, small-scale show designed for daytime and now promoted to primetime? Even though most of the programmes requiring writers, directors and actors are so depressingly formulaic that the plot can be anticipated in advance simply by seeing a trailer, a modicum of creativity is still a necessity.
Not that this hasn’t happened before – one thinks of such successes from the 90s as ‘Ground Force’ or ‘Changing Rooms’, which were daytime TV programmes in all-but name that ended up attracting unexpectedly high ratings when being given an evening slot. The popularity of these pioneering makeover shows helped blur the previously-clear demarcation lines between daytime and primetime, so that we today have a situation in British television whereby so many of the programmes that clog-up primetime schedules really belong on screen at a time of day when anything intellectually stimulating or even something that gets the adrenalin going is not required. And as a result of recent events, this pattern could well be set to continue indefinitely.
Not only has this strange situation seen daytime fodder abruptly fast-tracked to the evening in order to plug the plentiful primetime gaps, but even those post-watershed mainstays managing to stagger on are doing so in reduced and wholly unsatisfactory forms. I only saw the first in the new series of ‘Have I Got News For You’, but it was so bad I haven’t bothered with the rest. A long-running panel show dependent upon a studio audience and the close-knit banter between contestants in order to generate an atmosphere is now run like a self-consciously ‘light-hearted’ business meeting via Skype or Zoom; all four panellists and the presenter are speaking on screens from their respective homes – verbally stumbling over each other and laughing uncomfortably at one another’s jokes because there’s no audience to react to them. In entertainment terms, it’s about as much fun as watching a rep give a speech with a slide show at a sales conference.
One could perhaps argue the best days of ‘HIGNFY’ are long behind it now, anyway; but surely putting it on ice for the time being would have been preferable to this. Ditto ‘Question Time’. The replacement of David Dimbleby with Fiona Bruce – for whom ‘Antiques Roadshow’ has always seemed a more fitting platform for her particular presenting talents – didn’t initially suggest that great a change in tone when the bias towards a specific political perspective via the chosen panellists was more of an issue. However, the studio audience has now vanished, replaced by pre-recorded questions from members of the public; for some reason, this evokes memories of ‘Points of View’; I almost expect said members of the public to be complaining that there’s too much sport on television – only, they can’t because there isn’t any on anymore. Observing social distancing, Bruce and the panellists sit several feet apart in a semicircle minus a table, and the atmosphere is excruciatingly polite and so bloody nice it’s like an informal coffee morning at a village church hall, one in which Bruce the vicar hands out the Rich Tea to bored parishioners. The programme has been brought forward to directly follow ‘Clap for Our Carers’, as though it’s all part of some benign public service, like Soviet propaganda with the ubiquitous rainbow flag replacing the Hammer & Sickle.
News programmes, of course, are having to adapt to the new normal as much as any others; however, speaking to a reporter via satellite from a distant corner of the globe is such an established aspect of the genre that it isn’t too radically different to adapt the cliché to those who’d normally be in a regional outpost if they couldn’t make it to the same studio as the host. Indeed, the sight of interviewees carefully positioned in front of a bookshelf has become a news trope in itself now, and part of alleviating the boredom comes from trying to read the spines behind the figure who may (or may not) have carefully arranged the volumes on display in order to impress ala Dominic Raab.
None of this matters when it comes to radio, as you’re never entirely sure if presenters and guests are in the same studio, anyway. Although presenters are now at pains to state their guests are elsewhere – presumably lest the BBC incurs the wrath of the Met by breaking the guidelines – I can’t say I’ve noticed any great differences in presentation as a result. One’s imagination has a habit of painting the picture one is hearing as compensation for what the eyes are denied, which is an advantage radio has over television that is currently being reinforced as a real strength of the senior medium now that TV’s limitations are so evident.
The daily Downing Street coronavirus briefings are also apparently a regular fixture in the TV schedules now, though like most, I tend to catch a snatch of edited highlights online. From what I can gather, they appear to have already fallen into a cul-de-sac of ‘gotcha’ tactics from journalists that are more about boosting the point-scoring egos of the hacks than posing potent questions. Again, I’ve no idea if these broadcasts can compete with the mighty ‘Repair Shop’ when it comes to smashing the ratings, though those that do naturally do so because the landscape of broadcasting is as upside down as everything else at the moment.
Yes, it’s possible all of these shows are attracting disproportionately massive audiences compared to what one would expect for the same reason programmes in the pre-deregulated and pre-satellite/cable/digital era used to boast huge viewing figures – because there’s nothing else on and there’s nothing else to do. When the normally dependable standbys of sport and royal events can’t even be called upon, the next best thing is Woke Aid – in which The Biggest Names in Music sing their greatest hits from their kitchens, or the BBC’s Big Night-in, in which suspicions that we are all trapped in a 24/7 broadcast of Comic Relief are merely confirmed. Coming next – Crap for Our Carers (the nation takes a simultaneous dump) and Slap for Our Carers (social distancing is temporarily suspended as we are allowed to hit the nearest person to us for the NHS). Hey, don’t mock it. You never know.
© The Editor