Saturday, 19 January 2013

Monkey Tennis?

I wrote this article for Cult Britannia in August 2012:

Monkey Tennis?
By David Black

When Alan Partridge sat down to lunch with BBC TV's Chief Commissioning Editor Tony Hayers in the first episode of I'm Alan Partridge, three momentous things happened.

The first and most important for Alan was the revelation that there wouldn't be a second series of his TV chat show Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge. The third was the funniest example of cheese brandishing in a visual medium. In between these two events something extraordinary happens. Alan is obviously disappointed by the news that he hasn't been re-commissioned and so Hayers offers to listen to his other ideas. He is quite taken aback as Alan turns the lunch into an impromptu pitch meeting.

This scene not only offers us a hilarious insight into the workings of Alan's mind, but with the benefit of fifteen years hindsight it seems entirely possible that the panicked scramble of a fictional third-rate television presenter has accurately predicted the future of British television.

Alan: Shoestring, Taggart, Spender, Bergerac, Morse. What does that say to you about regional detective series?
Tony: There's too many of them?
Alan: That's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is: people like them, let's make some more of them.

Alan goes on to outline his idea for Norwich-based detective series Swallow and while television has so far chosen not to feature the lawman of Norfolk's crime capital, the existence of Lewis, Endeavour, HolbyBlue, Vera, Midsummer Murders, Rosemary And Thyme, Inspector George Gently, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Judge John Deed, Merseybeat, Murder City, Rebus, Scott & Bailey and Wire In The Blood would seem to vindicate Alan's position.

Alan: Alan Attack! Like The Cook Report, but with a more slapstick approach.
Tony: No.

Tony Hayers took the high road on this one, but sadly in reality television executives green-lit the likes of Don't Get Done Get Dom, Rip Off Britain, Cowboy Builders and Rogue Traders (apparently featuring an extra rogue) taking consumer issues and making light of them. Slapstick may not necessarily be the order of the day, but they are often crammed full of embarrassing puns.

Alan: Right, ah, now you'll like this one. Knowing M.E., Knowing You. I, Alan Partridge, talk to M.E. sufferers about the condition. You know, we intersperse it with their favourite pop songs, make it light-hearted, you know, give them a platform, you've got to keep the energy up, because… You don't like it?
Tony: No.

Once again, Alan is ahead of the game here. Want to make a documentary with a potentially serious subject matter, but worried that the audience won't give it a chance? Give it jokey title like The Undateables, The Hoarder Next Door, Seven Dwarves, Embarrassing Bodies or Beauty And The Beast. Then you can pretend that you aren't exploiting the focus of your efforts by trading off the confrontationally mocking tone of your title against claims that you are spreading awareness. Remember to fill it with inappropriate pop songs as Alan suggests.

Alan: That's alright, that's OK. Inner-City Sumo.
Tony: What's that?
Alan: We take fat people from the inner cities, put them in big nappies, and then get them to throw each other out of a circle that we draw with chalk on the ground.
Tony: No, no it's a bad idea.
Alan: Very cheap to make.

Inner-City Sumo may not have taken off itself, but the television schedules are littered with obesity-related TV shows like Big Body Squad, Supersize Versus Superskinny and My Big Fat Fetish. The most obvious parallel is competitive weight loss reality show The Biggest Loser, I'd be amazed if they've never featured sumo at some point. To be fair to Alan, at least his idea doesn't pretend to be a therapeutic experience.

Alan: Cooking In Prison.
Tony [Laughing]: Oh, no.

Cooking In Prison clone Gordon Behind Bars has just finished its run on Channel 4.

Alan: Youth Hosteling With Chris Eubank.
Tony: No!

We've been spared Youth Hosteling With Chris Eubank itself, but it is an idea that is emblematic of many others. The celebrity-orienteering format shows like All Roads Lead Home, World's Most Dangerous Roads and Wainwright Walks, which saw "face-of-the-channel" Julia Bradbury practically become the BBC's rambling ambassador. The residential cheek-by-jowl living of any reality TV show purporting to be a social experiment (Big Brother houses, etc). The combined effect of these shows is that Youth Hosteling With Chris Eubank suddenly seems much more plausible than many similar ideas that actually made it to the screen. Throw in his episode of the excellent When Louis Met… and it begins to feel as though we genuinely have been Youth Hosteling With Chris Eubank.

Alan: Monkey Tennis?

Sadly while Monkey Tennis has yet to appear on our TV screens it has been made available as a computer game: there is a minigame on the Nintendo Gamecube release of Super Monkey Ball 2 that features monkeys playing tennis. I know that's cheating really, but I couldn't bring myself to leave it out.

Tony: I've listened to your ideas, I've listened to them all, and I haven't liked a single one.

I'm not trying to suggest that there is an actual causal link between this fictional pitch meeting and the change in the landscape of television over the last decade and a half. I'm proposing something far more sinister.

Picture the scene: it's the mid to late 1990s and Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci are putting together a list of TV ideas for their grotesque broadcaster to try to sell. Between the three of them they come up with a list of programme names which each create an instant image, speak volumes about Alan himself and ultimately get a laugh from their contemporary audience. More importantly the list is meant to be ridiculous, a nightmare TV schedule that the 1997 audience can laugh at in the safe and certain knowledge that the BBC they know and love would never put them through this dross.

Yet somehow the opposite has happened. Cut to the present day: Baynham, Coogan and Iannucci's Alan inspired TV wasteland is upon us. Watching the original scene it's easy to laugh at and yet still root for Alan, but looking back over the years in between then and now it's difficult not to wish that more TV executives had the principles of Tony Hayers. Either Alan Partridge was a TV visionary or TV is getting worse. Sadly, it looks as though we are one step closer to Arm Wrestling With Chas And Dave or A Partridge Amongst The Pigeons.

However it is whilst pitching Inner-City Sumo that Alan makes his most revealing comment:

Alan: If you don't do it, Sky will.

How right he was.

1 comment:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Scary how many of his suggestions became real shows.