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Arts

Setting the tone

Nationwide tribute (BBC 4, Thursday); Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA (Channel 4); Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life (BBC1, Sunday)

4 February 2009

12:00 AM

4 February 2009

12:00 AM

Nationwide tribute (BBC 4, Thursday); Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA (Channel 4); Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life (BBC1, Sunday)

Nationwide began 40 years ago, and on Thursday BBC4 showed a tribute. The show ran nightly up to 1983, and was always the cheekie chappie of BBC programming. In the early 1980s I did a series of jokey sketches for them from the party conferences, and we ran an item about Denis Thatcher signing autographs for a disabled charity. ‘Good old Denis,’ I said, ‘helping legless people everywhere.’ That would be far too bland for Mock the Week or HIGNFY now, but back then we had a long discussion which ended with the line being broadcast. It seemed to be daring while being actually entirely inoffensive, which was in the Nationwide spirit.

We forget how for millions of households it defined the evening. It was after-work, after-school viewing, a beguiling blend of skateboarding ducks, beer-drinking snails, singing horses and general self-conscious mucking about, dotted with the odd serious item. All the women — Sue Lawley, Valerie Singleton — sounded more like the Queen than any of us now remember.

In 1981 a curious thing happened. Nowadays BBC executives are terrified that someone, somewhere, might be bored for a few seconds, which is why Nationwide’s successor, The One Show, is designed for goldfish with attention deficit disorder. In those days they were scared that viewers were not enlightened and improved, so David Dimbleby was brought in to make Nationwide serious. Then, during the 1983 election campaign, a geography teacher from Cirencester, Diana Gould, aggressively interrogated Margaret Thatcher about the sinking of the Belgrano. Mrs Thatcher, who loved nothing better than a good argument, rather enjoyed it until Denis persuaded her that it had been an outrage, a trap sprung by the ‘load of pinkos’ who ran the BBC. No one admitted it, but with the licence fee up for renewal, that may have been Nationwide’s death sentence. And as someone pointed out, ‘They broke the golden rule of television: you can dumb down, but you can’t dumb up.’


Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA (Channel 4) gives a fascinating glimpse at the differences, even now, between British and American television. At the start one of those bullying voices instructs us to ‘get ready for an intense! emotional! unforgettable! experience!’ Back in Blighty, we think, ‘Steady on.’

As I said the other day, the appeal of these shows is not their variety but their sameness. In Britain, Ramsay goes to a terrible restaurant run by a stupid egomaniac. He makes them shorten the menu, shovels the punters in and all is well. Then he returns after six months and finds things are as bad as ever. It’s a downbeat coda.

The USA version is only marginally about food. It’s about people, in this week’s case a father, mother and son who run an Italian restaurant in Michigan. The father is old and diabetic, and resents his lazy son. The son desperately wants to be loved by the father, who won’t give him the freedom he needs. Ramsay shortens the menu. (Even the waitresses think the food is ‘shit’; everyone swears more than Ramsay himself.) Then he persuades the family to write letters to each other, expressing their truest, deepest feelings. Reading these missives causes all of them, including Ramsay, to break down in tears. ‘Chef Ramsay brought back the love that we had,’ one of them says, not a line you ever here in his British shows. Or restaurants. Cut! In America, we definitely don’t want to spoil the mood by going back to find everything worse than ever, only with extra salt tears drenching the lasagne .

At the very end there are captions on the screen for, literally, one second each, pointing out that the diners had their meals paid for and that some of the scenes were shown out of sequence. But of course. If you thought the British version was over-hyped, over-dramatised and over-manipulated, this was like being pummelled by an octopus trained as an osteopath.

Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life (BBC1, Sunday) was presented by David Attenborough, who proves everything Darwin ever wrote about the survival of the fittest. Here is a man who was always superbly adapted to his environment: the Antarctic, a snake-infested jungle, or the far more terrifying world of the BBC bureaucracy.

Attenborough was far too gentlemanly to ram any religious points down our throats; the message was implied, hinted. For instance, it is firmly believed by many fundamentalists that Darwin went to his grave believing in a Supreme Being, yet, as Attenborough pointed out, he used to take his family to church, leave them there and go for a thoughtful walk. In Radio Times Attenborough says that he gets letters from people saying that the beauty and wonder of a humming bird proves the existence of God. Then what, he asks them, about the parasitical worm in Africa that lives by burrowing into children’s eyes?


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