Simon Hoggart

Family values

What’s your favourite Simpsons joke? This is mine: Lisa and Bart are having a row and Homer tries to stop them. ‘Oh, dad,’ one of them says, ‘we were arguing about which one of us loves you more.’

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What’s your favourite Simpsons joke? This is mine: Lisa and Bart are having a row and Homer tries to stop them. ‘Oh, dad,’ one of them says, ‘we were arguing about which one of us loves you more.’

What’s your favourite Simpsons joke? This is mine: Lisa and Bart are having a row and Homer tries to stop them. ‘Oh, dad,’ one of them says, ‘we were arguing about which one of us loves you more.’

‘Gee, that’s sweet,’ says Homer, or words to that effect.

‘She says I do, and I say she does...’

Mind you, working on the show does sound fun. When they have guest stars they try to get them to come to Los Angeles in person, though some, such as Tony Blair, are allowed to do it long-distance. (The scripts are read out first, as if for radio, then the cartoons fitted around the speech.) It’s the team’s pleasure to book these celebrities into a cheap motel near the studio. One time Mick Jagger’s assistant phoned to complain. ‘Sir Mick expects at least a Jacuzzi,’ she said. So they put him in a room with a Jacuzzi, but you had to feed in quarters to make it work.

Sky has been celebrating 20 years of the show all this week. They kicked off the festivities with a behind-the-scenes documentary called The Simpsons: Access All Areas (Sky, Monday), which turned out, disappointingly, to be one of those bland American booster shows, an extended plug even though it was narrated by Ricky Gervais. Apparently, it takes a lot of talent and a lot of work. Who’d have thought it?

We did learn some interesting things. Once they had decided to colour the characters yellow they could not use that colour anywhere else in shot. The Simpsons have no hairline. Matt Groening, who invented them, modelled and named them after his own family, except for himself, whom he named Bart. It takes nine months from starting work on an episode to completing it.

Twenty years ago Barbara Bush remarked that The Simpsons was the dumbest show she had ever seen, and two years later George Bush Sr said that America needed ‘families more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons’. The producers gleefully developed the feud (in one episode Bush is seen using the line on TV and Bart replies, ‘Yes, we’re just like the Waltons. We’re waiting for the end of the Depression too.’) But Bush was entirely wrong. The Simpsons are a loving, close and functioning family — if in a wildly distorted way — who are trying to cope with American culture, which is so damaging and destructive, and yet so appealing and addictive.

Material Girl (BBC1) is a glossy six-parter in which all the characters, apart from Lenora Critchlow in the title role as Ali, are horrible. Does that matter? All the characters in The Thick of It are horrible, except for the ones who are stupid. That doesn’t matter because it’s a comedy and we laugh; Material Girl is billed as a comedy, but I didn’t laugh once. At first I thought it was simply a knock-off of Ugly Betty: loathsome fashionistas (all of them infinitely more ghastly than any politicians I have met) machinate against an outsider. But Ali isn’t an outsider; she wants to be one of them. Her greatest ambition is to resemble her tormentors. It has elements of a fairy story, but we wouldn’t believe that Snow White wanted to be the Wicked Queen, or Cinderella the Ugly Stepmother. That’s why it doesn’t work.

A few months ago I remarked on Michael Portillo’s seeming obsession with death — whether by execution, suicide or murder by Franco’s goon squads. Surely, I thought, we’d be safe during his amiable ramble up the Yorkshire coastline in Great British Railway Journeys. So what does he do when he reaches Scarborough, jewel of the east? Heads straight to the museum for a loving, gloating look at the skeleton of a 4,000-year-old man. Portillo doesn’t just see the skull beneath the skin; he wants it all, naked and terrible.