Much as I love the nostalgic idea of the original Ask the Family, the reality was rather different. The questions were way too hard and made you feel thick even when you weren’t (Robert Robinson’s smug avuncularity served mainly to rub salt into this wound), and the families were really freaky, the parents never having had sex since their children were conceived, and the kids being the weirdy, mushroom-cropped kind who aren’t allowed to watch TV, only practise the cello and solve abstruse mathematical problems.
Perhaps this is why I didn’t hate Dick and Dom’s Ask the Family (BBC2, weekdays) nearly as much as I hoped I would. To fill you in: Dick and Dom are the new Ant and Dec, only more lavatorial and more irritating, and the BBC has got them to update the quiz for the brain-dead Noughties generation. Children who get questions wrong have to put on an ass’s head (cue jokes along the lines of: ‘Whoa! He keeps his brains in his ass.’) There’s a sinister scorekeeper-cum-DJ in a blond fright wig (modelled, perhaps, on the bow-tied precocious boy James Harries, who later became a transsexual) who comes on to scare the kids. About the only connection with the original is that they’ve kept the round where you’re shown an object in close-up and you have to guess what it is. (Except it was a pizza cutter, which I don’t think existed in Robinson’s day.) A third of its audience deserted in the first week.
And yet, and yet, I find the programme strangely heartening. The ass’s head is good: stupidity in children should indeed be a punishable offence. So, too, is its tacit admission that family bonds are important and that the acquisition of knowledge is a desirable thing. I could have wished, perhaps, that these values had been celebrated in a slightly more dignified context. But hey, after seven years of Labour misrule, we should be grateful for whatever sops we get.
What I fear we’re going to end up with, though, is a society more divided than at any time since the 17th century. On the one hand, there’ll be a tiny elite who can understand Latin tags, know the date of Crécy and what a novel by Luke Rhinehart has in common with Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon. On the other, there’ll be the lumpen majority who won’t know anything at all because, hey, educationalists have decreed that knowledge is irrelevant so long as you can develop the technique of accessing it on the internet. The faultline exists already: it’s called University Challenge. All the people I know with brains watch it. Indeed, I sometimes think that those who don’t ought to be denied their voting rights. This would, inter alia, render many of my lawyer friends ineligible, which I am sure, as one of them is fond of saying, must be right.
John Tusa, formerly the head of the World Service, had a go recently at the ‘populist presenters’ leading the BBC’s ‘flight from intelligence’ — among them Dan Cruikshank, whose recent Around the World in 80 Treasures he not inaccurately described as ‘a round-the-world cruise masquerading as archaeology’. For the first few minutes of his lengthy architectural documentary Building Britain (Channel 4, Saturday), I feared that English Heritage’s personable, puckish, blue-shirt-wearing, pretty-boy chief executive Simon Thurley had also fallen victim to this tendency. It was not enough for him to be clever and informative. Everything he showed us had to be translated into a superlative — not even Dunkirk could escape without being described as one of ‘the most important operations of the second world war’ — as if the programme was gripped with the constant terror that, if for a second it showed us anything that wasn’t the highest, oldest, grandest or most magnificent thing in the world, we’d all switch over.
Given the programme’s unfortunate timing (7 p.m. on a Saturday night: do we really crave learned heritage at such an hour?) and length (a whopping two hours, which would surely have been better divided over two evenings), this may have been a possibility. But I do think the whole thing got infinitely better as Thurley relaxed into his handsomely illustrated and elegantly argued thesis as to why our architecture is so distinctive from that on the continent.
Our constant fear of invasion has given us a penchant for sturdy fortresses; our desire to own a little piece of land means we prefer owning to renting, and living vertically in terraced housing rather than horizontally in flats as they do in Europe; our love of liberty and our sense of individualism has meant that on the one hand we have no Versailles (we love our royalty, but we want them to live like commoners) and on the other we have such magnificent country houses; our respect for tradition and hatred of abstract ideas being imposed on us from above means that we have always very sensibly rejected such horrid foreign ideas as modernism and brutalism.
With hindsight this is all blindingly obvious, but to how many of those watching had any of this occurred before? It’s a tough trick to pull off, making the familiar seem suddenly new and startling, and Thurley’s inspired programme managed it with rare brilliance. He’s my age, he’s better-looking than me, he’s got a grander house and I hate him.