For this month’s G&TV, we take a look at an old favourite: Rob and Doug appearing on BiteBack, also known as “Points of View but with a budget”. This was broadcast on the 23rd May 1993 – precisely 25 years ago today.
I should warn you: at 41 seconds in, they do a “Beam me down, Scotty” gag. I’m warning you now so your expensive phone or computer doesn’t end up through the nearest window.
A few points.
- Anybody who thinks that Red Dwarf doesn’t clip well should take a look at that section of Quarantine used at 1:07… and think “Yes, Red Dwarf really doesn’t clip well.”
- Forget wanting to watch rushes of Red Dwarf episodes. I now want to watch rushes of the dubbing sessions of Red Dwarf episodes.
- There’s a very odd moment where we hear Rob Grant talking about how Red Dwarf is one of the top-watched sitcoms on BBC2… and then the reporter says “it wasn’t easy to sell the idea of science fiction to BBC drama chiefs”. Drama chiefs? It’s a sitcom!
- I’m intrigued by Doug Naylor’s comment that the first few episodes of Red Dwarf don’t have any science fiction. My first reaction is to dispute that: and then I remembered how Hancock’s Half Hour did Better than Life without being a science fiction show. Challenge: how would you keep the fundamental basis of the first series of Red Dwarf while removing every single SF trapping?
- Yet again, in a piece to camera, the reporter says: “Red Dwarf is the only new sci-fi drama series to be made at the BBC.” Now, I know you want to make a big point about Doctor Who being cancelled, but surely there’s a better way of doing it than mislabelling the series entirely.
- I want to query something said by the representative from Interzone Magazine, where she says: “Back in the 50s, Quatermass was pulling in Coronation Street-sized audiences”. Which is a bit of a confusing statement anyway – as Coronation Street only started in 1960, when exactly are we supposed to be comparing audiences for it? In 1960, as soon as it started, or 1993? And which Quatermass serial does she mean? All I’ll say is that Quatermass II (of which a clip is shown directly after her statement) got an average of 8 million viewers an episode… and Coronation Street in 1993 was getting 16 million. If that isn’t the comparison she meant, then it certainly isn’t clear what she does actually mean.
- Intercutting the BBC’s Head of Drama saying “I’d very much like a good sci-fi drama series” with an out-of-context dodgy CSO shot from the Doctor Who serial Robot really doesn’t feel like particularly honest programme-making on behalf of BiteBack‘s production team. You could make the opposite point by cutting in an entirely different clip of Who, after all. What exactly are they trying to say?
- On the plus side, I thought Creegan’s point about the BBC not actually getting a lot of writers submitting SF shows to them was an interesting one – indeed, the most interesting thing in the entire piece.
- Come on, then: any guesses for exactly what Creegan is talking about when he says “The project that we’re talking about for BBC1 is a major, serious sci-fi, that – if we make – would really be one of the major projects, probably of the decade”? My guess: Invasion: Earth. That was broadcast in 1998, but it’s hardly impossible for that to be in development five years earlier, and it seems to fit the description.
But here’s the thing which I really take from this BiteBack piece – and it’s got nothing at all to do with science fiction. It’s to do with BiteBack itself. There are a fair number of clips on YouTube, so you can get a feel of the series beyond what I talk about above. The show ran between November 1991 and March 1997; it’s also worth taking a look at some clips of Open Air, its daily predecessor which ran for four series on BBC1 from October 1986 to May 1990. And we start to see some of the things I miss about current television.
Surely we still have programmes like that, though? Well, yes, there’s Points of View, obviously, and Newswatch which is specifically about BBC News. But they rarely have features these days, at least of the kind we see above. Taking a look at the most recent episode of Points of View, it’s mainly just emails from viewers, clips from programmes, and wry looks to camera from Jeremy Vine. True, there is a four minute section on the new weather graphics which could conceivably be called a feature, but it’s hardly the same kind of thing BiteBack piece above. Three viewer complaints and an answer from a BBC Weather producer? Fine as far as it goes, but where is the kind of contextual material included in the BiteBack piece, or the attempt to tell some kind of story – or hell, a reporter, doing some reporting? To say nothing of the fact that the piece is also half the length.
Taking a look at the latest episode of Newswatch, it’s even worse: the programme has no actual features in the programme at all. Clip, complaint, link, clip, complaint, link: over and over and over. Again, fine as far as it goes… but that’s the crucial issue: as far as it goes. The comparison to the kind of thing BiteBack was doing is stark.
Of course, the above BiteBack feature isn’t the most scintillating piece of journalism I’ve ever watched. But it draws a number of things together – someone reporting, interviews with a fair few interested parties, a look behind-the-scenes at one of the BBC’s most popular shows, a representation from a BBC executive – and ties it altogether into something with a bit of thought and context behind it. These days, we’re lucky to get a voice and some text on the screen, before we move on to… another voice and some text on the screen. Where are the magazine programmes actually making something about television which have a bit of production value in their own right?
They’re nowhere to be seen. Because while some kind of shows still have a healthy budget attached – your big 9pm dramas, for instance – others have been starved of money for years, and it’s steadily getting worse. It’s difficult to imagine a show like BiteBack being commissioned now, and being given a half-decent budget to do proper investigative reports.
After 25 years, maybe we are now making Doctor Who again, as well as Red Dwarf. But when it comes to magazine programmes actually about television, we haven’t just got stuck. We’ve actively gone backwards. That’s something to consider… and mourn, if you feel inclined.