Sunday, May 28, 2006

Russian Dolls

British cinema-goers will be familiar with the Orange adverts that seem to run before every film in every cinema. For the American among you, Orange are a mobile phone company, and the gimmick is that in every advert, a hapless actor tries to pitch his beloved film to the Orange Film Foundation, who listen politely and then suggest that the film might benefit from some more mobile phones. (Originally, the adverts were intended as "Please switch off your phone" notices, with the tagline "Don't let a mobile phone ruin your movie", but they abandoned that years ago.)

The current one features Sean Astin from Lord of the Rings, who pitches something described as an "epic romantic comedy, set in New York." For ages now, I've wondered what the hell an epic romantic comedy might be.

Well, now I know. Russian Dolls is the sequel to the 2002 film L'Auberge Espanol, which literally means The Spanish Apartment, although that didn't stop international distributors from calling the English language versions such things as Pot Luck and, god help us, Euro Pudding. (Remarkably, for once it was the American distributors who had the sense to stick with the literal name. It loses something in translation anyway, because the title is a French idiom with multiple meanings.) It was a film about a group of students from around Europe attending university in Barcelona, and no, I'd never heard of it either. Mind you, it won a string of awards, so it must have been okay.

Frankly, due to a rare lack of research, I completely failed to notice that Russian Dolls was a sequel until after I'd seen it, which at least proves that it's accessible. It is, technically, a romantic comedy. It qualifies on the grounds that it features romance and comedy prominently. It pretty much ignores all the other established ground rules of the genre. The original film was apparently something of a paean to multicultural Europe, and this is certainly along those lines. Although it's a French film, it takes place in London, Paris and St Petersburg with characters from all three countries, all of whom speak their own language when given the chance - thus resulting in a rare example of a film which will be heavily subtitled in every single market in the world. Even Quebec, because they don't speak Russian there.

I suspect I'm making this sound horrendously worthy. Please be assured that it isn't. It's just not very common to see literally multilingual films, and they tend to leap out at you.

Five years have passed since the first film, which is odd, since it was made only three years earlier. Lead character Xavier (Romain Duris, a sort of French Adam Brody) is now a professional writer in Paris, and theoretically is meant to be writing a novel. In reality, he's banging out hackwork for French TV and ghostwriting celebrity autobiographies. His current assignment is a godawful romantic drama for the Christmas audience with a title that loosely translates as Passionate Love in Venice, and everything we see of it suggests that it's going to suck enormously.

The ramshackle plot has Xavier drifting for much of the film, meeting various women (some of whom only seem to have been included because they were in the first film and their characters had to be shoehorned in somewhere), and generally failing to form any sort of lasting relationship at all. On the one hand, Xavier thinks he's too good to be writing this dross for French TV because he knows it's romanticised nonsense; on the other hand, he's incapable of forming any kind of lasting relationship because his expectations are unrealistic. That's the basic idea.

In unusual defiance of the rules of romantic comedy, the film stubbornly refuses to give us a relationship to actually root for until about halfway through, when Wendy (the English character from the first film) is brought in as his co-writer and we get into a more conventional story about whether Xavier's prepared to let go of his absurdly high expectations and stay with her. You can probably guess the general shape of it from there.

It's a strangely plotted film. The central conceit of comparing Xavier's chaotic lovelife with the contrived romantic drama he's trying to write requires the film to defy the normal rules of romantic comedy, but also means that the first half of the film scatters all over the place in obstinate refusal to play the game. Frankly, clocking in at over two hours long, the film could have stood to trim this material. Equally, writer/director Cedric Klapisch evidently hopes we'll forget the whole plot about Xavier writing a romantic drama once it's served its dramatic function by bringing Xavier and Wendy together. And when we hit the one hour mark and two completely new characters hit the screen to introduce a new Anglo-Russian romance thread, you briefly think, Where the hell is this going?

And yet it works. It's not saying anything that you haven't seen in romantic comedies before, but at least it's taken the trouble to work out a new way of saying it. And it's genuinely funny, even with minor characters - Audrey Tatou, playing a character returning from the first film, has a fantastic monologue trying to explain her private life to her uncomprehending five year old son in the style of a fairy tale. ("Well, mummy has several princes on the go right now...") Yes, it needs tightened up and it could probably stand to lose 15-20 minutes, but ultimately it works as a love story.

Sprawling, but fun.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Judgment Day 2006

Another week, another WWE pay-per-view. Judgment Day is a Smackdown-only show, and it's suffered from a build-up so inept that most wrestling fans seem to have given up on it already. In fact, there are some matches on the undercard which might be okay, if they're given time - but given that they're on the undercard, they probably won't be given time. The main event is dead in the water thanks to bad writing, and there are two more matches which, on paper, should be unbearably terrible. All told, there's a good chance that this will be the WWE's worst show of the year.

1. World Heavyweight Title: Rey Mysterio v JBL. Mysterio is the defending champion, having won the belt in March at Wrestlemania 22. It's difficult to express what an awful job the WWE have done with him as champion. Standing a meagre 5'6" tall, tiny little Mysterio isn't even technically a heavyweight - he's actually sixty pounds under the limit for the cruiserweight division - but such technicalities have never much concerned the WWE. Mysterio was given the belt for several good reasons. First, wrestling is big with the hispanic audience, and Mysterio is Mexican. Second, he was a close friend of the late Eddie Guerrero, which allowed them to do a thoroughly tasteless tribute storyline. Third, he's a very good wrestler who can be relied on for decent matches. Fourth, the crowd has always loved him. Fifth, with a spate of injuries at the top of the card, they desperately needed a fresh face.

So far, so good. But tiny little Mysterio is, unavoidably, the underdog champion. The WWE claim to understand this point, but they don't really. Their approach has been to book Mysterio into the ground, where he loses match after match. A couple of weeks ago this reached the height of absurdity, when the Great Khali defeated him clean (in his home town) in a mtch where he got no offence whatsoever. Last week, the show ended with Mysterio and JBL both being laid out by Kane, who isn't even on this pay-per-view, but who does a movie to promote. That's how far down the pecking order the Smackdown title has fallen.

The point that the WWE seem to be missing is that they don't need to make Mysterio look vulnerable. The man is literally half the size of some of his opponents. He will always be the underdog. In fact, he needs to be booked strongly, in order to maintain the illusion that he can beat these people in a fair fight. In reality, the WWE has unintentionally created the impression that Mysterio is an utterly undeserving champion who could be slaughtered by 90% of the roster. Some live crowds have started to turn on him.

JBL seems to be a more or less random choice as opponent. He's the current United States champion (although that belt isn't on the line), which would normally suggest that they're not planning to put the World Title on him as well. But then again, the Rey Mysterio experiment is failing badly. On top of that, Batista is due back from the injured list in the foreseeable future. When that happens, he'll presumably go straight after the World Title (which he vacated due to his genuine shoulder injury, meaning that he never really lost the belt). So they really need to get the belt onto a heel for Batista to challenge. JBL is as good a choice as any - at least he's a former world champion, and it's been over a year since he had the belt, so he's still relatively fresh.

My money is on JBL to win on Sunday; if he retains, it's because the WWE think they can salvage something from Rey, and I respectfully disagree. They need to get the belt off Rey so that they can start rebuilding him. The actual match will probably be good but not exceptional; we've seen these two wrestle many times before, and it's usually around that level.

2. King of the Ring Tournament Final: Booker T v. Bobby Lashley. The annual King of the Ring knockout tournament used to be a pay-per-view in its own right, but they dropped it several years ago. This year, it's been brought back as a tournament running on Smackdown itself, with the final on pay-per-view. Personally, I always thought the knockout tournament format was a nice gimmick that made the show stand out, but the writers don't seem to like it much. It also requires the same wrestlers to work several times in a single night, but given the lack of depth in the Smackdown roster, I don't consider that a major problem.

The King of the Ring tournament has a degree of credibility because historically, a lot of winners went on to long runs at the top of the business. It's been presented, with some legitimacy, as a win that elevates a midcarder and helps him break from the pack. Previous winners include Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Triple H and Kurt Angle, in each case before they made it to the main event. Mind you, previous winners also include Viscera and Billy Gunn, but they've successfully edited those guys out of history.

Booker T is a veteran and Lashley is a relative novice, so unless they've completely missed the point of the tournament, Lashley is presumably winning here. This might actually be a bad move, because although Lashley has obvious potential, he's still very inexperienced, and probably not ready to move to the next level yet. Booker T, on the other hand, has been out of the main event scene for years but has been doing some very entertaining material lately, and might be worth another shot at the top of the card. That said, I don't see him carrying Lashley to a particularly good match here.

3. WWE Tag Team Titles: MNM (Joey Mercury & Johnny Nitro) v. Paul London & Brian Kendrick. London and Kendrick do have a shared entrance video, but it doesn't seem to be on the WWE website (which is very erratic about keeping these things up to date). Still, I love Kendrick's solo video, so I'm not complaining.

A rare example of a match where the build-up is relatively sane. London and Kendrick, the plucky underdog babyfaces, have repeatedly beaten the champions MNM in tag matches and singles matches, but have never been given their title shot until now. And that's it.

On paper, this should be alright. The wrestlers are decent, and for some reason the WWE suddenly seems to have realised that Paul London is worth their attention, despite being a cruiserweight. London is very good indeed, but rarely gets the opportunity to show it. Having said all that, this will be a very one-sided feud if London and Kendrick win this match too, so presumably MNM will win by a screwjob to set up a rematch down the road.

Nothing wrong with that - within reason, the longer London and Kendrick chase the titles, the more it means when they finally get them. And frankly, on a show where the writers often seem to be trying far too hard to be innovative (and getting it badly wrong), it makes a pleasant change just to have a feud based around the fact that one team is simply better than the other one. If it's given time, this should be good.

4. WWE Cruiserweight Title: Gregory Helms v. Super Crazy. I doggedly insist on listing the title matches first, but really this will be some way down at the bottom of the card. Super Crazy is one of the Mexican wrestlers who they haven't buried yet, and since he's good, he's worth pushing. It's worth noting that Super Crazy and his fellow Mexicools were turned babyface by force of the hispanic audience, who simply refused to acknowledge them as the bad guys and cheered them anyway. And this despite the fact that they came to the ring on lawnmowers. In a sane world, you take advantage of performers who are that popular with the audience.

On the other hand, the entire build-up for this match is that Super Crazy won a title shot, and this is it. So unless they've completely given up on Helms (and there's no reason why they should, because he's decent as well), he really ought to retain here, building to Super Crazy winning a rematch down the line. However, the WWE seem to book the Cruiserweight division as an afterthought, so there's a fair chance that Crazy will just win the damn belt here, and the writers will expect it to mean something just because it's a WWE belt.

Potentially a good match - as long as it gets some time, which is unlikely, because it's a Cruiserweight Title bout way down on the undercard.

5. The Undertaker v. The Great Khali. God help us. The WWE has always had a weakness for signing really big men simply on the grounds that they're really big, without much regard to their talent levels. The Great Khali - or Dalip Singh to his mum - is the latest beneficiary of this ill-advised policy. He's been a professional wrestler for years, getting by purely on the fact that he's a seven-foot powerlifter. According to those who are familiar with his work, he's one of the worst wrestlers on the planet. (It's also widely suggested that he's unsafe to work with, although that may be somewhat exaggerated as a result of the tragic death of Brian Ong in 2001, who suffered a fatal head injury while training with Khali.)

Thus far the WWE have kept him in very short squash matches, which tends to suggest that they know he's not up to the job. But on Sunday, he's fighting the Undertaker, and there's no way he's squashing the Undertaker. This will have to be a competitive match, and that's just a horrible thought. He's been wrestling for six years now with no obvious improvement, so if this match scrapes the bar of "competent", that'll be an achievement in itself.

All logic says Khali ought to win here, since it'd be a total waste for him to lose his first competitive match after all this build-up. In fact, he really ought to win convincingly, but WWE politics means that the Undertaker will be protected, so it'll probably be an inconclusive finish. Brace yourselves for a DQ. Barring a miracle, the match will be one of the worst of the year.

6. Kurt Angle v. Mark Henry. Angle and Henry previously fought for the World Title at the Royal Rumble show in January. This was arguably the worst match of Angle's career, although in fairness, he was working through a lot of injuries at the time and was severely limited in what he could do. Kurt Angle very, very rarely has bad matches, so this one was particularly notable.

He's still working through a lot of injuries, and the only real question is whether Angle's come up with some better ideas in the intervening months. It'll probably be better than January - Angle simply takes too much pride in his work to allow a repeat of that fiasco - but it won't be good. The less said about this the better, really. With any luck, Mark Henry wins and they do an injury angle to justify giving Kurt some much-needed time off the road. I'd really prefer not to think about this any further.

7. Chris Benoit v. Finlay. Two upper-midcarders who have been feuding ever since they got each other eliminated from the King of the Ring tournament. Benoit, as a former world champion and top-quality technical wrestler, is usually reliable. Finlay is a veteran who's been retired since the WCW days, but recently returned to the ring after a stint helping to train the women's division. Despite the obnoxiously Oirish entrance video, he's had a successful return simply by being a convincingly violent bastard. There's an aura of credibility to both these guys, which might explain why they got away with a remarkable match on Smackdown a couple of weeks ago featuring almost no cartoon pro-wrestling moves at all - just fifteen minutes of exchanging holds on the mat.

Unfortunately, some people in the WWE don't understand that that's the reason for Finlay's success and think that the Irish gimmick is being mysteriously underplayed. Hence, we can apparently expect this match to feature the debut of Finlay's new sidekick - a midget dressed as a leprechaun. No, I'm not making this up. To say that this spectacularly misses the point of the character would be an understatement.

Still, on paper this is by far the best match of the show. It also, inadvertantly, illustrates the single biggest tension in professional wrestling these days. The WWE's real competition doesn't come from other wrestling promotions, none of which are big enough to matter, but from mixed martial arts and in particular the UFC. UFC pay-per-views are now regularly beating WWE ones, and even no-name mixed martial arts shows are drawing remarkable live crowds in the parts of the USA. This is the new competition.

The question is how wrestling responds to that. Do you move in a more realistic direction, and attempt to appeal to the MMA audience with a more plausible, sports-based product, or do you go in the other direction and play up the insanity of professional wrestling? To judge from their last match, Benoit and Finlay vote for option 1; WWE management votes for option 2. The match will probably be excellent, and the winner will probably be Finlay through (oh god) leprechaun interference.

8. Melina v. Jillian Hall. Token women's match, the point of which is less than clear. Jillian Hall has been a heel for ages, but apparently became a babyface by default when she was sacked as JBL's sidekick a couple of weeks ago. Now she's feuding with Melina from MNM because... er, because... well, yeah. Nobody cares about this match, and it won't be any good. It doesn't matter in the slightest who wins.

Worth buying? Christ, no. Benoit/Finlay should be very good but will probably be marred by a leprechaun. The main event is dead in the water, Angle/Henry was dire last time round, and Undertaker/Khali will probably be legendarily bad. On paper the Cruiserweight and Tag Team matches should be decent, but I doubt they'll get the time to develop. Booker/Lashley is unlikely to be particularly memorable, and the women's match doesn't really count. Steer clear.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Saturday night television

I'd been planning to review some films before now, but frankly, 16 Blocks and Mission: Impossible 3 aren't that inspiring to write about. 16 Blocks is a solid but ultimately disposable B-movie where Bruce Willis tries to help a witness get to court, leading to a character arc straight out of Robert McKee's screenwriting manual and a gloriously contrived final act twist. It's quite good fun, but by god you can see the strings. Mission: Impossible 3 features lots of things blowing up, which is fun, as well as some character moments so awkward that they've got to be some kind of rib on the actors. ("When I lost my kitten, I said a special prayer..." "Will you teach it to me?") Brick and Confetti are on my "to see" list, although whether I'll get around to them is another matter.

So let's leave aside any pretence of art for the moment, and take a look at mainstream TV. Last Saturday was a bad day for ITV1, at least going by the ratings. They got comprehensively mauled during the daytime, with their lowest ever audience share of 5%. Yes, granted, the FA Cup final was on BBC1, but there's got to be more than 5% of the population who don't follow football. (In fact, a third of the viewing public were off watching satellite and cable channels.) Then again, ITV weren't even really trying - a repeat of The Rockford Files? On Britain's flagship commercial network? In 2006? They made marginally more of an effort in the evening, but still got trashed. This Saturday should be just as bad for ITV, since BBC1 has the notoriously unmissable Eurovision Song Contest, a show so bizarre that I'll explain it for the benefit of American viewers later in the week.

Even ITV management admit that the schedule needs a desperate overhaul, although so far the only evidence is the long overdue axing of some shows that have been clogging up the daytime schedule for ages. (Weekday daytime is a particular disaster for ITV. Their only recent success was The Paul O'Grady Show, and he jumped to Channel 4 the moment his contract expired. ITV was reduced to running repeats of his own show against him - not exactly their finest hour.)

But daytime is far from their only problem. Look at last Saturday's schedules, and compare BBC1 and ITV1. It's painful.

A few years ago, the fashionable thing to say about Saturday night TV was that the family audience was a thing of the past. Back in the 1970s the whole family would gather around the television to enjoy Morecambe & Wise, but now there were many other things to do, and the mass family audience had disappeared. There's a degree of truth to this - TV audiences have generally gone down over the last few decades - but also a lot of excuse-making. Somewhere during the 1980s, broadcasters became convinced that "family entertainment" was a euphemism for children's programmes shown in the early evenings. On this model, "family entertainment" doesn't actually entertain the family. It entertains younger kids, while everyone else sits around with pained smiles and pretends they're enjoying a bonding experience. Combine that with an increased focus on chasing younger viewers, and the genre ended up rather neglected.

In the last few years, however, the BBC and ITV have rediscovered the knack of, you know, actually entertaining the general public. ITV have a simple formula for family entertainment: take basic format, add Ant & Dec. If Ant & Dec aren't available, then clone one of their formats, change it very slightly, and give it to Kate Thornton. This accounts for Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, Pop Idol, Popstars, The X-Factor, I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Ant & Dec's Gameshow Marathon - which is a pretty comprehensive list of all ITV's recent hit entertainment shows. Unfortunately, they don't have any Ant & Dec shows on the air at the moment.

Virtually everything else they've attempted has been a horrendous disaster. Celebrity Wrestling defied both description and belief, while Rock Around The Block offered the spectacle of families competing to see who could do the best cover version of 1980s pop songs in front of an audience of bemused neighbours. (A high point of the series was the utter wrongness of an underage boy performing "Baby's Got Back" with the assistance of his teenage sister.) Neither show completed its run.

The BBC, in contrast, have done rather better. Consider Saturday night's schedule, with explanations for the benefit of American readers.

6.00. Strictly Dance Fever. You know Dancing With The Stars? Well, that's an adaptation of BBC1's Strictly Come Dancing (a title that assumes you've heard of both Strictly Ballroom and Come Dancing, and therefore doesn't work outside Britain). Strictly Dance Fever is the spin-off version featuring members of the public. Obviously the basic format of these shows is thoroughly familiar by now - audition shows, judges, token nasty judge, public vote, unnecessarily convoluted voting system, results revealed at an excruciating crawl. The BBC has also taken some stick for signing Graham Norton from Channel 4 at enormous cost and then getting him to front a talent show because they couldn't think of anything else to do with him.

But Strictly Come Dancing itself was a genuinely bold move. Ballroom dancing hosted by the superannuated Bruce Forsyth? When I first heard of it, I thought it was the stupidest idea I'd ever heard. Yet it was a massive hit, simply by using the established reality-show formula to sell ballroom dancing the masses, and tapping into an unexpectedly large audience for that kind of thing - specifically, all those middle aged and older viewers that broadcasters had been ignoring for years. It seems obvious now, sure, but at the time a ballroom dancing show in primetime appeared utterly bizarre. And Bruce Forsyth hosting anything seemed borderline suicidal. (I still think he's rather at odds with the modern world, to be honest, but the ratings speak for themselves.)

7.00 Doctor Who. Again, it looks like a sure thing in retrospect, but until the recent revival Doctor Who was cemented in the public consciousness as a bit of a joke. The BBC had never exactly lost sight of it, and continued to churn out increasingly fannish and continuity-obsessed novels at a rate of one a month. (The final one, Lance Parkin's Gallifrey Chronicles, attempts to reconcile multiple strands of continuity, guest stars K9, alludes to The Curse of Fatal Death and an obscure BBC webcast as potentially canonical, attempts to undo another writer's earlier novel, features a complicated metatextual conceit about a long-running series of dull science-fiction novels, and generally scores a zero on the accessibility meter. Mind you, it's not like they expected anyone outside fandom to buy it.)

But to the general public, Doctor Who meant cheap sets, cheaper costumes, and a B-list character actor running up and down a corridor. There was some lingering affection for the Tom Baker run in the 1970s, but it was basically downhill from then on. Really, Doctor Who had been screwed once the big-budget science fiction movie came along. Before then, nobody really expected such shows to look convincing, and a passable stage set would do. After Star Wars, people wanted pseudo-realism, and you can't do that on a BBC budget. Worse still, they made the attempt - one 1980s show features a stolen Concorde crashing on a prehistoric plain of dinosaurs, and you can imagine for yourself how bad that looked.

With advances in CGI, it's now possible to make Doctor Who look relatively decent on a realistic budget. True, some ropey effects have slipped through, but we're now back at the stage where you can make this show and do it properly. And they are in fact trying to do it properly, not treating it as a homage to the original series, or wasting time on fan-friendly references, or playing it as an obvious joke. They're just doing Doctor Who straight, and getting huge audiences from it. It steamrollers everything in its path. The stories may irritate sci-fi purists - Russell T Davies has never struck me as the greatest writer in the world - and I could live without the incessant and obnoxious plugging of the show on the BBC News website. But it genuinely works as family entertainment.

7.45. The National Lottery - Jet Set. Ah. Into every life a little rain must fall. The BBC acquired the rights to the National Lottery draw a few years ago and have been trying to work out what to do with it ever since. For some reason they won't just stick it between shows, and they insist on trying to build an entire gameshow around it. These gameshows are never any good, but dammit, they just won't give up.

8.20. Casualty. Casualty, the UK's answer to ER, has been running since 1986 - which, strictly speaking, makes ER America's answer to Casualty. It's rubbish, of course. It's been rubbish for years, ever since they defanged the original political content and turned it into a "household accident of the week" show. (Unlike ER, Casualty insists on showing you how the patients got hurt. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that no dramatic justification is required for patients to arrive at a hospital.) Over the years the show has slowly mutated into 50% soap opera and 50% mutilation of random guest stars, presented at 50% of ER's speed. But twenty years on, it's still hanging in there, and it's even spawning spin-offs.

I haven't watched a whole episode of Casualty in years, but it still packs in the viewers. It's a safe show, perhaps, but a useful lynchpin for the Saturday night schedule. And at least it's a more flexible format than many long-running drama shows.

9.10. Strictly Dance Fever results. Yes, this takes half an hour.

9.40. News.

10.00. The Hunted. A film with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, apparently, so it can't be that bad.

Is this a classic night's television? Not particularly, but it's perfectly strong one. And now, compare ITV.

5.55. You've Been Framed! One of those shows that requires an exclamation mark in the title to remind you that it's meant to be entertaining. This is a repeat, by the way, allowing you another chance to watch a small child fall over to the accompaniment of canned hilarity. I hate this show with a passion. It's a lazy piece of time-killing and the epitome of "That'll Do" programme-making. Harry Hill presents it at the moment, which baffles me, because he's a genuinely good comedian, and this is utterly beneath him. You've Been Framed has been on the air for sixteen years, and it stopped being funny with episode three.

6.20. X-Men. The original film from six years ago. A bit ambitious for the Saturday night schedule, if you ask me - the film's almost two hours long once you insert ad breaks. Which means you're asking the viewers to commit a lot of time. You can get away with that if it's Harry Potter or Star Wars, but not X-Men. Sunday night, maybe. Bank holiday, perhaps. Saturday night? No. It's there to fill a giant hole where the programmes should be.

8.10. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Running since 1998 and a lynchpin of the ITV schedule, but long past its prime on any view. And the ratings reflect that. It does alright, but it's not what you'd call essential viewing any more. To be fair, nor is Casualty over on BBC1, but at least it's still packing them in. Casualty got 7.5m on Saturday; National Lottery Jet Set got 7m. WWTBAM got 3.9m, and it was the highest rated programme of the night. When it's getting beaten almost 2 to 1 by a show that's been on the air for 20 years, it's possibly time to pension it off.

9.10. Dennis Norden's All New 13th Laughter File. Dennis Norden - or, as British people call him, "Isn't he dead?" - has been doing semi-witty links on clipshows for as long as I can recall. (According to Wikipedia, he's been doing them since 1977, which is indeed longer than I can recall.) I say "semi-witty" because they have the general shape of humorous remarks without ever actually being entertaining. Norden was a successful comic scriptwriter for decades, but he's never been more than a genial TV presence, and he's long past his prime. Dennis Norden's All New 13th Laughter File - presumably so-called to distinguish it from any other 13th Laughter Files he might have recorded - is basically just a load of random clips presented for your mild amusement.

There are worse ways to spend an hour. There are also many, many better ways. It's difficult to imagine anyone saying "Ooh, Dennis Norden's All New 13th Laughter File - let's turn over and watch that." It's just a schedule-filler, and seeing it turn up on a Saturday primetime schedule seems painfully desperate. Norden announced his retirement a few weeks back, at the age of 84. Knowing ITV, they're probably already hunting for a new host.

If this is the best ITV can come up with, it's no wonder they're getting trounced. And that's just comparing it with BBC1. They were also up against a documentary about The Da Vinci Code on Channel 4, and The English Patient on BBC2.

The BBC have basically got it right; it's not the most thrilling or experimental night of television, but nor should it be. ITV is basically marking time between Ant & Dec series, and for the number one commercial broadcaster, that really won't do. Tonight's schedule is no more inspiring - three reality pop-documentary shows, and a tribute to the Prince of Wales. Whoo.

ITV keeps launching new spin-off channels - we're now up to ITV4 - but it would inspire a lot more confidence if they could work out what they want to do with ITV1.