Saturday, July 08, 2006

Only Fools on Horses

No, not Only Fools and Horses, the classic 1980s sitcom. Only Fools on Horses is the BBC's latest attempt at a celebrity reality TV show. Today's theme: show jumping.

I'm generally a big fan of the BBC. But good god, sometimes they produce programmes that amount to little more than a lengthy argument for the abolition of the licence fee. This is one of the worst things I've seen on primetime BBC in years.

That's not so much because it's bad or incompetent - although come to think of it, the sound quality wasn't brilliant. No, it's just so grimly uninspired. You can tell that the creative process behind this show started and finished with the words "What about show jumping? We haven't done show jumping yet."

Pop Idol (amusingly translated in the US as American Idol, as if viewers across the Atlantic might not know where they lived) was a magnificent formula, and it's been so endlessly copied that it's worth remembering that it was moderately original. A group of people enter, they display their talents, they receive "criticism" from judges, and the public vote decides who gets eliminated. Repeat until end of season. The elimination structure was cloned from shows like Big Brother, but hitching it to some sort of talent show was a good idea.

Now, the format has been cloned so endlessly that one wonders what hobbies remain to try. We've had singers, we've had bands, we've had Fame Academy, we've had Celebrity Fame Academy, we've had ballroom dancing (with celebrities and real people), we've had ice dancing. The BBC's Gaelic unit even produced a version for comedy sketch writers, which was grippingly awful. I gather there's one in America for inventors, and I believe Sky did one for footballers. By comparison, Channel 4's The Games deserves credit for at least having its own scoring system.

Only Fools on Horses is nothing more than a lame pun on an irrelevant show, nailed onto the format of Strictly Come Dancing - which wasn't remotely original to start with. A group of celebrities learn to ride and go showjumping. Three judges comment on their performance, even though there's no point to the exercise because their scores are determined (shockingly) by the normal rules of show jumping. One of the judges is the nasty one. As with SCD, the public vote makes up half of the result. And that's it.

Presumably somebody thought this might lead to some thrilling falling-off-and-hurting-yourself action. In reality, of course, it's a televised novice gymkhana. And why would you want to watch that, unless you knew the people involved? It's not as though the bar of celebrity has been set particularly high here. The high point is probably Sara Cox, who is at least still employed by Radio 1. Ruby Wax appears to have a contract that obliges her to appear on every BBC reality show, perhaps because they can't think of anything else to do with her. There's a guy from Blue Peter, and a man who used to be in Hollyoaks. There's Josie D'Arby. There's Paul Nicholas.

In every respect, it's a completely off-the-peg show where nobody seems to have sat down and thought about how it might work on screen. The judges seem to serve no purpose at all, except to clone better programmes. I was appalled to realise that "hoofed out of the stables" is indeed the show's officially-sanctioned term for eviction, and not a witticism on the commentator's part. I was near suicidal at the words "So turn over now to BBC3, where June Sarpong..."

Stuck in the middle of this hour of mediocrity is Angus Deayton, serving out his stint in career purgatory after being booted unceremoniously from Have I Got News For You. To say that Deayton was unenthusiastic would be an understatement. He looks like he wants to shoot himself. While most presenters would at least feign enthusiasm, that doesn't seem to have occurred to Deayton - or perhaps he's just suicidally indifferent.

He slumps through the show, a snarky low-end intellectual doomed by capricious circumstances to attempt a role better suited to Ant and Dec. He mechanically congratulates the participants, openly sneers at the voting system, and at one point suggests that Ruby Wax's favourite horse has been shot. It's the performance of a man who has either misjudged his audience to a catastrophic degree, or who has been so broken by the downturn in his career that he just doesn't care any more. Either way, it's the most entertaining thing on the show, for entirely the wrong reasons.

It is, of course, possible to slide further down the TV scale than this. Monday night sees season two of Love Island, the show formerly known as Celebrity Love Island until Trading Standards stepped in. The theory is that you take a bunch of celebrities, put them on an island, and - officially - hope that they find love. In reality, you pray that they have sex, or alternatively punch one another. The Fiji location is supposed to provide romantic glamour, although given the end result, they might as well call it Frottage Gulch. In an act of particular barefaced cheek, ITV's 2005 annual report solemnly classed the show as a third world documentary.

As you can imagine, even the most desperate microcelebrity has got better things to do than appear on this sort of show, hence this year's hilarious cast list. Paul Gascoigne's stepdaughter? Pierce Brosnan's son? A guy called Leo who plays in Mike Skinner's live band? Considering the number of losers who'll cheerfully turn up to the opening of an envelope, they really must be having trouble convincing the agents if this is the best they can come up with. Season one was widely mocked for its poor quality of "celebrity" (Nikki Ziering? Fran Cosgrave?), but this line-up actually plunges through the bottom end of any definition of "celebrity" known to the English language, no matter how generous.

And yet, in a bizarre way, I somehow have more time for the suicidal cynicism of Love Island than the utterly phoned-in Only Fools on Horses. And so, from the look of it, does Angus Deayton...