Saturday, December 30, 2006

Hogmanay TV

Hogmanay, for those of you who don't know, is the Scottish term for New Year's Eve. Unlike a lot of the tartan-and-shortbread stuff they put on for the tourists, it's a word that's actually in proper use by normal people.

When I was a kid, they took New Year's Eve somewhat seriously on television. They certainly did up in Scotland, where the beloved sketch comedian Rikki Fulton would emerge from his dreamy retirement for his annual (and, if you ignore the final few years, generally rather good) show, to the delight of older Scots who remembered seeing him in the music halls, and the contented amusement of families. At the peak of his career, Fulton was watched by 50% of the population.

Rikki Fulton died around three years ago. My grandmother was complaining a few days back that there was nothing on for her to watch this year. She says this sort of thing a lot - for her, watchable entertainment ceased with the cancellation of Only Fools and Horses. She is, after all, 87. I generally nod sympathetically and move on. Mind you, on New Year's Eve, she does have more of a point than on most nights. With the rest of the population presumably having a party as per national stereotype, the only people watching are presumably the elderly and the families.

In fact, the BBC's schedule for the evening amounts to little more than a big sign saying "Go away, we're not in." There's the season finale of Casualty, which I suppose will get some viewers, and there's the usual Jools Holland show on BBC2. Other than that, it's a depressing selection. There's a 90-minute comedy quiz about 2006, hosted by Graham Norton, which sounds both excessive and uninspired. Astoundingly, there's a repeat of the two Little Britain Abroad specials, one of which only aired for the first time tonight. BBC2 has a repeat of the Dead Ringers Christmas Special (yawn) and a drama about Fanny Craddock that was broadcast several weeks ago on BBC4. They're really not trying.

In Scotland, however, there are regional variations to take into account, and they actually make matters worse. BBC Scotland clearly feels that the evening needs something more special, and so they've thrown in the terrestrial TV premiere of.... High School Musical. Now, I've seen a song from High School Musical on one of the music channels, and it looks like a thoroughly unobjectionable piece of Disney kitsch. Nothing wrong with that, but in prime time on BBC1? Are they serious? Plus, now clearly settled into Rikki Fulton's comedy slot, there's the Hogmanay edition of Only an Excuse, a comedy sketch show entirely devoted to Scottish football.

God knows Scottish football has plenty of comedy potential - the current predicament of Hearts, now run by a demented Russian billionaire who does things like threatening to sell the whole team if they lose, is almost crying out to be turned into a Ben Stiller film. But surely their audience are going to be out on the streets, or at least having a party, rather than gathered around the television on New Year's Eve? Only an Excuse is not a good show for this slot. It's utterly incomprehensible if you don't follow football. The last time I saw the show, I honestly had no idea whether it was funny or not - it was just a barrage of in-joke references to the midfield players at Kilmarnock.

ITV, if you're wondering, has two old episodes of Heartbeat followed by a review of the year's news, which is the most blatant schedule filler imaginable. Granny won't want to suffer through that. Then there's The 2006 Fame Review on Channel 4, a three-hour extravaganza which will presumably be the usual Channel 4 formula - a load of library clips featuring the cast of Heat magazine, with talking head contributions from the likes of Iain Lee and Boyd Hilton.

Channel 5, bless them, have failed to grasp the concept of the evening at all. They're showing Adaptation, which is a very good film, but not exactly lightweight entertainment. With an almost commendable disregard for scheduling logic, midnight for Channel 5 viewers will fall three quarters of the way through an old episode of Prison Break.

I know it's traditionally one of the lowest-rated nights of the TV year - well, post-Rikki-Fulton, anyway - but this is a pretty dismal effort. It used to be very different.

Never mind - I don't have to watch it. In a more upbeat spirit, what is on TV over the next week that might be worth a look?

Monday: The Sarah Jane Adventures (BBC1, 4.50pm) Not only has Doctor Who somehow returned to primetime after years in the wilderness, but it's started spawning spin-offs. We've already had the unfortunate Torchwood, an attempt at an adult version of Doctor Who which ended up featuring the same basic plots but with gratuitous sex thrown in. Imagine a sci-fi franchise that somehow skipped the stage of being a proper TV show and went direct to fanfic, and you get the general idea. The leaden hand of the Welsh Tourist Board didn't help it.

The Sarah Jane Adventures is going in the other direction - it's for younger viewers. The BBC tried this once before with the notorious K9 & Company, but the rumour mill suggests that they've got it right this time, and that it's (embarrassingly, some might argue) better than Torchwood. To be honest, if this actually does succeed in its remit of being the kids' version of Doctor Who then I probably won't want to sit through it again, but I'm curious to see what they can do with it.

Tuesday: This Life +10 (BBC2, 9pm) Reunion episode of the young-lawyers-in-love drama/soap that was terribly cultish among the chattering classes in the mid-nineties. I rather liked the original show, although since I was a law student at the time, I was probably biased. Many others, understandably, though it was terribly pleased with itself and unbearably middle class. (Which is a problem... why, exactly?) Still, it's a show that probably does merit a reunion, because it ended on a weird unresolved cliffhanger, and it was very much a zeitgeist thing. I expect to be slightly irritated, but I'm genuinely curious about this one.

Tuesday: The Thick of It: 2007 Special (BBC4, 10.30pm). Bizarre Christmas special of Armando Iannucci's politics sitcom - if you haven't seen it, it's basically a reinvention of Yes, Minister but with a pseudo-documentary style and a much heavier emphasis on spin. Except for this episode, they're missing the lead character (since Chris Langham is, er, otherwise engaged at the moment). Instead, it's apparently an episode about the Opposition - in other words, a completely different cast take over the show. Looks to me like an experiment to see whether they can keep the show alive if Langham's present troubles prove to be permanent. Iannucci's shows are generally worth a look, though.

Wednesday: Celebrity Big Brother (Channel 4, 8pm). Oh, I know, I know. I never actually watch these shows the whole way through. I just watch the first episode to gawp at who's desperate enough to go through the humiliation. The answer usually turns out to be "remarkably obscure people", to the point where last year, they were able to throw in a random girl off the street, and successfully convince the other participants that she was just as famous as them. The tabloids claim that the show is having particular difficulty getting participants this year, but that could easily just be part of the hype machine. In many ways, though, the more low-rent the "celebrities" get, the greater the trainwreck factor.

Wednesday: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (More4, 9pm). Documentary from 2005, which I somehow never got around to seeing. I know the story in general terms, obviously, and I'm familiar with the basic type of fraud here (accounting is somewhat subjective, so even the most honest accountant has a bit of leeway, and if you're willing to abuse it, you can appear to have all sorts of wonderful non-existent profits - for a while). The more interesting questions are about how the regulators managed to miss it, and what the auditors were thinking. Auditing used to be seen as something of a loss leader by the major accountancy firms, which can lead to all sorts of trouble if they lose sight of the basic point of auditing - as Arthur Andersen found out to their cost.

Friday: Ugly Betty (Channel 4, 9.30pm). Do I want to watch this? Not really, to be honest. It's been hyped to the heavens, to the point where I'm sick of the adverts before I've even laid eyes on the show. But it is getting very good reviews from the previewers, so with some reluctance, I suppose I'll give it a chance. I did quite enjoy The Devil Wears Prada, after all.