C4 courts controversy with daytime sex ed show

Slabovia TV web grab


Channel 4 is bracing itself for a wave of complaints over a new sex education programme aimed at teenagers which airs not just before the watershed but in daytime.

C4 has already had four complaints about animated series KNTV Sex, before it even starts at 11am on Monday (17 November). That’s two more than the now infamous Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross Radio 2 show got straight after it first broadcast.

“That’s worrying to an extent,” admits executive producer Harry Bell. “But I absolutely think we’ve covered every base by working with teachers, students and educational experts across the board.  It’s been a real challenge but I think that getting sex and relationships education in schools is going to help our teenage pregnancy rate.” The UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe.

The 10-part KNTV Sex series, which Bell describes as “Jackass meets Sky One science series Brainiac meets Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz” (the inspiration for its award-winning animation), was born out of a desire to make sex education programming that can entertain, rather than embarrass, teenage viewers. Airing as part of the daytime, educational schedule, C4 hopes it will be seen in real-time by teenage viewers – particularly when the school Christmas holidays start next month – and that the programme will be taped and used by teachers in schools.

It helps C4’s cause that, in the time between commissioning and airing the series, a government review of sex education has concluded that personal social and health education (PSHE) should be compulsory for children aged 5 to 16. Much to the chagrin, presumably, of the Daily Mail, which has already drawn the “explicit” KNTV Sex series to the attention of its readers.

Last time C4 tackled sex education in a pre-watershed slot, with the aptly named Sex Education Show fronted by Anna Richardson, the Daily Mail reacted with horror, reporting the “scores” of complaints that C4 had received in a story headlined “Ofcom flooded with complaints over C4’s ‘obscene’ sex education show BEFORE the watershed.”

But the sex series is not the first outing for KNTV. The innovative educational show first appeared as KNTV Science in 2006 featuring animated teenage characters Kierky and Nietzsche. They present a ‘live’ magazine show from a studio inside the fictional and still Communist eastern European nation of Slabovia and showcase a mix of cartoons, comedy and Jackass-style clips from an archive which Bell describes as “the eastern European equivalent of ‘You’ve Been Fooled’ TV”.

Last year producer Tern Television made KNTV Philosophy for C4 which won an RTS Education award before Bell hit upon the idea of extending the franchise to cover sex. “C4 head of education Janey Walker liked the idea of KNTV Sex because it fits with the conventions of the programme and the characters,” says Bell. Watching the first episode of KNTV Sex, it’s as if the Borat-inspired eastern European accents have been specifically designed to take the mystique and taboo out of discussions about penis size and testicular checks.

Bell insists the eastern European premise of the show – backed by an entire online world at www.slabovia.tv (above) – is meant to be a parody of the west, rather than the east. “It’s got that kind of humour within it but I hope what we do with the characters has a more affectionate touch than Borat,” he says.

To promote the series, Tern TV has created an online game, STI Invasion, which it is distributing virally (forgive the unfortunate pun) through social networking sites. The game involves guiding Kierky and Nietzsche through a series of mazes to collect magic condoms that make them invisible and they must battle nasties like crabs and Chlamydia, which are duly explained via pop-up screens. (According to the Terence Higgins Trust, one in every 10 boys under the age of 25 thinks Chlamydia is a type of flower, rather than a sexually transmitted disease).

KNTV Sex is certainly well researched, with input from the Terrence Higgins Trust, Brook Advisory and Sex Education Forum among others. “One of my biggest worries is that it will be taken out of context but the beauty of a 10-part series is that you can comprehensively cover a subject,” says Bell. So if the Mail or anyone else tries to suggest the programme is corrupting or gratuitous, Bell hopes the series can address those concerns if it is watched as a whole.


Paul Merton in India and Griff in NYC

Paul Merton in China
ITV's Greatest Cities Griff Rhys Jones

I watched Paul Merton in India list night on Five (that’s him in China above, in an earlier series). I watched, like 1.8m other plebs, in real time, as it was actually broadcast. Then my preview tapes for the programme arrived in the post today. Handy. Sometimes I regret moving to Somerset, away from the immediacy of courier bikes.

This morning, instead of writing the feature which is due on Monday, I’ve watched the first of three Greatest Cities of the World with Griff Rhys Jones on ITV’s online catch-up service (which is excellent, perhaps because I’m watching it in the day when the Americans are asleep and not slowing down the internet).

So now I can compare and contrast. If you can’t be arsed to read any further, let me just say you should watch them both but for different reasons. Paul Merton is funny, though not as witty as I expected him to be, and the show is light and distracting. Griff’s Greatest Cities is chocolate-a-blocolate full of facts and covers tons of stuff in 60 minutes. Modern Television which made the ITV show with Griff, had an hour each for New York, London and Paris. Paul Merton and production company Tiger Aspect have six hour-long episodes to cover India. Not sure which is the better deal.

A few more comments – and this will have to be quick because I’ve just taken a “can you do this in 24 hours” call; why can’t people plan ahead? Merton’s starting point for exploring India (he went to China for six-part series for Five last year) is that India is a paradox: a leading nuclear power and a place where people worship snakes. That doesn’t seem paradoxical. Being a nuclear power and a snake worshipper are both pretty nutty, if you ask me. As I say, Merton wasn’t as witty as I’d expected him to be though I did enjoy his sicky fake burp produced at the school of etiquette to demonstrate his appreciation of a meal. And his “Are we going on somewhere?” line when a naked man started to wander away from the group getting stoned at a religious festival made me laugh a lot. Not sure what that says about me.

By contrast the facts came thick and fast in Griff’s New York programme. Fifty per cent of everything that enters the US from goods to people has come through the port at the base of Manhattan. More than 15m flags are made in the US every year. The average New Yorker chucks out 600 times their own body weight in waste every year, most of it ending up in landfill 300 miles away in West Virginia.

Modern TV clearly had a much larger research team working on the programme than Merton and Tiger Aspect had on theirs. Strange, because Tiger Aspect are a huge company (makers of The Catherine Tate Show among many others things) and I’ve never heard of Modern TV before now.

Griff also had some really good ideas to chew on – like seeing a city as a way that people can live out their lives without bumping into each other. Something like Frank Kermode’s nodes, a concept with which I’m passingly familiar. But, when you think about it, it’s actually much easier to live your life in the rural countryside without bumping into anything else, and I should know.

Merton’s programme was thought-provoking in a different way, as in tackling the (almost no longer existent) taboo over male genitals. While it may be wrong to tie your cock to a rock and thus lift that rock, what indeed is wrong with sitting around with a group of naked, slightly dusty men all day? It reminded me of so many childhood holidays on the nudist beaches of southern France. I religiously wore a swimsuit. My parents didn’t bother.

Finally I must mention Griff’s terrifying scene dangling 30 floors up at the top of a New York skyscraper to clean windows (George Formby had it easy) which gained added spice from the knowledge that he’d just “lost it” with his director, as we saw at the beginning of the second episode of his BBC 2 show on anger.

Ha! It doesn’t matter that the BBC immediately withdrew the show from their iPlayer and deleted all trace of it from my laptop for still mysterious reasons. I saw the beginning and I saw Griff telling his director to eff off as he balanced perilously on a concrete ledge with only a ropey old harness for safety. Frankly, I don’t blame him for being a bit testy in the circumstances. But I must keep going to my anger management classes.


Tonight: battle of the comedy travelogues

That should probably read ‘battle of the comedians’ travelogues’ but punction is never good in a headline, is it? I’m pushing it with the colon.

Paul Merton and Griff Rhys Jones (not my favourite person currently – see earlier post) are going head to head tonight on Five and ITV 1 respectively with travel programmes, Merton from India and Rhys Jones from New York. I’m tempted to say that I’ll watch Merton on Five just to spite Griff on ITV 1 because I couldn’t watch all of his two-part Losing It series on BBC 2. But that would be childish and futile, since Griff has already made World’s Greatest Cities for ITV and it patently wasn’t his fault that his BBC 2 programme disappeared from the BBC iPlayer. At least, I don’t think it was.

I’ll probably watch Merton anyway – not that I was sent a preview in time to give you all a taster here. But I did see an amusing clip at a promo event at the Edinburgh TV Festival which featured Merton among naked holy men at a hilltop festival. With a shrivelled black penis in shot, Merton turned to the camera and asked: “Is this the sort of trail you’re after for Five?” It promises good things. 9pm tonight.


Eli Stone, Jamie Oliver and some of Griff

So much to blog about, so little time. First, the quickest of updates on recent telly watching. Eli Stone on Sci-Fi was disappointing. Yes, it has Johnny Lee Miller and George Michael in it, two of the sexiest men in the world. (What do you mean, one of them’s gay? Like we would be riding off into the sunset together if only THAT weren’t an obstacle.) But when it came to it, My Big Fat Michael only appeared in a couple of scenes and I’d seen them all on t’interweb beforehand anyway. His music and fleeting appearance were cheap ruses to lure me into what was otherwise a standard, schmalzy, glossily-shot American comedy/drama. The ruses worked, but I went to bed halfway through the second ep of the double bill. At least I can now say I’ve watched the Sci-Fi channel at least once.

Secondly, the second ep of Jamie’s Ministry of Food. It’s still a good programme and a lovely idea – that the nation will learn to cook, one unto another, by passing on recipes that don’t involve packets of crisps or chips with cheese. I like the characters we’re meeting in the show: Natasha, who seems to have left the pawn shop behind her now and started growing vegetables amid the Pitbull turds in her back garden. I also like the miner who’d never picked up a pan until he met Jamie and now can’t stop tossing pasta in a creamy sauce in his wife’s beautiful, white kitchen. And of course I love Jamie and I wish he’d ask me what’s the matter when I come out crying from an ultrasound scan.

But I was brought up short by AA Gill’s criticism at the weekend of the basic premise of this programme and of Oliver’s Pass It On movement. At first I thought Gill’s critique amounted to the standard right-wing rantings of a reactionary who, in his words, believes TV is a “show and tell medium, not a look-and-learn one”. It seems Gill doesn’t think TV can or should change anything – as if Jamie’s school dinners has not at least started a process by which Turkey Twizzlers will be eradicated from school meals.

But then he made a crucial and perhaps irrefutable point. That the idea that working people traditionally handed down culinary skills from mother to daughter is a fallacy. That working people have traditionally been too over-worked and poor in other ways to cook at home, preferring to eat at cafes and stalls, just as they graze from McDonald’s and kebab shops today. If true, it puts us bleeding heart liberals back in the corner of the blue kitchen, having to accept people as they are (see my post Let Them Eat Cake TV) rather than trying to change what can never be changed. Resignation not revolution. Pragmatism rather than idealism. The way things are, rather than the way we’d like them to be.

Compare Robert Yates writing in The (left-leaning) Observer who exemplified the bleeding heart liberal desire to change a status quo that bleeding heart liberals don’t like (that some people don’t cook, are poor and unhealthy). The right-wing pragmatists like Gill say it’s always been thus and ever will be. I dunno, I’m just watching the programme and cooking tea like I always do for the kids.

Finally – and thanks for bearing with me, this is saving me a lot in therapist bills – why o bloody why was the second and final part of Losing It with Griffy Rhys Jones inexplicably withdrawn from the BBC iPlayer? This has done nothing for my tentative steps towards better anger management. I was liderally halfway through watching the second ep – we’d got to the Buddhist nun and I was thinking I’ve never heard of one of those before – when the thing stopped dead on my laptop. The next day the entire downloaded programme was deleted from my computer by Big Brother BBC. It is no longer available on the iPlayer.

Could it have anything to do with Griff apparently losing it bigtime during filming of World’s Greatest Cities which airs tonight on ITV 1? I don’t know coz I didn’t get to see all of the friggin’ programme but if I meet anyone from the BBC in the next couple of weeks I will punch them hot dang on the dingy. How’s that for not losing it?


Final part of BBC 1’s Tess

The final part of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was searingly tragic; Eddie Redmayne, who played Angel perfectly encapsulating the pain, raw pain, of loss and of being left behind, alive, with that loss. It’s such a real, painful thing – and that’s why Thomas Hardy’s novel was literally brilliant and why this BBC adaptation was also absolutely brilliant by just sticking to the truth and socking it to us in all its painful import. It got 5.6m viewers, according to the MediaGuardian, and 22% of the audience.

Then, on the news right after, a correspondent told us the BBC cameras had to be turned off while a bereft mother visited the house where her two boys had just died in a horrendous house fire. Can you imagine the pain? But it’s real and it makes me cry like a child.


Little Britain USA

I can tell anyone eagerly awaiting the first episode of Little Britain USA, tonight on BBC 1 at 9.30 just after Harry and Paul, that it really isn’t that funny. But stay tuned, because the the second one’s a lot funnier than the first. You’ll just have to wait until next Friday to see if you agree. Unless you have a hotline to the BBC previews desk and they have any DVDs left.

I suspect the star-studded team involved in making Little Britain USA – not just its writers and stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams, but also David Schwimmer of Friends who directed some of the studio segments and Simon Fuller of American Idol fame who smoothed the path between the BBC and US cable broadcaster HBO – felt they had to let American viewers in slowly to the depraved world of Little Britain.

So we only get Vicky Pollard at a boot camp for delinquent yoof in ep 2, along with the gay British Prime Minister trying to seduce a black American president who is in no small way a version of Barack Obama. Also in episode 2 are the homoerotic body builders indulging in a spot of pubic grooming. As I say, the first episode just isn’t funny by comparison.

Which reminds me that we’d all got a bit bored of Little Britain, with the same old gags – which were edgy when we first saw them – returning in slightly tweaked sketches. It was 2005 when the programme swept the board at the British Comedy Awards. That’s probably why Lucas, Walliams and the BBC thought they’d ship it over to America to inject new life into the format. It’s had a very patchy reception so far in the US. Who knows? Little Britain USA may be another comedy classic in the making, but I’d rather see the guys do something completely new with their comedic talents.


Jamie Oliver, God love ‘im

So I was one of the 264,000 people watching Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food on Channel 4 +1 last night, after Mutual Friends on BBC 1 clashed with both Jamie and Griff Rhys Jones Losing It on BBC 2. I told you there was lots of great TV on in the autumn. Thank god for the iPlayer, +1 channels etc etc. Although it all feels terribly piecemeal and difficult to navigate. Come on, Office of Fair Trading, just give our jolly old broadcasters the go-ahead for Project Kangaroo and everything will be available immediately after TX online. Won’t it?

But back to Jamie. I do fancy him, probably because he reminds me of an old boyfriend. Cripes – two terrible confessions in one line. I digress. Whether you find Oliver and his outsize tongue strangely attractive or not, you’ve got to admire his sense of higher purpose. Not content with making millions from the sales of his cookery books (it’s the books, publicised by the TV, which have made the man), he really wants to put something back into society, first by changing the way schools serve hot food and now, with his Ministry of Food, by getting real people to cook and eat real food. That way, he reckons, real people won’t be so fat and unhealthy.

And who could possibly argue with that? Needless to say there’s a four-part series documenting this self-initiated movement (he didn’t want to call it a campaign, when talking about it at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August – it’s a movement coz it depends on people doing this for themselves, not on government money or anything like that).

The first ep of Jamie’s Ministry of Food aired last night and it was a belter. Families on benefits spending 12 quid a night on takeaways then pawning jewellery to pay a bill. Jamie wouldn’t walk away coz he could tell he was changing their lives by showing them how to cook meatballs with spaghetti in tomato sauce. And he did change them, especially the woman with an eight-burner cooker who never switched the thing on. She was panfrying salmon in a basil sauce by the hundredweight within a few days.

Thing is, when Jamie from time to time had to leave Rotherham – where his real-life Ministry of Food was focussed for a full six months – the eight cookery novices he’d recruited went back to their bad old ways, ordering in chips n cheese n kebabs for the under fives.

This programme has it all – real life, as lived by people who might as well be a million miles away from those who make TV and snack on bags of mixed Fair Trade nuts; it mirrors our contemporary obsession with food, whether it’s relatively cheap and nasty or relatively cheap and home-made; and it has Jamie Oliver, leading the charge for better eating and wearing all manner of hoody tops and sneakers in the process.

Who else is doing this? Who else – apart from RDF, makers of Wife Swap, and maybe Gillian McKeith of You Are What You Eat – has bothered to go into several kitchens in Rotherham, where local mums famously revolted against Jamie’s drive to improve school dinners, and seen the two fridge trays packed to the gunnels with sweets to be thrown at the kids whenever they start squawking?

Changing the day-to-day eating habits of the masses (my father would call them the great unwashed) is a massive task. But Jamie Oliver’s attempt to tackle Britain’s obesity rates from the grass roots up by teaching ordinary people to cook and asking them to teach others, as mums once taught their families, is admirable in the extreme. Rock on, Jamie, I’m with you and loving your chicken/lemon zest/cheese/proscuitto number, which I learnt from the demo up in Edinburgh.


Tess and other t*ss

Not that BBC 1’s adaptation of Tess of the D’Ubervilles is t*ss, far from it. I am loving Tess on BBC 1 and, even though I have no leanings in that direction, I am probably also slightly in love with Gemma Arterton in the lead role. She has the mouth that Alec, Angel and others fall hook, line and sinker for and hair to die for. Well, it’s period. And as for Hans Matheson playing Alec – could he have a more malicious, less trustworthy jaw or hairline?

It’s all so superbly done – and, having caught up with ep 3 last night on the iPlayer – it’s just so goddamn TRAGIC. Just the way Hardy wrote it: all awfulness, chance and fate and slips of a letter under a mat. Angel fails to live up to his name and just can’t forgive Tess for bearing a child to a man before him, even though she was raped. Their wedding night ends unconsummated, after loaded kisses by a roaring fire are twice rudely interrupted. Instead the couple part two brown and grey mornings later, Tess humping her own badly tied luggage onto a stagecoach alone, without even a kiss goodbye.

The whole production – an in-house BBC job led by writer David Nicholls (of Cold Feet and Much Ado About Nothing) – is fabulous. It looks dreary and sad, now that the summer of youth is past, just as we think Dorset should have looked in the late 19th century. The ladies have mud on the hems of their dresses. Perhaps some of the hedges are a little mechanically trimmed but, really, I’m casting around for criticism here.

The best thing about this production is it feels like Thomas Hardy’s novel, televised. No kooky time travel angle, a la Lost in Austen. No mucking about with the plot (as far as I can recall it, some 20 years after reading it). I’m eagerly looking forward to next week and wondering when the BBC or anyone else will be brave enough to put programmes online BEFORE their television TX. Is it from the book or a previous TV adaptation that I have a mental image of blood dripping through a ceiling from the floor above? Can’t wait to find out.

Also enjoying Mutual Friends, BBC 1 again, Losing It on BBC 2 and The Family on C4. God, I love autumn. The leaves are changing colour and there’s some good stuff on TV at last. Who says TV’s finest hour was in the 1970s?


Bleak week at Channel 4

Channel 4 said yesterday that it will cut 150 jobs, reducing its 1,000 or so staff by some 15 per cent. Understandably, things were said to be “very bleak” at C4 yesterday.

The reason C4 is cutting jobs and hoping to save £50m this year in other ways is because its revenues are being hit by the downturn in advertising. C4 itself reckons the value of TV advertising will fall by 5 per cent this year. As a result it will cut its programming budget by £25m this year. According to C4’s annual report, it spent £624m on programming in 2007. The channel hasn’t said where the cuts will come in programming terms.

The BBC is also cutting jobs because it didn’t get as much money in its latest licence fee settlement as it had hoped. So the pain is being shared around the broadcast sector.

It’s hard to feel compassion for organisations whose budgets run into millions in the first place. The BBC and C4 operate on a large scale – although C4 is naturally about a 20th of the size of the BBC – and when times get tough, as they patently are economically, they should be seen to be making efficiencies.

It’s hard for those individuals who may be faced with redundancy. But it can be done voluntarily, there should be a payoff and you haven’t lived in the modern world until you’ve been made redundant at least twice. I have and can thoroughly recommend spending a redundancy payment on a Belfast sink unit.


Shaun the Sheep to return to CBBC

And now for some breaking news… a first for lucecannon.co.uk.

Shaun the Sheep

Shaun the Sheep, the latest fantastic animation from Wallace and Gromit makers Aardman, is to return to CBBC for a second 40-part series some time next year, when it’s been made (and these stop-frame animations take a LONG time to make). The amazing thing, to me, is that this is only the second series.

Aardman announced the deal today, coincidentally just a few days ahead of a major international event for buying and selling children’s programmes, Mipcom Junior which is held in Cannes in a couple of weeks. Oh, ok, it’s not a coincidence at all. Hence the reason the press release mentions the international broadcasters who’ve also bought rights to the second Shaun series plus the 28 licensees so far signed up to support Shaun in some way in the UK, from Golden Bear as Master Toy partner to Egmont as publishing partner.

I mention this to let the laymen among you know how these things work. A broadcaster orders a TV programme but the producers need lots more money to make the show, especially if it’s expensive Nick Park-inspired animation, so it’s sold to other broadcasters including TF1 in France and ABC in Australia in Shaun’s case, and profits, in theory, come from the licensing and merchandising deals.

But it’s such a long time since the first series of Shaun the Sheep was announced. Four years, in fact. And although I’ve actually seen Shaun on TV more recently, the first series was first shown two years ago. A reminder that memories are short in telly-land. Shaun the Sheep feels fresh and new – only about a year ago a non-media mum-friend first spotted Shaun as quality programming. Amazing how long it takes for great TV to come to full fruition.