Meerkat research

Meerkat Aleksandr Orlov

In the interest of feeding back to the media industry some of what real people think about their work, I offer this apercu.

I have just entertained two family members to three nights free B&B including evening meal (family maxim: house guests are like fish – they stink after the third day) and we fell, as you do, to talking about TV adverts. This was about 22.20 last night when, frankly, we’d run out of anything and everything else to talk about.

And so it came out that my father absolutely loves the ads. You know, the ones promoting with a Borat-inspired meerkat. Simples. He also loves the ‘Should’ve gone to SpecSavers’ one with the elderly couple getting an unexpected roller coaster ride when they thought they’d just sat down for a sandwich. He’s already laughing, he says, when the advert starts and doesn’t even know what brand it’s advertising because he’s waiting for the punchline: “What sort of cheese was that?”

He doesn’t get out much, see?

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1966 and all that

The 1966 World Cup final is the most watched TV programme of all time, according to a new survey.

One newspaper round-up that I receive suggests this story – put out by UKTV channel Watch to self-publicise as Richard and Judy launch their new show tonight – got mentions in the Telegraph, the Mirror, the Sun and the Daily Star. Only TNS’s interminable and tedious wrangle with advertising giant WPP – which is trying to take over the market research firm – got more widespread coverage as a media story.

Of course, all media news is competing with the more urgent though less appealing news of the banking crisis. Who cares how many people watched a particular TV programme, if we can’t get our money out of the bank any more to buy food? Then again, if you lose your job and can no longer afford to pay the gas bill, chances are you’ll escape every now and then into TV. The glitzier and less connected with reality the better, which is perhaps why The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing have been doing so well in the ratings.

TV ratings will never match those of 1966 or 1997 for one very simple reason: there are now far more TV channels to choose from, plus a host of other distractions like t’interweb. But still the “highest rating TV programme of all time” story is unearthed every few years and it would be fascinating – but time-consuming – to compare the figures bandied about each time. I had a memory of 29m watching Princess Di’s funeral in 1997. Today’s story says it was 32m. Either way, the top-rating programme list demonstrates the nation’s collective cultural passions: football and the royal family leading them. Sport and celebrity. Nothing changes, everything stays the same.


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The week in review

So what did we get from last weekend’s Edinburgh TV Festival, except for the usual three-day hangover and, possibly, a dose of the clap?

Well, we certainly saw quite a few “stars” up there which was nice – Jamie Oliver licking his lips as Jana, one blonde haired beauty from the Broadcast magazine team, went on stage to take part in a cookery demo. Methinks he is the red-blooded Essex boy we all want him to be. Oliver even said “Men think with their penises,” which, while true, is not what you’d expect to hear from a TV chef just hours into the one of the largest gatherings of TV executives in the calendar year.

His point, by the way, was that if men are to be taught something like how to cook they must be impressed and able to show off to their mates about it afterwards. Women are more complicated, more wrapped up in feelings and – I’ll say this bit for him – smothered in guilt about whether they should or shouldn’t be the one primarily shopping and cooking for husband/partner and children.

Oliver may not be the sharpest knife in the Sebatier rack but he’s got cod psychology down to a tee and, after that session, I was assured that his heart is well and truly in the right place. Pass it on: if you teach one recipe to four friends who in turn pass it on to four other friends after thirteen passes, the whole British population will know how to cook your recipe. It might be idealistic and entirely unfeasible, but it’s a nice idea and it’s Jamie’s so I love it.

At Edinburgh we also saw the inimitable Gok Wan, the indefatigable Angus Deayton and the unidentifiable Stephen Moffat, most recently of Dr Who script fame. And Sharon Osbourne, so I’ll start using the word “celebrity” instead of “star” at this point.

This year’s TV Festival – properly called the MediaGuardian International Television Festival – was all about celebrating telly and talent after last year when, as Festival chair and Endemol head honcho Tim Hincks has said, hair shirts were handed round and execs ritually self-flagellated over a series of cock-ups that included fleecing the public of millions in rigged premium rate phone competitions and, apparently more seriously, showing the Queen storming out of a photoshoot when she was in fact walking in. Someone resigned over that one. No one so far has left their job directly as a result of the phone scandals.

So this year the industry was healing itself, telling itself that everything’s OK – Britain still has the best telly programmes in the world. There were just a few lone voices saying, more or less, “That’s all very well but if no one can find those programmes in the welter of content that’s coming down a broadband or digital TV pipe into every home by 2012, you might be buggered anyway.”

US geek Clay Shirky (where do these guys get baptised?) and our own Armando Ianucci were two such voices. “The notion of making something for a particular slot [on a TV channel] will soon become meaningless,” said Ianucci, of The Thick of It, The Day Today, Blackadder etc fame.

The other serious issue under the spotlight was the future of public service broadcasting but you’ve got to be seriously into the business of television to be interested in that one. In essence, the debate is about whether the BBC should continue to be funded by the compulsory TV licence fee and whether Channel 4 should get any money from the public purse to make shows like Dispatches to complement Big Brother in future (it currently makes its money from advertising).

I can’t tell you how that debate went because I was at the Book Festival at the time listening to Orange Broadband fiction prizewinner Rose Tremain read from The Road Home, which sounded rather good. I can tell you that Steve Hewlett who chaired the public service session thought it was a load of pants and couldn’t tell me whether the audience got anything out of it.

So that’s this year’s festival in my particular nutshell. Of course there were hours of licentiousness, too, some of which could be called networking. A lot of it could also be called not working.

TV Review

BBC 1’s Mutual Friends, Tuesday 26 August at 9pm

Is it just me or was this programme actually quite brilliant? Like when Cold Feet started if I’d been thirtysomething then and had the nous to watch that ITV series from the beginning instead of coming into it when Hermione whatsername was already an alcoholic with twin babies? Or was that the beginning of Cold Feet?

Mutual Friends had everything I want in a BBC 1 comedy/drama or dramedy as some nonce called it in previews. Marc Warren, for one thing who is so delectable and good I’d eat him up visually in anything on TV. Alexander Armstrong from Armstrong and Miller who, although I suspect he may be a smug arsehole in real life, is excellent as a smug, funny arsehole on TV. He was brilliant as ‘the Nick Day character’ as we’re now calling him in our household, the guy who’s got more money than sense, is shagging a bird at 8am on the day of his best friend’s funeral, then wades in to speak at the funeral, initially horrifying all and sundry with talk of a boys’ holiday in Thailand (“a lifetime of sex squeezed into two weeks”) before finally and brilliantly saving the day with the tear-jerking notion that it is the dead bloke’s friends and not the suicide himself who are ill-prepared for him to die.

There were so many great, uncomfortable moments like the serial explosions of Mark Warren’s cuckolded character, Martin, each time with his unseen eight-year-old son lurking in the background lapping up the detail of how his mother has shagged his dad’s dead best friend. The boy then of course repeats this to the dead best friend’s widow while taking his party bag from her kid’s party.

Ok, it was a little obvious. We knew Martin (Marc Warren) would be surprised by someone when he insouciantly slipped a lady’s dress over his head, lingering in a bedroom while the Nick Day character crapped in a sandal to show his displeasure over being usurped by his ex-business partner in both boardroom and bedroom. But it was funny, it had great timing and performances and was close enough to a possible truth that some of the lines are being quoted between my life partner and myself today.

None of my book group mates, who are normal people and not TV types, saw Mutual Friends. One confessed she hadn’t watched any TV at all over the summer so was completely “out of the loop” about what was on etc. I urged her to get the first episode from the iPlayer which she will probably do. So, marketing people, either up your game with your off-air press and PR activity or at least pay me for bigging up your shows and creating yet more traffic to the iPlayer. My kids must eat etc etc.