Occasionally television surprises me. That’s generally a good thing. I like television to challenge. That’s what it’s for: the real national theatre, there to expand the mind, to challenge prejudices, as well as to entertain.
Sometimes though television surprises me in other, less positive, ways.
Now, to put last night’s viewing in context I should explain what I’ve been doing. For the past month I’ve been marking. The end is in sight, but not quite yet. Accordingly, with a little background noise (TV, radio, music – it doesn’t matter) I’ve sat looking at answers scrawled in haste, some scarcely readable, for hours. And hours. Squinting through my glasses I’ve seen words jump up and down, merge into each other, and consequently taken breaks. Now last night, I was quite fresh – I thought – and then I started hearing voices. A phone-in vote as to who was the best: Macca; Robbie Williams; Her gracious majesty; Julie Andrews; or Maggie Thatcher?
Now my regular reader will know that I have – occasionally – suggested fake game shows with fake interactive elements (How do you solve a pogrom like Odessa?; Only Fools in Hearses, that sort of thing) intended as a satirical comment on television. Given this stuff in my subconscious, I thought I was hallucinating a new ITV1 fake gameshow. I mean, what sort of show would have a phone in vote between those contenders?
I looked up, mouth open.
And there was Kate “available for bar mitzahs, weddings, and funerals” Thornton – fresh from her X Factor dismissal. Obviously I was hallucinating ITV1 coverage or a clip show on Channel 4 (or one of its umpteen repeats on E4).
I shook my head, removed and replaced my glasses.
No, she was still there and phone-in numbers were in place with commands to text QUEEN, text MAGGIE, text ROBBIE (all of which seemed a little unfair because Queen was shorter than the others).
And then Gordon Brown appeared. He was smiling and talking about leadership and how changes in job could prove successful. Kate Thornton laughed, as did an audience which seemed to include Helen Mirren, David Beckham, and Lorraine Kelly. Truly all human life was there. I asked my wife to pinch me to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. No, it was all true. It was an ITV1 programme to find the Greatest Britons, she said. They’ve been judged by a panel of experts, she said. I wept. Bitter salted tears. My mind has gone. The marking has taken its toll. I’ve even driven my wife demented.
Then she switched over, and there was Paul Merton in China, and she switched back and Duncan from Dragons Den was talking about what a great business some former ad executives making fruit smoothies had. And lo, they emerged from the wilderness of the audience to collect a cheap piece of plastic tat that made the British comedy awards look expensive.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the Guardian Guide from Saturday’s newspaper. I opened it. It was true. It wasn’t a dream at all. It was Greatest Britons 2007 (god, “2007”. They want to do it again in future).
And the phone in vote ran through the programme. Jimmy Carr appeared and told slightly risque Jimmy Carr jokes (his later appearance on Annually Retentive saw him referred to as “Playmobil man” which seemed disamringly accurate). They had Greatest British Sports Person (won by Ranulph Fiennes with Phil “the Power” Taylor nowhere to be seen in the nominations). Ricky Gervais won Greatest British Television Person (or something) ahead of Simon Cowell and Ashley Jensen (good god if appearing in an over-rated British sitcom and then having a bit part in some over-rated American pap is sufficient for a nomination – I’d have thought that with her domestic record Minnie Driver and her recent sojourns (with Izzard) into US telly would have made her a cert). Ricky even did his really funny dance from The Office for us while wearing a motion capture suit allowing us to see it on a computer screen. I was laughing and laughing – but only on the inside.
Others came and went: Amy WInehouse (greatest music bod), Banksy (greatest arts bod), David Beckham (Greatest Export – beating Scotch, a patronising manner, and sarcasm). Most of them weren’t there (Becks had turned up though and was presented with his award by Terry Henry, the Arsenal star).
And then the crowning moment: the public had spoken. Who was the Greatest Living Briton?
In third place came Maggie; in second place Robbie Williams (with 33% of the vote); and winning was Her Maj, Good Queen Bess, Her Gracious Majesty. At this Heather Mills cheered as her efforts had not been fruitless. Brenda had 37% of the vote – which bodes well for the royals in any future republic – but, like Amy Winehouse, was unavailable to pick up her award. Instead a recorded message from the Prince Edward indicated how surprised Brenda was, and what an honour it was to follow Steve Brookstein and Michelle McManus as the winner of a Kate Thornton hosted phone in vote.