Girls, booze, drugs and parties

Television - Andrew Billen enjoys a documentary about the heyday of light entertainment

A fortnight after ITV's unexpectedly rich I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here performed a major devaluation on the price of fame, along comes a programme that explains how it got so overvalued in the first place. But Channel 4's three-part documentary The Showbiz Set is not another sour sneer at celebrity. It is nothing less than the story of British television itself told through the people it made famous: club comedians, music-hall artists, models and disc jockeys who in a previous age would have barely rated a paragraph in the Radio Times. They ended up defining the dawn of a new age, the age of television.

The first episode (Tuesday 24 September, 9pm) explained in clearer terms than I had heard before that the birth of ITV in 1955 was the true birth of British television. We all know that the new service rattled Auntie in her petticoats, but I had not quite gathered the extent to which television hardly existed before ITV. Most people, content with the radio, did not have or want a set. The BBC's top show, What's My Line?, drew 300,000 viewers. But a year after the first ITV regions were opened, television ownership had grown to five million, and almost every set was tuned to Associated-Rediffusion or to ATV. It was the people's network and the people embraced it.

Its key show was the Grade family's Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which brought a megacharged version of music hall live to every home. When, eventually, ITV persuaded the Palace to let it transmit the first Royal Variety Show in 1960, it was formatted as little more than a special edition of the warhorse. The successive presenters of the Palladium show became the most popular faces of ITV: old-time Tommy Trinder, sarky Bruce Forsyth and, in the Sixties, Jimmy Tarbuck with his Beatles haircut. With the connivance of an acquiescent press, many of the new stars behaved appallingly behind the scenes, womanising, drinking, taking drugs and (as there is no verb from the noun orgy) partying.

But they were not, after all, invulnerable. Trinder was the first to believe his own hype and to abuse the trust his masters bestowed. Introducing Bob Hope, he humiliated him by reading out three cue-cards' worth of his material, the idiot boards having been positioned on seats in the front row. Another clip showed him mocking ITV's schedule. Complaining that there were too many medical shows, he asked chillingly, even by today's standards, if the BMA would be sponsoring (instead of I Love Lucy) I Love Leukaemia. One night he must have said something to offend Lew Grade, for the next Sunday he was off and never worked again on ITV.

Decades later, the comedian Barry Cryer found him doing a warm-up for Tyne Tees Television in Newcastle, the young audience mystified by the old geezer in the hat. "I know what you're thinking," Trinder told him over a drink afterwards, "I just want to be part of it still."

The BBC's one star, the What's My Line? panellist Gilbert Harding, filled with self-disgust at his celebrity status, willed himself to death by drink and collapsed on the steps of Broadcasting House, a few weeks after telling a merciless John Freeman on Face to Face that he would prefer to be dead. Nor did the press remain gagged for ever, and eventually it went for Diana Dors, orgy-thrower extraordinaire (Although something about this particular anecdote did not add up, as the News of the Screws expose seemed to be written in the first person.)

The second programme, which charts how, in the Sixties, the BBC regained all the ground it had lost with edgy shows such as TW3 and Steptoe and Son, tells the story of the even more precipitous rise and fall of Simon Dee, the Radio Caroline DJ who became its first chat-show host. Witty and fluent, but also arrogant and reluctant to take direction, after three years Dee was made an offer by the BBC he could not but refuse, and waltzed off to LWT, where his show died a quick death.

An amusing debate ensues as to what went wrong. "He was crap," says Tarbuck. "He wasn't good. He was floundering," offers Max Bygraves. "Bollocks," says Dee - and having sat through enough editions of Tarby's Winner Takes All and Bygraves's unintentionally hilariously incompetent stab at Family Fortunes (currently to be seen on Challenge TV), I think I am with Dee.

Television feeds off its past relentlessly, but, aided by brilliant archive research and tremendously frank interviews with participants such as Bob Monkhouse, this is the nearest a documentary has ever got to relaying the texture of early TV. The quality of Andrew MacKenzie-Betty's series is heralded by its title sequence (by Run Wrake), a wonderful montage of the celebs themselves, a street gang of big heads whose tiny bodies jig in exact accordance with their owner's instantly identifiable body language. It is about as intelligent and entertaining as you could wish for, as is the programme, whose thesis, naturally, is right. For most people, the box remains principally a link to the world of schmaltz: it is the showbiz set.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times