Andrew Billen - Cheap laughs

Television - Why the most watched evening of the week is now the least. By Andrew Billen

Who Ki

Alan Bennett once claimed that what glued Britain together were his and Dennis Potter's plays for the BBC. Listening to the commentary on Who Killed Saturday Night TV? (10 July), you'd have thought it was, on the contrary, Bruce Forsyth and Noel Edmonds. Where once 24 million Britons would stay at home to watch The Generation Game and 16 million to watch Noel's House Party, today a Saturday-night "hit" may keep just eight million on their sofas. The most watched evening of the week has become the least. The social cost is that, liberated from their front rooms, the nation's people now go on a weekly bender that leaves city-centre shop windows smashed, pillar boxes piddled in and pavements sticky with vomit.

This intelligent two-hour documentary was an improvement on most clip shows in its attempt to weave the usual nostalgia into an argument. Dawn Airey of Sky said it was multichannel choice that had killed the big channels' ratings. Paul Jackson of Granada pointed out that five million DVDs are rented every Saturday night. Wayne Garvie, head of the BBC's Entertainment Group, reckoned it was the economy, by which he presumably meant that people could afford to go out and escape his offerings. Brian Conley said: "Only sad people watch TV on Saturday night" - and he should know, given that his show Judgement Day was pulled by ITV last year after only two episodes.

The question less equivocally answered was put by the Channel 4 continuity announcer at the start: was the death of Saturday-night TV a crime or a mercy killing? It was euthanasia. Big-audience Saturday-night telly was lowest common denominator stuff, exemplified by the name of the department responsible for most of it - Light Entertainment - whose mission was to amuse as many as possible as lightly and inoffensively as possible. There were exceptions: an anonymous female viewer (to protect the innocent, all the viewers interviewed remained unnamed) confessed she had once laughed so much at Cannon and Ball that she had blacked out. But even she looked retrospectively puzzled. We may not know who killed Saturday-night telly, but we know the weapon that was used: the remote control.

What the documentary actually recorded was the final death of the music hall and the rise of reality TV, the supersession of professional entertainers by citizens who were willing to make fools of themselves for nothing. This story began in the Seventies with Brucie at his height on the original Generation Game, a game show we can now see as the forerunner of real people TV. Sadly, he privately felt that being a game-show compere was beneath the dignity of a veteran of the variety boards. In an uncharacteristically unsure-footed move, the future presenter of Strictly Come Dancing defected in 1978 to LWT to present a two-hour flop that allowed him to show off his multiple talents for an astonishing - or so the newspapers calculated - thousand pounds a minute. But the public preferred to watch a homely queen and his Gallic co-hostess in Brucie's old show.

And so the BBC's hegemony endured until September 1981, when ITV launched a still more vicious attack on the dignity of ordinary folk called Game for a Laugh. This brought into the national consciousness a merciless practical joker called Jeremy Beadle who, in a later incarnation, would convince an entrepreneur that his entire livelihood had fallen off the side of a dock and a middle-aged woman that her garden had been invaded by extraterrestrials. The BBC, which felt its licence fee endangered any week it did not win the Saturday ratings war, responded with Noel's House Party, which also spied on ordinary people but saved its cruellest practical jokes for celebrities.

Among its targets was Eddie Large, who had plopped up earlier in the programme with his talent-free partner Syd Little, the two of them happily still alive and, more or less, in work. For 14 years they held court on a Saturday night without anyone, it seems, ever thinking them much good. Michael Hurll, a former head of BBC Light Entertainment, recalled that in his search to find Little something to do he had once put him in a ring to box a kangaroo - "the most politically incorrect comedy that has gone on British television for about 40 years". Personally, he pissed himself laughing, but the more progressive elements of Thatcher's Britain found that Ben Elton on Channel 4's Saturday Live landed more punches. Tubby and Skinny's days were numbered.

Saturday night's current early-evening incumbent on BBC1 is Passport to Para-dise with Johnny Vaughan and Denise Van Outen. Its sole innovation is its exploitation of the camera phone. Viewers are asked to e-mail photographs of their loved ones wearing silly hats. Despite this modest technological innovation, what strikes most is the familiarity of the show's various formats: a bit of Beadle here, a bit of Stars in Their Eyes there, and even a big old-fashioned song from Van Outen. The half-ideas are held together by the heavily scripted joshing hosts who, in truth, lob the banalities back and forth no more ironically than Brucie and Anthea Redfern did. The only thing sadder than watching television on Saturday night is appearing on it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times