Firework dismay

Television - Andrew Billen on a millennium fiasco

Like second marriages, fireworks are triumphs of hope over experience. Millennial fireworks - given their necessary rarity - are triumphs of hope over inexperience. Hence the Thames firework organisers' insistence that there had been a river of fire, just not the river of fire people pre-supposed it to be. I don't suppose 2000 Today, as BBC1's New Year extravaganza was called, was quite how its executive editor, Avril MacRory, pre-supposed it to be either. Unless, that is, cheerful chaos was her plan all along.

As a taster of the technical incompetence to come, early on Friday morning a croak-voiced Peter Snow, lit amateurishly by a follow-spot, seized up completely - or, rather, his teleprompter did, forcing the great man to reach within his jacket for a script that vouchsafed him the single line: "The origins of the bug go back to the 1960s." At 11.01am the linkman Michael Parkinson, already tired and cross, was promising us Tonga and delivering Scotland. A drum-roll at 2.03pm announced Peter Sissons and the news, a bulletin that began (and ended) with the words: "Are you sure it's me?" Gaby Roslin, Parky's perky co-host, promised they would "sort themselves out". Parkinson retired to his dressing-room, shaking his grey locks.

It was thus left to Roslin to hold things together with the facile enthusiasm employed by family peace-keepers the world over at Christmas, even dashing over an artificial pond to offer Snow a cough sweet. But there was no getting away from the fact that the BBC's family of stars is an ever dimming unit. Parkinson remains the best interviewer on television but his metier is not as an anchor: it is hard to believe that even at 2am Des Lynam would have ever asked aloud for John Kettley's mike to be ripped off him because it was chattering into his earpiece.

The BBC's human chemistry worked no better than its technology. Dragooned into the echoey millennium studio, the big-name newsreaders, Sissons and Buerk, had difficulty disguising their resentment at playing second fiddle to a pair of game-show hosts. Sky News's praiseworthy coverage, presented from the patio of a virtually real dome, had the distinct advantage of knowing it was there to provide news coverage of a celebration rather than a celebration itself. On BBC1, however, Michael Buerk was reduced to interviewing Rolf Harris as he sploshed up an Australian sunrise. At the end of this encounter, Roslin praised Buerk for having looked up "all the facts and figures" about Australia. "I'm a reporter," Buerk snapped.

How good a reporter became the issue. Mulling over Jean-Michel Jarre's Pyramids concert, he explained they were "trying to meld all the Egyptian stuff with all that technological stuff". On ITV at 6pm, John Suchet complacently answered his own question about what the river of fire would look like: "No one knows." High marks go to the perennially sceptical David Dimbleby for admitting in his midnight commentary that it was a "bit difficult to distinguish" the river of fire from the other fireworks. Over on ITV, Sir Trevor McDonald was too busy "welcoming" us to the new millennium to notice such trifles - but then he has difficulty noticing anything that hasn't been written for him. Having shown us the Queen's muffed attempt to link arms with Tony Blair during "Auld Lang Syne", McDonald unerringly imitated the cross-arm posture she failed to achieve.

Under Simon Bucks, ITN's coverage was as well thought out as it should have been, since it consisted of distinct bulletins rather than rolling news. But it failed to provide enough captions to explain what we were looking at and where. (It also failed to keep up with the ending of the Indian plane-jack.) Between 11pm and 1am on all channels, the montage of visuals was so confused, so awe-uninspiring, that it would have made sense to make a Eurovision of the whole thing and bring in Terry Wogan. Where was Terry, anyhow?

At least that question has now been answered about Michael Gambon. After too long an absence from TV, he compounded his touching Squire Hamley on Wives and Daughters (BBC1) with a fine performance as the naive, disgruntled clockmaker John Harrison in Charles Sturridge's two-part adaptation of Dava Sobel's best-seller, Longitude (Channel 4). The programme's real stars, however, were the timepieces themselves, much as the model of DNA was in William Nicholson's Life Story years ago for the BBC.

Harrison's clocks needed constant fine tuning to attain perfection. Sadly, Sturridge's film would have needed its back taken off and half its mechanism removed. Harrison's epic fight with the astronomers who thought they alone could read longitude was interrupted far too often by the dull tale of a highly strung naval officer named Rupert Gould who restored the clocks 200 years later. As so often, the writer's way in to his story was his audience's way out. The tales failed to chime because there was no useful parallel between the genius inventor and the depressive restorer who repaired clocks as therapy. Edit out the Gould storyline and C4 could yet manufacture a two-hour classic out of Sturridge's film. Mind you, a documentary maker might extract a decent 50 minutes out of 2000 Today.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.