Putting the boot in

Television - Andrew Billen on rival broadcasters' predictable eagerness to attack the BBC

There's no better moment to kick a man than when he is down. And so it is that Channel 4 and Five celebrated the arrival of autumn by putting the boot in to the BBC, just at the moment when the government, the press, Sky and Hutton have it pinned to the floor, choking on its own e-mails. Channel 4 got in first on Sunday (31 August) with Snorting Coke With the BBC and was followed the next day by Five's The Curse of Blue Peter. But as the two programmes showed, there are ways and ways of applying leather to solar plexus. Accept its dubious right to bash an ailing rival, and Five's documentary was exemplary: fun, informative and well researched. Channel 4's show, being sneering, repetitive and haphazardly assembled, wasn't.

Let's start with Julian Jones's labour of love, for such fascination with a children's programme surely betokens love of a sort. In the fates of four decades' worth of Blue Peter presenters, he certainly had a tale to tell, practically from day one. Christopher Trace, one of the originals, slept with a Norwegian woman on the very first Blue Peter holiday, was dumped by his wife and then by the show, and ended up working in a factory, where he lost two toes in an accident. His successors, John Noakes and Peter Purves, became disillusioned and left for less-than-illustrious careers. In the 1980s, Peter Duncan was outed as a former soft-porn star and the unmarried Janet Ellis was sacked when she became pregnant. Then, in 1998, Richard Bacon was fired after the News of the World "revealed" that the "Blue Peter goody-goody" was "a cocaine-snorting sneak". The more recent crises in the careers of Anthea Turner and John Leslie, the only two BP presenters to make it big on adult TV, wrapped up the story in a fish-and-chip supper's worth of tabloid sex headlines.

Turner, whose good-humoured, articulate contributions were reminders of what a skilled broadcaster she actually is, pointed out that the real curse, however short your stint, is that for ever after you remain a "former Blue Peter presenter", and thus judged by the programme's Boy Scouts standards. But the great revelation was how sore the presenters were who worked under the yoke of Biddy Baxter, for 25 years its fearsome editor. Valerie Singleton said it was not until she joined Nationwide that she understood what teamwork was. Noakes, who complained about the inadequate accident insurance taken out for his stunts, said that when he left he was refused the only leaving present he wanted - Shep, "his" dog. "He was a BBC prop," said Noakes. "I think we all were, really." Most damaging of all, her youngest presenter, Yvette Fielding, claimed that Baxter had repeatedly taken her aside to call her fat and useless.

What was remarkable about this subversive chunk of TV history was the level of co-operation it received from the principal players. In consequence, it hardly needed to hire outside commentators to sneer. Snorting Coke, on the other hand, featured all the usual press rent-a-gobs, from Piers Morgan to Jane Moore. The only two interviewees with inside knowledge of the Beeb's alleged habit were Lorraine Heggessey, who as head of children's television announced Bacon's sacking - she's now controller of BBC 1 - and Mark Thompson, once the BBC's most loyal career servant but now, as chief of Channel 4, volunteering to join the lynch mob. But their contributions could not conceal the programme's failure, if indeed it had tried, to interview the four miscreants upon whom it built its flimsy history: Frank Bough, Richard Bacon, Johnnie Walker and Angus Deayton. It would have been so much better if it had, if only to sort out the facts: for instance, Bough was not, as the programme implied, sacked as host of the BBC's Breakfast Time - he had already left.

Nor was there much to be said for, or about, its thesis that the BBC showed inconsistency and hypocrisy in its punishments. Commercially, if not morally, there is a difference between a pullovered breakfast presenter abusing drugs and the quizmaster of a satire show doing so. The public image of one is shattered; in the case of the other, it is merely modified. And although the BBC in reality ceased to be considered the Auntie-ish upholder of traditional values some time back in the 1960s, this documentary still waffled on about how the issue "underlined the institutional role that the family plays at the BBC". On the Channel 4 website the show was listed, hypocritically, under "health".

Were I to adopt Channel 4 standards, I would now go on to say something really nasty. Instead, I'll confess my regret that I was away on holiday during the debut of My New Best Friend (Channel 4, Fridays, 11.10pm). In this cross between improvisational comedy and reality game show, Marc Wootton transforms himself every week into a nutter who storms into the life of a psychologically ill-prepared contestant who has to pass him off to friends and family as a bestest mate, in return for a cash prize. The first two episodes, in which Wootton played Wicky, an obsessive hippie nerd, and Sasha, a pathological upper-class twit, both had me weeping with laughter, not only at Wootton's performances, which bordered just on this side of believability, if not of sanity, but at the performances he provoked from everyone else.

This isn't comedy. It's performance art.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

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.