Book Review: The Encyclopaedia of Classic Saturday Night Telly’
A review of ‘The Encyclopaedia of Classic Saturday Night Telly’ by Jack Kibble-White and Steve Williams (Alison & Busby, 2007).
Box of Delights
For more than fifty years Saturday nights have been the battleground in a cold war between the BBC and ITV. First published in 2007 this hugely enjoyable book is a knowledgeable guide to the light entertainment formats that have been their weapons of choice.
Jack Kibble-White and Steve Williams cover with engaging enthusiasm the programmes from The A Team to The X Factor that have made Saturdays the biggest night of the week. Along the way they take time to stop off in some of the more unusual corners of television history, more often than not lighting upon details that tell the reader much about how British society has changed over the past half century.
For example it is impossible to imagine game shows like 321 and Sale of the Century with their cheesy hosts and tacky prizes originating in any decade other than the 1970’s; X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing with their legions of contestants desperately scrabbling to gain or hold onto a fame their talents can’t support could only be a product of our current obsession with celebrity.
Reading this book it is easy to identify several broad themes common to Saturday night television and the trajectory taken by the genre over the period covered. The themes are prosaic to the point of being banal, comedy, talent shows, game shows, a little escapist drama all rounded off by some late night chat. Time marches on, the style supplements tell us that tastes have changed; but the good old Saturday night variety bill keeps on chugging along.
The trajectory taken by the genre is also pretty uniform, helped perhaps by the fact that apart from occasional interruptions from Channels Four and Five, the battle for the all important ratings has been between the same two fairly evenly matched opponents. In the late fifties ITV stole a march on the stodgy BBC with programmes like Saturday Spectacular, putting popular variety acts on air in peak time. The BBC turned the tables in the Seventies with The Generation Game and Dr Who pulling in massive audiences. By the eighties Saturday night television on both channels had become rather naff with audiences and a new generation of ‘alternative’ comedians reacting against a light entertainment establishment they felt to be mediocre and middle aged; things got no better in the nineties when our screens seemed to be overrun with noisy game shows and Noel Edmond’s awful House Party. Then around the turn of the millennium just when it we thought it was all but dead light entertainment was revived by Simon Cowell and a lot of people who were ‘living the dream’.
Any book that claims to be an encyclopaedia about what it essentially a frivolous subject is prey to falling into a number of traps. The deepest of these are trying to include everything and so creating a book so large it can’t be lifted never mind read; being too serious and boring your readers or being too flippant and getting on their nerves. To their immense credit Kibble-White and Williams neatly sidestep all three.
Instead this book covers a representative selection of Saturday night television, meaning that although some readers may find their choices arbitrary at least they won’t put their back out getting it down from the shelf. On a more important note their judgements about the programmes they do include are scrupulously fair, meaning that they are able to consider performers like Little and Large ( a by-word for unfunny comedy for anyone over thirty) and Paul Daniels in context rather than just sniggering at them from the high ground of our, supposedly, more developed sensibilities.
Thankfully Kibble-White and Williams find space to discuss a few of the programmes that have slipped under the cultural net, such as the BBC’s unjustly forgotten Crime Traveller from the 1990’s, in which a detective solved crimes with the aid of a time machine. However silly the format sounds the show could have worked with better scripts and higher production values.
Saturday night television has experienced something of a renaissance over the past decade with X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing making it worth watching again and stirred up the embers of the old rivalry between ITV and the BBC. Worth watching, but, I fear, not much watched. Tastes and the dynamics of family life have changed irrevocably; satellite television and the internet have made families less likely to sit down and spend their Saturday evening watching the television equivalent of an old style music hall bill when there are so many more options on offer. That doesn’t though make this book any less worth reading if you have even a passing interest in British popular culture.