TV repeats: thanks for the memory

As commentators moan that BBC budget cuts will mean more re-runs, the new digi-channel 'Dave' reminds us why some shows are worth a second look.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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To complain about repeats on the BBC seems to be the perennial prerogative of newspapers. And with budget cutbacks at the Beeb bringing about the prospect of more re-runs on BBC2, there will be undoubtedly – and justifiably – the fear that Del-Boy, Rodney, Trigger and Uncle Albert will shortly be returning to our screens.

Only Fools and Horses repeats from the 1980s are unquestionably nauseating, and their endless returns to our screens have come to epitomise the perceived lack of imagination, and parsimony, within the BBC.

But what is actually wrong with TV repeats? Nothing at all. It’s just that the BBC’s choice of repeats has given re-runs a bad name. This is because they come from such a small pool of potential programmes. How many times must we see Del-Boy and Rodney dislodging the wrong chandelier? How many times must we be subjected to Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army giving the order ‘Don’t tell him your name, Pike’. When will we next witness Basil Fawlty attacking his car with a tree branch?

In essence, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with repeats. Complaining about TV repeats is like complaining about people who re-read their favourite books, or view their favourite films more than once. ‘What? You’re reading Slaughterhouse Five again? Haven’t you read it already?’ ‘Oh god, it’s North-by-Northwest for the second time. BORING!’ Returning to an old TV episode is akin to returning to a much-loved book or film: you notice something different, but you remember what you enjoyed about it in the first place.

It was thus paradoxical that whinging about the forthcoming onslaught of repeats on the cash-strapped BBC channels coincided with the launch this week of the channel named after the moniker that Trigger from Only Fools used for Rodney: Dave (2).

Dave, previously known as UKTV G2, is a channel entirely devoted to repeats of programmes with a vaguely comical content. And it is a channel that reminds you how our publicly-owned stations – the BBC and Channel 4 – have actually produced some very amusing stuff over the last two decades, and that the licence fee is, in many ways, justified.

The station is called ‘Dave’, says UKTV, because ‘everyone knows a bloke called Dave’. Indeed, it may have unwittingly picked up on Trigger’s use of this appellation. (By the way, it’s a little-known fact that Nuts magazine was originally going to be called Dave.) It’s quite an interesting departure in television nomenclature but, as Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson would say, an utterly brilliant one.

Top Gear repeats are one of the joys of this new channel. I wrote about Top Gear in my first television column for spiked and I hadn’t watched it for a while, but returning to it, it seems an even more joyous celebration of life than I remember. Can you think of an ostensibly factual television show that contains more laughter in it? Clarkson’s superlatives and clichéd invectives against the ‘health and safety brigade’, Hammond’s feigned protestations, May’s general indifference – and a penchant for blowing up caravans – revives faith in the BBC.

Then there is QI with Stephen Fry, who is insufferably, but loveably, smug. ‘No, no, no! Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!’ he bellows in the General Ignorance round. Or what about Mark Lamarr, former presenter of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, who was perhaps one of the most complete television figures of the 1990s, combining savage cynicism and genuine warmth. He displayed as much on Shooting Stars with Vic and Bob, and I fear he is wasted on Radio 2 these days, and must definitely return to television and stop boring people about his affinity for ska music. Similarly, re-runs of Have I Got News for You with Angus Deayton reminds one how foolish the BBC were to dispense with this astute presenter with a penchant for cocaine and prostitutes.

The most curious but delightful feature on channel Dave is the repeats of Whose Line Is It Anyway? I suspect this is a Channel 4 programme that many people have forgotten about, and I suspect I’m being nostalgic for the early-1990s when I used to watch this, but the improvisation skills on Whose Line… really were something to behold. Tony Slattery may have been obsessed with sexual innuendo, but you forget how quick off the mark he was; Josie Lawrence dispelled the myth that women couldn’t be funny; Greg Proops, Ryan Stiles and Mike McShane dispelled the myth that North Americans had no sense of humour. Unlike the 1980s programme Give Us A Clue (which was just televised charades) Whose Line… was not a programme you could ever re-produce in your living room, because the performers on television were inimitable.

The Dave channel should give succour to the BBC in its present trying times, when it is wasting vast sums of money on high-profile presenters like Jonathan Ross or Terry Wogan, squandering as much on its pointless regional radio stations, or constantly blaming itself for its perceived shortcomings. Dave reminds us of the BBC at its best. Likewise, Whose Line… should serve as a reminder to Channel 4 that the dreary and ineffective populism of Big Brother is not an avenue that should be pursued.

As Dave is proving, both channels have proved themselves capable of excellence in recent memory. And there is nothing to fear of re-runs, just as long as it’s not Del-Boy and Rodney dressed up as Batman and Robin in Only Fools and Horses.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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