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Farewell then, Heather Trott and Harry Hill

Soap-opera characters are dropping like flies, but the departure of TV Burp’s host is a much bigger loss.

David Bowden

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It’s been a pretty torrid time in the land of soap operas. EastEnders has bid farewell to two long-running characters already this year, in the highly distinctive shapes of stalwart Pat Butcher and chubby single mother Heather Trott. Coronation Street has seen rapist Frank Foster dispatched by his own mother, hot on the heels of the somewhat more prosaic – though more moving – departure of beloved dog Schmeichel. No doubt terrible things have been occurring recently in Hollyoaks and Emmerdale, too, but do keep them to yourselves.

Off-screen, however, genuine tragedies have been jostling for attention with the fictional drama. The ongoing murder investigation into the grisly death of one-time EastEnders actress Gemma McCluskie – who had a minor role in the soap in 2001 – has held a grim fascination for much of the media. This week, the producers of Coronation Street have been told they have ‘blood on their hands’ following the jailing of Daniel Bartlam, a teenager who killed his mother last year in a manner apparently inspired by a Weatherfield storyline.

Needless to say, it takes a feat of imagination even beyond the outlandish plots of soap operas to draw a connection between the unique act of a clearly troubled teenager and a programme watched by millions of people. That Bartlam had been deemed psychologically competent both before and after the murder is perhaps of interest to medical professionals and students of the human condition, but not for the likes of Mary Whitehouse-founded campaign group MediaWatch-UK and those others opportunistically calling for greater censorship and regulation of what’s on our screens.

Following on from the notorious EastEnders ‘cot death/baby swap’ storyline of Christmas 2010, the content of these pre-watershed depictions of working-class lives has come under increasing scrutiny. Ever since Brookside’s famous ‘body under the patio’ storyline in 1993 confirmed the success of taboo-busting storylines, viewers of the main soaps have enjoyed a diet of almost unrelenting misery and boundary-pushing alongside their dinners: domestic violence, rape, incest, child abuse, sexual experimentation, unwanted pregnancies, gangsterism, mental illness, live burials and serial killers galore.

So that’s the opera bit well covered. Yet, as the ‘soap’ bit implies, these ongoing serials have never been exactly free from instrumental purpose, having their roots in radio advertising for soap powder. Today, they are held up as important battlegrounds for social issues, invoking plenty of fatuous Shakespeare comparisons while they bombard us with public-service announcements over everything from healthy eating to the dangers of drink and drug abuse. While the likes of MediaWatch-UK get scorned as relics of a bygone censorious age, this paternalistic impulse to educate the public on socially significant issues has only intensified, creating a rather unhappy marriage between the preposterous drama and the nuances of actual reality.

In this climate then, the great loss to soap operas is Harry Hill’s departure from TV Burp. The show has been one of the great old-fashioned success stories for ITV: beginning in a late-night Christmas telly slot in 2001, it has slowly morphed into a primetime must-see and a frequently vital intervention into the debate over the role and responsibilities over TV producers. Essentially, it treats the output of most programme-makers with the silliness it deserves and therefore the audience with a rare respect.

While the bilious rage of Charlie Brooker and the sniping of the Sun’s Ally Ross stand in for anger at the infantile manner in which most viewers are treated by broadcasters, TV Burp’s family-friendly nature often gets overlooked as one of the great biting critics of twenty-first-century popular entertainment. Yet with a writing team comprising of TV veterans – including the underrated David Quantick (a regular contributor to The Day Today and Brass Eye) and talkSPORT presenter Paul Hawksbee (once a gag-writer for Frankie Howerd and The Two Ronnies) – it drew on a rich seam of satirical and absurdist humour. The show applies the same kind of exhaustive archive-trawling and jump-cut edits that have made Adam Curtis an arthouse auteur darling, yet in reference to what had been on telly the previous week. The hours of research that could go into finding a clip for one of its throwaway jokes – a personal favourite being Tenuous Connection to Beatrix Potter of the Week – beggars belief.

Whether it will survive the departure of Hill is another matter. Part of the joy of TV Burp was seeing a performer finding his niche: Hill’s surreal children’s entertainer shtick always came across as refreshing, but grating when stretched over an entire stand-up performance or TV show. As the presenter of TV Burp, he was often the perfect foil, clownishly inserting himself into supposedly serious dramatic scenes from the soaps and showing up crappy dialogue and crass didacticism. When the BBC initially refused to share clips of EastEnders for his send-ups, he used mock court-room sketches and naff Crimewatch-style reconstructions. More strikingly, the former medic seemed to reserve a particular dislike for the hectoring tones of food programmes, taking regular potshots at BBC3’s Freaky Eaters (‘chippy chips!’) and the anti Big Food pretensions of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

At its very best, in puncturing the pomposity and laziness of much of what gets served up to the general public, Harry Hill’s TV Burp became a British answer to America’s more obviously satirical The Daily Show, and with a much bigger audience share. The programme gets a lot of praise for producing that difficult product in an age of pronounced generation gaps: a show which could be enjoyed by all the family. Yet too many overlook the real achievement: that it did so by offering plenty of Hill’s slapstick gags to keep the kids happy, but treated its older viewers as grown-ups. We’ll miss you Harry!

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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