Fred Sculthorp delves into the mysterious world of Saturday night television
There’s something dark taking place on the BBC’s Saturday night entertainment slot, or so the Internet would have you believe. The new panel show I Love My Country has been seen as ‘sexist’, ‘fascist’ and even an evil plan of getting Scotland to vote for independence. Can it really be so awful?
The programme starts and a warm feeling comes over me as everyone’s singing and dancing. I catch the beat of the crowd and for the briefest of moments I feel like this is it. I am at one with the audience and the celebrity guests. I love my country. Not like the freaks and loners that mocked the BBC’s new panel show. It’s supposed to be tongue in cheek anyway, Frank Skinner’s on it for god sake. The warm feeling stops as I realise the people in the audience are wearing funny wigs. But I can’t hate this. Everyone’s having fun. Besides, Gabby Logan’s makeup is done up to make her lipstick look like a beacon of red light beaming hopefully out to sea from the White Cliffs of Dover.
But then I see him. It’s Mickey from ‘Team Mickey’. The camera catches his eyes just as they melt in sadness at the dancing mass of clown wigs. He’s a comedian; he’s even been at the Edinburgh Fringe. He can’t be doing this optionally. His family must be locked up underneath Television Centre. He’s been blackmailed. The camera pans out and it only takes a Frank Skinner one-liner to get him up and running. His family aren’t in a cellar; those eyes of momentary sadness are just a sign of what is about to take place.
There’s nothing patriotic about the format. It’s been imported from the same production company in the Netherlands that came up with The Voice. The teams are made up of Eastender’s actors, chefs from the Saturday Kitchen – all recycled from other BBC panel shows and sitcoms. They stand there as apocalyptic warnings like the heads on Easter Island, shuffling uncomfortably while Frank Skinner makes jokes about being an alcoholic. They try to catch our eyes at home, reaching out for help so they can escape the never-ending cycle of BBC panel shows and sitcoms that never quite make it. It all seems so sad. Then someone puts a Yorkshire pudding on a map of England and everyone starts shrieking and laughing. Everything is fine again, for now.
Half way through there are points up for grabs for whichever team can sing along the best to All You Need Is Love. The audience can join in too. Had this been at the start it would have been fine, but I’m only halfway through the 45 minutes. Gabby Logan’s lipstick is no longer a beacon of hope but a distress signal. ‘Come on’, the audience’s faces say, ‘no one has a good sing-along anymore, it’s just like the Blitz!’ At least then there was the possibility that a well- aimed bomb could end it all. In the studio of ‘I Love My Country’ there is no escape.
The ‘challenges’ are a cross between Family Fortunes and the Nuremburg Rallies – guessing funny place names in the UK, Mickey and Frank dancing the samba and some kind of spin the wheel how many immigrants got deported last year guessing game. Then there’s ‘Party Time’ which starts with Gabby Logan dancing like a puppet controlled by the Child Catcher. The scores are read out and the losing team pretend to be disappointed. At least they’re celebrities; they can go home and forget about what they’ve just done in their nice houses. The losing half of the audience are suicidal – they face a bus journey home and a wait of a week till the next episode. They look as if they can’t love their country anymore without feeling like they’ve just urinated on a war memorial.
I want to join in. I want to dance and answer the questions because I’ve spent the whole programme thinking ‘I hate my country’. But I’ve turned up late, I can’t keep up with the people in wigs, they’ve been preparing for this for years. They dance and jeer like savages at a human sacrifice. They love their country too much. Part of me just wants a drunken Tommy Robinson to break into the studio and start ranting and swearing about Muslims and St George’s Day. That would make them stop.
It’s not bad. Hitler was bad, Jack the Ripper was bad. It’s just a mistake. It’s the after, after party of the Olympics and someone’s accidently overdosed and died. Where will it go from episode one? Perhaps it will run and run until they exhaust all of the banal questions and have to start asking people about Beowulf and Newtonian physics. Maybe Jeremy Paxman could present it.
Lock it in a vault and save it for a national emergency. After North Korea’s started the Nuclear Apocalypse and were scavenging the streets for food, we can gather around the last surviving television sets and watch the people dance and laugh. Then we can grunt and nod, and remind each other of good old days when we used to love our country.
I Love My Country is aired on Saturdays at 7.30pm on BBC One.
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