We need more programmes that are an injudicious mess, that wander from their own brief, that have clearly bypassed every level of commissioner meddling in order to splat onto the screen with their wanton subjectivity intact. Danny Baker’s Great Album Showdown (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday BBC4) was a fiasco in a number of ultimately unimportant ways.
A series of three hour-long, no-budget discussions between Baker and three guests, it was often comically dusty and curmudgeonly, with its chairs placed squarely around a coffee table in tight, nursing-home formation. It was obsessed with the idea that there was a golden age of vinyl LPs that isn’t recognised by those under a certain age, with their intangible mp3s and cold CDs.
On this programme, albums were exotic and bygone, crushed by modernity along with grocers, pencils and the postal service. Things like vinyl sales currently rocketing, or this week’s NME having a big Stevie Nicks interview, were left aside. “A generation has come by now where it’s de rigueur to go against your parents’ tastes,” said Baker, which was true of every generation between 1964 and 1993, but isn’t true now at all.
The first debate, on rock, ticked off the reasons why vinyl was best, from run-out grooves and sleeves you could read at leisure, to artistic front covers and the LP as a holistic, shuffle-proof work. Punctuating the chat were little Baker-voiced films, which reiterated things that everyone knows while still being less egg-sucky, more witty and an awful lot shorter than Friday night’s indulgently redundant documentary When Albums Ruled the World.
Mainly, though, there was chat, which had two burdens weighing it down on the opening night: panellists being obliged to agree with Baker that the world ended in 1976, and one of those panellists being Jeremy Clarkson. He named Tony Christie’s muscly murder-revenge stomper I Did What I Did for Maria as an example of anodyne pap bought by children; said Who’s Next was one of only two albums ever made where there isn’t a duff track; and puffily waved a Bob Seger live album he thought was the best concert LP of all time.
If Clarkson’s taste was a good advert for a rigorously enforced critical consensus, overall the programme stood in impish opposition to received wisdom and carefully calibrated lists. Each panellist could place three records in the heroically half-hearted pantheon that was the Wall of Sound (four shelves and a cheap sign). These were not up for scrutiny or debate. “If you say so and it’s in your heart, that’s all that matters,” Baker told New Statesman pop critic Kate Mossman as she triumphantly whipped out an album by Colosseum. “That’s what vinyl does.”
This, then, was a programme called Great Album Showdown where showdowns were forbidden.
Episode two, on pop, wasn’t even about albums. Baker’s opening spiel about making sure it wouldn’t focus on singles was ignored, starting with Baker himself identifying the best T.Rex album to be their greatest hits. But the loss of “albums” and “showdown” left it more room simply to be “great”.
Its hang-ups dropped, the show got close to what Baker called “trying to nail a wave upon the sand”. With Boy George recalling his time as a mythical figure on bedroom posters, and Baker’s film inserts now offering gloriously random lists on arbitrary aspects of pop (one of them grouped Roy Orbison, Diana Ross’s Touch Me in the Morning, Nilsson Schmilsson and the Carpenters’ third album – I forget why), ace hacks Grace Dent and David Hepworth opened up about how their emotions from a particular time are indelibly etched into albums by Kate Bush (Dent) and Scott Walker (Hepworth). Then from nowhere Baker reeled off the breathtakingly bleak, sober lyric of Alone Again (Naturally) by Gilbert O’Sullivan. A society had been inaugurated, where confessions are made and nuggety, magpie knowledge shared. This was a show about music, not the plastic it’s printed on.
The R’n’B-themed third instalment might have been the best of all, bringing us the easy authority of Motown nut Martin Freeman, the expert enthusiasm of Mica Paris, and Trevor Nelson, who falsely announced himself to the nation as a prize berk during the Olympic ceremonies but redeemed himself here. I thought I knew my soul music, but I was left with about eight albums I urgently need to, er, download (sorry).
Tweak it a bit and – with BBC4 having now done a straight documentary on every knowable aspect of pop music – this oddball format could run. Call it something like Danny Baker’s Music Club, add selected tracks in full for the less initiated (we needed to hear Colosseum, and the Mothers of Invention when Baker said their 1968 album We’re Only In It for the Money was genius, but didn’t really explain why), and forget about turntables being nicer than iPods. You’d be left with something telly can do brilliantly, but hardly ever does any more: nice, clever people talking to each other.
It has to be Danny Baker hosting, though, with his inclusive curiosity and distaste for broadcasting norms. He can lead quests to glimpse magic. Another needlessly pessimistic Baker exclamation: “Younger folk might say, ‘How can an album’ – if they know what one is! – ‘be life-changing?'” This show helped to explain.
Recent TV history is littered with bad programmes made by producers gazing down on poor people and turning their garish lives into entertainment. People Like Us (Wednesdays BBC3) observed commoners in the wild in and around Harpurhey, a crumbling suburb of north-east Manchester conveniently just down the A576 from the Beeb’s new home in Salford.
Hopelessly immature womaniser Jamie and heartbreakingly young alcoholic Chris provided tragedy, hurting the women who loved them. Convenience store co-owners David and David brought air-punching fun as they dragged up for nights out. Running the Wishy Washy laundrette on Moston Lane were beautiful teenager Amber and her family, which included a step-dad who pretended to hate being in a house full of women, a friend who had unquestioningly been taken in with her own parents absent, and a mum who was worried sick about Amber’s girlie holiday to Magaluf, having recently seen the film Taken.
Laughs like the unwitting Taken gag didn’t feel like sneering, since the whole programme was full of celebratory warmth or, in the many downbeat moments, empathy. People Like Us found characters who could be from a really good drama – not just a believable one but a funny, touching, universal one. The normal questions about whether “we” were exploiting “them” by observing didn’t arise, because that divide wasn’t there.