"Nice to see you, to see you nice." -- Bruce Forsyth

TV Saturday night television has had something of a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Some obsessives might put the reason for this down to the efforts of a certain timelord, but he’s only flying around the universe for thirteen weeks at a time, and yet there’s no doubt that it’s the one night in the week when, consistently during this past decade, throughout the year, a mass audience will still gather together in front of television and share a collective experience. Even more surprisingly, they’re watching formats which have been played and replayed in the same slots for decades in various configurations, the so-called innovations simply variations on the same themes.

As is demonstrated in this excellent book, The Encyclopedia of Classic Saturday Night Telly (whose authors Jack Kibble-White & Steve Williams I must explain write for that Off The Telly website I also frequent) Saturday night’s have always been the province of talent shows, variety shows and game shows with curious bits of drama thrown in for good measure, at least on the mainstream channels. The X Factor is really just one of a long line of opportunities for new talent back from what some called Operknockerty Tunes to New Faces and more recently Popstars* and Pop Idol. Strictly Come Dancing has its lineage burned into its title (say what you see), and all Ant & Dec have been doing is resurrecting Noel’s House Party and The Generation Game via The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club and Ultraquiz (ish).

All of these can be found in this brilliantly researched encyclopedia along with a range of other success and failures. Many of the pages in fact feature programmes which lasted just a series or two but still managed to leave a lasting impression either because they highlighted some new talent (Brian Connelly) or that longer does not necessarily mean better (Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night). The same names keep cropping up, the safe hands of Forsyth, Monkhouse, Edmunds and O’Connor appearing in a range of formats. There’s even room for those dramas beloved by some, hated by others. I rather liked both BUGS and Crime Traveller and they’re both in here with very fair entries for a change.

Amid the satirical yet critical entries you generally get a sense that like the movie industry, no one really knows anything. Hot from their success on The Big Breakfast, who would have thought that there would be anything quite so leaden as Johnny and Denise: Passport to Paradise or that Pet’s Win Prizes, at least in its first series would be quite so entertaining? That the ludicrously popular Gladiators, would knock on for eight years almost unchanged but its follow-up Ice Warriors, so similar in many ways would crash and melt? It’s almost impossible to view producers without some sympathy as their big ideas are slowly destroyed by poor production values, a bad choice of presenters or indifferent viewers.

Guiltily some of the most fun you can have with the book is seeing how many episodes your favourite and even not so favourite show racked up. In some cases the programmes which sit most clearly in the memory were only broadcast for a year. Surely Dempsey and Makepeace went on longer than that? But my favourite entry is for The Premiereship, which essentially notes that the reason the show failed was because it was a prime time show about football highlights and no matter how much you gussy it up no one but fans are going to want to watch that ...

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