They say that restaurant critics make lousy chefs…but do television critics make lousy television? Victor Lewis-Smith is an established television critic (for the London Evening Standard) as well as writing for several other publications, and in the past Lewis-Smith had presented TV programmes such Inside Victor Lewis-Smith plus features within other shows such as BBC2’s TV Hell. His newspaper columns don’t just cover television but also nostalgia, so it’s only logical that he should also have a strong interest in television nostalgia.
TV Offal started life as a one-off pilot programme shown on 31 October 1997. It’s incredibly difficult to summarise, but the Channel 4 press release made a valiant attempt at a precis, so to speak: ‘Having scoured the skips and bins of TV broadcasting and plundered the graveyards of student television stations, Victor has, in his own unique and bizarre fashion, constructed an archive programme that treats its material (celebrity and otherwise) with a savage combination of satire and scatology. But, in his own words: “It isn’t another It’ll be Alright on the Night, because you can tell from what you see that it’ll be anything but alright on the night.”‘ (According to television expert Andy Emmerson, that strange-looking clock in the opening titles was used by early-1960s French television.)
From this you might have deduced that TV Offal pokes fun not only at programmes but also at programming formats and ‘celebrities’, as well as anything else that could related to television and broadcasting culture such as test cards and ident (station identification) sequences. Despite the parodying tone, it becomes rapidly self-evident that Victor himself actually revels in these ephemera of TV culture, though it’s equally obvious that he really means it when he mocks celebrities such as Noel Edmonds or Vanessa Feltz. The audio used in the link sequences is almost uniquely (for television) styled in the form of radio jingles, notably jingles specially commissioned from the world-famous American jingle producers JAM.
It seemed that viewers and critics other than Victor himself liked the pilot show, so Channel 4 went ahead with commissioning a series of six half-hour programmes which ran from May 22nd 1998, shown on Friday evenings at 11 pm. Late night Channel 4 is not exactly viewing suitable for children (as programmes such as Eurotrash or The Word have graphically illustrated), so TV Offal was able to use this scheduling to its advantage in order to show the sort of things that would have made ‘clean-up tv’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse reach for the typewriter…
Much of the source material used by TV Offal comes from a little-known (outside of the TV industry) phenomenon known as ‘Christmas tapes’. These are unofficial compilations of programme and continuity-related material made by TV station staff in their spare time which often comprised of a collection of ‘outtakes’ (presenters fluffing their lines, etc.) compiled from such incidents recorded during the previous year but also may include clips specially recorded for the tape, originally intended for the staff’s own amusement only and not for transmission; the clip showing the Rainbow (kids’ TV show) team letting off steam with ‘the bad language’ being a prime example. The excerpt used in the pilot episode came from a Christmas 1978 tape produced by Thames Television staff.
Every TV Offal featured one or two “Kamikaze Karaoke” sketches, whereby some of the most famous popular/classical music acts are seen performing, but their voices substituted with singing that is off-key/has different lyrics/etc., superimposed upon the same or similar musical backing. Guaranteed to bring the most egoistical superstar crashing down to earth, singers and acts which had been given the “This is what he sounds like to me” treatment included Pavarotti, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Bob Marley, Nigel Kennedy, Vanessa-Mae and that Manchester foursome Oasis.
Probably the most controversial of TV Offal‘s regular features is the Gay Daleks: “They’re camp! They exterminate! Better watch your backs! It’s the Gay Daleks!” You either feel that the sketches are crude, tasteless and offensive, or they’re a splendid parody of both the Daleks and of gay cultural stereotypes; late night Channel 4 viewers (on the whole) would interpret them as the latter which is probably just as well given the content. Apparently they were popular with the gay community, though later attempts to produce a cartoon series based on the Gay Daleks did not materialise due to rights issues involving the Terry Nation estate.
Another semi-regular feature that straddles the commercial break is “Assassination of the Week”. This sketch parodies the voyeurism that certain programmes seem to exhibit, namely, before the commercial break an assassination attempt is shown, and viewers are invited to guess “did they live or are they worm-food?”. After the break the rest of the film is shown and the answer is given, though there was a twist when the assassination of JFK was covered. Other politicians featured included Imelda Marcos, the woman which had a very large shoe collection.
TV Offal often featured “The Pilots that Crashed”; one-off programmes that never got any further than the pilot episode or shows that had a very limited run. Perhaps controversially, the show featured “The Development of the Television Test Card” in show 2 which wasn’t a failed pilot programme; indeed it was a one-off show (made in 1985) aimed at a specialist audience as reference material therefore it was never intended to be commissioned as a broadcast series. But it featured one of Victor’s favourite subjects (as anyone seeing any earlier material of his would testify) so he couldn’t possibly ignore it!
TV Offal regularly featured clips from the archives of student or hospital television stations, often featuring celebrities either before they became famous or making a guest appearence. Famous people featured included Michaela Strachan, Phillippa Forrester, and Christopher Biggins. The picture is taken from the ident used in 1969 of STOIC – Student Television of Imperial College (London).
A TV Offal show wouldn’t be complete without one of Victor Lewis-Smith’s “specialities”, the wind-up phone call. He calls a famous person or organisation pretending to be someone else, with either hilarious or deeply embarrassing results. “Victims” included Carlton Television in the first show, the late Hughie Green and Mary Whitehouse. However the alleged ‘call’ to Mary Whitehouse landed Victor in a spot of bother, and it’s also interesting to note that phone calls of this nature are no longer permitted to be broadcast on UK television under Ofcom regulations.
The show is produced by Victor’s own production company, Associated-Rediffusion Television Ltd., which happens also to be the name of the ITV contractor that served London weekdays from 1955-1968. Victor bought the rights many years ago when it was simply ‘gathering dust’, and he even featured the voice of Redvers Kyle who was a regular continuity announcer for A-R in the 1950s (amongst others), in show 4. There will never be a commercial release (DVD/video download, etc.) of the TV Offal series because producer John Warburton found it difficult enough gaining copyright clearance for many of the clips used simply for television transmission.
So, to paraphrase the “Assassination of the Week” feature, what happened next? The answer is the cleverly-titled Ads Infinitum – two series of ten-minute programmes shown on BBC2 (the first series in 1998), which (as the title suggests) are all about television or cinema adverts. And as for TV Offal itself, the only repeat showings were some compilation programmes (‘the best of’ or ‘the worst of’, depending on your point of view.) subsequently shown on Channel 4. These days Victor Lewis-Smith is occasionally still involved with television production and continues to be a newspaper TV critic and columnist for publications such as Private Eye; recent productions include Alchemists of Sound for BBC Four, You’re Fayed! for Channel 4 and a documentary The Undiscovered Peter Cook for BBC Four featuring some of the satirist’s personal diaries, letters, photographs and recordings.