Monday 24 October 2016

Television: What a long, strange trip

All Aboard! The Canal Trip (BBC4)

Published 11/05/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

For a moment, I thought the BBC had taken an idea from RTE, an historical reversal of an ancient tradition.

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"All Aboard! The Canal Trip" on BBC4 at first glance seemed like a canal trip in the style of Waterways, that lovely old show in which Dick Warner went boating in order to discover the meaning of life.

So who would be the BBC's Dick Warner? And since Dick had indeed discovered the meaning of life, somewhere around Abbeyshrule, what would be left out there for the new Dick Warner to impart?

Nothing, is the answer, because there was no new Dick Warner. There was in fact no-one at all presenting this programme. It was just a journey down the Kennet and Avon Canal filmed in real time and broadcast for two hours on Tuesday night as part of the BBC4 Goes Slow concept.

The viewer is "on the boat", as it were, enjoying the trip uninterrupted by the sound of an enthusiastic presenter giving out information about the history of the canal and talking to interesting people along the way - there is none of that, just a sense of stately movement through the English countryside, the sound of birdsong, the sight of people strolling along the towpath paying no heed to the fact that some ground-breaking television is quietly being made in their presence.

There is one small concession to our infernal thirst for knowledge, a series of short messages superimposed on the water or on a bridge or on the side of a barge, telling us who built the canal and why it was built and so forth. But it is so cleverly done, it does not intrude on our reverie.

It seems that word got around very quickly that there was something new going down on BBC4, because the viewing figures were strangely high. It seems that on this night, what the viewers wanted on TV was a TV programme with most of the characteristics of a TV programme taken out - interestingly, it was up against a Champions League match which didn't have any English teams in it, so that may have been a consideration, an offer of some alternative to the great public entertainments which usually sustain us.

In this age of anxiety, here we had two hours of quietness. Somewhere on another station the Eastenders were roaring at one another, there was an election going on, and all sorts of raucous programmes with presenters who were demanding that you pay attention to them, wanting you to like them, or to have an opinion about something that you don't really think about at all.

On All Aboard! The Canal Trip, you had nothing but a Canal Trip. Which is perhaps all you're looking for a lot of the time anyway - how many people are watching Midsomer Murders just to look at the scenery and the grand old houses? Take a way the murders, take away John Nettles and his pursuit of the truth and just drift through that part of the world on a barge and apparently you've still got a show.

Maybe they got the idea from watching Eurosport's coverage of the Tour de France, which brings us such fabulous scenes of the French countryside with the shooting through it.

I have long advocated this as a form of deep relaxation, and a way of enjoying a "holiday" in France without the logistical nightmare of actually going there - now just take out the peloton and all the stress of the racing and the drugs and the spectators shouting at the riders as they climb a mountain, and just put a camera on a bike going at ten miles an hour and keep the lavish aerial shots, and maybe you've another winner there.

So mindful were BBC4 of the mindfulness of the viewer, they didn't even have soothing music to go with the pictures. Next to this, an average day on Lyric FM would sound like some heavy metal festival of the 1970s headlined by Deep Purple, featuring performances by Ted Nugent, Judas Priest, and the Tygers of Pan Tang.

It is also a vision of paradise for TV executives, what with no "talent" to deal with, indeed very little human involvement at all, a de-peopled proposition.

It's going to get busy out there on the water.

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