Saturday, June 28, 2008

Keynotes with Richard Wilkins

Originally uploaded by JungsPN

A lot of people in Australia are discussing why no one wants to watch gameshows anymore. It's an interesting question. Maybe they've gone the way of vaudeville and video magazines. Maybe they just aren't interesting anymore, lord knows even a million dollar giveaway doesn't sound like much these days, since that would get you two tanks of petrol and a banana. Is it the hosts? Is it the prizes? Do we need to go back to Tony Barber, cartons of cigarettes as prizes, Pete Smith and crock pots? Do we spend more time on the human element or less? It's a question greater television minds than me are pondering right now, Personally, if anyone ever starts talking about the last golden era of old school television game shows from the early 90s, I can tell exactly where the music died, or to put it another way, when the small yodelling man went off the cliff. It was the debut of Keynotes with Richard Wilkins in 1992.

I have really vivid memories of 1992 - I had friends that I was too shy to ring, so I lived in Burnie, went for long walks, and came home only in time to see cricket and feel sorry for myself. Despite these clear memorie, Keynotes really passed me by at the time and it was only much later that I saw an episode. Now, I have two memories of this that compete really hard against each other. Either I had a raging hangover and couldn't get to sleep, or I was on a plane with limited entertainment options. I know that either way, I had this feeling that I was trapped and couldn't get out, surrounded by mambo shirts, bad singing and Richard Wilkins. Maybe it was all a dream, but I can describe exactly my feelings on the game, or lack there of, just from memory.

Richard Wilkins is our much mocked entertainment everyman, although I can't think of anything he's done massively wrong, except date Tottie Goldsmith. I think the reason he gets such a hard time is because he is so awkward, stilted and lacking any kind of natural charm. Give him an autocue and a script, and he's fine, but anything that requires an inventive mind. He's great for guiding a fluffy interview with, say, Matt Welsh, but I remember his work with Robin Williams where he looked ridiculously uncomfortable and genuinely frightened. Putting him in a game show format wasn't playing to his strenghs. Australian gameshows are always rooted on the premise that a complete disaster is looming. Sale Of The Century was the only real exception since that was probably about general knowledge, although even they sometimes had the cage with the cash clonk Barber on the head. Throw Wilkins some unscripted unintentional innuendo and he couldn't run with it. He'd need the joke fed to him through an earpeace. This was bad enough, since he was already required to sing and dance on the show with the contestants and be nice to people. It was a lot to take in.

The show itself was inoffensive enough, although intensely annoying. People would answer a question along the lines of Belinda Carlisle said Heaven was a place on a) Earth b) Wind c) Fire. If you got it right, you got a note of a song (played on a Casio X2400 keyboard) and when you got 9 notes, you could work out what the song was. Not the worst idea for a game show, but the kicker was you only got on if you were the stupidest person on earth. And the only alternate to that was that you wore an incredibly loud Mambo shirt. If in the audition you answered c) Fire and had a huge Mambo shirt, you were a shoo in to get on the show. I honestly think Keynotes was part of a much bigger thing that happened in 1992 - it was the start of the dumbing down of our televisual culture. Television started to make dumber and dumber shows as the decade progressed. Sale Of the Century replaced by Keynotes, 60 Minutes replaced by Real Life with Stan Grant, the Comedy Company replaced by Bob Morrison...OK, scrub that last one, but Keynotes is a vivid celebration of crass stupidity. I can still see one contestant in a Mambo shirt who responds to a basic Wilkins scripted line by snorting. Then standing absolutely still, unable to answer what he does for a living. Then snorting again. Handed this televisual gift, Wilkins simply moves on, unable to mine the most basic comedic capital from this. It's everything that's wrong with the show in just 10 short seconds. And he had no idea what the blank in Careless (blank) was. He thought it was Carless Shout.

A lot of people make mention of things that are exclusively rooted in time and place. I remember Stuart Maconie talking about the Osmonds in this way. Keynotes with Richard Wilkins has 1992 stamped through it so vividly, as they play George Michael songs and Wilkins says a Ratcat song is a "rocking tune", but it could be on right now, hosted by a typically modern stupid celebrity, a Rebel Wilson or a Tim Campbell. It's the end of everything, and the start of everything, a modern show from the past, a futuristic glimpse into what TV should be like that already looks dated. It's like watching Purple Rain. It's a headtrip and banal at the same time - a complex, bizarre riddle of a show. It's amazing no one has ever brought it out on DVD, or talked about it's social context. It means something different to me whenever I see it.

And it makes me feel like the man stuck down the drain for 3 days when I watch it.

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