It may have come about quickly due to current circumstances, but bringing the joy of Wittertainment to television has been long overdue.
When the late, great Barry Norman was guiding us through movies at the height of the BBC’s Film programme’s success in the 80s and early 90s, he kept it simple: a chair, an unfussy studio, and just someone who loves films talking to the camera. No gimmicks, just film chat. I found it unmissable, and looked forward to it every week.
Watching the first two episodes of Kermode & Mayo’s Home Entertainment Service on BBC Four these past couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but wonder what backdrop Norman would have chosen for lockdown broadcasting. Would he have had a book and record set of Battle For The Planet Of The Apes on his bookshelf? Or a hardback thriller by Lee Child? An avid reader, Norman was bound to have a shelf of books in there somewhere, after all.
It can’t just be me, then, having a good nose at what adorns the shelves of Dr Mayo and Dr Kermode’s spare room and broom cupboard respectively. Note, for instance, how Mayo has three empty plug sockets next to his shelves, so no problem plugging in the Hoover there. Nor charging your phone, given that two of them appear to have USB sockets. There’s posh.
But then it can’t just be me either who thinks the simplicity of the format they work to is the closest we’ve come to the majesty of Barry Norman on the small screen in a long time. That, after trying more complex approaches, we’re back to the BBC commissioning a film show with a camera pointing at a human (well, two of them, hundreds of miles apart), talking about screen entertainment.
To be clear: this isn’t an article about the end of the traditional BBC film programme, nor encouraging any kind of pile-on. Once Norman left the BBC for a contract at Sky, the BBC’s Film show had well-charted ups and downs with its subsequent hosts, and format changes that took it away – for me – from what always made it work. I’m also very much aware that the new format worked for many, and brilliant people were involved. I for one was sad when the plug was pulled back in 2018, no matter how many think pieces sprung up suggesting otherwise.
But now? I think Kermode & Mayo’s Home Entertainment Service is an impressive, long overdue way forward. And what I already like about it how straightforward it all is.
Simply, it’s two people who know their stuff. They’re chatting about film, about streaming, about television. And they’re having a conversation that very much includes us, the viewer. Very much so in one sense, given that there’s a segment given over to ‘sofa correspondents’. But what I’m more getting at is the fact that these aren’t two people showing off their knowledge. They’re starting a conversation. The premise of the show is to give us things to watch at home on streaming and free to air services. As such, we’re presented with some productions we’ll have heard of, some we won’t. They’re described succinctly, and where appropriate, critically assessed. All whilst keeping the spirit of a good-spirited conversation.
I love how positive it is, too, Even when something isn’t particularly liked, there’s no nastiness to it. You can see the pair want to like what they’re talking about, and their conversations clearly try hard to look for upsides.
It’s compressed into a fast half an hour – fast, without being impatient – and by the time the credits roll, it feels like it’s taken half the time to watch than it actually has.
The format still affords space for intelligent dissection of a show or film, interspersed by reviews from people sat in far tidier houses than me, and an interview or two via a shaky broadband line. Yet what else does it need? Fancy camerawork and extensive outside broadcasts? I think not.
Is, then, the structure and programme that’s been arrived upon a degree of hostage of circumstances at work? Maybe so. After all, even if there was a plan for something more ambitious, it’s hardly feasible what with one thing or another.
It’s also come together – after all this time – incredibly quickly. The show has been commissioned, recorded and broadcast during the current lockdown. It’s little secret that there’s been chat about the pair doing a film television programme for years, and it seems that had we not being going through the current situation, it wouldn’t have come together.
But we are and it has.
The circumstances in which it’s filmed place restrictions on just what they can do with the show, yet the resultant production feels happy with that. As it should. This is what the hugely successful Radio Five Live radio programme – Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review – has been delivering for a very long time (put together by the same production company, Somethin Else, too).
The radio programme, Wittertainment to its mates, has two hours a week to do what the team do here. Yet the television sibling has captured what makes the show such friendly listening. And by taking out the chat about 70s music, has got it successfully down to a quarter of its regular size as well.
The more I think about it, the more I can’t imagine that had the budget for the television spin-off been ten times as much and with no lockdown in place, they’d have strayed too much further than what they’ve gone with here. Sure, they might be in the same room, and the webcams might have to go. But really: what else do we need? Watching it, it took me minutes to realise that this feels something obvious that television should have been doing, yet it doesn’t seem to have had the courage to try something so down to earth. I’m glad it now has.
Almost by chance it seems, then, the BBC has uncovered something that really works here. That, for the first time in a good while, there’s a must-see film programme – appreciating the coverage of television too – back on the schedules. I like to think that Barry Norman would have approved, too.
Of course, it would arrive at a time when the future of the channel it’s hosted on – BBC Four – is back in significant doubt. Clearly I hope BBC Four gets through this latest challenge to its existence, but also, I very much hope that whatever way the channel goes, and whatever way the world goes, there’s room for more Kermode & Mayo’s Home Entertainment Service.
Perhaps with a quick hello to Jason Isaacs, too.
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Become a Patron here.
Sign up for our email newsletter here.
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.