Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Claptrap to Make Heath Robinson Turn in His Grave; Mechannibals UKTV Docs

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Claptrap to Make Heath Robinson Turn in His Grave; Mechannibals UKTV Docs

Article excerpt


WHO can forget those shameful scenes on the Continent during the early years of Margaret Thatcher's reign, when this country would regularly engage in ridiculous confrontations with its posturing European neighbours, each displaying the worst aspects of their national characters by conforming to xenophobic stereotype?

No, I'm not referring to the Tory party's absurd squabbles at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, I was thinking of International It's a Knockout (or Jeux Sans Frontieres, as Brussels insisted we should call it), in which Union Jack-clad Brits competed with beret-wearing Frogs and lederhosen-ed Krauts, in what seemed less like a sporting occasion than a televisual reenactment of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Every Friday evening, enormous rubber breasts were filled with custard (maybe I am thinking of Strasbourg), pianos were smashed and forced through eight-inch holes, technicolored gunge was sprayed over packed arenas, jumped-up mayors from hick towns were given four-second interviews, and jokers were played with great ceremony, though with no discernible tactical acumen.

And saddest of all, contestants trapped inside gigantic plastic pantomime costumes would receive multiple concussion from swinging sandbags, their desperate cries for help muffled by their outfits as the grotesque rictus grins on their giant painted faces belied the irreversible neurological tragedy that was taking place within.

Jeux Sans Frontieres has gone from our screens, but its spirit of pointless destruction lives on in Mechannibals. Billed as "a series championing the ingenuity of Britain's real-life backyard inventors", it's really nothing more than a pretext for families to wreck every domestic appliance in their own houses, not for any useful purpose, but merely to build an idiotic machine that even Heath Robinson would deride as absurdly rickety and unnecessarily complicated.

By the end of each week's episode, all the contestants could legitimately be said to have come from a broken home (because we've just watched them breaking it), which might seem odd as they're certainly not natural hoodlums, more the kind of swotty middleclass families who used to appear on Ask the Family back in the Sixties. You know the sort: homely, unphotogenic types who were never invited to parties as teenagers, so had to stay in reading books instead, and ended up as librarians, academics or boffins.

Last night's task was to build a machine that could exercise, feed and wash a dog, although luckily they weren't asked to make a dog drink (I was once told to do that, so I naturally put the pet Chihuahua in a blender - I was never asked back).

I've no wish to embarrass the contestants in public, so I'll just refer to them as Ugly Family I and II (though their real names were Pritchard and Inglis), and they promptly began demolishing the cars and domestic appliances they'd worked for years to acquire, simply because this was television, a cruel and capricious mistress who must be obeyed. …

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