Lament for Ftn

When I finally aquired multi-channel TV, in this case Freeview, a little under a year ago, I found one or two channels especially good for providing repeats of forgotten gems: Rumpole of the Bailey and Jeeves and Wooster on ITV3, for instance.

After a few months, earlier this year, I noticed Ftn (apparently it stood for Flextech Television Network, despite not being properly capitalised and despite by this time being owned by Virgin). As well as a lot of crap supernatural programmes with that shameless exploiter of the vulnerable Colin Fry, it had some repeats of some serious guilty pleasures.

Gladiators, for instance, looks very different from a 21st-century perspective. Although seeming rather slow-paced and hammy, with lots of big hair in the earlier series, it actually has quite a few things going for it when compared to gameshows today. Firstly, it seems incredibly innocent: at no point do the show’s producers try to manipulate the contestants into bitching about each other, starting a catfight or bursting into tears. Wolf might push a few people over, but it is pure pantomime theatricality. The other thing about it is that it genuinely involved a lot of physical exertion, and at times risk: contestants (and occasionally gladiators) did, now and again, get knocked out, hurt their backs or lose a tooth. The games looked superficially gimmicky, but they required some genuine physical prowess, not just the ability to sing a bit and preen for the cameras. Back in the mid-1990s I would never have expected to have felt nostalgia for Britain under John Major.

Some TV programmes from childhood disappoint when seen from two feet further off the ground: not so The Crystal Maze, also sporadically repeated on Ftn (but only Richard O’Brien editions), which remains inventive, amusing and infuriating to watch. The Krypton Factor, by contrast seems phenomenally slow, but once you adjust to this again becomes quite enjoyable. These were some of the oldest repeats on Ftn: recently it was showing the 1987 series, for which the flight simulator had yet to become a regular fixture and was instead an innovation for the quarter finals. The difference in picture quality was also marked: I’m guessing this was down to some old-fashioned cameras being in use at Granada at the time, but I could be wrong. Much more recent was Fifteen to One, whose final series was partly-repeated over the last few weeks.

Other programmes did not stand up so well to being dusted down: early-90s editions of Bullseye with Jim Bowen making weak anti-EU jokes as part of the pre-game banter; and 3-2-1, with its mixture of cheesy quiz and cabaret light entertainment sections looking like something from before humanity had fully evolved.

A new discovery for me was Takeshi’s Castle, a cult Japanese gameshow from the late 1980s involving all sorts of outlandish physical challenges: it only hit the UK properly in 2003, being re-edited and given a scripted voice-over by Craig Charles. Much as Craig Charles strikes me as an essentially unpleasant human being, the combination was brilliantly effective and Takeshi’s Castle became yet another guilty pleasure. At other times Ftn even had drama repeats: Channel 4’s Teachers (but only the first series) and the early episodes of The X Files.

Ftn has now been taken off-air and replaced by Virgin 1: its scheduling was always massively arbitrary, with programmes vanishing without any explanation, but it was fascinating to see a cheap-as-chips channel in its final months. I don’t want to give the impression that I watched it the whole time, but I certainly used to dip into it if I had some time free in the evenings: it’s a shame it’s now no longer there. Awooga!


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