Never mind the guest presenters
The fashion for using a variety of hosts to replace a familiar front man reveals the BBC's indecision.
What do you do when a popular television show loses its main attraction, your main man?
First of all, you can carry on and pretend nothing’s changed. This has had mixed results. It was the tactic the BBC and ITV employed with This is Your Life, which since 1955 had become synonymous with its presenter, Eamonn Andrews. Upon his death in 1987, Michael Aspel took up the reins, but nothing really seemed the same again, and after struggling along for years, it was axed in 2003, only to be revived again two years ago. But it remains a sorry shadow of its former self, owing mainly to the fact that Andrews was a quietly spoken, unassuming everyman, with whom the audience could empathise and to whom the show’s format was uniquely suited.
Monty Python decided to carry on with their final TV series without John Cleese, but it was obvious something was missing, which is partly why it was their last TV series. ITV had better luck with Family Fortunes, which was to most minds inexorably linked with Bob Monkhouse, yet he was successfully replaced by Max Bygraves in 1983, then Les Dennis. All Star Family Fortunes is brought to us today by Vernon Kay.
University Challenge has survived the legacy of Bamber Gascoigne and is now Jeremy Paxman’s baby, while with John Humphrys in the chair, Mastermind is no longer ‘that show from the 1970s with Magnus Magnusson’. Channel 4 has attempted to do likewise with Countdown after the death of its anchorman Richard Whiteley in 2005, but his various replacements – Des Lynam, Des O’Connor and Jeff Stelling – have failed to capture the essence of the show, which Whiteley, with his giggling fits and deliberately appalling puns, made his own.
Secondly, you can depersonalise a show. John Craven’s Newsround, first broadcast in 1972, became simply Newsround in 1989 upon the eponymous presenter’s retirement from the programme, and has since been fronted by a procession of wide-eyed simpletons.
Thirdly, you just cancel a programme altogether. When, like the BBC did, you lose the presenter of a chat-show called Wogan, as the Beeb did in 1992, there’s little point in trying to revive it.
Fourthly, there is the sci-fi get-out clause, which has been used by the makers of Dr Who for decades now. Simply get around the problem of actors leaving or dying by inserting a magical clause in the narrative that the Doctor occasionally ‘regenerates’. But when the Doctor regenerated into Sylvester McCoy in 1987, it proved that even this tactic was not fail-safe.
This decade has seen a new and rather strange development, demonstrated most often by the BBC’s attitude to quiz shows. This fresh ploy to deal with departed regular, popular presenters associated with a show is simply to carry on without any regular presenter.
You could witness the mood of dithering and hesitancy within the Beeb after its celebrated radio presenter Humphrey Lyttleton died in April last year. Much cherished by listeners of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, ‘Humph’ had chaired the programme since its first episode in 1972, and was so beloved by the Radio 4 audience that the BBC, fearful of its radio listeners’ notoriously belligerent and cantankerous reputation, considered scrapping I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue altogether (1). A timid compromise was made in having Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon as replacement chairmen on a rotational basis, so presumably, X-Factor-style, the BBC could adjudge who would be regarded as the ‘winning’ presenter. The ‘winner’ in this case, so far, seems to be Jack Dee.
I suspect BBC radio producers took their lead from their TV colleagues over in West London. From White City, the BBC has produced one of the sharpest and wittiest comedy panel shows of our times, Have I Got News for You, which from its inception in 1990 until 2002 was personified by its regular panellists – the impish Ian Hislop and the languid Paul Merton – and by its droll, sarcastic presenter Angus Deayton. Yet, following stories in the tabloids about Deayton’s drug use and dalliances with prostitutes, he was fired in 2002 – and has never been replaced.
Ever since, HIGNFY has featured ‘guest’ presenters, whose incompetence the show’s makers try to make a joke out of by repeating an extended version of the programme each weekend as Have I Got A Bit More News For You, principally to feature the inability of these ‘guest’ presenters to put a sentence together or read an autocue properly. It’s fairly amusing, but betrays a cast-iron truism of the arts: whenever an act becomes self-referential you know its in decline. The Beatles proved as much with their 1968 ‘White Album’, as did The Who in 1973 with Quadrophenia. You could tell Philip K Dick had clearly gone bonkers when he wrote Valis in 1981, a novel in which he is the protagonist, and you knew Viz wasn’t funny any more when it started to advertise the fact.
Now, the makers of Never Mind the Buzzcocks have followed suit. Although Buzzcocks in a way blatantly mimicked HIGNFY‘s format – it being a quiz show in which laughs, rather than points, mattered – it has proved deservedly successful since first being aired in 1996. Until 2005, it was chaired by Mark Lamarr, who was just as wonderfully cynical as Deayton (the best comedy demands cynicism, which is why comedians shouldn’t be taken seriously in real life). While he might have lacked Deayton’s talent for understatement and the ability to arch an eye-brow at a well-timed moment, Lamarr made up for it with his abrasiveness and feigned outrage.
Lamarr has since disappeared into the world of radio, replaced by Simon Amstell in 2006. Although Amstell, on paper, looked every bit the clichéd comedian, being gay and Jewish, he is not the stereotyped ‘tortured’ homosexual, nor the lurid ‘outrageous’ gay who makes jokes about bums, nor a likewise ‘tortured’ Jewish person who makes references to his overbearing mother and her chicken soup. Rather Amstell is just a very funny person who has a unsettling knack of being incredibly rude to people while looking them straight eye with a beaming smile and cherubic face.
Or, he did have that knack. This April, Amstell announced his departure from Buzzcocks, and now it, too, features a parade of guest presenters, also with mixed success. The normally excellent Mark Watson was pretty poor the other week, but I know that he has been feeling unconfident about his comedy career recently (he is a frequent and especially candid user of Twitter), so I suspect this affected his performance. On the other hand, Martin Freeman was composed, quick and commanding this week (2). It did help that guests included the bizarre Dappy from N-Dubz, and Britain’s leading misanthrope Charlie Brooker, whose formulaic left-liberal rantings about politics are very much to be avoided, but whose observations about television are unrivalled.
But that’s not really the point. Buzzcocks is a fine show, as is HIGNFY, but being rudderless, it runs the danger of following HIGNFY into a miasma of self-referentiality and in-jokes – funny only to devotees of the show and forbidding towards any outsiders. There is much written these days about television companies and corporations being in ‘crisis’ owing to the recession, but perhaps a better way to avert a crisis would be if the likes of the BBC didn’t advertise so blatantly their own crisis in confidence. Just choose a presenter and let us like it or lump it.
Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.
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(1) He was the hub of the show, the urbane man surrounded by idiots, Guardian, 27 April 2008
(2) Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Series 23 Episode 8, BBC iPlayer