Friday, February 26, 2010

Risk And Reward

One thing I realize I didn’t mention in the previous post regarding my aversion to the American television schedule was the late night programming. The first time I stayed in New York for an extended period I was introduced to The Tonight Show and although Johnny Carson was by then a national institution, frankly I didn’t exactly see the appeal.

A few years later, after Carson’s retirement, I got into watching Letterman simply because Jay Leno was as entertaining as staring at a baked potato in a microwave oven that wasn’t working but even then I could only take all the shtick and banter with the band and the guests coming on to shill their latest book or film or TV show in small doses. It was bad enough seeing that abroad, where the best way to avoid it was stay in the bar, but worse was finding those same routines infect British chat shows where the guests became an instrument for the self–aggrandizing hosts to make it all about them.

I suppose this aversion was because I had grown up watching proper interviews where the host was actually interested in what the guest had to say and the guest was happy to engage in a dialogue with them. At that early age, the king of the UK chat show was Michael Parkinson whose shows always featured an occasional eclectic mixture of interesting personalities who didn’t see their appearance as simply another pit stop on a tiring promotional tour. When Parkinson went off the air in 1982 the competition dotted around the schedules was more about entertainment than simply listening to what people had to say, turning the spoken word into background muzak.

It wasn’t until the end of the decade that the BBC tried to redress the balance by resurrecting Face to Face. I hadn’t been around when the series first debuted, hosted by the former politician John Freeman who rarely appeared on screen as the camera concentrated on the interviewee rather than cutting back and forth between the pair. With Jeremy Isaacs taking over as inquisitor the series may not have had the impact of the original but still managed to produce some astonishing interviews, most particularly the moving edition with Paul Eddington broadcast a month before his untimely death in late 1995 from non–Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

All these years later I can still remember the actor, after discussing his life and career, from his Quaker roots to his celebrated sitcom roles as Jerry Leadbetter and Jim Hacker, consider his legacy and admit that for an epitaph he had decided upon: “He did very little harm,” which is not always an easy thing to achieve in this life. In a way it was a reminder of Melvyn Bragg’s affecting interview with Dennis Potter shown on Channel 4 the previous year. Defiantly chain–smoking and breaking off to swig liquid morphine to ease the pain from the pancreatic and liver cancer (which he gleefully announced he had named in honour of Rupert Murdoch), the playwright used this one last time in front of the cameras to show what a master of the medium he was.

Knowing his days were clearly numbered, Potter revelled in the things that made life worth living: the “blossomest blossom” he could see from his office window and the cigarettes that still remained “lovely tubes of delight”. When it was decided that life was too short even to shoot Murdoch if he could when there was work still to do, Potter gently pressured the BBC and Channel 4 to produce Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, his final pair of interconnecting plays, which he hoped would be a fitting memorial to his life’s work in the arts. Anyone who watched the programme would agree it stood head and shoulders about the inane chit–chat and worthless trivialities that polluted the current talk show format.

This past decade, carrying on from Face to Face we’d had the irregular series of Mark Lawson Talks To interviews on BBC4, continuing to fight a corner for intelligent and revealing conversation. Having just two people in chairs with cameras pointed at them, actually talking about something relevant continues to show what a difference it makes without having an audience of gurgling chuckleheads that both host and guest feel they have to play to and keep entertained in case those boobs start having a temper tantrum because nobody is paying them the slightest attention.

If anyone thinks having a live audience is a good thing, this past Tuesday showed that kind of reasoning needs to be adjusted with a few sharp whacks of a croquet mallet. For anyone here who wasn’t listening to Brian Sibley and Lord Puttnam discuss the current state of the movie business on Radio 2 in their decade–on sequel to David Puttnam’s Century of Cinema, on BBC4 Mark Lawson was sitting down with actor Brian Cox for an incredibly revealing talk that capped an evening of programming that included the documentary Brian Cox’s Jute Journey and the political drama On Expenses, which featured Cox as Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House of Commons forced to resign over the MP’s expenses scandal.

Meanwhile, across the water on CBS’s The Late Late Show Craig Ferguson, who is rapidly turning out to be the most interesting of the late night chat show hosts by not pandering to the absolute dregs of the lowest common denominators, tried an intriguing experiment. Maybe his competitors should give it a go once in a while if the results are going to be this damn good...


At 1:25 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Interesting. Any idea how the audience-less show went down?
And thanks for the name-check by the way... ;)

At 6:07 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I’ve been sniffing around, looking for the numbers, but haven’t seen anything yet.

I thought it was a cracking show. From time to time I’ll watch clips from the late night shows on the NBC and CBS websites. I liked Letterman because he wasn’t a tragically pathetic kiss–ass with the personality of empty plastic bag like the tragically passive aggressive Jay Leno. But now that Paul Shaffer seems to have taken it upon himself to be a unacknowledged co–host by butting in all the damn time, I’m rapidly going off the show.

Craig Ferguson, at least, brings an uncommon intelligence to his role as host and appears to be actively engaged and interested in his guests, rather than just going for the easy laugh at their expense. Even so, with all these shows, whoever the host, the audience members always seems to off their Ritalin. Instead of bleacher seats I half expect there to be rubber tyres hanging from ropes.

Of course you’re going to get a name–check. David Puttnam’s Century of Cinema was really entertaining and informative and everything that we should expect from the BBC but don’t get enough of nowadays.

At 4:49 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

I just watched the Ferguson/Fry conversation on Hulu and you're right, it's head-and-shoulders above any of the regular late-night material you get on either side of the Atlantic. Chat these days is invariably driven and controlled by a promotional agenda. No one ever says anything of interest, and no one dares ask a question that might provoke them to.

Back in the 80s I only knew Ferguson as a standup who sometimes performed under the name of 'Bing Hitler'; I'm sure that if you were to Google 'died on his arse' then Ferguson's name would lead the hits. But he's found the place where he excels. In the course of it he's embraced America and America's embraced him back.

I only wish I had the stamina to stay awake until he's on!

At 6:30 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

One of the reasons I like the Mark Lawson interviews is that he does the research and has a good conversation with the subject. Because of the years he has put in as a radio presenter and interviewer he’s still very much in the habit of nodding vigorously in response to their answers so keep the audio clean. In the edit they keep cutting away to him doing just that, which seems a little bizarre.

I was aware of Ferguson in the 1980s, whether it was for being Bing Hitler I can’t remember but he must have made some impression because when he turned up on The Drew Carey Show a decade or so later my initial reaction was, “Oh, that’s where he’s gone.”


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