Friday Night With Jonathan Ross

Friday, March 8, 2002 by

Just when we most expected it Jonathan has returned with a second series of his BBC chat show. But there’s been no overture of publicity this time, and barely a mention on his companion Radio 2 show, other than to assure listeners it would be “fun”and “good”. A boldly noncommittal promise to be sure, but it was one that, if fulfilled, would at least have meant an advance on the sum of the first series.

How depressing it was to watch that first run of shows appear to fail on such a massive scale. Especially if you had, rather desperately when viewed with hindsight, made a point of honouring both Jonathan and his stooge Andy Davies with being “willing and sensible enough to admit mistakes and make improvements.” Such a rash foretelling was completely discredited just one minute into the second show of the first series, when it was miserably clear not a single element of the programme had been changed for the better. “BBC1 have landed one of the most promising new music-and-chat series for ages,” this reviewer’s original verdict concluded. But as the weeks unfolded it became apparent that here was a show that couldn’t even be explained away as being consistently bad. It was just so damn inconsistent. Set, format and personnel changed from one week to the next, never to any real improvement. It seemed the programme was consumed with a quest to find ever more ways to appear pointless and unsatisfactory.

So Friday Night with Jonathan Ross ended up one of the biggest disappointments of last year, yet one that had already been commissioned for a second, longer run in the spring of 2002. In the meantime a new chat show turned up on BBC1: Johnny Vaughan Tonight. And significantly, despite being truly “original” only in its scheduling (running thrice-weekly and aired earlier each evening on BBC Choice), this was still an impressive affair.

For a start there was a real house band who – correctly – performed the show’s theme tune as well as heralding the arrival of each guest – unlike “Four Poofs and a Piano” whose total contribution to each of Ross’ programmes was a couple of 15 second pastiches, and who didn’t even accompany the entrance of most of the guests, let alone provide the opening and closing music. Secondly Johnny had longer to chat with his guests, who by and large were interesting and imaginative choices. Jonathan’s line-ups had proved pretty much all flawed thanks to the inclusion of one or more charmless, boring celeb plugging their wares, or an overbearing irritating scene-stealer; and there was never enough time to get into a decent conversation with any of them. Lastly Johnny had a decent script with, once he’d relaxed into the role of front man, above average jokes, delivered well. In contrast, Jonathan’s patter, rather than improving over time, increasingly seemed of the worst kind of stilted, derivative, what’s-that-all-about? observational kind.

So there were now two major hurdles you felt Jonathan should make it his business to overcome: exorcise thoroughly the unseemly legacy of the first series, but also live up to and match some of what Johnny Vaughan had been able, perhaps surprisingly, to pull off. Of course there was already that sense of these being too steep mountains to climb. Why was it so easy to predict that, rather than go in for a major overhaul, the show would stubbornly cling to as many of its previous features and formats as possible? Perhaps because it felt such a lazy, careless effort first time round. Why invest one ounce more effort for this follow up than was really necessary?

What transpired was a mildly diverting, occasionally entertaining but mostly irritating recycling of most of the worst bits of the previous series. Rather than inconsistency, the feeling now was simply of indecision. It seemed like the show was opting neither for change, nor for the appearance of change, but chasing a bit of both, and often at the same time. So real, tangible adjustments – the replacing of the guest’s plastic chair with a long couch – and suggested, implied ones – an increased role for Andy, by making him perch the whole time on this large sofa, though he ended up saying little and grinning loads – followed one after the other to no particular effect other than confusion. The live music section seemed to have been dropped, at least for this first week, though the distracting and rather pointless “backstage” camera remained. The constant switching between the main studio and this hospitality suite was always jarring. It also implied we had some interest in what these celebrities were like “off camera”, boozing and feasting on Corporation finger food.

Tragically the same house band were still there, serving virtually no purpose whatsoever, and though Jonathan introduced them as “Four Poofs” plus piano there appeared to be just three – yet recalling how the line-up changed continually during the last series this should have come as no surprise. Another recurring feature of the first run was the way guests who’d excelled on the radio show had turned up on the TV version a week or so later, but to lesser effect – possibly down to the changed surroundings, the shorter timeslot, the botched format and so on. Unfortunately this looks set to carry on with this second series, certainly going off the evidence of June Brown’s ghastly turn – which was in complete opposite to her fine appearance on the radio last month. The overall running time is also still too short, and choice of guests ill-conceived: Brown was followed by Mel B, ostensibly to plug her appearance in The Vagina Monologues, but who had nothing whatsoever interesting to say. She was followed by Johnny Vegas, whose every utterance Jonathan, Andy and the over-the-top audience lapped up non-stop until their unceasing laughter sounded very false and patronising. Doubly so, given that he wasn’t really that funny.

But the biggest flaw of all was the tone. Not being prudish here, but the whole show was obsessed with smut. Nothing wrong with that in essence of course, yet here it came over as really contrived and unoriginal, as well as actually being far from amusing. Every guest was forced to spend more or less their whole time in discussion about genitals or sex or other body parts. This in itself could’ve been intriguing, or fun, or exciting in a kind of shocking or controversial vein. But the way Jonathan pursued his quarry smacked of the obsessive rather than mischievous. He effectively closed off all involvement in the programme – from guest, audience and viewer – for his own, almost selfish, pursuit of another innuendo. We weren’t in on the gags. The upshot was content that wasn’t shocking or particularly distasteful, just very self-indulgent and dull. Moreover, this was an agenda that invited all-too easy comparisons with Graham Norton.

All of these various flaws and defects resonated all the more for being so unnecessary. Again, a listen to Jonathan Ross’ radio show – or for that matter to recall Johnny Vaughan Tonight, and, to look a bit further back, The RDA – is to be immediately reminded how chat-based formats have still got potential to both surprise and entertain. In this instance it’s unhelpful and possibly unwise to close with anymore predictions or fulsome valedictions. Besides, appearing to remain blind to your own failings is perhaps plague enough.


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