OFI Sunday

Sunday, November 27, 2005 by

It’s one thing fronting a TV programme that’s been so intensely ill-conceived it doesn’t even have a proper ending. It’s quite another taking up two whole pages of Radio Times to make out you’ve spent five months working to guarantee the complete opposite.

“On next week’s show – well, we don’t know, so if you’re famous give us a call,” gurgled Chris Evans towards the end of an exhausting hike through the collapse of the second ever OFI Sunday. Rewind 10 days or so. “We’ve rewritten the show 30 times,” beamed Chris Evans towards the end of an exhaustive account of the creation of the first ever OFI Sunday. “We’ve brought in some items that we think are big-banker, high-energy ideas … I’m pretty sure we’re close to what we wanted … we have a great team.”

TV can forgive failure with remarkable grace, TV executives with an even greater speed. But the chasm that has so quickly opened up between the expectation of Evans’s return to mainstream telly and the reality of what is currently being put out under his command is one of such magnitude it deserves to hang around in the memory for a hell of a long time. How could he, us, everyone, have got it so wrong? How can the man put his name to such an ostensibly sincere, self-aware journal of his struggle to get back into high-profile television, then just over a week later helm one of the most unpalatable slices of TV imaginable?

Watching OFI Sunday is akin to observing 100 years of popular light entertainment sink sobbing to its knees. Everything you believed, trusted and enjoyed about television dissolves into thin air over the course of its arthritic, archaic 45 minutes. The omens, for what they were worth (a somewhat over-generous sum in retrospect), suggested otherwise: a decent turn at the Brit Awards, an even better one on Comic Relief Night, and a reasonably received return to BBC radio. Then came that big article in Radio Times – articulate, well-measured, even sympathetic. After hitting his peak as a broadcaster par excellence 10 years ago, everything implied now was just the right time for Evans’ second wind.

Well, 10 years is certainly an apt sum to conjure with, as that’s precisely how far back in time the man still seems to believe he and his audience should be. OFI Sunday‘s first, but not its greatest, misdemeanour is to presume nothing has changed in television over the past decade. The mood, the pace, the volume, the structure – everything about the show reeks of the mid-1990s, a time when such conceits as spontaneous banter with random members of the public, celebrity guests being surprised with requests to participate in undignified stunts, tons and tons of brightly-coloured props and wacky sound effects, and a torrent of badly-delivered single entendre were at the very least exciting, at times utterly revolutionary.

But that was then, and TV has moved on – something that has happened not through any grand conspiracy to rob people like Evans of their empire, but because quite simply audiences wanted it to. Nobody sees through lazy, derivative programmes sharper, and nobody picks up on diminishing returns quicker, than the ordinary TV viewer. And while Evans is about as far removed from an ordinary TV viewer as you can get, he continues to behave and act as if he is one.

Hence so many times during this show Evans purports to engage in affable, everyday chat and reportage, only for it to sound patronising, or offensive, or just plain daft. Quite simply, he appears to have forgotten how to hold a proper conversation with anyone. His banter with the ubiquitous stooges (a premise that was wearing pretty thin even back in 1995) is peppered with the equally ubiquitous in-jokes, his conversation with the guests full of non-sequiturs and cliquey gossip, and his badinage with the studio audience bizarrely fractured and faltering.

Were the format of the show not so desperately based around Evans and his foibles then perhaps this wouldn’t matter quite so much. But of course OFI Sunday is precisely about Evans and his foibles; they’re the foundation of the entire proceedings, from the unprepossessing title sequence (with a song written by the man himself: “He’s been through the shit/Now he’s back out of it”) to the bit where we find out what Chris has been up to this week, to the bit where he challenges the studio audience to guess whether a particularly gaudy artefact is “Mine … or not mine!”, to the bit where he cuts to some footage of himself doing some outrageous piece of business in a public place. Then there’s the lowest point of all, the bit where he reveals he’s taken a Polaroid photo during the break, but is only going to let his guest see it, which he duly does, only for the guest to burst into huge gales of laughter and the photo to be duly destroyed.

Rarely has there been a presenter on British television less bothered about entertaining a nation and more preoccupied with perpetuating pranks and ruses for a private audience of less than two. On comes the guest, who has to bang a gong for the show to officially begin (cue the obligatory jingle declaring “Who’s gonna bang that gong tonight, who’s gonna bang that gong?”) On come the stooges, staring lifelessly into the camera or into Chris’s face, altogether creepy in their inability to ever strike a lifelike pose. On come more of Chris’s possessions for us to marvel at. His first guest was his ex-wife, his second one of his best mates … and he’s already reached the point of using airtime to appeal for somebody else to turn up next week.

For such a much-trailed comeback and hugely-fanfared return, all this would be bad enough. But then there’s the way those things that could so easily have been sorted – the running order, the script, the video inserts, even the camera positions – are themselves all to pot. As already noted, tonight’s show didn’t even have an ending, Evans stumbling over the right way to wish viewers goodbye, before helplessly throwing to his guest, the actor James Nesbitt, to do a bit of impromptu karaoke. This being Chris Evans, though, the karaoke band weren’t just any old group, but one that Evans and Nesbitt had come across in some posh hotel, whose presence sent them into stitches but meant absolutely bugger all to everybody else in the studio and at home.

This is the programme’s most fatal flaw: the way it reveals Evans to be the master of, for want of a phrase, the compound insult. It’s not enough for us to feel pissed off at what’s merely in the show; we’re made to feel pissed off at having switched on in the first place after being led to expect greatness and fun and “big-banker, high-energy ideas”. It’s not enough to feel that Evans doesn’t appear to know what he’s doing; given the technical faults and lousy production, it’s made to appear that nobody knows what they’re doing. It’s not enough to see Evans repeating himself, dredging up gimmicks from nearly a generation ago; we have to see him make everyone repeat themselves, from the stooges to the audience to the guests.

“All new OFI Sunday,” was how the continuity announcer introduced this show. Pressed with the choice of being damned with faint praise or worshipped with false idols, it’s sure bet how Chris Evans would react. He’d bring on a pair of giant inflatable breasts and scream repeatedly “You will love this!”


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