Tuesday, August 19, 2003 by

There can’t have been such a large number of people outside the Hawley Crescent studios since the union picket line was set up during the 1987 TV-am strike. “Monday to Thursday, TRL is live on your screens!” Dave Berry shouted at the camera, attempting to make himself heard over the screams of a good thousand or so people. And with that, another pop show was launched.

MTV has an odd reputation in Britain. For many years mocked, not least on The Day Today‘s “Rok TV”, as a haven for American English-speaking Europeans linking Metallica videos, the 1997 launch of MTV UK saw the channel attempt to become cool, first by osmosis through live shows and turning up at top events, and in the last couple of years by letting the parent US company do all the legwork spearheaded by the likes of Jackass and The Osbournes, leaving daytime schedules largely free of not only UK content but also music videos. The UK version of the ultra-successful US format Total Request Live is an attempt to rectify both of these oversights, with the difference that while Americans get to look down on Times Square, we’re treated to a car park in Camden. Right from this opening shot, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was how low-rent the venture was going to be.

“This feels a little bit cold – we need it to be warmed by the moisture of A-list celebrities!” was Berry’s baffling opening shot when he got inside away from the throng. MTV pride themselves on their presenter-spotting, from bringing on Davina McCall when the channel was still European to first TV slots for Cat Deeley, June Sarpong, Richard Blackwood and Edith Bowman among others. Running terrestrial adverts centering more on Berry than the premise of the show would suggest they want that run to continue. Inside the small-looking studio, looking oddly like a slightly tuned-down version of The Word‘s set, was another couple of hundred overexcited kids. Good for “creating an atmosphere”, true, but it meant Berry had to spend virtually the whole show bellowing, and for the viewer it doesn’t make for the greatest experience, especially in the opening minutes of a new show – yes, they’re enjoying themselves in the studio, but what about us having to strain to hear the links?

The first guest, necessitating every video being cut down to a couple of minutes, was Angelina Jolie, in town for the Tomb Raider 2 premiere (“it’s sexier, it’s smarter – it’s just better”) but according to Dave “we’ve seen each other a lot”, with no explanation forthcoming. First question : “What do you think of TRL UK?” This after five minutes. One question later Berry marched Jolie outside, as “that’s what TRL is all about – fans meeting Angelina, Angelina meeting fans!” Which is nice, especially as said fans appear to have all brought along suspiciously box-fresh Tomb Raider 2 posters, but for those of us who can’t get to London at 4.30pm, or much earlier to get a good spot it smacks of excluding everyone at home, being told that we must be enjoying the show because other people are.

Back inside, Berry is struggling, making a mess of some apparently TRL-patented horseplay with the guest. First day nerves, possibly, but he’s not putting any of himself into his presenting, keeping his cards in view at all times, not making much headway with the audience and delivering links far too fast. Meanwhile Emma Griffiths is out with the crowd, popping up in the middle of a video so a Jolie fan can show off her slightly worrying tribute tattoo. “Maybe you’ll get to meet her” is the response, overlooking the fact that she’s just been outside to meet her fans yet apparently missed her. Minutes later Griffiths marches them in anyway as we cut to a break. How are they reacting? How is Angelina reacting? Both have disappeared when we come back, so we never find out, but we do get to see Jason Biggs in an unhilarious spot talking about the show, after which Berry assures us “I had to choose between having him on and having you [Jolie] on – do you think I made the right decision?” More cheering before Jolie spoils the gag by professing never to have seen any of the American Pie films.

Then the big screen in the studio flashes up a picture of Dave’s head on Lara Croft’s body to little effect before Jolie reveals everyone in the studio can join her at the premiere if fellow guests the Foo Fighters (“nobody invited us!”) get a question right on their behalf, which they do but nobody’s allowed to celebrate for too long as there’s a video to cut straight to. The idea is that anything can happen if you join them in the studio, for which there’ll presumably be a waiting list soon enough, yet that means nothing again for those of us watching at home. Not once during the show does Dave remember to mention just how you can vote for your favourite videos.

After a news update which consists of people talking about Christina Aguilera rather than any actual music news, Dave races through a decent competition to go to the Video Music Awards to get to Blazin’ Squad being interviewed by Griffiths right next to the crowd. That means not only can they not hear each other at times but we can hardly hear them either. Inside Dave introduces the Foo Fighters only for them not to turn up, leaving Berry and the director both struggling to fill, neither seemingly realising they should have played a video clip first. Emma turns up to introduce an impenetrable game involving Berry and a male member of the audience, who she names despite never having introduced, putting on women’s clothes and having parts of their body waxed, proceeding to make even more of a mess of her lines than Dave has so far. Cutaways reveal that Dave Grohl can’t quite believe what he’s watching either. Hasn’t this sort of thing been done many times before, with no discernible viewer interest? Only after the number one, the introduction to which is completely unintelligible, and the Foo Fighters performing acoustically, does the viewer realise when they’re thanked for their attendance on the hitherto unused big outside stage that Blazin’ Squad haven’t so much as introduced their video, although they do get the ceremonial garage “boo!” going just as Dave thanks the Foos. Meanwhile a long shot of the stage reveals Zane Lowe has turned up without being announced and as a consequence looks like he’s impersonating a headless chicken. He’s there to present a follow-up live show interviewing the Foos, not that any word of Berry’s outro can be made out.

Select MTV, TRL‘s MTV UK predecessor which ran until the end of 2001, provided viewers with an easier inlet – ring up and select a video to be shown immediately if you get on air, or just watch one presenter link the calls and talk to studio guests in an enclosed studio for two hours, twice as long as TRL. Crucially, it never severed the link between presenter and viewer, whereas setting a show alongside a huge screaming crowd makes it nigh on impossible, all the guests being required to play to the fans almost with disrespect for the people at home. Yes, we can ring the premium rate number and vote for our favourite videos if we want to stamp our authority on the show, or alternatively we could turn over to one of up to 11 (on Sky Digital) 24 hour music request stations and be guaranteed of actually seeing our choice in full. It may have the name of the influential American show, but it’s hard to see how our version will be as trend-setting as long as it stays a televised party for those in attendance only.


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