When Louis Met… Chris

Tuesday, March 12, 2002 by

The current run of When Louis Met… whilst as entertaining as ever, has progressed into a mordant battle of wills between our erstwhile host, still deploying his bumbling sixth form shtick, and his increasingly media savvy guests.

The programme featuring the redoubtable Chris Eubank underlined this point as the show continued this unnatural evolution yet another stage. Whereas before Mr Theroux would kill his guests with kindness and gently massage their egos whilst simultaneously giving them just enough rope with which to hang themselves, it now has become apparently clear that guests are playing Louis at his own game. Not only that, but in the case of Eubank, winning on a majority verdict.

Like the asinine Anne Widdecombe a week earlier, Chris immediately dictated a no go area of filming. Unlike Anne though, you got the impression that this was merely a sparring tactic marshalled by Chris to see how the lugubrious Louis would react – how he would counter-punch if you will. Louis tried to intrude with camera but Chris played it tight and, within a couple of sentences, had his hapless combatant on the ropes. Round one to Eubank.

Eubank is an inspiring figure – that is to say that he immediately inspires a clear reaction and opinion from the man in the street. There are no shades of grey here, merely black and white. Having had the pleasure of meeting Eubank, I can vouch for the man’s intellect. He is sharp, intelligent and, certainly off camera, eager to indulge in debate. I must publicly doff my cap to him for knowing of Jack Johnston let alone holding in the same esteem as Ali. This is the contradiction of the man, the contradiction that Louis tried, and failed, to disseminate – that perception is all. Eubank is worried to a ridiculous degree about his public image. The media, the metropolitan élite and the anaemic regulars on They Think It’s All Over may hold him as a figure of ridicule, a totem of dismissive fecklessness but, in my experience, there is no doubt that Joe Public loves Chris.

Louis hung his hat on this nail and found it shoogly to say the least. By attempting to deconstruct Chris, the show simply became a series of eloquently inane (but lusciously gorgeous) soundbites and ultimately offered no new insights to the viewer. I was genuinely surprised that Louis made no attempt to probe Chris on his past, an area that – all too often – ex-boxers are prone to drone on about for depressingly long bouts of time.

Boxers, by default, are regarded as no more than warring automatons, mindless, intellectually stunted boys with an unforgiving animal bloodlust coursing through their veins. Yet, in my experience, pugilists have been – almost without exception – deep, deep thinkers, wonderful raconteurs and men of warm humility. The pity of this show was Louis’ inability to expose this side of Eubank to the viewer. Both sides seemed to be engaged in constant verbal and mental battles, little intellectual skirmishes that reeked of two small boys in the playground, neither wanting to give an angry inch.

What was fascinating though was the pivotal role that the definition of perception played throughout. Eubank, the warrior showman, has become unable – unwilling even – to disassociate himself from his cartoon persona. Indeed, he clearly, and joyously, revels in the twilight world of Chris Eubank, World Champion boxer and cracking role model for the children of the world. The failure of the show here was that Louis held the camera up as a mirror for Chris to look at and reflect on, and Chris saw not a mirror but an opportunity to further the persona of cartoon Chris.

But for all this carping criticism, I still loved every minute of this comedic sketch. Theroux clearly has an eye for the narrative as well as one for the subjective. He knits them together marvellously well, almost seamlessly so at times. He clearly cares for, and about, his subjects and this translates effortlessly to the small screen. Perhaps though, he cares a little too deeply now. Previously, we’ve enjoyed the onscreen friction underpinned with a healthy dose of solicitous scepticism but now there is an air of apparent chumminess permeating almost every scene. The staged look is now no longer charmingly confrontational. It’s almost as if the entire show has been storyboarded with no deviation allowed. Predictability is a killer in this sense but, thankfully, the sheer gusto and animated eccentricity of Eubank carried the day. To Louis’ credit, he stepped back and allowed the virtuoso tour de force that is Chris Eubank to continue unabated.

Having sparred with a boxer myself (a man who, as an amateur, defeated Frank Bruno no less) I fully understood the nervous gait and shambolic shuffling of Louis in the ring with Chris. Deep down Theroux was listening to the nagging voice that was telling him to be careful, he might hurt Chris. Believe me, that is your natural reaction when your opponent offers you his chin, lowers his defences and tells you to throw your best punch. It made for a wonderful slice of television but was marred somewhat by an agitated Louis asking, in flight or fight mode, predictably banal questions to mask his adrenaline rush.

So, an enjoyable show but nowhere near the high watermark of the Savile escapade. (Where was Chris’ “Jim The Pill”, I wonder?) Eubank constricted Louis’ room for manoeuvre with elegant aplomb whilst managing to reinforce our worst (and best) perceptions of him. Like a snake eating itself, this was great entertainment but you never really knew where the end, beginning or middle occurred. This was no Ali or Tyson of a show but more of a Magri or a Honeyghan. Seconds out for round three next week.


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