Friday Night With Jonathan Ross

Friday, November 2, 2001 by

The curse of Chris Evans stalks the schedules. His zeppelin-sized ego and poisonous influence landed Channel 4 with a behemoth stinker of a show it took years to put to sleep. Such was the horror that TFI Friday became, the station now appear resolved to never again risk filling that 6-7pm slot with any possible permutation of your music-and-chat vehicle. It seems we’ve reached the end for a lineage that weaves back almost 20 years to The Tube, via Naked City, The Word, Wired – and Tonight With Jonathan Ross.

10 years ago Jonathan was doing what only Hollyoaks has since been able to match: turning up on Channel 4 three times a week at 6.30pm, resolutely, endlessly, for months on end. His ubiquity became an unfunny on-running media joke, and after labouring hard with little ratings success he paused only for one last throw of the dice – the superb Saturday Zoo (1993) – before quitting Channel 4, his own company Channel X, and talk shows, apparently for good. But after a period of purgatory (too too many dreadful turns for ITV) and thanks to one of the best radio shows ever, the man feels able to return to his arena and beam straight into the camera to announce: “It’s great to be at the BBC.”

His new talk show, running for seven weeks up to Christmas, was certainly much anticipated by this reviewer. Its progress from script to screen has been plotted in exhaustive detail by Jonathan himself on his Saturday morning show on Radio 2; consequently expectation was really high. And so it began, with a stylish title sequence: a stream of archive TV faces, objects and places, all very nice and classy and attention-grabbing … but nothing whatsoever to do with what followed, and therefore confusing and pointless. The theme music was also awful: a lame 12-bar blues riff that was struggling to be exciting, and written purely to call attention to itself and not the programme, which is the worst kind of theme tune possible. The end credits revealed who’d perpetrated this travesty: erstwhile Chris Evans lackey Dan McGrath.

The set-up was all pretty conventional: a desk centre-stage, an audience in front – well, presumably they were there, because we didn’t see a shot of them once, which was bizarre given how great a role audiences (both in the studio and at home) have come to play within the fabric of chat-based, light entertainment shows. Their absence from view was discomfiting.

To Jonathan’s left skulked sidekick Andy Davies, his producer and foil on Radio 2. Here, of course, the runes portended ill: another experienced professional of behind-the-camera stock, with a lot of years in the business behind him, now presuming the right to develop some new personality on-screen. Again, the TFI parallel loomed terrifyingly large: to wit, Will “Pub Genius” McDonald, court jester of the most repulsive and unctuous kind. Andy plays an important role on the radio show: he motors the programme totally, being responsible for sequencing all the records, bringing in the guests and basically maintaining a workable context within which Jonathan rants, jokes and gossips. Out of that dynamic has flowed a relationship that needs no superfluous gimmicks or subtexts to justify Andy’s presence or role. It’s obvious.

In this changed set-up that dynamic faltered. Andy’s role here resembled little more than that of a glorified usher – “We should get Neil Hannon on” – and to be seen laughing at Jonathan’s gags or contentedly twiddling a pen. He kept moving between his bizarre “TARDIS” (as he called it) where some kind of computer-like equipment and an open copy of an unnamed magazine rested, and the other side of Jonathan’s desk, summoned over rather tersely, moping back unseen. He personally didn’t seem too bothered about all this, but viewers unaware of his significance as Jonathan’s radio stooge would’ve firstly wondered who the hell he was and then why he even presumed to give Jonathan the time of day. It’s fun hearing them squabble on the airwaves, and there’s a kind of pleasure for the fan seeing them “re-create” that on screen; but again, for the uninitiated it could appear terribly self-indulgent.

A couple of other aspects to the format were instantly unlikeable. Sticking a camera feed into the hospitality suite must have sounded great in the office, but in practice left you smarting from endless shots of celebrities indulging in free booze and food and, worse, pretending to get on well with each other. This is not what we want; the line between backstage and out front needs to be kept fixed as there’s already been enough subversion in this area (from Larry Sanders to Bob Mills’ The Show). The house band, “Four Poofs and a Piano”, was the kind of anti-PC-yet-still-PC gesture best left behind at the arse end of the 1990s. Even the upright piano looked like the one that sat in Evans’ “bar” on TFI Friday.

But within all this clutter there was a lot of substance. A team of four writers provided more hits than misses in the way of jokes; and Jonathan has retained that sharpness in delivery and response that can salvage the lamest of punchlines and the flakiest of interviews. The review of the week’s press, lifted wholesale from the radio show, was slightly flawed by limiting the material to picture stories only; but it was nice to see some blatant Barrymore-baiting later on.

Jonathan seemed over-awed to be in the presence of first guest John Lydon, to the extent of letting Lydon ramble on about the state of the country and not asking him why, if he’s so disgusted with America and American culture, has the man been happy to live there for over a decade. It was ridiculous to have “fuck” beeped out as well. A proper musical interlude was provided by a fantastic cover of The Power of Love (the Frankie Goes To Hollywood version) by Neil Hannon: the kind of stunt Evans used to attempt on TFI, of course, when ordering his guests to do covers at the drop of a hat with diabolical results. Here it was refreshing to hear a decent, sincere performance of a fine song (thanks not least to it already being part of Hannon’s repertoire).

The final interview with Tamzin Outhwaite, however, was just a hurried bout of shameless flirting to which none of us were invited. In fact none of the interviews were long enough, and all suffered from a major problem: ham-fisted editing. What looked like a load of dead leaves appeared on the floor of the set halfway through the show for no reason. The house band vanished as well, suddenly showing up again at the end. It’s also a real pity the show couldn’t go out live and perhaps even a bit later; it would make it so much more of an event and add even more excitement. Even better, there’d be potential for all kinds of RDA-style quirks: Jonathan commenting on the previous programme, or the show running on late and holding up News 24.

Less than 12 hours later the protagonists were giving their own verdict. Back in what they seemed to appreciate as the more relaxed, comfortable environment of Radio 2, Jonathan and Andy grumbled and grouched. The programme had indeed been badly edited. The mess all over the studio floor was the remnants of some audience participation game they’d forgotten to sweep up. They also acknowledged how, to be honest, even Andy’s chief role of introducing the guests had been cocked up, in the sense of failing to supply a bit more information than the simple: “Here’s John Lydon”.

This bout of on-air self-analysis swerved close to that irritating Evans “did that joke work?” spiel … but here, as with so much else, it ultimately didn’t matter because of the gut-level charm that Jonathan and Andy possess, a quality Evans has rather remarkably never once displayed through his entire broadcasting career. Moreover you feel that they’re willing and sensible enough to admit mistakes and make improvements, again unlike Evans (though it’s a bit unsettling to see ex-TFI producer Suzi Aplin supposedly doing the same role here). So though the choice of guests will probably remain distinctly Radio 2, over-30s-ish fare, in return BBC1 have landed one of the most promising new music-and-chat series for ages. A second, longer run of 15 shows is planned for the New Year. If Friday Night With Jonathan Ross does nothing else than exorcise the bilious ghost of TFI Friday forever, then that’s enough.


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