Wednesday, March 1, 2006 by

A chat show at 7pm? On a Wednesday night? On BBC1? Those were indeed the days. Sadly, this was also one of those days, but not, as should still be the case, at the behest of any sedentary master of ceremonies on the decorous lawns of Shepherd’s Bush Green. No Wogan, this. Here was Davina McCall, sporting not so much a cosy living room number than a low-cut monk’s cowl, bumped earlier in the schedules by international football. “Who put the clocks back?” she shrieked.

Ah, if only we could put them back – by about 20 years or so, to when Tel was in his imperial phase, holding thrice-weekly court in his W12 tree house. Instead, “It-heh-heh-heh-’s Gordon Ramsay!” So began 55 minutes (very 1980s) in the company of Ms MsCall, kicking off with a turn from the titular chef du jour. The audience whooped a little too ecstatically for so early in the show, and then shut up a little too hastily to allow the man enough time to sit down. “Mum’s here,” quipped Gordon. “Mum’s here,” repeated Davina pointlessly.

Our host decided to pitch her opening interview around the premise that her guest had, as she confusingly explained, “A bit of a public perception as a rottweiler.” So how would Gordon fare when he went to pick up his OBE? In other words, Davina garbled, “How are you going to not swear?” “Good question,” answered Gordon, immediately closing down his host’s sole line of attack.

Davina responded by settling her face into a broad rictus and pressing on regardless. She had no follow-ups to anything Gordon said. Yet even though she was merely ticking questions off a list, it still didn’t feel like there was any order to the conversation, or that the chat was actually heading anywhere in particular. A clip from The F Word was shown. “That was a softer side. But you are harsh,” our host flip-flopped. “The F Word was … so … ” Unexpected? Ill-conceived? Under-prepared? ” … so controversial,” gasped Davina. Every week she’d seen it mentioned in the papers. In the listings pages, perhaps? Gordon responded with a swearword, conveniently and immediately bleeped out, dispelling any hopes that the show was actually, as tacitly implied, completely live.

Something had to be done. Unfortunately Davina decided this should be issuing Gordon with a threat that if he let slip another profanity he’d “be made to sing a song.” Sure enough a second obscenity quickly followed, as did the similarly unexceptional sight of Gordon mumbling the first two lines of Baa Baa Black Sheep.

An air of supreme indifference had by now been established, which an ensuing appearance by the “sassy” Sugababes did little to dispel. Next came an actress from Footballers’ Wives: a subject which Davina clearly found much more to her taste but which she made no effort to render interesting to anyone who hadn’t watched the series. If you didn’t know or like Footballers’ Wives, this section meant nothing. Here were precious few openings for the casual viewer. Well, aside from a bit of information as to who else is on the programme. Last week’s programme, that is. “We had Martin Shaw,” announced Davina apropos nothing. Good for her.

Neil Morrissey appeared. All the guests entered to precisely the same piece of music, itself comprising the same three notes repeated over and over again. The effect was akin to an ailing steam train trying to haul itself out of the sidings, inching a little further forward each time but ultimately going nowhere. Neil complained about being tired and having too much work to do. “Short term pressure? That’s a bit like auditioning isn’t it?” flapped Davina, desperately wrenching proceedings back towards her pre-ordained roster of questions. “So what’s the most difficult audition you’ve ever done?”

The audience at least displayed no signs of flagging, stoutly cheering every loaded remark and innuendo Neil essayed forth. The only moment they evinced any iota of disinterest came when Davina cued up “the next big thing”, a band from America called Orson, whose weighty rock seemed hopelessly out of place in such a flimsy and insubstantial brew. But wait, because the end was drawing near. What top-notch first-rank guest would Davina muster to cap the show? Who was the headline act? Which international personality had jetted in especially to grace Davina’s gigantic chairs with their illustrious presence? “Ladies and gentlemen, Gloria Hunniford!”

Actually the chat with Gloria was the best part of the programme, being a good deal more orderly and forthcoming than everything that had gone before. Perhaps as a consequence, and also because she was having to talk about serious matters, Davina’s expression shifted from a toothy grin to a look of polite boredom verging on the thunderously pissed off, the kind sported by adolescents at family reunions.

We saw one of Gloria’s favourite clips from Sunday Sunday, involving Freddie Starr demolishing part of the set. A bad move, this, including an extract from another person’s chat show in your own, as one party always emerges looking effortlessly more accomplished and entertaining. And as here, it’s never the young pretender, always the old hand.

The cheerless cavalcade ended with our host purposefully reeling off the entire guest list for next week. No room for last-minute topical bookings on Davina, it seems; this is what we were going to get, and if we didn’t like any of these names, don’t bother tuning in. Fair enough.

This was everything a durable, hit chat show was not. It wasn’t inclusive, accessible, nor effortlessly likeable. There was no revelatory moment from an A-list star, no unexpected admission of folly from a middle-ranking makeweight, no career-making party piece from a young turk – none of the signature elements, in other words, that give your textbook chat show its legs. And as Terry would testify, legs are everything. Besides, there’s no use trying to run if you can’t even walk. Especially in a monk’s habit. And especially on primetime BBC1.


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