Sunday AM

Sunday, October 2, 2005 by

We all know Andrew Marr’s an ace political journalist and a pretty fine writer to boot. But why try to persuade us he can be a nifty presenter as well?

The need to be different, or at least appear to be doing something different, is both the cause and curse of Sunday AM. The first problem is the show’s running order – or rather, the fact that there isn’t one. Indeed, there’s no order, in the strict sense of the word, at all.

Today’s programme began, as ever, with an impressive title sequence depicting our host “arriving” at Television Centre, before descending into the studio self-consciously clutching a giant roll of newsprint and proudly reeling off a list of all the great and the good that were about to appear. But then, instead of leading off with a big name or a self-evidently important issue, Andrew took us straight into that stubborn immovable rampart of every Sunday morning talk show there’s ever been: the newspaper review. 10 minutes of boring chat ensued, with Andrew reading headlines out loud as if a primary school classroom assistant while his guests gingerly held up articles for the camera to see, each piece circled in giant red pen. Time was when such a display had panache and excitement. Trouble was, that time was the 1950s.

Then, having had all the life and energy so protractedly sucked out of proceedings, we cut to a defiantly medium-rank guest, Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Industry, for another 10 minutes of somewhat indifferent, unproductive chat. Next it was over to the German ambassador, for 10 minutes of defiantly indecipherable, unbecoming chat. He gave way to a celebrity, the film director Anthony Minghella, who’d turned up to plug his latest big screen effort and chat about why he’s a fan of the Labour Party. Then and only then, with two-thirds of the show gone, did we get to the ostensible headliner, Tory leadership contender David Davis – by which point there’d already been so much nattering it was hard to focus on what was really being said, the momentum had entirely gone from the programme, and the interview felt more like an afterthought than a grand finale.

This jumbled, jarring sequence of items unfurled without logic or consequence, positively encouraging you to switch over (or even off) as each item gave way to the next. Worse, though, was the fact this kind of running order is near identical to that of its predecessor, Breakfast With Frost. Sunday AM was, we were told, supposed to revive the potency of this hallowed slot. So why is this “new show”, albeit bedecked with a new set and a new face, at heart nothing of the sort? It struggles to persuade us that it’s different, but the only thing that convinces is the degree to which it is unconvincing. All the dour clutter of its forerunner survives, down to that forever-awkward appearance from a well-known popular entertainer to “play us out” over the end credits (this week the ubiquitous Katie Melua).

It’s akin to adding the thinnest possible new coat of paint to the surface of a crumbling old master. It smacks of deceit, of trying to put one over on the audience: just change the name, a few bits of scenery and hire Andrew Marr, and nobody will notice it’s the same creaking vessel as before. Watching at home, you feel cheated and not a little insulted.

Things aren’t helped by the way Andrew has to walk about all the time. For some reason, rather than having guests move on and off set while the host remains stationary, they’re seated in different nooks of the studio from the off, forcing him to shuttle ungainly between them like he’s going round a careers fair. He even has to move to a special part of the floor to introduce the weather – at the demented time of 9.17am – which appears on a tiny screen down the line from another studio completely.

The whole business looks undignified and unflattering, and reduces Andrew to the status of a lowly supplicant meekly bending the ear of a pantheon of casually-dressed deities. This isn’t the right relationship between presenter and guest at all. The dynamic is entirely wrong. What’s more, everyone knows that when you get up from a chair while wearing a suit, you need a moment or two to straighten things out and unrumple yourself before looking respectable again. Here, however, the cruel, unblinking camera never wavers from our host as he repeatedly rises from his numerous seats, each time catching him engaged in a fugue of embarrassing de-wrinkling. It’s ironic that this parade of non-musical chairs, about the only real departure from Breakfast With Frost, just conspires to make the show even less bearable.

It’s a crying shame, because Andrew used to be at the peak of his game. Now even his articulacy seems to have deserted him. He introduced the paper review with the memorably unconvincing line: “Not much more to say. Or maybe there is.” Later he cued in the weather by observing how he’d found the morning air outside his own home “freezing – chilly”. Perched without aplomb on the edge of a sofa preparing to bid us goodbye, he dipped into his vast lexicon of linguistic fancy to remind us: “We’re going to keep up to date with the programme on our website: bbc dot co dot slash dot uk sunday am.”

We don’t want to see Andrew Marr the hamstrung hapless anchorman tripping over his words and shuffling around a studio like a discomfited bellboy. We were quite happy with Andrew Marr the wry Westminster raconteur, letting fly each election night with snappy aphorisms and shameless gossip. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been great to find the man a consummate expert at helming topical magazine shows as well – far from it. It’s just that such heightened expectation, coming from such an illustrious track record, has conspired to make the reality all the more hard to take. We already knew he was a good broadcaster. Why did he even consider perpetuating the impression that he can be a bad one too?

Perhaps the cruellest aspect of all is that because Marr didn’t need to prove anything to his audience in taking this gig, it looks like he’s only doing it to prove something to himself, and that’s just vanity. Sunday AM may add another line to the man’s CV as well a great deal to his ego, but it certainly doesn’t contribute to the Marr mystique. It’s really the kind of thing that belongs out of sight, behind the closed doors of the after-dinner circuit and the Women’s Institute supper club: the pastime of the veteran, the stamping ground of someone in their twilight years. That way it can go on happening, just not where we can see it.

After all, men like Andrew Marr should only fail outside the public gaze.


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