“Shut up, Andre!”

Steve Williams on The Show

First published May 2001

Television is brilliant, isn’t it? If you asked members of the public where they’d ideally like to work, then the TV industry would probably be a very popular answer. So how come so many people already working there seem to hate it so much?

OTT has often asked why television cannot “do” television convincingly. Mock-up programmes in a dramatic context are almost always completely inaccurate, and often seem used purely to make some point about the “dumbing down” of culture. Almost every instance seems to involve pissed-off, low-paid grumps joylessly constructing bad programmes for an indiscriminate public, and while this may happen behind the scenes of some programmes, you’d hope some people in the medium really like their jobs and want everyone to know about it.

Sure, there had been behind-the-scenes programmes on TV for years, but most of these were either PR exercises, time-wasting whimsy or a tokenistic attempt to look like they’re interested in viewer’s opinions. In many cases, all three applied. Not surprisingly, it took an American programme to show that a television programme about television can be worth watching – and The Larry Sanders Show seemed to be essential viewing for everyone involved in British TV. One of the programme’s biggest fans was the comedian Bob Mills, who had an idea …

Mills had been a familiar face on TV for a couple of years, and, like many stand-up comedians, had been involved in many programmes of variable quality – on the one hand, he’d presented the unappealing Sky One video games show Games World, and had been in a Celebrity Squares box. On the other hand, he’d had some success as an irreverent host of Win Lose or Draw, and as presenter and writer of some interesting programmes for LWT – most notably, the amusing In Bed With Me Dinner, where Bob would poke gentle fun at some unusual programmes from the archives.

In 1997, Mills and In Bed‘s executive producer Jeff Pope came up with a format to replace the hapless Gaby Roslin Show as Channel 4′s flagship Saturday night chat show. The idea was simple enough – basically, it was The Larry Sanders Show, where a straightforward comedy chat show would be married with footage of the making of the programme. There was one major difference, though – Mills’ version wouldn’t be fictional. So The Show was partly The Bob Mills Show and partly a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the making of a chat show. The programme focused on four people – Mills himself, Pope, who took on the role of executive producer, Stewart Morris, the programme’s editor, and writer Andre Vincent. Other members of the production team also appeared, and we got to see the guests both on and off-camera.

One thing fast became obvious – absolutely nobody watched The Show because they were interested in The Bob Mills Show. Basically, the show – as opposed to The Show – was a bog-standard chat show, with Bob sitting behind a desk, doing some tolerable gags, chatting with some vaguely interesting guests, and introducing some musical acts. The style of the show was, as usual, Letterman-esque. Occasionally there’d be some amusing or memorable moments – Sandra Bernhard appeared and had a terrible time with the audience, being reduced to shouting “Stop booing me, you assholes!”, and Danny Baker appeared in the week he was fired from the BBC and talked non-stop for about 10 minutes – but for the most part, the chat sequences were much of a muchness.

But it didn’t matter, because you watched The Show to follow the adventures of Bob, Stewart, Jeff and Andre in the office, and these sections were almost always eye-opening, amusing or fascinating viewing. Sometimes it’d just be a moment of unintentional comedy; such as when Mills and Vincent gave Pope and Morris a preview of a comedy routine they’d worked out which involved Vincent being dressed as a mole, while Pope and Morris stood stony-faced throughout, or when Bob asked the production team to think of a unique angle for an interview, followed by absolute silence. In other cases, it’d be a fascinating look at how programmes are made – on the first programme, Michael Palin guested a day after he’d appeared on Frank Skinner’s chat show, and a researcher was sent to sit in Skinner’s audience to find out what he was asked; later, Morris told Mills that the actor Rob Morrow might appear, but Mills would have to persuade him not to go on TFI Friday.

What really set The Show apart from other behind-the-scenes programmes was that absolutely everything was filmed and shown to us. To its credit, the programme was uniquely honest, and never underestimated the audiences’ literacy with the medium. So as early as the second show, we were shown footage of a Channel 4 programme review meeting where, amusingly, most of the assembled executives said that they didn’t like the programme. Later in the run, Morris and Pope were summoned to a meeting with C4 commissioning editor Jacquie Lawrence who asked them to have more gay guests on the programme, and we saw both this and Morris and Pope slagging her off on the way back to the office. Other brilliant moments included Sandra Bemhard arguing with her pianist; when the programme had to move from the London Studios to BBC Television Centre one week, Pope complaining about LWT’s studio management; and, best of all, a superb moment when there were sound problems during Mark Owen’s performance and Morris decided not to do anything about it as he reckoned people would think it was supposed to sound like that.

The final programme summed up everything that was great about the series. On a basic level, the director’s astonishingly sweary rant was amusing, particularly as Morris had announced earlier that C4 had told them to tone down the bad language. There was a fascinating behind the scenes moment when a guest pulled out at the last minute, and a panicked ring-round by the team managed to get almost everyone on television to agree to appear (Mills: “If we do this again, we won’t book any guests in advance, we’ll just phone them up two hours before the programme …”). But even more fascinating was Morris and Pope discussing whether there’d be another series with some C4 executives. We were told that C4 would either do another run of The Show, or another run of the courtroom series Nothing but the Truth. The last sequence on The Show saw Mills and Pope deciding they probably wouldn’t get another series – and they didn’t.

At the time, The Show was absolute must-see TV; fascinating, funny and, at times, jaw-dropping. But in hindsight, exactly how truthful was it? The chat sequences were unquestionably the least interesting bits about the programme, we watched it to see what went on behind the scenes; we knew that, the producers knew that – that was how they pitched it – and Channel 4 knew that – that was why they commissioned it. So why were the production team so concerned about the chat sequences working well? As the chat show was constructed purely for the programme, it seemed to ring hollow when they spent so much time over it – a bad chat show would probably have been more entertaining than a good one. At times, it felt like the emphasis on this bit was unrealistic – it wouldn’t have been commissioned if it was just a chat show, yet they treated it like they were producing a would-be Parkinson-beater. Maybe it would have been less annoying if the chat sequences were shown on their own as a separate programme, so you could watch it as a straightforward chat show, rather than an interruption to the interesting stuff. Otherwise, they ignored the cameras so much, it wasn’t a surprise so many people felt it was scripted – you longed for someone to say “Oh, forget the chat show, nobody cares what it’s like’”.

So for Mills and Pope’s next foray into television-based television, they stuck to fiction, and the sitcom Bob Martin. It’s a great sitcom, that’s for sure, and those of us who watched The Show can spot some similarities – Keith Allen’s warm-up man is not dissimilar to the sniggering Andre. But really, would you rather see fictional characters having scripted arguments, or Bob Mills testing libellous jokes out on Andi Peters in the LWT bar? The Show was at times irritating, at times hilarious, but never less than insanely watchable.