Talk Show Host: An Appeal
Following the drenched hysteria of an extended bank holiday weekend, the looming two-dayer will most likely see quiet nights in front of the television and an opportunity to notice that the contemporary British talk show has reached its garish, prosaic, nadir.
From the faux down-market smut of Alan Carr’s “Chatty Man”; Graham Norton’s interminable twin track soft bitching – blended with its longer than it is wide and therefore it resembles a penis innuendo; from the edgeless shadow boxing and establishment obsequiousness of the Andrew Marr show, to the (mercifully dormant) artifice and ego of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories: all stay glued to three core rules.
First, the presenter or interviewer is larger than the subject, constant interruptions and steers maintain personal and “house style” momentum – ensuring they always remain the principle focus – thus removing time or atmosphere for genuine insight.
Second, “talk” is circuitous, secondary filler to the flogging of the book/album/show/message of the subject. This has been an (audience accepted) quid pro quo of the genre for decades of course, but never has the dynamic been so manifestly counterfeit, to the paradoxical extent that audiences have trained themselves to switch off at the “push point” of the subject.
Third, the direction of interview or range of questioning rarely departs from either of the previous two core rules. Subject indulgence of the host, laced with by PR scripted anecdote deliver us very quickly to the “push point” or “the flog”.
Rarely is anything of quality revealed as information and entertainment are limited to stultifying portions. This triple art bypass makes for a short-sighted waste of a form that has and can offer the compelling television of vivid spectacle, wisdom, excitement, hilarity and education.
The iconic BBC series “Face to Face” remains in my view one of the finest series ever broadcast. Running between 1959-62, then (revealingly) again between 1989-98, guests ranging from Evelyn Waugh, Tony Hancock, Lauren Bacall, David Attenborough, Diana Rigg, Ian McKellan, Jeanette Winterson, Yoko Ono and others surrendered to severe close focus and profile shots, meaningful dialogue and organic, adult dialogue.
A rule was observed by all that would strike abject terror into the modern PR or brand manager; subjects were refused advanced access to the questions, everything was in play and in return the subject could drink or smoke in the key interest of that social lubricant that often taps the richest of our communications: relaxation.
Often a trying 30 minutes but never a fruitless one; Tony Hancock’s interview here for example stands out for the trouble it clearly gave him, yet he subsequently defended both the style and interviewer John Freeman’s line of questioning.
What was fascinating about “face to face” was not just its full spectrum popularity, but the fact that viewers seldom saw the interviewer at all, save occasional over the shoulder shots.
It was drama; broadly famous household names talking candidly like grown-ups, not just about their work or other public faces they fraternise with, but their views on their country, other countries, the built environment, why they do what they do, love, hate, indifference: almost anything except repetitive plug lines. They were asked explicitly, on camera, to leave artifice in the green room and they agreed.
In contrast, modern risk-averse programmers and commissioning editors have developed a conservative, compartmentalised view of audience preference which suits perfectly the mercantile merry-go-round of guests and their narrow minded publicists.
In an identical vein to those who defend red-top newspapers – along lines they are popular and normal folk don’t want broadsheet style extensive stuff from a distant intelligentsia – broadcast equivalents feel any deviation from the orthodox sawdust ring of Norton, Carr or Ross would be tantamount to superimposing the stiffness of BBC’s “Hard Talk” onto showbiz and celebrity. In short a switch off, so cravenly they stay mainstream.
But in misjudging where the mainstream is they patronise viewers, just as neurotic management hirelings that represent public figures underestimate the value of client profile and fuller spectrum public appeal (way out beyond poorly researched target markets) that a new blend of the “face to face” model could offer.
It could be an engaging, endearing and bond building experience for the subject, but it could be a car crash. That is precisely the point and the risk, one that radio producers and stations are far quicker to take.
As the talk show genre tapers off into stale, crude contrivance, grown up audiences living in testing times will switch off or seek out alternative viewing, more often than not in the form of American shows or box sets or you tube sessions landing in past and present.
But who wouldn’t want to see Russell Brand, Lady Gaga, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Jarvis Cocker, Kate Moss, Peter Kay, Zadie Smith or Madonna enter the intense, textured tunnel of the “face to face” experience? At the very least we urgently need some plurality to the medium, a halfway house between the natural theatre of “face to face” and mid-career Parkinson would be very welcome.
In evidence I note the increased social network noise and viewing figures for the recent, quite unorthodox conversation between Joey Barton and Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight. Viewer popularity demonstrates that it is Murdoch-esq cynicism to suggest informative content from public figures cannot hold and grow audiences force fed a harvest of high octane dross. Human talent, wit, self-consciousness and fragility can make for the greatest talk show on earth. As can risk.
One guest who famously did decline the “face to face” experience was Marlene Dietrich, telling producers “you couldn’t afford me”. Our main channels might consider how much longer they can afford to dole out celebrity Dutch auctions in tawdry, overly camp, pre-set formats.Tagged in: alan carr, chat shows, Face to Face, graham norton, interview, Piers Morgan
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