10 o’Clock Live (Wednesdays C4; 4oD) returned uncertainly, just when we need it to be bold. The first episode of series three felt like the first episode ever: rushed, stuttering, not finished. As a tired sketch about a Margaret Thatcher musical demonstrated, turning news into out-and-out comedy is hard. So perhaps the show’s future lies in a gap in the political-commentary market.
The only secure and reliable component at the moment is Charlie Brooker’s solo spot. His typically slick dissection of how online and broadcast media made a racist pudding of the Boston bombing was a fine segment, vicious but playful, only slightly undermined by other online media having said it all before. (Like all topical comedy on TV, 10oCL can’t entirely escape jokes that have been retweeted 1,000 times already.)
Stiffness was the vibe when all four hosts sat round a table stagily discussing the news, a device that used to top and tail the show but here basically was the show. Everything was either obviously prepared or even more obviously not, with attempts at banter withering among the opening-night nerves. Lauren Laverne still needs more to do than making a face at Jimmy “Too Soon?” Carr’s bad-taste jokes and reading out the autocue.
The other three are fine, though. Carr varies the tone and is most likely to provide a crafted, takeaway gag. (“Fred West: if he’d won Wimbledon, we’d just think of him as the bad boy of tennis.”) Brooker pulls in his fans with his mini-Screenwipes, so anything else is a bonus. David Mitchell plays the bearded curmudgeon who hates football and doesn’t know who JLS are.
Mitchell is the key. As good an interviewer and chair of ding-dong debates as most current-affairs specialists, he is evidently more liberal-leaning than any other political referee on TV, without blindly indulging people on his side. It was a shame he didn’t have a one-on-one encounter to add to his helming of a chaotic debate on Thatcher’s legacy, but even when 10oCL is a zoo, it can make a point.
Ebullient pen magnate Theo Paphitis claimed Thatcher “had this dream that she would take the poor up to meet the rich”. Mitchell’s reply: “Just for the afternoon – then they could f*** off home again.” This is the sort of remark that causes 10oCL to be dismissed as unserious and unbalanced. But it’s what makes the show occasionally great and deceptively important.
10oCL can speak to a specific but large group of people. People who hate-watch Question Time because its panels are dominated by the pro-business centre-right (and because Nigel Farage is on every week); who despair at yet another Newsnight debate entirely peopled by rich, middle-aged white men; who get nothing from the BBC’s hamstrung, he-said she-said balance; who find their beliefs match none of the main three parties. Rather the scything irreverence of 10oCL at its best than the suffocating, subtly skewed middle ground.
The choice of the other two guests summed up 10oCL’s mix of hard facts and silly stirring. Owen Jones, a columnist who has done more than any Labour politician to challenge the line that austerity is a necessity, was up against reality-show personality and embittered class warrior Katie Hopkins. Eleven minutes of corkingly weird telly was the result.
Hopkins is regularly hired by TV and radio jabber-shops as a pantomime villain, because her boiling contempt for the poor comes undiluted by rational argument. With Jones and his annoying facts knocking down her assertion that anyone can now be rich thanks to Thatcher – social mobility has been falling for decades – Hopkins decided the way to win was to be as patronising and insulting as possible. Jones was derided for being short, and for having no money (that seemed naive – those rolling-news appearance fees can really mount up). Hopkins’ final attempted put-down – “He talks as if he’s from the North; actually he lives in London” – might have been the stupidest sentence uttered on TV all week.
Should Hopkins have been invited, when Jones v Paphitis could have been a productive scrap if either had got more than two words in? Why not? It was horribly compelling, and Mitchell got two good laughs by surfing the madness. 10 o’Clock Live can afford to be freaky and clever, rude and informed, a gifted problem child – but note the reaction to Owen Jones citing a simple statistic about tax avoidance costing us twenty times more than benefit fraud. The studio audience gave it the biggest cheer of the night.
Thirty years ago, the 10 o’Clock Live audience were catered for by Ben Elton on Saturday Live. Some resent that he’s drifted away from them, hence the death-party jubilation when word got round that his new sitcom was a musty stinker.
There’s nothing wrong with ageing and changing. The man who mastered smashed, punky sitcom (The Young Ones) and droll, quotable sitcom (Blackadder II) might have settled down into mastering brightly lit, farcical sitcom. The problem with The Wright Way (Tuesdays BBC1; iPlayer) isn’t that it’s the wrong type of show. It’s that it’s incredibly, bewilderingly poorly executed, the career equivalent of being found catatonic in a night-shirt in the M&S freezer section.
Perhaps the billion-dollar botch job that is We Will Rock You has taken away the writer’s fear of The Script Not Working. The main joke in episode one of The Wright Way didn’t work. David Haig’s uptight health and safety officer (he’s called Wright and wants things done the “Wright way”, but they tend to go wrong!) struggled to catch water from a push-button tap in his cupped hands, a crisis created by him inexplicably not pressing the button one-handed.
Jokes were repeated. Haig was given a mug supposedly full of tea that he then swung around like a conductor’s baton. The biggest pay-off line was “Clive, talk me through my proud erection,” set up by dialogue in which both “proud” and “erection” were used in an unlikely manner. BBC1 pitched The Wright Way as being similar to Mrs Brown’s Boys, presumably because Haig often ends up appearing to hump inanimate objects, but the show it reminded me of was Ricky Gervais’s Derek: that same feeling of a writer so bloated by success, they just can’t be bothered to work for a payoff.
Spoiler for next week: Wright cooks his special salami and onion quiche. The ingredients for this are a large salami and two onions. This has consequences – if not hilarious ones, then surely for the likelihood of Elton being commissioned again.