The problem with doing a talk show nowadays is that the mystery and intrigue of fame have disappeared. Because of the electronic world we live in they have been replaced by a familiarity that can often mean no matter what question you might pose to your guest, the viewer already knows the answer.
Graham Norton has solved the problem by transforming the talk show into a party with everyone, including the audience, invited. And it works not so much because of Norton’s interviewing skills but because of his rare talent for making his guests feel wanted and his ability to convince his guests, who are often meeting for the first time, that they are lifelong buddies. He is, to that extent, not so much a talk-show host as an illusionist.
If you want a glimpse of what talk shows used to be like, then tune into Jonathan Ross who, like Ol’ Man River, just keeps rolling along with his jolly and idiosyncratic manner. I wonder if either of them has ever thought of aspiring to the American chat-show example of working five nights a week. I am often asked why it works in America, where it’s a TV cornerstone, producing legends like Johnny Carson and Jack Paar, and today Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon.
Whenever I seek an answer to the question, it brings back memories of a time, 40 years ago, when my bosses at the BBC wondered if I fancied a pop at five nights a week. I was told all the BBC bosses were behind me. My immediate boss, Bill Cotton, whose idea it was, wanted a mix of showbiz, politics and sport and whatever else tickled our fancy to replace the ailing current-affairs programme Tonight, which was a flop in the ratings.
In those days the NUJ had a vigorous presence in the BBC and when the news of the new show broke, a cell of disgruntled hacks immediately began a campaign involving old ratbags like Dennis Skinner to point out the consequences of replacing “serious political debate” with tapdancing or showbiz. This ignored the fact that the programme they objected to was to be conducted by someone with 30 years’ experience as a journalist – not to mention a fellow member of the NUJ, which I still am after more than 60 years.
All their campaign needed was a cheap tabloid headline, which was eventually provided by a BBC governor, Mark Bonham Carter, who warned his fellow governors and indeed the nation that my five-nights-a-week stint would lead to “a trivialisation of the airwaves”. His observation really took off. The NUJ threatened a walkout, questions were asked in Parliament. The Observer issued a dire warning: “Everyone will expect endless interviews with Peter Ustinov and that’s not what current affairs are about.”
But the most extraordinary intervention of all came from Lady Faulkner, widow of the former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. She was on yet another BBC quango called the Television Programme Policy Committee. She told her fellow members that the only hope for the salvation of all concerned was if the show went ahead I could be “broken in as a serious interviewer”.
Lady Faulkner’s intervention came at a time when my guests had included Henry Kissinger, Luciano Pavarotti, André Previn, John Mortimer, Bernard Levin and Christiaan Barnard. In the end, we agreed to do two shows, which was the worst possible compromise. I sulked for a while. I had an offer from ABC in Australia, which I accepted, and which led to a happy and lucrative career in what went on to become my second home. I never did get to thank Lady Faulkner.
The only time we’ve tried it in this country was The Jack Docherty Show, part of the launch schedule of Channel 5 in March 1997. Even that only lasted in its five-nights-a-week format until September the same year, when a flagging Docherty and a press mauling saw it become reduced until it ended up a twice-weekly show by September 1998. The only positive to come out of the experiment was that it gave a break to a young Irish stand-up called Graham Norton, who occasionally stood in as a guest host.
Which begs the question, why have we never had a successful five-nights-a-week chat show? The accepted answer is that we don’t have the talent pool that America has and that the host would soon end up interviewing himself.
But this misses the point. It shouldn’t just be showbiz, but also politics, popular culture and sport. Moreover, it could be freed from the strictures that hamstring our mainstream political shows: develop a house style, be polemic, controversial, opinionated about any subject. It could spark debate, be instantly reactive to the day’s events, be they reality TV or Brexit, and, with the advent of social media, interactive in a way that TV bosses dream of. Indeed, we already have the seed of such a show when Good Morning Britain is hosted by Piers Morgan. Let him off the leash and give him a five-nightsa-week platform and we just might see this format succeed in Britain.
The real problem, as I see it, is that the attitudes I remember permeating the BBC 40 years ago are still around today across the whole broadcast community. The talk show has, and always will be, slightly dismissed as a piece of television trivia. To most bosses, it’s electronic chip paper and therefore has never had the full backing of any commissioner.
The biggest indication of this is that if they don’t know what to do with a talent, they often end up giving them a talk show. They disregard the importance of hiring someone who knows how to ask a question, while producers fail to understand that it must appear spontaneous while being highly structured. In America, talk shows are an integral part of the TV landscape, their hosts revered, and when one retires the scrabble to get the host’s chair is akin to the struggle for King Lear’s throne.
I believe a five-nights-a-week show could work here, but only if we can get the bosses to understand what an important and entertaining show it could be, and we get the right host. Go on, take a risk, commit to it, let it grow. You never know, you might just like it.