An exercise bike, a rubber pig's head, soft-porn pics of the Queen, no Larry Sanders but a subversive new chat-up line

Matthew Collings on `The Bob Mills Show'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Bob Mills weighs 18 stone. At least that's what he says. He doesn't look fat, just very big, with a big neck and a big head and big lot of Superman-type blue-black hair. He fronts a lot of TV shows at the moment. These include the daytime quiz show Win, Lose or Draw, where the contestents have to put a name to what a team-mate is drawing on a whiteboard, and the wicked, cultish late night show In Bed With Medinner. In the latter, he sits in a little 1980s-style flat - all high-street chrome and matt black - with a VHS recorder, running through snatches of obscure TV documentaries. As he plays and pauses and fast forwards and rewinds, he mercilessly deconstructs the stuff on the screen, spinning out streams of cruel but highly watchable comedy monologue delivered straight to camera - apparently without the aid of an autocue - from anything weak or phoney that somebody in the programme might have said. He never bothers to mention the real titles of the programmes or who was responsible for producing them and in fact often pretends he made them himself, before mercilessly sending them up.

And he has his own music show on VH1 called Look Back in Angora, where he plays exclusively music from the Eighties. He obviously likes that music and is very knowledgeable about it, but never solemn. Sometimes he has shots of himself dressed up in Eighties rock gear and dancing enthusiastically, inserted into classic Eighties promo videos. Which is a good gag as he clearly isn't the shape for that gear or those pastel colours but he's so confident and amusing you're completely on his side. He has a wide friendly face like a big friendly dog - or Tommy Cooper - and he is a natural TV presenter: funny, blokey, a bit anarchic, cleverer than his audience.

His studio audience at the moment is 200 upbeat young people squired by specialist bookers - they must be lively and willing to make a lot of noise enjoying the warm-up before programme two of Channel 4's new talk show, The Bob Mills Show. This is a show within a show. The show it's within is called simply The Show. It consists of equal parts straightforward talk show cut with snippets of fly-on-the-wall video of the backstage wranglings that make The Bob Mills Show happen.

The backstage stuff might be Bob arguing with the gag writer over who thought up the best-jokes for the week's monologue, or researchers and producers coldly calculating whether Michael Palin or Omar Sharif is the bigger draw, or trying to get Blur's agent to believe that The Show will soon have cult status, or producers bitching about researchers coming in late in the mornings.

This mix of elements - chat show and behind-the-scenes shenanigans - invites comparison with The Larry Sanders Show, which is a terrifyingly cynical look at the underside of TV. The main characters, Larry the presenter, played by Garry Shandling (like Bob, a former stand-up comedian), his sidekick Hank, and their producer, are neurotic, work-obsessed, essentially self-hating, ego maniacs all with secret booze, drugs and relationship problems. The minor characters - the gagwriters and secretaries and personal assistants - are permanently exhausted from having to suck up to the main characters all the time in order to keep their jobs. Everyone is terrified of fluctuating ratings and the network bosses. And everyone is sick of the perpetual circus of babying the egomaniacal guests who appear on the programme, and having to entertain an audience they despise.

The Bob Mills version is related but different. The big difference is that The Show is real. Although real celebrities appear on Larry Sanders and their real-life characters are built into the storylines, they're only acting. In The Show, when Michael Palin is filmed replying to a researcher's enquiry as to how he is feeling with the odd assertion, "Absolutely tit-bottom", and is later on seen semi-naked in a dressing room enjoying a massage from a lovely masseuse before being interviewed, it's all real. It's real, too, when the producers are filmed being told off by their bosses and then go around shouting at their inferiors and making impossible demands, and when the researchers are then seen desperately lying to guests who feel they suddenly want to leave because they sense they're about to be made to look foolish.

It sounds like strong stuff but, curiously, there is something mild and overly smoothed-out about it. With Larry Sanders, we often feel quite uncomfortable or shocked and there is a feeling of therapy culture, of genuinely edgy humour based on sharp insight about human nature. With The Show, there is a feeling of Lad culture. Of things we already knew all too well being revealed in a rather edited and controlled way.

And where is wicked, anarchic Bob in all this? Subversion is his natural style but it's on this programme - of all his many works - that he seems least natural, least himself, the most trying to be a responsible TV person.

So far The Show has had only "medium" ratings - as we learnt from a backstage discussion in programme two. According to independent producer Jeff Pope, who thought up the idea, and who worked with Mills on Me Dinner, medium is not too bad at this stage. "It's not like other stations where ratings are everything. Eventually Channel 4 will have to play the numbers game too, but at the moment they're still open to the freshness of the idea."

Freshness is right. At least as far as the idea goes. TV is currently going through a conservative period, there is less factual documentary and fewer arts programmes, and more entertaintment and sport. So anything that attempts to reinvent the basic language of TV, to wake up audiences rather than pander to the same old obsessions seems like a lively proposition. Unfortunately it's not absolutely clear yet if The Show isn't normal old TV - silly over-familiar jokes about the Royal family, a bit of larky sexism, the odd genuinely quirky guest, a Britpop band, a vacuous celebrity plugging a new film dressed up, or decorated, with verity inserts.

But Bob is confident that The Show is on the right course. He says its subversiveness is in its format. The talk show must be straight, the guests musn't feel uncomfortable or that they're going to be stitched up - he is in fact remarkably easy on them. And the audience at home mustn't be confused, they must be clear in their minds which bits are talk show and which bits are backstage.

But another complaint that has been voiced about The Show is that the backstage bits seem a bit staged. They're not of course: "What you see is always real people doing their jobs as they would normally do them," says Pope. Perhaps the feeling of slight emptiness about the real people is that they're only real TV people, who are always a bit unreal. It's here that Bob's big personality as revealed in his other programmes might have come in handy, but since he's chosen to play the clown, it doesn't. A lot of thought went into setting up The Show's office, hiring people who could do the job required but who also would have camera appeal, and getting the mix right so that more exhibitionist types were balanced with more shy types. But in the end the mix is a bit too bland, the researchers seem like novice actors trying a bit too hard, the producers the same, just a bit older.

The memorable backstage bits so far have included a set from Mark Owen, formerly of Take That, being interrupted by a shot of producers and researchers arguing over whether Mark Owen is crap or not, and Sam Holdsworth's pop group partner Ruth Gordon storming out just before she was due to go on because it was clear no one really wanted to talk about her sad pop group but only about Sam's husband, Wimbledon striker Dean Holdsworth's, extra marital affairs.

But the bands have been ordinary and the chats have been forgettable. Some of the bookings have been lively and quick off the mark, especially "Animal" the 16-year-old girl who who spent three days in a dark tunnel on a protest against a new road, and Diane Blood, the woman who has just won the right to have her dead husband's baby using his frozen sperm. But we didn't learn much about them from Bob's interviews that we didn't already know.

If the programme is good but not good enough, maybe we should be patient. It's still early days. A possible development for future runs might be a less equal balance between the parts: less talk show and more Larry Sanders-type backstage bickering and rowing. And Bob could do some good shouting, and a lot more Me Dinner-like picking on people's weaknesses.

The hour-long production meeting I attended at The Show's office - which has many odd things in it, incidentally, including an exercise bike, a pillar box with a foam rubber pig's head on it, and a lot of soft-porn pin-ups, one a collage headlined "the Queen gags for filthy sex from behind" - was much more interesting and nervy than the guest-booking dialogues that made it on to the screen. That was because attitudes were allowed to develop and build up, the subtleties of indivuals' psychologies were revealed in little details rather than in self-consious showpieces, and there was a giddy-making ruthlessness about the way the characters of possible guests were summed up and put down. But maybe all that would be too subversive.

`The Bob Mills Show', 10.30pm on Saturdays, Channel 4

Comments