LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
That old canard about America being a land without irony has been flushed from cover recently by The Mrs Merton Show in Las Vegas (BBC1), a touring version of the blue-rinse chat show which reportedly provoked some culture shock in its temporary home. But this doesn't have anything to do with American lack of irony - their per capita output of that intangible substance being the equal of any other country in the world. The problem is that it isn't evenly distributed; run Mrs Merton in New York, for example, and local audiences might well find her coded savagery a little twee. If you had to choose a location in the United States where irony levels were at their lowest, on the other hand, you could hardly do better than Las Vegas, a city in which a pyramid-shaped hotel with a sphinx for a front door can aspire to grandeur with a completely straight facia. Las Vegas is also a glittering temple to fame, a showbiz euphemism for the top, so it must have seemed the ideal hunting ground for a show designed to undermine the unthinking adulation of celebrity.

I didn't see the opening show, but last night's programme, in which the guests were Bo Derek and Engelbert Humperdinck, seemed to me to have restored the faint edge of danger which success had burnt off the last series. Anyone who appears on it in this country knows too well now what the game is - that of being a good sport - and, as a result, it is very difficult to prevent something compliant entering the exchanges between guest and interviewer. I imagine that American agents are too canny to let their clients do anything sight unseen, so there is a question mark about the degree of innocence of the guests here.

Then again, celebrities badly malnourished by lack of media attention may find themselves less picky about what tables they sit down to. And, for all the assured laughter of the two guests, there were moments in both interviews when offence hovered in the wings. Bo Derek, game enough when talking about her own breasts, suddenly went very quiet when Mrs Merton suggested that her husband might be a lollipop man. She clearly feared that this was an English allusion to some hideous sexual perversion, not just a nickname for a crossing guard. And Engelbert Humperdinck, trotting out the showbiz bromides in his strange synthetic accent ("Lulu, she's one of my favourite people"), had to buttress a failing smile when she concluded their chat by exclaiming "I'm glad we couldn't afford Tom Jones!" If there were embarrassing pauses, as some reviews had noted of the first show, they were in all the right places, when the practised chatterers suddenly found empty space beneath their feet. (A different kind of awkwardness lurks in her relationship with the regular studio audience, some of whom are coming perilously close to an unkind exposure. It is a difficult question to resolve, I imagine, given that their exclusion from the ensemble would be more conspicuously hurtful than the potential ridicule of an invisible audience at home, but one hopes the producers have the matter in mind.)

The soaps have many ways of creating a sense of occasion, from arson to long-deferred adultery, but deaths and weddings are the two ancient dependables. Last week, Brookside (C4), which has given a new meaning to the term serial killer, dispatched Max and Susannah's two children in a traffic accident to justify another five-night special. This officially confirms the Close as having the highest mortality rate for first- borns since the days of Herodian Judea. And last night on EastEnders (BBC1), Bianca walked down the aisle with Ricky, but not before some picaresque adventures in the Kent countryside, with Phil, Grant, Nigel and the groom attempting to get back in time for the wedding. Despite having drunk so much that they had slept under a tree, they appeared to be in astonishingly good shape and made it back in time for the service by hitch-hiking - an almost insurmountable implausibility given that they looked collectively like the Kray brothers annual reunion picnic.

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