Popworld: the irreverent music show

Britney walked out. Girls Aloud vowed never to return. Yet, somehow, Popworld's irreverent take on music has killed off all rivals. To mark its fifth birthday, Johnny Davis sees the chaos first-hand

"I'm not, as people sometimes imagine, opposed to chart music. Busted, McFly ... I'm aware of some of the names. But that's mainly 'cos I watch that programme at the weekend, with the wry couple. I think they're quite entertaining. It's very knowing, but at the same time, it's a contrast to the kind of breathless stupidity of most of the competition."

John Peel in his last interview

It's Wednesday. In a small TV studio in a big business park off a terrifying roundabout in Chiswick, west London, McFly are being interviewed by Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver. The boyband are here to promote a single and new DVD, and they dutifully attempt to steer the conversation in that direction.

But Amstell and Oliver have other plans.

"How many singles have there been from this album?" tuts Amstell. "It seems like 28." Far more interesting, he reasons, to talk instead about rumours that McFly have been making the most of their positions as teen heart-throbs and, as such, are "swimming in lady love".

"Danny," says Amstell, addressing McFly's guitarist. "This week, how much lady love have you had?" Danny attempts to field the question with all the gracelessness of the truly guilty. "Come on," says Amstell, moving up a gear. "Between two and three?"

"Our producer saw you snogging someone in Kabaret [the London club]," says Oliver.

"We won't push you," fibs Amstell. "Have you made anyone pregnant yet?"

Later, outside the studio, the hosts gather for a brief interview post-mortem. Amstell, 26, has interviewed McFly 17 times and is impressed with their new media-savvy. "They're trying to do interviews on their own terms," he says. "Plus, they didn't used to be funny."

Oliver, 21, is less philosophical. "We know Danny's got a girlfriend. The little shit."

Welcome to Popworld, the weekly show that's given music TV a royal kick in the pants. It has been called "The Tube's 21st-century equivalent", after the groundbreaking Eighties music show, and commands the lion's share - 51 per cent - of Saturday morning's much-coveted 16-34 age bracket. Presided over by the merciless Amstell and Oliver, the show's success is down to a resolution to treat pop music as simultaneously the most important and the most ridiculous thing in the world. And this week it celebrates its fifth birthday.

While Popworld's basic format is as old as music TV itself - bands promote their new single and chat to the hosts - its USP lies in the back-of-the-class chemistry between Amstell and Oliver, their refusal to ask the questions their guests want to hear and a humour that owes more to Vic Reeves' Big Night Out than TOTP. In one item, "Lemar From Afar", the hosts amused themselves by conducting an interview with the Fame Academy star via loudhailers, from opposite ends of a car park. In another, "Toolbox Jury", guests are invited to review the week's new releases, using only household tools to rate each song. Once, when homophobic reggae star Beenie Man asked Amstell - who's gay - if he wanted to go out after the show and pick up women, Amstell handed him a banana with his phone number written on it. "You won't even hug me goodbye?" he teased the rattled guest.

Popworld is usually endearingly inclusive viewing: host and guest snicker along like best mates with the viewers in on the joke, too. On notable occasions it falls gloriously flat. Britney Spears walked out. Gwen Stefani grew visibly angry when Amstell attempted to corral her views on cheese. Girls Aloud refuse to ever appear again. "It was after Cheryl Tweedy punched that woman in the toilets," says Amstell, referring to the singer's arrest in 2003 after striking a black nightclub attendant. "In the end, the court said, 'She's not a racist. She's a violent bitch, though.' I asked her about it."

"It would have annoyed us to interview Girls Aloud and not bring it up," says Oliver. "It would have been, like, 'Why are we not talking about this huge thing?' It's not about being rude, it's about being honest. Then they went and said really personal things about me and Simon."

"They said they didn't like my hair," says Amstell. "I mean, look at this hair. It's lovely Jewish hair. I think she's racist."

Then there's Ronan Keating. "You can't kick him to make him interesting," Amstell has said. "We don't open the show with 'Hello, and today we'll be interviewing Ronan Keating, who's a ... [insert expletive here].' We might imply it, but we don't say it."

"He has to be one of the worst guests ever," says Oliver.

"If you're in entertainment, you should be entertaining. That's the deal," says Amstell. "If Rachel Stevens is boring, he's a coma victim."

All of which may sound hugely mean-spirited. You might argue that it's pop TV, not Paxman. Their defence: it's because they care about good pop and "proper" pop stars that they get frustrated with people such as Keating.

"When you're coming out of an interview that's been quite boring, you can't really say, 'Wow, that Rachel Stevens, what a laugh!' The public just saw the conversation," says Amstell.

"I get angry when people go, 'Oh, you're just rude to people,'" says Oliver. "Because most of the guests have a lot of fun. I'm honestly happiest when they're laughing with us and we're all [mimes air-quotes for added cheesy showbusiness-ness] 'having a party together'."

"I've never had any problem with the mickey-taking," Hard-Fi's singer Richard Archer later explains. "Some of their questions are totally ridiculous, but that's the point. It throws the interviewee and you see another side of them, rather than the same old answers."

"There's no other show like it," says McFly's Tom Fletcher. "They have a huge variety of bands: pop and rock and everything in between. The interviews are always funny. We like it when Simon takes the piss. All our fans love it."

While Britain's love for both pop and television knows no bounds, putting the two together is notoriously tricky. The graveyard of music TV is littered with corpses for which there are few mourners. Who remembers The White Room with a misty eye? How about Wired, The Roxy or The Jo Whiley Show? Since Petula Clark and Denis Lotis launched the BBC's Hit Parade in 1952, new formats have come and gone with increasing regularity. Next to the ailing Top of the Pops, the only show in recent memory with any tenacity is Later... With Jools Holland, soldiering on with Holland's well-thumbed Rolodex of grizzly blues legends.

MTV, blogs, iTunes, ringtones, even Top Shop's in-store telly would seem to toll the knell for terrestrial music shows as go-to places for new music. Nowadays, you're as likely to see the latest hip band on Parkinson or Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. (Last autumn, Franz Ferdinand chose The Frank Skinner Show as the place to première their comeback single.) Many of these arguments were sprung to TOTP's defence when, last July, after more than 40 years, it was ingloriously shuffled from BBC1 to BBC2, a move that successfully halved its already threadbare audience. CD:UK, struggling since Ant and Dec quit as hosts in 2001, will air its final show in March.

But Popworld is a product of its times. In the last few years, the public's relationship with celebrity has become far less deferential. Popworld's sarky banter fits right in, making CD:UK's tell-us-about-your-new-video line of questioning seem as relevant as addressing the audience as "pop pickers". Furthermore, guitar music is now regarded as much like pop music as pop itself. Just as NME has realigned to become "indie Heat", so you're as likely to see Bloc Party or Oasis on Popworld as you are Dannii Minogue. Add to this credible chart acts such as Gorillaz and Goldfrapp, and UK pop is enjoying its purplest patch for years.

"Two or three years ago, pop music was at its vilest. The whole genre was being bashed," says the songwriter Brian Higgins, who has crossed the innovation of Pharrell Williams with the commercialism of Stock Aitken Waterman to produce hit after hit for Sugababes, Girls Aloud and Rachel Stevens. "We've moved away from that. It's got to be as cutting edge and melodically brilliant as any 'proper' band. I want to make the perfect pop single."

It's from this foundation that Popworld Limited plans a raft of expansions. "This year you'll be able to watch Popworld on your phone and online," says Martin Lowde, the show's CEO. "We're taking it international. There's a hunger for current UK music in the Middle East, Australia and America. Simon and Miquita's technique of getting under the surface of the acts and behind the glitz - that's what will drive it overseas." There will also be a magazine, new programmes under the banner Popworld Productions and spin-off specials for certain acts. "However 16- to 34-year-olds want to get hold of music," he says, a touch sinisterly, "we'll help them do it."

THE NEXT time we meet, Amstell and Oliver are in their studio again. They repair to an empty room to be interviewed. (From this point in, assume their comments come accompanied by a peel of giggles from one or the other. But usually both.) "We hated each other for the first year," says Oliver. "And I was just in awe of television. At the interview, they asked me what music I liked and what I thought of Britney Spears. I said she was an idiot. Then they said I'd got the job. I was absolutely terrified."

Amstell, who hails from Essex, set his sights on TV early, after seeing Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin present the first incarnation of The Big Breakfast in 1992. His first TV job, when he was 18, was for the children's channel Nickelodeon, but "I got fired for being sarcastic". Oliver, from London, never wanted to be on telly, but a family friend remembered her gobbiness from a dinner party and suggested she audition for Popworld. (Oliver has showbiz roots. Her mother is Andrea Oliver, the broadcaster and former member of Eighties boho-funk band Rip, Rig & Panic, whose members included a pre-fame Neneh Cherry, Oliver's aunt. Her father is an artist. Amstell's mum and dad are a former estate agent and owner of a courier company.)

"They said they wanted 'an edgy pop show' but, you know, one of those safe ones where you don't actually upset anyone," says Amstell.

"I don't know where they thought they were getting the edge from," says Oliver.

"Because you're mixed race," says Amstell.

It took a while to find its feet. The hosts finally bonded over shared antipathy towards Fiona Phillips. "We spent a morning watching GMTV, shouting at the telly," says Amstell. After a rapid turnover of production staff left the hosts as the longest-serving team members, they exploited the opportunity, abandoning the previous, heavily scripted format. "Like the Spice Girls when they said, 'We're going to run ourselves now'," reflects Oliver.

Amstell has a parallel career as a stand-up - he did his first gig aged 14 - and performs in and around Soho every week. His material frequently draws on his Jewish roots, sexuality and experiences of TV. Tellingly, the last CDs he bought were by comedians - Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as Derek and Clive; Joan Rivers - while his favoured telly isn't music shows at all, but David Letterman and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. He sees Popworld as a chat show with music, not the other way round.

While plenty of today's TV is painfully wacky ("trying to be random," as Oliver has it), the pair explain that there's always method to Popworld's madness. For example, an item called "Craig David's Diamanté Ball Bag" - in which interview questions are plucked from a glittery sack lowered from the ceiling - is only used for R&B guests. And Katie Melua. Half close your brain and you can just about see the logic.

"There has to be a point," says Oliver. "But you should be in our meetings. There's a good 10 minutes of silence when everyone's going, 'How can we make Athlete interesting?'"

"I'm sure Parkinson has the same problem," says Amstell.

Popworld's not for life. Oliver wants to be an actress. Amstell is torn between TV and making a proper go of comedy. "Although everything in stand-up has pretty much been said," he says. "I like Popworld because only we can do it." It's true - it's impossible to imagine anyone else presenting. What happens if one of them quits? For once, they answer as one: "We'd both leave."

Back in the studio, the pop-punk band Son Of Dork are having their hair ironed by a small army of stylists (that just-rolled-out-of-CBGBs look doesn't come easy). They rattle through their new single. Off air, Amstell invites them to his birthday party. Singer James Bourne remembers the band's recent Popworld accolade as Hot New Act. "Thanks for that," he says. "I didn't think we'd been around long enough."

"Oh, I rigged it," says Amstell.

Then they break for lunch.

"I think I'm just realising what a huge luxury it is to be able to do whatever we want on television," says Oliver. "And have everyone know the show for that. John Peel, minicab drivers, some bloke selling samosas on Brick Lane ... The other week we went to a party and Alan Rickman was there. He was, like, [Rickman-esque boom] 'Oh, it's you two! I LOVE you two!' I mean, come on," she grins. "That's wicked."

'Popworld' is on Channel 4 on Saturday mornings

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