review

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The Independent Culture
"Let me tell you," said Andrew Neil, "The Andrew Neil Show (BBC2) is making history today." In case you missed it, history was made on Tuesday afternoon, when Neil's global chat-show and phone-in became the first television programme to be simultaneously broadcast live on the Internet. From Dundee to Dunedin, from Peoria to Peshawar, netties and websurfers could download Andrew's chat with Chris de Burgh and e-mail in their questions. There is something faintly desperate about this gizmo- machismo, as if they will do whatever it takes to make contact with an audience. It wouldn't be very surprising if they announced that they were also going to transmit the programme in morse code or pay students to transcribe it onto toilet walls, just in case there is someone out there who has a good excuse for missing it.

The show itself is a fairly explicit crib from America's Larry King Live, though in an attempt to diminish the obvious comparisons, King's trademark braces - part of a shirtsleeves, down-to- business style - have been replaced by a rota of snazzy waistcoats. The titles begin with a spinning globe, over which Andrew Neil's name appears, in Dymo-tape letters, as if in a schoolboy claim to ownership. The rest, from the cross-desk interviewing style to the skyline backdrop, will be fairly familiar to students of CNN, presumably the cable-dependent audience which the show hopes to trawl.

The catch is pretty lean, at least when it comes to foreign waters. On Tuesday last week, Simon Callow received a couple of calls from two anglophile- sounding Indians in Bombay and Dubai ("Super movie Simon"), but next day Petula Clark had to make do with domestic adoration. After a while the electronic flyer running across the bottom of the screen ("Do you have a question for Petula Clark?") began to sound a distinctly plaintive note. The sub-continent did better this week, with calls to both Richard E Grant and Chris de Burgh ("Hi Chris. I'd just like to say we really loved your song "Lady in Red" here in Pakistan"), though the separate callers sounded suspiciously like one man and a faulty connection. Neil's smile occasionally freezes a little, as if he is finding it hard to adapt to his novel role of suffering fools gladly.

The programme begins with domestic news, a brisk face-to-face with someone featuring in the British headlines. While Neil is no Paxman, he isn't bad either - decently briefed, reasonably tenacious and alert to the holes in a defence. The items are occasionally under-produced - this week's piece on explicit material in teenage magazines wasn't a patch on that morning's Call Nick Ross, on the same issue - but the presenter isn't really the problem. At least not until the programme "goes global" and the guest-list softens to admit whichever celebrity happens to be in need of some publicity and is prepared to drum it up here.

Though Neil has a proper sniper's perspective on the worlds of politics and current affairs, when it comes to showbiz and the arts he's comically at pains to make it clear that he's a member of the club, even to the point of trumping his guest's name-dropping. "I've been in Madonna's house too," he noted quickly, after Richard E Grant had mentioned a double-date with the singer. "You and I have been together on many occasions when that song's been played," he said to Chris de Burgh, anxious to establish his above-stairs status.

Suddenly the manner is all reassurance and showbiz schmooze. "You don't look a day older," he said to Grant, when the latter winced at an old clip. "You're a liar," replied Grant, making it plain that he was in the studio for duty not pleasure. Two of the three programmes I saw ended with Neil saying, "That was great", as the studio lights dip. It isn't clear whether this is a trademark or that the soundman has to be very quick to edge out the chummy self-congratulation, but the line captures the latter part of the programme exactly - soft-soap instead of hardball.

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