television Room 101 (BBC2) Filling the void left by the death of the chat-show. By Jasper Rees


Huge amounts of cleverness have been crammed into Room 101, in which a celebrity guest consigns things they loathe to Orwell's chamber of horrors. A double dose has been administered to its presenter, Mick Hancock, who is not so much clever as clever-clever. You felt a stab of sympathy when a cutaway showed Richard Wilson, last night's guest, pulling a mock-grim face as his host pursued the perfect gag like a dog chasing its own tail.

The granting of a second series is a benediction from on high, but it can't have been a tough decision. Room 101 pretends to be a radical new format, but the parts that make up the whole are actually all reliable second-hand stock. Killing a flock of birds with one stone, it indulges our craving for nostalgia, panders to the national appetite for putting things down, fills the void left by the death of the chat-show, and gives the BBC carte blanche to raid its own vaults. And somehow, it still feels fresh. If that's not clever, what is?

There's probably a clause in the invitation obliging guests to name at least one popular BBC programme they detest. Wilson dutifully listed Songs of Praise and Come Dancing. They're both easy targets, as neither is made with a care for posterity any more than the news is. When did you last see a repeat of Songs of Praise, apart from within another programme making fun of it? But they're deserving targets anyway.

The researchers have worked hard to dredge up the most toe-curling clips. It must have taken several uncomfortable hours on the fast-forward button to come up with the footage of Porthcawl's cha-cha-cha champions: the female partner wore the sort of hairdo that would have looked more complete with a Flake dunked in it. Hancock captioned the clips with some handy jokes that, like a diligent Blue Peter presenter, he'd prepared earlier. He fantasised about modernising the God slot for the new religious satellite channel, bringing in shows like Disciples in their Eyes, or Whose Wine Is it Anyway?

It was at this point that Wilson pulled his face, because one weakness of the format is the imbalance between the scripted host and unscripted guest. This may well be why Wilson wasn't invited on before. In theory, the actor who plays Victor Meldrew ought to be the ideal fit for a show that calls for concentrated misanthropy. He might have been avoided out of the fear that a real display of grumpiness would not be as funny as his fictional one. In fact, he deftly made a meal of his scriptlessness by forgetting the running order when Hancock teed him up to announce the next item. When he cued him in again, amnesia struck once more.

Room 101 is one small sign of the media's torrid love-hate relationship with the early 1970s. When today's pubescents become tomorrow's commissioning editors, there'll doubtless be a lot of laughs to be had about the haircuts and mores of 1995. But they won't be able to sneer at this, unless wit and knowing frivolity go out of fashion.

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