Television: The new chattering classes

Jasper Rees looks at the odd manners of the chat show: conversation as sales pitch

There was a time in the 1980s when sterling sank through the floor and economists issued dire predictions of something called parity. Parity meant that pounds 1 would end up having the exchange value of $1. The unthinkable also seems to be happening to the currency of the chat show. In a volatile market its stock value has risen so sharply in the past year that we're approaching a situation of parity: there are now almost as many chat show hosts as there are chat show guests.

This autumn there have been series fronted by Clive Anderson, John Inverdale, the Scottish pairing of Ally McCoist and Fred McAuley, Jeremy Clarkson, Des O'Connor, Ian Wright, Chris Evans, Melinda Messenger, Mariella Frostrup and, until his contract expires at the end of this year, Jack Docherty. It's good to talk. But is the talk that good?

There is a simple reason for the recovery of the chat show: talk is cheap, even after you've paid the host's salary and constructed a set to look like an ad agency crossed with a dentist's waiting-room. On Side in particular, hosted by Inverdale, is a thrifty way for the BBC to show that, while it haemorrhages sporting rights, it still has all the aces when it comes to sporting broadcasters. It's just a shame most sports stars can't talk the talk as well as they walk the walk. George Foreman was a reliable court jester, but in the same edition Michael Owen caught the hand grenades that Inverdale lobbed at him and rather boringly defused them. Two weeks ago Inverdale had Boris Becker, Severiano Ballesteros, Stephen Hendry, Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman, and it was like watching a dauntless scoutmaster trying to light a bonfire in horizontal rain.

In the past decade the chat show has sunk into and clambered out of a deep trough. Once, the post-Parkinson chatscape was run by a duopoly, key guests divvied up between Terry Wogan and Michael Aspel, with Jonathan Ross chomping on the leftovers. But Wogan got lazy, and Aspel threw in the towel when superstars from planet Hollywood hijacked the show and turned it into a prime-time burger van.

The marriage between chat and irony was never going to last. But with the sophisticated post-modernists seen off the premises, it's now beginning dangerously to look as if anyone can host a chat show. There's a slot in Friday night's All Wright called "Hidden Talent" - usually it's footballers reciting poetry or blowing a sax; the other week it was an actress from The Bill doing a spot of flamenco. Ian Wright's hidden talent is hosting chat shows, and he's not the only one. He and McCoist are working footballers. Clarkson's field of expertise is being rude about cars. Melinda Messenger is a blond model with breast implants. None of them has experience of asking questions, and they all tend to be most comfortable interviewing their own kind. If Wright played football the way be tried to break down Sheryl Crow's defences ("Any unfulfilled ambitions?") he'd be a no-goal- a-season man.

Of the novices, only Clarkson, who works for a channel with an IQ, is required to show that he knows how to do it. But even that is not much more than a mirage: his chats look as rehearsed as his minutely choreographed circuit round the set from desk to kitchen to armchair. The show forefronts his gift for shooting from the lip, so on come representatives of fashion, wine or Scotland to issue their rebuttals to his barbs. There's nothing wrong with this formula - at least you can tell everyone has actually tried. It just isn't conversation. Last week Anthea Turner explained the point of exercise, a French woman defended her nation's passion for suppositories, and PJ O'Rourke rummaged through his bag of favourite jokes about foreigners.

Better men than Clarkson are just as guilty. Anderson's gladiatorial technique derives from his career as a barrister, in which the meticulous scripting of questions is designed to weave a path through the interviewee's ramparts to the punchline. But there is no actual debate, no conversation outside the straitjacket of the script. Thus the only genuine talk show on British television is still Parkinson, which parachuted in for a one- off last weekend pending a new series next month. Michael Parkinson's 45-minute interview with George Michael was a reminder that quality of chat is not index-linked to quantity of chat. Parkinson has been away for a dozen years while the stars got younger and he got older. He ought by rights to be curmudgeonly, but he remains the best at flattering his guests that he's interested in them. It helps that these days they are simply flattered to be asked: George Michael got it out first thing that he was honoured to be there. He went on to treat his rather startled host as a father confessor.

But Parkinson is also the host who best understands that the interviewer gets most out of his subjects by quashing his own ego. Compare his searching interview with Anthony Hopkins when Parkinson was first taken out of mothballs earlier this year, and Anderson's unpenetrative tour round the familiar landmarks of Hopkins's life the week before last. Anderson never looks unhappier than when forcing himself to be civil to his guests. Deference is his hair shirt. Antagonism is Parkinson's.

You wouldn't make great claims for the surgical precision of Parkinson's interrogatory style. Rather he has the negative virtue of being not witty in himself, but the cause of wit in other men. When Michael claimed that he had endured "a really tough decade," the sports writer in Parkinson would have slapped him round the chops. But the interviewer left his audience to make their own judgement, where another would have sent in the artillery, to no greater effect. Ditto the question about the point of Andrew Ridgeley: that Michael didn't give a straight answer said enough.

In the old days Parkinson never did one-offs. But then in the old days he didn't select guests on the strength of what they'd recently been waving at an undercover policeman in a Los Angeles toilet. That got Michael a whole show to himself. Talking about his sexuality may be a wonderful new experience for Michael; talking about anyone's sexuality is a new one on Parkinson. But he will have to learn to live with it. Modern celebrities have learned to use the interview as a place to sell not only product but also penitence.

In Michael's case, he had his good name to hawk, plus a greatest-hits compilation, so that even in this last bastion of free-flowing patter there was something of the pas de deux about the interview. Like a well- prepared examinee, he may not have known the questions beforehand, but he knew the answers. The other trope of the interview was Michael's frequent apologies for repeating himself. "As has been well documented," he kept on saying. Or, "I've said this before." In the newly crowded landscape of chat, where there are so many sofas to fill, everything has been said before.

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