The Saturday Profile, Jonathan Ross, Television Personality: Back from the last resort

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The Independent Culture
Life Story

Age: 37.

Born: Leytonstone, east London.

Married: Journalist and author Jane Goldman (right), when she was 17. Three children, Betty Kitten, Harvey Kirby and Honey Kinney.

Family: Level-pegging with the McGanns as the first family of television. Mother, Maureen, regular resident of "EastEnders" Albert Square. Brothers Paul, omnipresent TV presenter, notably of the British edition of Japanese gameshow "Endurance", Miles, and Simon, TV producers. Youngest siblings Lisa and Adam also working in the media.

CV on TV: "The Last Resort", "The Incredibly Strange Film Show", "Fantastic Facts", "Americana", "One Hour with Jonathan Ross", "Tonight with Jonathan Ross", "Saturday Zoo", "The Big, Big Talent Show.

Owns: A house with a pool in Florida and another in north London.

Says of himself: "I actually like showing off in public, which is what my job still entails."

Plans: Pilot for a new BBC chat-show, "It's Only TV, But I Like It".

TELEVISION IS currently top-heavy with transient talking heads plucked from the mastheads of broadsheet columns and the stages of comedy clubs. The frontman who can dovetail a show, think on his feet, and be funny, is fast becoming an endangered species. One of the last of this dying breed, Jonathan Ross, is barely seen on the box any more.

Not tonight, when the British Comedy Awards will once again have Jonathan Ross as the master of ceremonies. In recent years, critics have sniped that this annual event has come to represent Ross's only TV outing that merits a mention; that the kilt-wearing figure who turned up at movie premieres, and recently the family man snapped chez lui and spread across the pages of Hello! with his wife Jane and their three children, has been hogging the spotlight as his career has gone AWOL.

Unfair. Jonathan Ross, one of the few genuine superstars of the chat show, is also one of the most laid-back. He hungers for television, but also genuinely prefers more time with his family; loves money and the things it buys (including a top-class collection of comics), but doesn't seem to feel that he needs to earn more .

And the fact is that the Comedy Awards is where Ross excels, in a role that, played by a lesser mortal, would be little more than that of an anchorman. In an event that purports to laud the funniest performers working within the small screen, he is ultimately the sole reason for turning on and tuning in. Especially now that Caroline Aherne has sobered up.

During his time at the helm of the show, he has witnessed the eager attempts by the likes of Julian Clary ("I've been fisting Norman Lamont"), and Michael Barrymore (the obligatory screw-up-the-autocue prank), to prove that their wit is worthy of an award win. But it is Ross's script ("Natural born Cillas"), and his ad libs that bring a semblance of flair to what is essentially an excuse for celebrity back-slapping, dished up as a filler before the next season of An Audience With...

That television has lately been unable to attach him to a series that is relevant both to his character and to culture in the Nineties, is more an indictment of the industry's commissioning editors than of the man himself. Clearly, this is what Chris Evans hopes to do by hiring him on Virgin radio to do a Sunday show, as part of a Jonathan Ross renaissance.

This seems an obvious partnership, particularly as Evans has been credited with inheriting, in the Nineties, the mantle that belonged to Jonathan Ross in the Eighties: seemingly that of kooky, quirky, cheeky chappie - TV lad - with their mutual friend, the writer Danny Baker, as the tie that binds.

But this sells Ross short, and misunderstands his past achievements. An East Ender, who was born in Leytonstone, one of a fiercely competitive family of five brothers and sisters (all of whom have ended up with television careers), a powerful mother, and the sort of childhood that instilled him with a love of superheros, film posters, and new gadgets, Ross started in Fleet Street at 17,and married young. His wife was only 16 when they met, 17 when they married (he was 24) and remains his passion still.

He came into television early, in the heady days of commercial expansion in the Eighties. He was only 24 when he formed an independent company - Channel X - with his then partner and producer, Alan Marke. Its first major programme, Last Resort, provided a blueprint for much of what came later, from others. His programmes were also a finishing school for talent that may not have got a foot in the door elsewhere. Vic Reeves made his debut on The Last Resort. Paul Whitehouse and Kathy Burke appeared in An Hour With Jonathan Ross. Caroline Aherne made her TV debut as Sister Mary Immaculate on Tonight with Jonathan Ross, while Mark Lamarr was the warm-up man.

Even though, when The Last Resort arrived on air in 1985, the set and the style was a nod Stateside to David Letterman, almost every new talk show since has aped the same formula: desk, house band, and a line-up that loosely offers a big celebrity, a topical guest, and a freakish speciality act. Chat is to the Nineties what comedy was to the Eighties: anyone can have a go. Small wonder, then, that Ross has moved on from a form that is now the domain of flyweight wits such as Melinda Messenger and Jeremy Clarkson.

The idea for the show originated with Ross and Marke. They had both been researchers on early Channel 4 efforts targeted at a young audience. Ross slipped in as presenter, after he was unable to convince Jeremy Hardy, the comedian and writer, to step into the role, having cornered him at a urinal in a pub toilet. His previous forays in front of the camera had amounted to little more than an obscure cereal ad in his teens, and a programme on skateboarding.

Ross and Marke were a product of the generation that had witnessed glam, punk, and the emergence of the style press. All of which were essential to the references and the vocabulary of The Last Resort. In an industry that understood entertainment, this was one of the first grown-up shows to give it lessons in popular culture. It was the place where you were just as likely to see Leigh Bowery's pierced cheeks, Gilbert & George dancing, or Donny Osmond's post-pubescent "Puppy Love". Last December, the show returned to Channel 4 for one night only, to commemorate 15 years of the network. Ross fronted a show that could have easily picked up where the last series left off. Frank Skinner tried an Elvis number, an American woman popped her eyeballs out, and a man banged nails into his body.

When Ross put these acts on the box, they worked on novelty and shock value alone. The Jim Rose-like freaks who could swallow razor blades or regurgitate goldfish, and warranted a three-minute slot on The Last Resort, have since been stretched ad nauseam in series upon series of its pale imitations. In its wake we have endured, among other things, The Word, The Girlie Show, and Eurotrash.

The trash aesthetic that preoccupies similar series, and much mainstream TV now, had its first outing on the Ross documentaries on Americana, Elvis and The Incredibly Strange Film show series. Although this kind of content continues to be a career move for Clive James, Ross has thankfully put it behind him. That joke isn't funny any more. We no longer need to watch and wonder at the sheer badness of foreign television. It's over here, over-sexed and overplayed. British television has become, in part, the thing it once loathed and laughed at.

Rumour has it that the immediate future for Jonathan Ross lies in movie talk. He is reputedly odds-on favourite to step into Barry Norman's shoes as the BBC's resident film critic. Film is his forte, whereas sport, soaps, and feeding other people lines for jokes is not. This is why he is wasted on panel shows, and as the middleman on non-starters such as the risible prime-time series Gaglag, in the early-Nineties. The subjects he once covered in The Incredibly Strange Film Show, such as directors John Waters and Russ Meyer, revealed him as a straight lad with a camp sensibility. This, coupled with a fascination for cinema's bigger picture, and his friendship with actors such as Johnny Depp, could see a more permanent return of form, if a film series is in the offing.

Had Ross been a pop star, his sojourn at London Weekend in the mid-Nineties would have been his Tin Machine period. The company's attempt to cast him as a post-modern Hughie Green at the helm of The Big, Big Talent Show once again revealed the short-sightedness of the masters of the TV universe. It's telling that from the wreckage of that period it is only the Ross documentaries on cinematic icons that have some worth: James Bond, Dracula and Tarzan (transmitted over the Christmas period). A popular film series would now be the perfect vehicle to bind his wit, smartness and rapport.

Someone once wrote that Jonathan Ross was the only talk-show host, apart from Parkinson, to have a genuine interest in most of his guests. This still remains the case. Unlike Clive Anderson, he never uses every moment of an interview as a cue to deliver a punch-line created by a cast of scriptwriters. And the bigger the name before him, often the better the interview. Although he is synonymous with irreverence, you never forget that he was once, and still remains, a fan. In the early days of The Last Resort, it was as though he couldn't believe his luck as he embarked upon a duet with Tom Jones.

Ross himself has said that he has had problems with the business of celebrity. Having spent all day in what Quentin Crisp calls "the nodding and smiling bracket", he found that he was arriving home attempting to harness a cartload of anger. The house of Ross remains a family affair. You assume that the odd, one-hour interview in the past, with the likes of the mild, and previously permed, Michael Bolton, were endured simply to keep the family in the style to which they have become accustomed. Although, with his wife Jane Goldman having made a mint from her books about The X Files, there should be no shortage of ready cash for the gadgets, computer games, and comics that keep the boy Ross occupied when he's away from the spotlight.

"It's very hard to be taken off the air in Britain," Jonathan Ross told David Letterman, when the American chat show host interviewed him in 1991. "I've made some good shows, and some bad shows. But they just let you keep on making them."

Nowadays, he appears to be intent on simply making the good ones again, as long as the powers-that-be let him do so. This is perhaps more than can be said for some of the nominations at tonight's British Comedy Awards - a comedy ceremony at which the man dishing out the trophies is invariably funnier than many of those receiving them.