Tried & tested: Live And Kicking?

Fancy a bit of audience participation? Want to wave to your mum? Our panel learns to smile on cue
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The Independent Culture
MOST light entertainment shows need audiences to provide the laughs, the claps and the general ambience, so instead of a night out at the cinema, why not try the television studio? You get a "live" experience and the satisfaction of knowing you've seen the programme before anyone else, as well as a free evening's entertainment. We sent our panel of testers to find the premier programmes for live viewing.


Our testers, avid television watchers aged between 18 and 40, were Alistair Perry, Jessica Rojas, Kate Lefley, Laura Morley, Ian Nicholson, Edward Bolton, Stefan Lindemann, Richard Hawkins, Alix Johnson, Liz Sullivan and me.


Under consideration were pre-show hospitality, warm-up acts, audience/ presenter interaction, length of filming, general comfort and the atmosphere.


LWT Studios, London SE1

"Altogether untaxing," pronounced Alix Johnson of the Blind Date audience experience. Jessica Rojas thought so too, describing this as easy enjoyment, although she voiced irritation at the long queues and lack of refreshments. "We all came straight from work, and a bar to relax in beforehand would have been nice," Alix agreed. However, the filming itself was entertaining and "the lack of enforced smiling a definite bonus" (Edward Bolton), while Jessica thought the rapport between warm-up man Ted Robinson and the audience enhanced the experience: "Both he and Cilla chatted away to us throughout."

Complaints were made about the cramped seats and the lengthy recording time (over two hours). "A couple of contestants kept fluffing their answers, which meant lots of annoying retakes," said Jessica. But testers were pleased to see that BD's selection process is genuine - they were forbidden to shout out "pick number two!" Overall, panellists did enjoy the live Blind Date experience, but thought it too similar to the televised version to be worth attending.


Teddington Studios, Middlesex

Jaw-ache from excessive and unnatural smiling at Night Fever was a big problem for our panel, as was the relentless exhortation to "just go wild". But a karaoke warm-up and glass of wine before the show whipped the rest of the audience (mostly 18 to 25) into party mood. Many of them had been several times before and danced, whooped and heckled enthusiastically throughout.

Our panellists were unanimously fed up after half an hour. Alix Johnson called the experience "like being at a drunken party when you're sober", Kate Lefley described it as "Club 18-30 hits Tedd-ington" and Liz Sullivan "prayed for the banality to end". Eagle-eyed Liz also raised her eyebrows at the "beautiful people" planted in the audience and picked "at random" to perform karaoke numbers. None of the panel was impressed by Suggs, the host, whose contact with the audience was minimal and who left between takes. Other annoyances included "the LSD decor which gave me eye-ache" (Alix Johnson) and "seats you couldn't sit on, even if that wasn't the intention" (Liz Sullivan). Over a steadying drink in the pub, the panel called the experience stressful and tedious, but conceded that the rest of the audience did seem to have a good time.


Riverside Studios, London W6

Testers were greeted by long queues for TFI Friday, reflecting its huge popularity among 18- to 30-year-olds. Queuing, ticketing and security seemed pointless, given the shoe-horning of the audience into what Ian Nicholson described as "a hot and uncomfortable cattle-holding area". Ticket-holders have access to the downstairs studio, where music is performed, but not upstairs, where most of the filming takes place. Once again, instructions to look as if they were having fun irritated (although Ian Nicholson called the warm-up "vibe-enhancing"). The interviews could only be seen on large screens, and the complete lack of contact between the audience and the host, Chris Evans, was criticised as "poor politics and poor television" by Ian. "It shatters TFI's illusions of being a blokey, matey show," he said, but Laura Morley and Jessica were less put out and called the atmosphere "brilliant". A no-smoking policy and hidden toilets were disparaged, as was the three-hour recording time - "comfy shoes are a must" said Ian. Overall, TFI is a lively experience if you have lots of stamina.


Fountain Studios, Surrey

Predictably, Ready, Steady, Cook attracts a more mature audience, with many people on their fourth or fifth visits. Warm-up comedian Keith Fields entertained the audience with old jokes and magic tricks, and while the atmosphere was more Women's Institute than whoop-inducing, Stefan Lindemann thought this a plus: "It's not horribly hysterical and you feel genuinely included." The small studio made for a very intimate audience experience and although it was not as seamlessly spontaneous as it appears to be on the box, RSC was pleasantly unscripted and fairly informal, with efficient filming and a minimum of breaks. The first recording is a single show, the second records two shows back to back, and while one show was too short to justify the long trip, RSC offered a pleasant afternoon out, fairly similar to watching the show on television but with added cooking smells.


Teddington Studios, Middlesex

Our panel sampled the infamous Mandelson episode, filmed in the wake of John Birt's ban, and the show came top for unedited entertainment. Dominic Holland's warm-up was "excellent" (Richard Hawkins), while Liz Sullivan thought the show perfectly tailored to its audience (aged 25 to 45). Proceedings began slowly, but verbal fireworks were soon ignited and the lack of scripting meant refreshing spontaneity. The one-hour taping time was considered most conducive to concentration, and all agreed that the live recording was more anarchic and amusing than expected. "The funniest lines were unbroadcastable, which gave proceedings a real frisson," remarked Alistair Perry. Liz Sullivan recommended that the show be seen live to be best appreciated - testers who later watched the broadcast version were disappointed. "This is natural comedy at its finest," said Liz. The chilly studio and uncomfortable seats were considered small inconveniences, given such high-octane entertainment, and the show got a round 10 as the live show that made the panel smile most without having to be told to.


Whitehall Theatre, London SW1

The Jack Docherty Show benefits from its cosy theatre setting and small audience, ranging in age from 25 to 35. The lack of queues got an enthusiastic response: "You just walk in and go down to the bar for a drink before filming - very civilised" (Alix Johnson). Comfortable theatre seats added to a sense of occasion, and Jessica Rojas liked the relaxed atmosphere and general lack of pressure to perform - no warm-up lessons in artificial jollity. There were favourable reviews for the warm-up comedian and for Docherty himself, who conversed merrily with the audience. A brisk pace, which meant filming took just over an hour, was appreciated (the breaks were mercifully brief), as were Jack Docherty's apology for delays when trailer-filming took longer than expected, and the concerted effort to entertain throughout. "I came out of the theatre having enjoyed the show, but without having had an overdose of it," said Jessica. "It's somewhere you could go after work for entertainment without exhausting yourself," agreed Alix, while Alistair Perry thought the show was much more enjoyable live than on TV, because of "the convivial and courteous atmosphere and a lack of trendy Channel 5 camera angles!"


For tickets to Blind Date, Night Fever, TFI Friday and The Jack Docherty Show, call Powerhouse on 0171 287 0045. For Have I Got News For You call Hat Trick on 0171 287 1598/9. And for Ready, Steady, Cook, call Standing Room Only on 0181 870 0111.