TV Reviews

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The opening of Ruby Wax Meets... (BBC1) consists of a set of short movie sequences in which the presenter is seen pressing herself up against various Hollywood celebrities. It is the visual equivalent of an autograph book, and it raises the question of what substantive difference there really is between Wax and those persistent types who hang around outside Television Centre with a Polaroid, hoping to bag another big name for their collection.

Well, Ruby Wax is a lot funnier to start with, even if you don't buy the simulation of wayward mischief that the programmes carefully construct. Last night's encounter with Pamela Anderson began with Ruby being read the riot act by her producer: "We're not allowed to mention her breasts. That law was laid down by her PR." Ruby, naturally, talks of little else but those lucrative protrusions. Lying back on Pamela, while they demonstrate sexual positions in the back of a limo, she is suddenly struck by an alarming thought: "If I burst one of these, ya know how much I'm gonna to get sued for!"

But if you think either Pamela or her PR are seething about this irreverence, you have missed the point. Ruby offers the sort of publicity you just can't buy - an endorsement that your client is a good sport from someone with a reputation for toadying to no one. As toadying goes, it is pretty sophisticated stuff. In one of her finest moments, Ruby Wax sabotaged a Mickey Rourke press conference at Cannes, puncturing the sycophancy with impertinent ad-libs from the front row. Watching this new series it dawns on you that what really stung her at the time was not the offensive pomp of the occasion, but the fact that she hadn't been granted a private audience.

On Saturday night, Channel 4's new Larry Sanders lookalike, The Show, conducted a similar exercise in synthetic candour. After an unsuccessful attempt to resurrect the celebrity chat-show with Gaby Roslin, someone has now sensibly decided to conduct an autopsy instead. So, although "The Bob Mills Show" itself is just as much a Letterman clone as several inglorious predecessors - complete with brittle host, prop-based gags and the urban cityscape glimpsed through the window - there is a redeeming catch; what happens behind the scenes is filmed as well, to be intercut with the front-of-house sequences. Halfway through the music session from Mark Owen, for example, you cut away quickly to hear the producer discussing his inclusion: "I don't like Mark Owen particularly," he says. "I can accept it." Then you cut back to the performer, whose mere "acceptability" is suddenly rather conspicuous. Before you get the chat with Animal, tunnel-girl and instant tabloid heroine, you hear the editor making arrangements for her entourage: "You want a mini- bus, right... Unleaded?"

It would be very foolish to mistake this for anything like the plain truth. More than once you find yourself speculating about the conversation that must have preceded some apparently candid back-stage sequence: "Hey, why don't all three of us go into the lavatory together and discuss guest bookings. That would look great." It strikes you, too, that the executive producer and editor have every possible motive for provoking little displays of backstage temperament - provided, that is, that nobody's nose is seriously put out of joint.

But the fact that you can't entirely trust it doesn't mean that it's pointless. The Show gives you a good sense of what it must be like to work on such programmes - their combination of grief, neurosis and self-important urgency. But it also undermines the form in a way that has a genuine claim to novelty. When Bob Mills introduces Michael Palin with a standard piece of chat-show schmooze ("I saw the film - I thought it was excellent"), you find yourself unusually aware that he may have said something different in private. If they want a second series, The Show will have to be timid in its honesty - a chat-show needs some guests, after all. But any programme which arouses your suspicions about television, rather than merely sedating them, deserves a round of applause.