A little less conversation, a little more action

Jonathan Ross is moving to ITV with a new chat show – but it’s time to retire this tired, old format, says Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

So Jonathan Ross is moving to ITV. "After a short break", his statement read (that's my kind of a short break – we're talking well over a year here, not until at least autumn 2011), "I cannot wait to get back on screen with a fast, funny, unpredictable new talk show".

Fast? Maybe, although Ross's comic monologues can really drag. Funny? Even if he does say so himself. Unpredictable? This is where we really do part company, because I have a horrible feeling that Ross's new chat show will be entirely predictable.

The fact is that, for almost the past quarter of a century, ever since Channel 4's The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross, the host has been flogging a chat-show formula that is now as old as Late Night with David Letterman. It was back in 1987 that he first tried (successfully) to import into a Parkinson-Wogan dominated world of the British TV chat show a looser, funnier, more enterprising American format, a British version of Letterman's first truly modern, or post-modern, chat show – with its house band, the emphasis on comedy, the tightly scripted humorous monologues and the stunts featuring complicit celebrities.

When, early in his show's life, two of Letterman's guests, Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler, appeared to get into a fight, viewers had to be reassured that it was a hoax. Today, we wouldn't bat an eyelid if, say, Billy Connolly knocked Jimmy Carr out of his chair and we'd all assume it was a pre-rehearsed stunt. Celebrities being in on the joke (unlike, say, Andrew Sachs, when Ross left certain messages on his answering machine during Russell Brand's radio programme) is the sine qua non of the post-Letterman chat show. Even the most PR-controlled A-listers have become adept at playing the game – especially the most PR-controlled A-listers, because the likes of Tom Cruise have come to realise that horseplay deflects from any questions being asked about the real Tom Cruise. Not that any such questions would have been allowed in the first place, but the alternative to these hijinks would be the type of meaningless gush that any journalist attempting to interview a Hollywood star is all too painfully familiar with.

To give him his due, Ross is good at putting his guests off guard by making a fool of himself. Now he's off to ITV (his last BBC1 show screening this Friday) and he said it wasn't because of money. I'd like to believe him, and to think that, unlike those in charge of television, he has realised that this post-Letterman style of chat show has now run its course. After all, the format has already been beautifully satirised by Garry Shandling in The Larry Sanders Show, and that was in the last century.

But, no, he's coming back for more of something similar. Meanwhile, Graham Norton, long-groomed for this moment, will take over Ross's role as the BBC's chat-jester, and Alan Carr (shut your eyes and think of Kenneth Williams) covers the Channel 4 beat. So it's business as usual, it seems, although it's surely a timely moment to stop and have a rethink if the chat show is not just to become so much noise on late-night TV.

I reckon that ITV has missed a trick here, because I think the wheel might coming full circle, and it's time to reclaim the chat show from the light-entertainment brigade and hand it back to a journalist. Michael Parkinson has retired, but Piers Morgan has proved a penetrating interviewer for the channel, his years of experience as a Mirror showbiz hack giving him a vast hinterland of knowledge that means he doesn't have to rely on researchers – and interestingly, Morgan is now poised as the successor to Larry King, the doyen of American interviewers. Never mind. ITV didn't get where it is today (something of a broadcasting basket-case) by not missing what is right under its nose.

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