REVIEW : Spoofing me, spoofing him... with Mrs Merton

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The Independent Culture
After the chat show came the chat-show spoof, in which bland, lazy sofa opera was mercilessly ridiculed. Now there are no more chat shows left, and the only competition the spoof faces is from its own kind. We can shortly expect the chat-show-spoof spoof, in which those who mercilessly ridicule bland, lazy sofa opera are themselves mercilessly ridiculed.

Sometimes television seems to be contortedly potholing up its own fundament. It might have scored the odd resounding judder on the sniggerometer, but The Mrs Merton Show (BBC 2) was one of those times. Its title gets it off to an unfortunate start. Caroline Hook (previously Aherne) has been trading under that pseudonym for at least as long as Paul Merton has been a household name and certainly longer than the other Mrs Merton, Caroline Quentin, but that doesn't reduce the confusion. Debbie McGee even asked Mrs Merton if she was the comedian's mother, which can't have been a planted question because the unfunny answer was plainly off the cuff.

Last on the guest list was Steve Coogan who, as Mrs Merton pointed out, played "a made-up character who hosts a chat show. That's a strange idea, isn't it?" It gets stranger every time, and was never more so than when she encouraged him to do his Frank Spencer impression, a joke that depended solely on whether or not you knew that, as Alan Partridge, Coogan heaped precisely the same indignity on one of his (fictional) guests. It seemed hugely apposite that Chris Greener, Britain's tallest man, was among the guests, because he was a visual metaphor for the in-bred show's deformity.

Within the chat-show spoof genre there are several sub-genres: in the Dame Edna version, a fictional hostess interviews real guests; in Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge, a fictional host interviews fictional guests; in the Ruby Wax mould, a real hostess interviews real guests, but parodically. Mrs Merton follows the Everage model, except that her rinsed housewife is not a drag act, and her guests haven't been flown in to London from Hollywood but, much less glamorously, from London to Manchester.

McGee, who had nothing to gain from appearing but a reputation for being game for a laugh, told a story about how on the flight she sat next to Kriss Akabussi but didn't recognise him, nor he her. Whether scripted or not, the anecdote served the show's purpose, because it tidily summed up the level of fame Mrs Merton's guests have slithered up to, and McGee told it so badly that it fully demonstrated why she has not progressed beyond a non-speaking role on her husband Paul Daniels's show.

Like bad radio reception, Hook's ear for the inanity of chat goes in and out of tune: "What do you do, sportswise?" she asked Akabusi, and "When did you first realise you could run?", but such gold-medal-winning posers were outnumbered by groin gags. McGee was only invited so Hook and her co-writers could unpack their favourite Daniels jokes: "Do you do tricks for each other at home? Does he make things pop up willy nilly?" She was introduced as the wife of the man "who is known for his cunning stunts". If it's open season on spoonerisms, try saying this one in Mancunian: Mrs Hook hisses muck.

Down Covent Garden way Operavox (BBC 2), a new series which shrinks the classics to half-hour cartoons, will no doubt excite only disdain for populist gimmickry, but Mario Cavalli's flavoursome version of Carmen, in which clever videotechnics turned real lip-syncing dancers into figures of animation, was stunning. All right, you lost four-fifths of Bizet's original, but you gained in dramatic urgency and mesmerising splashes of Andalusian colour. For once, you could hardly tell the difference between opera on the box and a box at the opera.