NOW YOU'RE TALKING; TV EYE

Jeff Pope, the executive producer of a chat show, is in a lift firing off enough swear-words to keep the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association busy for weeks. He is dashing to placate Michael Winner who has been left waiting in reception because a runner failed to meet him. Having mollified the film director, Pope begs him to go on and tell an unflattering story about Bob Monkhouse. Refusing point-blank, Winner heads for a dressing-room where he proceeds to kick up another fuss when he is kept waiting a further 45 minutes before going on. The whole scene could have come from The Larry Sanders Show.

But these choice cuts are, in fact, culled from the pilot of The Show , Channel 4's new chat show hosted by the stand-up comedian, Bob Mills. Interviews are just part of the package, interspersed with fly-on-the-wall footage of the preceding week spent frantically trying to secure guests.

Mills takes time out from the hectic build-up to explain the thinking behind The Show. "Nobody wants a Parkinson-type chat show anymore. We're in an age of guys with ponytails and red braces and spins and hooks. The hook on Mrs Merton - that's a terrible choice of words now, isn't it? - is that she's an 80-year-old woman who can say what she likes. The spin on Clive Anderson is that he's a dreadfully clever Oxbridge type who is always undercutting people. The spin on this is that it's a perfectly straight chat show with extra little inserts of how it has come to be. In every job - whether you work in a bank or a garage - there is always a moment where you think, `If the customers could see what really goes on here...'"

Perhaps warming up for the show, Mills goes into chat overdrive. "What it comes from," he motors on, "is the fact that Jeff Pope has spent a long time making fly-on-the-wall documentaries - in schools, hospitals and police stations - but he's never been anywhere as interesting as the office where he edits these things. With any other subject, you'd have to make compromises; but with this, there are none, because Jeff controls the fly-on-the-wall team and us. He has complete access. No one can say `no'. He's a man who'll think for eight-tenths of a milisecond about people's feelings and then run with it anyway."

The Show is obviously no place for the precious. "That's the reason why I'm doing it instead of better-known showbiz types," Mills says. "From the shows I've done in the past - In Bed with Medinner, Win, Lose or Draw - viewers know that what they're seeing is what they'd get if they met me in Sainsbury's. So they'll see me being made up to look like Johnny Showbiz before the show on a Thursday, but then we'll flash back to Monday morning when I'm wearing jeans and looking like Johnny Scumbag - which is what I am. I don't have a great image to protect."

The risk is that it will just seem too "in", another example of TV eating itself. "We're aware of that," Mills concedes, "but the time is right. People are media-literate. There have been enough insider documentaries. A big phrase in the office is `I smell Christopher Biggins in this' - people know what you mean by that.

"The fact it's set in a chat show is irrelevant," he continues. "The logistics of getting a big player like Michael Palin to a certain place in time to do an interview are incredible. But a person getting a shop ready for a big sale will identify with the pressures."

So does this very post-modern show represent the future of TV chat? "It's such a ridiculous industry," Mills sighs. "In five years' time, someone will say, `Why don't we get a trained journalist and have him just talk with the guests? It's off-the-wall, but it might just work.' Then they'd pay a million pounds to get Parky back.

"But while the industry is obsessed with hooks and spins," he concludes, "The Show is the future. While this is the horse that's running, our money's on it."

`The Show' starts tonight at 10.30pm on C4

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