THE LAST WORD IN TRASH TV

Channel 4's Friday night youth show courted infamy with vomit- drinking and condom-flossing. Now the end is nigh. By Mark Lawson

In the beginning was The Word, and The Word made the flesh creep. Almost preternaturally media-aware since its launch six years ago, Channel 4's late-night Friday series was presumably well aware of the possibilities of its title. The Word sounded like a rock group, which was appropriate as such acts would be a large part of its format. The Word sounded like a God-slot show, which was wholly inappropriate, but thus nicely ironic. The name held a promise of innovation: in the beginning was The Word. They probably didn't guess that critics would joke that The Word was a reference to the total vocabulary of the show's famously inarticulate main presenter, Terry Christian, but otherwise it was a nearly perfect title.

Except, perhaps, that from the very first programme there was a brooding promise of the final pun: an edition called The Last Word. Last Friday's edition was the 101st and it is now widely expected that the 104th, in three weeks' time, will be The Last Word. Channel 4 refuses to confirm this - saying yesterday that the show has only ever been commissioned one series at a time and a decision will not be made until the midsummer budget meetings - but the word on the street is that the show is over.

For those who have never been among its average three million weekly viewers, it should be explained that The Word has become famous among television programmes for two things.

One is the promotion of unfamiliar presenters, which is to say not merely unknowns but people unfamiliar with the traditional techniques of television presentation. Most of these hosts have become known as cults, although, as the joke goes, this may have been a misprint in some cases. Where some television interviewers have been compared to the Spanish Inquisition, Terry Christian more resembles a Spanish tourist asking directions at Oxford Circus. His first co-host was Amanda de Cadenet, the so-called "wild child" who left to marry a rock star. She was followed by "Hufty", a stocky, shaven-headed young Geordie woman. Currently, Christian shares the fronting with Dani Behr, another "wild child", whose liaison with the footballer Ryan Giggs raised the show's profile again just when fashion- fatigue was setting in last year.

The programme's second claim to infamy is its vulgar stunts. Live in the studio - in a sequence called "Opportunity Shocks" - audience members are challenged to eat worms, drink vomit or French-kiss an old woman, while the audience is invited to "bay like pigs", their appreciation of each act being measured on a "pigometer". Otherwise, the programme trawls popular culture for rude bits. A film review on last Friday's edition was purely an excuse to screen the lengthy nude scene from Robert Altman's Prt-A-Porter.

In a more recent stunt, which ranks as high journalism in comparison with the others, the series planned to fly the runaway schoolboy Peter Kerry to New York. Channel 4 vetoed this idea, but the show still awarded him an off-camera vacation in Manhattan last week. The television company's chairman, Sir Michael Bishop, has ordered an investigation into these events.

But although the Kerry scandal has solidified the sense of crisis around The Word, doubts about the future of the series pre-dated this incident. Rumours of The Last Word go back at least a month.

If the show is about to go, then there are two possible explanations for its demise: the rational and the conspiratorial. The former is that The Word, depending on freshness and connection with the cutting edge, would always have a short shelf-life. As with high technology, the format may have had built-in redundancy, its rapid replacement by a new model being part of the point. Cultural fashions peak after a few years and The Word, which aimed to be the televisual equivalent of modish clothes or music, was, in its nature, never going to be an eternal format like Desert Island Discs or This Is Your Life.

But although the passage of fashion is the most tempting explanation for the termination of The Word, it can plausibly be argued that it has suffered from changes in the culture of television and, in particular, of Channel 4.

The first shift is technical. The Word believed that a sense of edge and danger on screen resulted from reckless spontaneity and even open incompetence: this was a fashionable theory in Eighties television. In fact, it has more often been the case that fresh and risky shows - for example, Have I Got News For You? Fantasy Football League, The Big Breakfast - have been technically slick and carefully scripted.

The other change of climate is cultural. Although the political rhetoric of the broadcasting debate in the Eighties centered on "deregulation", the loosening was almost wholly economic. British broadcasting remains heavily regulated, internally and externally, with regard to matters of "decency", "responsibility" and "taste". And it may even be the case that these barriers are currently extending rather than shrinking. The peculiar thing about the Peter Kerry row was that it had the feel of a BBC affair: a chairman of the board summoning the programme-makers to answer for a piece of scheduling judged embarrassing by the Establishment and the tabloid press.

While the BBC governors have a long history of such interventions, there is no recorded case of Edmund Dell or Richard Attenborough, who preceded Michael Bishop as Channel 4 chairmen, publicly upbraiding programme-makers in this way. Indeed, Attenborough was more likely to be found beside the programme-makers on the steps of the High Court. The new chairman seems, on this evidence, to have introduced to a channel established to take risks the old British broadcasting tradition of paternalistic taste-policing from the top floor.

Across British culture at the moment, there is a running battle between artistic shock tactics and notions of taste or consumer protection. This row has recently been played out over Club 18-30's lubricious advertisements; the films of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone; "victim art", which uses suicide notes and images of atrocities; and, now, The Word. There are all sorts of good reasons for taking The Word off the air - Terry Christian, format-fatigue, the loss of shock value - but Michael Grade and Dawn Airey, the show's commissioning editor, now risk the regrettable and galling perception that they have bowed to their chairman's big daddy tactics. Because of this, there is a small possibility that the Peter Kerry affair may, paradoxically, win a reprieve for the series.

If Channel 4 does decide not to commission a new series of The Word, then what might replace it? The safest route would be to drop the vomit- drinking and worm-tasting and concentrate on the music - in something like BBC2's Later With Jools Holland - or talk - with a chat show hosted by a cross between Danny Baker and Terry Christian - but both of these would tend to attract lower ratings, where the present trend in television is to aim as high as possible.

It is therefore likely that something of the childishness and wildness of The Word will survive in any successor. Channel 4's executives might reflect that they have lost faith in the series at the exact moment BBC2, its main rival channel, has unveiled a direct imitation. The new seventh- day lunchtime series The Sunday Show is co-hosted by former Word presenter Katie Puckrik and features the same mix of showbiz gossip, media in-jokes (Bienvenida Buck as agony aunt) and free-wheeling presentation which cheerfully uses street words, and Word-words, like "shag" and "cack".

Quite why it's showing at Sunday lunchtime is a mystery - there's a rumour that Michael Jackson, the BBC2 controller, told his schedulers to "stick it on around 12" and they misunderstood midday for midnight - but it is clear that, if The Word is dead, it has not died childless or intestate. The Sunday Show is, because of its odd time slot and the even fustier structures of the BBC, a tamer version of The Word and the smart money is that Channel 4's own eventual replacement for the wild child of its output will be that as well: a Word that's more a whisper than a shout.

Meanwhile, if you want to light your farts or eat a budgie on national television, you've probably got three more weeks to do it.

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