By rights this "live edition" of the TV celebrity quiz ought to be a step too far. A Shooting Stars segment shoe-horned into Vic and Bob's last stage show went off horribly half-cocked. And the second series on BBC2 has had the odd creaky moment too - even the show's most ardent admirer could be forgiven for feeling that 13 episodes was stretching it a bit. When something starts at the peak of conceptual perfection which was the Shooting Stars' base-camp, there is only really one way to go. And that is not up.
Yet somehow this show does not have the second-hand feel you might expect. Perhaps because watching comedy on TV is so often a more fulfilling experience than watching it live, a no-expense-spared reconstruction of a small- screen pleasure gets people more excited than a "proper" live show would. Perhaps, also, because touring the same routines up and down the country has given the performers the chance to savour the quality of Vic and Bob's writing instead of just belting it out and moving on to the next show. Judging by the strangled shouts of approbation that greeted her every move, for a substantial portion of the audience the chance to see Ulrika Jonsson in the flesh was worth the price of admission on its own.
A delicate and peculiarly British balance of deconstruction and celebration needs to be maintained here. The idea of Ulrika's glamour only really began to take flight when Vic and Bob started undermining it - whether by obliging her to drink pints of lager in less than 10 seconds, or by making indelicate reference to the strange and edible crabs that live on her face. Conversely, the guest "celebrities" who join the regulars at each new town on the tour - a shy man from local radio, a charming Cambridge United footballer, an unknown female pop singer and (by way of contrast) St Etienne's Sarah Cracknell - need to be built up a little.
If this is not quite the way things turn out ("Favourite meal: steak and chips, favourite group: Simply Red, favourite TV: Only Fools and Horses. That's right, you are a footballer!"), Reeves and Mortimer can hardly be blamed. Showbusiness is, after all, an unforgiving mistress. Anyone who did not know this before tonight's opening "Legends" segment - wherein three fully-costumed lookalikes endeavour to bring to life the back catalogues of Freddie Mercury, Rod Stewart and Elton John with the help of a live band and Mark Lamarr on occasional harmonica - certainly knew it afterwards. There are few more poignant sights in the world than a lookalike playing it for laughs. And there is a hint of sadism in Vic and Bob's decision to allow this to happen that they need to be wary of.
Having recently suffered the potentially fatal public-relations reverse of being acclaimed by infamous tweedy curmudgeon A N Wilson as "the funniest man in Britain", Ben Elton would deserve credit for showing his face at his local Tesco, let alone live on stage at the London Palladium. But there he is, bold as Brasso, demonstrating his contempt for our "style-obsessed" contemporary society right from the off by wearing brown shoes after six o'clock.
Elton has the focused look of a man whose time has come, again. The argument is there, for anyone twisted enough to make it, that while Shooting Stars marks the zenith of the apolitical post-alternative, post-Thatcherite comedy consensus, the apolitical nature of contemporary politics demands a committed comedic reaction. The real irony, however, is that for all Elton's broadsides against "fashionable, ironic" comedians, it is he, not they, who seems reactionary and depressing. His obsessive equation of normality with pubs, curry and bodily functions seems unbearably condescending: as if that is the only culture normal people have a right to.
There are 15 minutes of excellent material being held hostage in the middle of this rapturously received two-hour show, and most of it pertains to people who read books about the SAS. Otherwise the level of comedic insight is so low as to be, well, not laughable - and Elton at his best is too gifted a comic writer to be allowed to get away with this. Among the piercing shafts of insight he is currently proffering are: "Car adverts bear no relation to our driving experience"; and "They're making designer lagers now". Hang on a minute, my mind's gone blank: what was it bears do in the woods again?
n Ben Elton: Brighton Dome (01273 709709), tonight, & touring till 15 Dec. 'Shooting Stars': York Barbican (01904 628991), Fri & Sat, & touring till 19 Dec.Reuse content