He's charmless, unattractive, but he's Italy's Mr Television

Andrew Gumbel on the rise and rise of sinister Maurizio Costanzo
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He is short, fat and nearly bald, the most untelegenic creature imaginable. He is unfriendly on the air, slurs his words so they are barely audible, and spends much of his own programme looking bored. In any other country, Maurizio Costanzo would barely get his foot in the door of a television studio, much less become a star. But in Italy he is the undisputed king of the small-screen chat show and - as of last week - probably the most powerful man in national television.

Imagine Clive Anderson and Melvyn Bragg rolled into one, simultaneously a close associate of Rupert Murdoch, an adviser to Tony Blair, and a consultant to many other politicians and businessmen. His employer and mentor, Silvio Berlusconi, has just appointed him controller of the biggest of his private television networks, Canale 5, and also given him a specific brief to negotiate with the state broadcaster, Rai, over the future of television in Italy. Since Mr Costanzo has political connections across the spectrum, and since television is Italy's number one political battleground, that puts him in an enviable position of influence.

It also comes as utterly baffling news to any foreigner used to British or American chat shows who tunes into his nightly two-hour programme, The Maurizio Costanzo Show. For here is a spectacle that appears to break every cardinal rule of small-screen entertainment. The guests do not waltz on one by one to stun the audience withpolished anecdotes and brilliant wit. Instead they sit for the whole programme, up to eight at a time, on awkward drawing-room chairs on the stage of a Rome theatre, never getting up except perhaps as a quick gesture of courtesy as they are introduced.

The conversation is patchy, frequently tedious when not downright crass, and utterly lacking in spontaneity. Although slimmer than he once was, the 59-year-old Mr Costanzo is barely able to move around the stage without huffing and puffing, and unable to utter a sentence without half of it being swallowed somewhere between his bushy moustache and his double chin. He wears the same three-piece suit and open-necked blue shirt, and holds court with a clipboard to help him keep the names of his guests straight.

Many are the theories of his success. Admittedly, Italian television is littered with programmes in which, behind all the young, lithe, big- busted, semi-naked women, lurks a middle-aged, unfit, balding man in a suit. It seems to be an iron rule of Italy's trash culture: the women appeal to the fantasy of the viewers, while the men are there for the public to identify with in all their unalluring mediocrity.

But Mr Costanzo is both more complex and more sinister than that. His chequered past includes membership of the shady P2 Masonic lodge which once plotted to overthrow democracy in Italy and placed particular importance on control of the media. When this news first came out in the early Eighties, Mr Costanzo first denied it, then confessed live on television that he had been "a cretin", then suffered a brief period of disgrace until he was rescued and given his show by Mr Berlusconi, who it happens was also a member of P2.

Time and again in the late Eighties, Mr Costanzo gave airtime and credibility to politicians later unmasked as corrupt thieves on a gargantuan scale. Often he was a consultant to them or their business interests at the same time - something he failed to declare on air.

He has been careful to cultivate friends in the right places. His employer, Mr Berlusconi, is leader of the centre-right opposition, but Mr Costanzo is also a media consultant and political supporter of Massimo d'Alema, the leader of the PDS, the main left-wing party.

"Nobody criticises Costanzo because he is the right man in the right place from all perspectives. Perhaps nobody likes him, but everyone wants him," observed Gualtiero Pierce, television critic for the Rome daily La Repubblica.

Mr Costanzo is thus a very Italian product: the darling of a social system in which power is revered above all else, and where building a career is 90 per cent politics to 10 per cent professional competence. He has a multi-million-pound empire of consultancies, arts administration sinecures and television slots. All of his four marriages have been to women who helped extend his influence on the small screen; his present consort, Maria de Filippi, presents a slew of Oprah-type confessional problem shows on Mr Berlusconi's channels.

A couple of years ago, the writer Luca Doninelli wrote a short novel called Talk Show, clearly based on Mr Costanzo, whom he lambasted for embodying "all the horror, ambiguity, cynicism, idiocy and lack of dignity" of the small screen. Mr Costanzo may not be a pretty sight, but he has become an unavoidable part of the Italian political and media landscape.