No business in showbusiness

BBC's Liquid News laughed off the curse of the celebrity news show, but it still failed to set audiences alight. Vanessa Langford, one of its presenters, asks why
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The Independent Online

I first got wind that all was not well in the world of celebrity news at the 2002 LA premiere of Jennifer Aniston's movie The Good Girl. She was progressing along the red carpet; I was preparing my witty-yet-probing questions. But first I had to schmooze the uber PR who accompanied the Blow-dry Queen. Stretching out my hand, I said: "I'm from BBC Liquid News." The PR piranha shot me a look of contempt, and snapped: "I know who you are, and I think Liquid News is very rude." I opened my mouth, I closed it, and they were gone.

In April, Liquid News was liquidated. Not because we'd hacked off one too many humourless Hollywood types, but because... well, why was it canned? In our celebrity-obsessed, Heat-reading country, you'd think a daily celebrity news show would have been big business. But although the show held up comparably well to the rest of BBC3 and its digital rivals, when it came to persuading a sizeable audience to turn on, it seems British viewers just weren't that, well, turned on.

For a generation now, British TV commissioners have been racking their brains and emptying their wallets to come up with a home-grown equivalent of the US celebrity shows. Access Hollywood, now in its eighth season, may seem somewhat saccharine to the British viewer, but it works. You'll rarely witness a reporter follow a tricky line of questioning, but NBC has found a formula and it sticks to it.

In Britain there has never been a long-running, successful, prime-time celebrity news show. Ever. Cast your mind back. BBC2's No Limits was too comfy; Channel 4's too-cool-for-school Network 7 reckoned itself too much. A random show presented by the women in the Philadelphia ads, the briefly funny Late Lunch with Mel and Sue, and Five's Exclusive have all had a crack at the whip. But none has ever reached water-cooler status.

Which was why it was all so exciting when Liquid reared its cheeky head in 2000. Setting itself up as an intelligent, cynical analyst of celebrity news, it promised all of the A-list access with none of the US-style brown-nosing. And for a while, it flourished: the enfant terrible of celebrity gossip earned good reviews, a loyal - if small - following and begrudging acceptance from the PRs.

It was not without its hiccups. At the Down with Love premiere, I planned to ask Renée Zellweger about her weight gain for Bridget Jones, and plotted a supposedly hilarious ruse. I intended to ask her to scoff a doughnut, on camera, to prove her commitment to getting chubby. Within seconds, the PR had got wind that there were doughnuts near the red carpet, and with the fervour of a WMD inspector, forced me to give them up.

But Liquid's ultimate two fingers to the PRs came when presenter Claudia Winkleman asked S Club 7 how much was in their piggy banks and they were all promptly marched off set by their furious PR. Liquid was subsequently banned from any interviews with Polydor or 19 Management.

All the same, Liquid never becamemust-see TV. Maybe we overstepped the cynicism boundaries, even by British standards. Its former editor Chris Wilson has his own theories: "All good celebrity reporting must have a careful balance between embracing it and being dismissive." Liquid's leading man Paddy O'Connell believes telly bigwigs need to combine celebrity chitchat with news, à la CNN's Larry King: "The set-piece interview show would benefit from being combined with a news round-up, since celeb guests are no longer as epic as they once were," he says. "An interview with Mohammed Ali in the 1970s was an event. An interview with some hapless soap creature today won't mean anything as soon as the credits roll."

What British telly does really, really well is the celebrity chat hidden within the lifestyle sofa show - like Channel 4's Richard and Judy. In this cosy environment, celebs forget there is often a sharpened knife beneath the settee. Richard Madeley's recent interview with Britney Spears went something like this: "Now, Britney, I don't give a fig about you and Justin 'cos that's your business; I just don't care... But tell me, is it all fine now with you and Justin?" Genius.