The curse of David Letterman

British TV has long sought its own version of Letterman's late-night US chat show. The BBC tries again tonight with Johnny Vaughan. But, asks Michael Collins, isn't this format an idea whose time has gone?
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The Independent Online

When Michael Parkinson returned to the chat-show chair in the late-Nineties and revived his long interview format, it seemed that television's frequent and thwarted attempts to find the British equivalent of US host David Letterman had finally been abandoned. There had been many contenders. Jonathan Ross had been the one to emerge triumphant. His success came by way of The Last Resort, a bid to purloin and present the Letterman blueprint on these shores in 1985 – a time when the US show was barely known here. The Last Resort supplanted the concept of the TV interview with that of late-night chat and thereafter, the British talk show was forever stuck in the groove of 1985 as many attempted to emulate if not Letterman, then Ross himself. Among the attempts, Danny Baker's After All was the most short-lived, and Jack Docherty's live shows from the Whitehall theatre, launched as the jewel in the crown of a newborn Channel 5 in 1995, the most hackneyed. The latter was a show that looked so 1980s in the mid-Nineties, that you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a repeat.

With terrestrial television now pathologically nostalgic for the successful shows of recent times and intent either on repeating them, making programmes about their success, or attempting to reproduce similar formulas in the current decade, the spectre of Letterman has been raised once again. This time, it is the turn of Johnny Vaughan, with the thrice-weekly Johnny Vaughan Tonight on BBC 1.

Vaughan previously flexed his talk-show muscles with Here's Johnny, before breakfast television and sitcom beckoned. The show made no impact in Channel 4's late-night Friday slot – which was once the ideal place to find the perverse and the anomalous, offered by shows like Eurotrash and The Word, before Graham Norton found similar material on the internet and used it in a bid to create a talk show for the Nineties.

"We'll be putting the day's news to bed and getting first crack at the current affairs agenda of tomorrow," according to Vaughan. "It'll be a bit like having your own Johnny Vaughan column hand-delivered to your TV each Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night. We will be combining celebrity guests with ordinary people who have extraordinary tales to tell."

Long before television began dabbling in the business of intangibles and talking up the power of branding, or marketing programmes as brands, it relied on references as a shorthand for the shows it planned to transmit. And so throughout the late Eighties and early 1990s, TV proposals were littered with the term "Letterman-like" and "highly topical" when touting a chat show. Translated into visual terms, this meant that you could expect to see a man behind a desk kicking off with a comic monologue about the news of the day. The most comical moments in the script would be underlined by a nod to the house band from the host, and a tap on the drums. Meanwhile, the line-up of guests would include a well known celebrity, a relatively unknown face, and a member of the public with an odd tale to tell: perhaps they had known King Arthur in a previous life, or had an intimate relationship with dolphins in this one.

Vaughan's new show will be "highly topical", and one of the first guests is a millionaire funding his own trip to the moon. It's 1985 again.

Parkinson's second coming had raised hopes of an end to the irony and camp that had begun to characterise chat shows, and a return to the halcyon days of the TV interview, when he last ruled the airwaves in the Seventies.

But that notion has been completely scuppered with each new series of Parkinson, which reached its nadir during the most recent run, when he asked Jennifer Lopez at what age she started getting curves. "Try adolescence," chimed another guest, Terry Wogan. Previously, Cher had had to endure similar inane questions, and again a fellow guest, this time Stephen Fry, mocked Parkinson's "deep" interview technique. The host's attitude to the whole endeavour seemed to have become as jaded and weather-beaten as his physical appearance.

Perhaps, in recognising that there are only so many times that the public will endure Parkinson silently witnessing Elton John's nods, winks and innuendo, or a Posh Spice performance, the BBC is returning to the Eighties chat-show set-up in earnest. Jonathan Ross recently reappeared on Friday nights with what was essentially The Last Resort, updated and re-packaged. The presenter was probably smarter and funnier than he has ever been, but the guests were often as risible as many found elsewhere: Elton John's pantomime-dame routine was emblematic.

What had distinguished Ross's first foray into television was that it featured guests that either wouldn't be found elsewhere (Donny Osmond singing "Puppy Love": irony was big on Channel 4 that year), or relatively big-name celebrities being verbally roughed up by the host. The Last Resort marked the end of the TV interview as the natural home for practitioners of showbusiness: those whose story had been a rise from anonymity to huge success via booze, broken marriages and bankruptcy. The talk-show interview had also been the place where the stars' real-life stories made their debuts on the small screen. In contrast, the Letterman-style chat show was one in which the guests were willing to play it for laughs, long after the once-legendary figures that sat opposite Parkinson had gone belly up.

For us today, celebrity is a long way from what it was in the Eighties. Celebrities are now created from scratch on shows such asPop Idol and Big Brother, in which the history of the subject, their personal lives and their rise to small screen fame are charted from the word go by the public. In fact, their longevity is dependent on the vote of the public. This brand of celebrity, which takes up hefty column inches, headlines and television slots, has therefore no real need to sit in the chat-show chair.

The fact that Johnny Vaughan Tonight will be transmitted on BBC Choice a couple of hours before airing on BBC 1 suggests that it is being targeted at this rising young generation of TV viewers; those acclimatised to the process of voting for the people they see on television, who hope to be pop idols, soap stars and celebrities. So to this audience, already only too familiar with the Eighties via recent Saturday-night compilations of the decade, the prospect of an ironic, thrice-weekly chat show in the style of an American TV host who means nothing to them might appear to be a welcome departure from the current fare. Radical, even. If nothing else, it's guaranteed a place in the I Love 2002 evening doubtless destined for transmission this time next year.

 

'Johnny Vaughan Tonight', BBC 1, tonight, 11.05pm (BBC Choice 9pm)

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