Prancing on to the set of his chat show to the tune of Take That's "Never Forget", Jonathan Ross began his long-awaited public comeback yesterday with four words: "So where were we?"
In his first recorded broadcast since October, when the BBC suspended him without pay for making obscene telephone calls to the actor Andrew Sachs on Russell Brand's Radio 2 show, Ross started with a quick gag at George Bush's expense. Dressed in a typically vulgar maroon suit, he quoted some of the ex-president's verbal gaffes, before drawing laughter from the 300 people in the audience with the punchline: "No seriously, what kind of idiot would say stuff like that, knowing that it was going to be broadcast?"
The ice broken, a straight-faced Ross waited for the chuckles to subside before looking directly into a camera and saying: "But seriously, I am going to take this opportunity to apologise for what I said on the radio because being on the BBC, and being allowed this level of freedom to communicate openly with people, it's a great privilege and it's something I've always enjoyed and I value enormously. In future I do intend to be more aware of the responsibility that comes with such a gift. But as the kids say, it was 'my bad', so I do apologise for any hurt or distress it has caused."
He added: "Welcome to our millions of regular viewers and to our several thousand new viewers who I suspect may well be watching for the first time."
Guests on the presenter's Friday Night With Jonthan Ross show, which can be seen on BBC1 at 10.35pm tonight, were Tom Cruise, Lee Evans, Stephen Fry and rock band Franz Ferdinand. The programme was filmed five hours earlier than usual, with members of the audience only informed of the time change a few days earlier. Yesterday, it was unclear whether the move was to allow nervous BBC producers extra time in the editing suite, or to fit into Cruise's hectic promotion schedule.
Ross, 48, interrupted a lewd rant by his first guest, the comedian Evans, with "Easy mate! This is a bwave new era", and continued to poke fun at himself as he interviewed Cruise and Fry. Cruise made no reference to his host's misdemeanours, while Ross observed the strict no-questions-asked policy regarding Cruise's Scientology beliefs. However, in an off-air exchange, Ross reportedly asked the actor what he did on his days off. Cruise said he was always busy. Ross replied: "You want to try getting banned – it's loads of fun."
Fry told Ross: "I'm very happy to help you get off the naughty step."Since his suspension, Ross has tried to build bridges with his fans by chatting to them on social networking websites. Writing under the pseudonym "Wossy", he has accumulated 14,000 followers on one site alone, discussing with them everything from his family holiday in Florida to his dismay at the demise of Woolworths and his abiding hatred of tabloid journalists.
Halfway through his enforced sabbatical, he wrote: "Smoking a cohiba [cigar] and watching Sex And The City season 6. Suspension is fun."
Two weeks later, he poked fun at a newspaper which had demanded his resignation: "I have realised the error of my ways. For next three weeks I will sit in uncomfy chair and read the Daily Mail. That's punishment enough."
John Sutton, 56, who travelled from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire to watch the recording, said it was "good to see such a great presenter back on form", adding that he thought Ross's apology "sincere". Tonight, the rest of Britain can judge for itself.