Jonathan Ross: So, did anyone miss him?

Three months after 'Sachsgate', Ross makes his comeback next week – and already he's receiving a frosty welcome. Gerard Gilbert on why he's got his work cut out
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The Independent Online

He's been away, he's done his time – and soon he'll be back. A chastened Jonathan Ross will address the nation at the end of next week with the most important introductory speech he's ever made on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. How the host with the dodgy dress sense and the dirty laugh performs in the minutes after he salutes Four Poofs and a Piano will surely make or break his rehabilitation. Can he defuse his and Russell Brand's obscene phone calls to Andrew Sachs with a joke, or will the terms of his parole require a straight-faced apology to the 78-year-old actor formerly known as Manuel? Perhaps a bit of both?

Either way, with just over a week to go, Ross isn't exactly being welcomed back with open arms. First, the Daily Mail ran a story to say that his first big guest of the new series, Tom Cruise, had pulled out on learning of Ross's bad behaviour (it also suggested other A-listers, such as Daniel Craig, had been upset by Ross's disrespectful attitude). And then the chat-show host's BBC colleague Mark Lawson told the Radio Times that Ross should "Ship Out!" – perhaps to Sky. Charming.

In the event, Tom Cruise will (according to the BBC) be appearing next Friday, and perhaps Ross's most eloquent riposte to his critics is the calibre of his opening guest. But the coming weeks are going to be a delicate balancing act for the presenter until recently licensed by the nation to kill off and bury the deferential Michael Parkinson style of chat show. If Ross is too contrite, his show will lose the frisson audiences feel when boundaries are being pushed. Not humble enough and the Daily Mail will be on his back for ever and a day – although they probably will be anyway.

His every utterance will be scrutinised for offence and obscenity – not least by his nervous bosses. Ross has apparently promised to cut back on his swearing, while BBC1 controller Jay Hunt has admitted that Ross will return as "a slightly different sort of individual", as if some sinister reprogramming had been going on at Television Centre. It might have been better if he had simply turned his back on the BBC, lost a fat salary but retained his kudos. This is the future predicted by Lawson in this week's Radio Times, who envisages Ross ending up on Sky. "I don't see how he can win this one – I think Ross is going to find it pretty unbearable."

In any event, three months now seems a rather lenient sentence – more an extended holiday than a contemplative spell in the wilderness. Ross certainly gave that impression on his blog, boasting that he was "smoking a Cohiba and watching Sex and the City", while a post-"Sachsgate" semblance of normality has returned to the news agenda (wars, economic crises, weeping actresses). But let us now ask the most important question of all: has television been poorer for his absence? Or, as another – rather more seriously disgraced – celebrity once sang: "Did you miss me, yeah, while I was away?"

I think that, on the whole, we have not – although some of that may simply be a result of being heartily fed up with "Sachsgate". But before I go on, perhaps I should declare my hand. Ross's weaknesses are well documented and it won't surprise anybody if I suggest that he's puerile, bullying (with bullying's flip side of sycophancy), and somewhat more than avuncular to younger actresses.

On the other hand, I admire his unsettling chutzpah when talking to celebrities (unless they are a genuine hero, such as David Bowie, in which case see sycophancy, above) and his ease in front of the camera. His powerful self-confidence was there to see from a very tender age – as anyone old enough to remember his Channel 4 chat show The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross can attest.

But aren't we a bit bored by it now, after 15 series of ritual green-room and house-band humiliation? Amid the Hollywood royalty and pop stars are over-familiar faces such as next Friday's second-string guest, Stephen Fry, as well as (you can probably add your own names) Ricky Gervais, Simon Pegg, Matt Lucas and Gordon Ramsay.

An awful lot of them are comedians, and it's noticeable that BBC1's stand-in for Friday Night with Jonathan Ross was, well, a roster of stand-up comedians on Live at the Apollo. Friday Night with Jonathan Ross was averaging about 3.7 million viewers when it was pulled. The first edition of Live at the Apollo attracted 3.5 million. Just add a band to the mix and, hey presto.

In fact, the people who probably missed Friday Night with Jonathan Ross the most are PRs – especially the music PRs. As Stuart Bell, PR for Bowie and Paul McCartney, told The Independent in November, in a world devoid of Top of the Pops or Saturday morning chart shows, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross is "the Holy Grail", with huge bumps in sales following an appearance. It certainly helps that Ross knows a bit about music, as well as about film; there is some gravitas amid the flippancy.

Anyway, in his absence, bands and visiting Hollywood A-listers have been having to make do with the likes of This Morning or Loose Women, or popping up, like Stereophonics' Kelly Jones, on Strictly Come Dancing, or, like Mark Wahlberg, on Top Gear. All of which begs the question: didn't any other chat-show rival make hay while Ross was at home smoking cigars and watching Sex and the City?

Graham Norton saw a slight upping in his guests' calibre, but Norton, it seems to me, has always been happier with less mainstream sofa-fodder. None of the other likely suspects – Alan and Jimmy Carr, Justin Lee Collins or (heaven forbid) Alan Titchmarsh – rushed into the breach. Perhaps there simply wasn't time enough for any pretenders to smash and grab Ross's mantle. Or maybe the uncomfortable truth is that, like it or not, Ross might just be the only show in town.

'Friday Night with Jonathan Ross' returns on 23 January at 10.35pm on BBC1