Worms turn 'The Word' into cult hit: David Lister on the TV show which has become the hottest ticket in town (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 25 FEBRUARY 1994) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

IT MAY BE youth culture, but is it art? A question that has been exercising Conservative Central Office and the RSPCA this week.

The Word, which goes out tonight and each Friday after 11pm on Channel 4, is the biggest youth cult television programme with nearly 3 million viewers aged from about 14 to 25. Getting into the studios to take part in the live show has become one of the hottest tickets in town.

And some people will do anything for that ticket. In an initiative of doubtful taste, The Word each week allows one person to get on the show by performing some revolting act. Last week, a young man ate a sandwich of worms - and, as the presenter Terry Christian pointed out, 'in white bread too'. Previous wannabes have bathed in pig's urine, or had snails slid across the tongue. Tonight, a young girl will 'snog' a dentureless grandfather.

If you have to perform unpleasant acts to get on the show, you have virtually to kill yourself to get thrown off it. Watching last Friday's The Word behind the scenes at Teddington Lock studios in west London, I witnessed 'crowd diving' for the first time.

As the Brazilian heavy metal band Sepultura played, a young man continually ran up on to the stage and threw himself headfirst into the crowd until his face and hair were covered in blood, at which point he was helped out into the night air.

Neither the worm butty nor the bloodstained metaller fazed Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative Party. But he blew his cool at an outside broadcast item from the Young Conservatives conference in Southport, where young Tories from Cambridge were to challenge local miners to a quiz and an arm wrestling contest.

A typical question asked by the young Tories to the miners was: 'Irresponsible parent, drain on the state? Answer: single mother.' Sir Norman's angst was understandable.

But it demonstrated how seriously the programme is taken that Conservative Central Office and Lord Forte telephoned the manager of the Trusthouse Forte hotel where the broadcast was being filmed to try to stop it.

The Word is an amalgam of music, dancing, celebrity interviews by Dani Behr, 19, and Terry Christian, 28, with, last week, the two other presenters, Mark Lamarr and the lesbian Geordie comedienne Huffty, doing outside broadcasts.

It is what goes on between the staples of news and views that sets The Word apart. Swearing is rife; and in one recent episode members of the audience were led into frank confessions of how they lost their virginity, and then to their surprise were confronted with the people to whom they had lost it.

The show has also been accused of glamorising violence with a feature on handguns, and glamorising goodness knows what with a feature on penis extensions.

The visual effect is also notable, thanks to the latest technology which allows kaleidoscopic images to run over the audience and music shots. The pubescent dancers, like the studio audience, are vetted for their trendiness, though the dancer selectors now go more on talent than looks as they found they were recruiting an inordinate number of strippers.

Members of the audience said the mixture of music and irreverent views made this the show they most wanted to be seen on.

Manipulating the mixture, and surprisingly comparing it to the more innocent Ready Steady Go of the Sixties, is the independent production company Planet 24, which is also responsible for Channel 4's The Big Breakfast. Paul Ross, 37, the series editor, and brother of Jonathan, is described by colleagues as an existentialist barrow boy. He said: 'I'm fighting a deeply sated and low-attention-span audience. The time of night we go out is the only time that that audience gets to be in charge of the remote control. So the show has to have things they are going to talk about stacking trolleys at Sainsbury's the next day.

'We're mutant television. We take all existing formats, from the Oprah Winfrey confessional to a game show, gut them like stinking fish and show the innards.'

The language, he admitted, was provocative, and to some degree deliberately so, but he added: 'We're dealing with an area of our culture where motherfucker is on record tracks. We're not Blue Peter at 11pm. We're in the culture and of the culture.'

He was equally honest about the manipulative use of Dani Behr. 'She is an aspirational figure. It's easy to get girls to watch these programmes but much harder to get boys. We have 300 to 400 teenage boys every week who want to squeeze their spots all over Dani Behr.'

The audience were 'TV sophisticates'. They demanded a slick show with music, glamour and celebrity, but there had to be surprises. 'We have three live bands, a wild and unruly audience, the whole show is done without autocueing. In TV terms my presenters are fleeing from the Titanic in a leaky rowboat.'

The show is a trendsetter. Dani Behr wears yellow platform shoes, so they are clearly back in vogue. And tonight's guests are Rod Hull and Emu. Good to see their anarchic act is trendy again. The last time must have been when platform shoes made their first appearance.

CORRECTION

In an article on the television programme The Word on 11 February, we said that Lord Forte telephoned the manager of the hotel in Southport to ask that filming of a Young Conservatives event be stopped. In fact, Lord Forte himself was not involved and the advice from Forte to its hotel manager, given by Richard Power, communications director, was that the filming should be allowed if the customer booking the private function in question was happy.

(Photograph omitted)

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