Carling's weird attempt at method acting

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The Independent Online
THE IDEA of John Inverdale as the poor man's Jeremy Paxman is slightly laughable, though a couple of weeks ago on McCoist and MacAulay (BBC1) he was asked how he managed to get away with asking such tough, uncompromising questions, at which point this observer spluttered at the screen. But he obviously took the notion on board, and he's hardened up his act for the new series of On Side (BBC1, Monday), though they're still delivered in a woolly-jumper kind of way.

A journalistic colleague, Ian Stafford, recently went three rounds with the boxer, Roy Jones, for the purposes of a book - the lunatic - but Inverdale went one better, risking the wrath of Jenny Pitman with a checklist of insults he chucked at her in the course of an otherwise genial interview. "Belligerent" and "obnoxious" were among the epithets he applied, without receiving one of her famous punches in the mouth.

One question was a double-edged classic: had being "bloody-minded" helped her in her struggle with cancer? "I prefer to call it determination," she demurred.

No doubt with his recent public pillorying in mind for being a serial family-wrecker, Will Carling, Inverdale's lead-off guest, seemed to be expecting a good kicking by way of retribution. He would clearly have preferred to be covered all over in butterfly kisses by the likes of Martin Bashir, much in the manner of his late alleged chum, Princess Diana, rather than subject himself even to a gentle buffeting from "Gestapo" Inverdale. The suspicion grew, though, that if he looked uncomfortable, it was a fine example of chat-show method acting.

Carling's discomfort, it soon became blindingly obvious, was a put-up job. Inverdale's first fastball promised much: "So hero to zero?" But he probably hadn't reckoned on drowning in a pool of crocodile tears. The Diana-Bashir love-in provided inspirational horizons: Carling had all the moves - the voice low almost beyond the range of human sensory capability, with a gruff, throaty undertow to suggest vulnerabilty and emotional scars. Walking out on his family was tough for him too, he said. And he'd been stitched up by the media (it's always the media's fault, even for those whose own hands are filthy with media moolah).

"I'm not arrogant, I'm not selfish," he said. "I'm shy. I don't work a room like a politician, I stand in the corner." So did former colleagues' comments sadden him? "Everything saddens me," he replied, his eyes downcast, his brow furrowed. Huh. As Denis Leary put it in his No Cure For Cancer show, "Life sucks. Get a helmet." The point about Carling's appearance on the programme was not that he has somehow to answer publicly for walking out on his family. That's his and their business. But he must have seen it as some kind of step towards rehabilitation in the public mind (and the public purse?), a little like Hugh Grant's post-fellatio interview on Jay Leno. And Carling played the victim to the end. As the audience applauded, he looked grimly down at the studio floor, resolute in his determination not to smile. He might have thought that perhaps there were a few "aahs" being aah-ed up and down the country. In truth, it just looked a bit weird.

The first of the returning They Think It's All Over (BBC1, Thursday) must have been recorded before the Carling interview was shown. If they had seen it they would have ripped him to shreds. They were back in all their laddish glory (with Alan Davies standing in for the resting Lee Hirst), only Franck Lebeouf, carrying himself exactly like a man who's recently addressed the Oxford Union, adrift amid the Men Behaving Badly lagerspeak, all the knobs-and-shagging jokes. (I do wish Lebeouf would remove the unnecessary and upsetting facial hair skulking beneath his lower lip, incidentally. It looks less like whiskers and more like a collection of small boils. If it is, in fact, a collection of small boils, my apologies and a recommendation that he consults a dermatologist.)

The coarseness on TTIAO was mostly funny, sometimes just grating. And, of course, there was a foreigner on so there was all that humorous mock- xenophobia to get in. Lebeouf took it in good heart, though at one point he did crack slightly. Rory McGrath had a strange joke going about the French not having words for certain objects, such as the baguette. "But we do have a word for `stupid,'" he said, his eyes flashing. He had a nice reply for every outrageous slur, every remark about his accent, or his command of the language. "I don't care," he repeated, every time to applause. "I won the World Cup." And there really is no answer to that.