Brian Viner: Why Brits bow down to the kings of US chat

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The Independent Online

Los Angeles, it is fair to say, is not known as a hub of highbrow culture. It is true that tickets to see Sir Ian McKellen playing King Lear at UCLA's Royce Hall next week are changing hands for up to $1,500 (£750) each, more than 15 times face value, but the lure is said not to be Shakespeare's text or even McKellen's stature as one of the greatest stage actors of our time, but his pedigree as Gandalf, the hirsute wizard and indeed Lear-lookalike, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In matters of low-brow culture, by contrast, southern California is still the world's principal power-base, home of the most globally influential people not only in cinema but also in television. The old maxim that when America sneezes, Britain catches a cold, is about economics. But in television, too, influence has long travelled eastwards across the Atlantic.

In 1978, the BBC1 controller Bill Cotton, excited by America's late-night television culture, tried to give Michael Parkinson a nightly slot. It was vetoed by the board of governors, but Jonathan Ross, Clive Anderson, Graham Norton and even Danny Baker later became beneficiaries of the same kind of thinking. The BBC's mercifully short-lived Danny Baker After All was a shameless rip-off of Late Night With David Letterman. So was Channel 4's The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross. For all his success, Ross is a would-be Letterman to this day.

All this explains why British TV executives are keeping a keen eye on the backstage drama currently unfolding at The Tonight Show, as reported in these pages yesterday. Apparently, the Tonight Show's 57-year-old host, Jay Leno, is reconsidering his decision to quit when his contract ends in 2009, much to the chagrin of his heir-apparent Conan O'Brien, whose show currently follows Leno's. Ironically, it was Leno who once cracked the joke that NBC stands for Never Believe your Contract. Whatever, this is a thorny matter for NBC high command. They don't want to knock back the hugely popular Leno if he decides to stay, but nor do they want to lose the talented O'Brien.

Fifteen years ago, a remarkably similar situation developed when the great Johnny Carson decided to step down as host of The Tonight Show after 30 years. Carson's designated successor was Letterman, whose show, like O'Brien's now, followed The Tonight Show. But instead Leno got the gig, and a devastated Letterman, who idolised Carson, decided to leave NBC. Thus began a frantic bidding war.

So highly regarded was Letterman that Rupert Murdoch himself led the Fox bid. But Murdoch was outbid by Viacom, owner of MTV, who offered Letterman $20m a year in basic salary, with a further share of up to $30m of annual profits. In the event he declined both offers, and for a $14m pittance took his show to CBS, despite being disgusted by part of the CBS wooing strategy, whereby the network's respected newscaster Connie Chung undertook, albeit jokingly, to pant "Dave, oh Dave" whenever she made love to her husband, another talk-show host called Maury Povich.

The president of CBS at the time, Howard Stringer, was a Welshman. He it was who led the wooing of Letterman, and he told me once that his British background is what drew him to Letterman. "I had in mind the tradition of That Was The Week That Was," he said. "If David Frost at his height had appeared on television every night, he would have been a similar phenomenon." It's nice to know that influence in late-night television sometimes travels westwards too.

Didn't they climb every mountain?

Earlier this year, my wife and I took our children to Salzburg, where Mozart, I confess, played second fiddle to The Sound of Music. We did not sing "Exultate Jubilate" while striding across Mozartplatz, but we did sing "Do-Re-Mi" in the Mirabell Gardens. However, the obituaries this week of Werner Von Trapp, the model for Kurt in Robert Wise's 1965 film, offer another of those unwelcome reminders that the film distorted much of the truth about the Von Trapps. They didn't escape by foot over the Alps to Switzerland but by train to Italy. I broke this devastating news to my wife at the breakfast table yesterday. "Well," she said. "Wouldn't you, given the option?"

* Despite the many songs about Muswell Hill written by its most famous son, Ray Davies of The Kinks, it was once considered such an anonymous, down-at-heel suburb of north London that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais made it the home (when he wasn't doing porridge in Slade Prison) of Norman Stanley Fletcher. But today Muswell Hill is recognised as the place to live for leading dissidents from all over the world. Alexander Litvinenko lived there, and so did the ANC leader Oliver Tambo, who is honoured today with the unveiling of a statue at Albert Road recreation ground.

Moreover, Marks and Sparks on Muswell Hill Broadway sometimes seems like an N10 version of the Groucho Club, so crowded with celebrities are its aisles. Victoria Wood, Alison Steadman, Sue Johnston, Maureen Lipman, they're all regulars. And in a Muswell Hill cashpoint queue I once stood behind Stanley Baxter. Fletch wouldn't recognise the place.