Russell Brand and Richard Ayoade need to realise that in interviews, meta doesn’t mean better

It’s a tired format, but recent attempts to subvert the promotional appearance have generated more heat than light

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The Independent Online

When it comes to interviews with famous people, there are expectations on both sides as to how things should go.

The interviewee will have something to promote – a new book, film or album – and will wish to prattle on about it for as long as possible. The interviewer would, by and large, rather talk about something – anything – other than the book/film/album. Their job is to uncover the person behind the product.

This can lead to tension behind the scenes, with one side often reluctant to yield to the other. However, with experience and mutual understanding, middle ground is usually found.

I say usually. Every now and then, someone attempts to crack the artifice of the promotional interview wide open in the hope of transforming it from the drearily routine to the genuinely interesting or just plain weird.

Last week, the writer and comedian Richard Ayoade took the “plain weird” route with a gloriously meta interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News. The premise itself was pretty nuts – here was a man being interviewed about a new book in which he interviews himself. The comedian then steadfastly refused to plug the book, dodged the presenter’s questions, and instead asked some of his own. When a flustered Guru-Murthy wrapped things up, Ayoade murmured: “Don’t thank me, I’ve done nothing for you.”

If Ayoade successfully highlighted what he called “the essential lie of the interview situation”, the intentions of the artist Jake Chapman and comedian Russell Brand were less clear, though the broad plan appeared to entail showing up the media as partisan nitwits.

Chapman’s modus operandi on Radio 4’s Today was to begin not with a “hello” but with the sound of crunching cornflakes (“It’s very early for an artist,” he mumbled), accuse journalists of mindless criticism and refuse to discuss his art. Meanwhile, on Newsnight, Brand’s method was to invade the personal space of his interlocutor Evan Davis in a relentless campaign of knee squeezing and hand-holding in order to avoid any real critiquing of his ideas.

There is no doubting that the celebrity interview, with its false intimacy and bonhomie, has become a tired and witless affair. To watch a Hollywood actor plugging their film in front of a massive cardboard cutout of themselves is to see a person dying behind a rictus grin. Furthermore, when an interviewee refuses to play ball, the effect can be greater than if they had stuck to the formula, resulting in amused re-runs on social media. So perhaps we should welcome any subversion of the form.

Russell Brand appeared on Newsnight, squeezing Evan Davis' knee at every available opportunity (EPA)

But the protagonists in such exchanges would do well to remember their audience, the people that generate viewing figures and sales. What is in it for them? Without the narrative around the work, there is precious little human interest, and without human interest, who the hell cares anyway?

An interview in its most traditional form can be hugely significant – think Frost on Nixon, or Bashir on Princess Diana. They are most successful when both parties are willing to engage with the process, to really talk. If they’re not willing to do it properly, then perhaps they shouldn’t do it at all.

Twitter: @FionaSturges