Dinner for two (or more) chez Wax

The week on television
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It didn't take long for the BBC to come back with a riposte to The Jack Docherty Show (C5, every weekday). No surprises, then, that Ruby (BBC2, Mon to Wed) doesn't feel fully thought through: you get the impression it's an experimental stop-gap. But - hats off - it doesn't skimp on ambition. Uniting guests round a dining table with no particular axe to grind or product to promote, the challenge accepted by Ruby is to keep the conversational ball up in the air without the support system of topicality, and without the flabby or ill-disciplined as an equivalent show on radio could get away with.

One of its charms is precisely its want of slickness, its unscripted - as opposed to laboriously choreographed - informality. On one night, Marianne Faithfull left the set to remove a layer of clothing, while Wax disappeared to the powder room - and, true to form, told everyone about it afterwards. That left Lucinda Lambton and Will Self a deux at the table, nervously (and, it has to be said, pointlessly) chatting about the indolent hero in Russian literature.

There have been late-night round-table shows before, but none have attempted to impose the grammar of the chat show, which is principally designed to pry into the lives of the famous. Even after three installments, it's clear that some nights go off better than others. This is the most salient difference from Docherty's shows, which tend not to oscillate away from a nightly plateau of likeable competence. On Monday the chat on Ruby was of comedy, on Tuesday of war reportage, on Wednesday of drug culture. Over the same three nights, despite the pot-pourri of guests, The Jack Docherty Show revisited its usual conversational tropes: "I'll be at the Edinburgh Festival this summer" or "I used to binge for Britain". Regulars are all waiting for the jackpot: "I used to binge for Britain at the Edinburgh Festival." It might be worth making a virtue of the guest list's repetitiveness, by lumping on to one thematised show all the Perrier award-winners, or grouping three old-timers fresh out of rehab on one sofa. Except that that would be copying Ruby.

On Ruby, guests can measure their status by the number of other names on the bill. There were loads of minor Euro-comedians in on the Monday but on Tuesday there were only John Simpson and Eve Arnold to field searching questions from Wax like, "Who's the worst tyrant you've ever worked with?" To which you wanted to reply, "Define `with'." The war reporters' show was rewarding, if short on gossip. Arnold unpacked her Marilyn Monroe anecdotes from their museum display case. Simpson merely teetered on the edge of indiscretion with a story about Kate Adie's "highly emotional" reports from Tiananmen Square. Marianne Faithfull, on Wednesday, was altogether more frank. There seems to be agreement between Ruby and Docherty to get the word "fuck" on air as often as possible, but Ruby had a head start because Faithfull was fondly recalling the joys of sex with the Rolling Stones. Wax was all set to join in; her pell-mell teeth had already formulated the first consonant of the F-word: but she opted at the last minute for the phrase "screwed by Mick Jagger". For perhaps the first time ever on television, she sounded chicken.

"I hope we're not going to spend this interview talking about flowers," said Ann Widdecombe to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight (BBC2, Tues). Like Marianne Faithfull, Widdecombe was educated in a convent. You'd think the similarity would end there, but no, both have also faced allegations concerning chocolate. Paxman asked the former minister all about it. Of course, she denied everything.

He then turned to Howard, who would have given his eye-teeth to do an interview on a floral theme. If ever someone wanted to say "fuck" on television, in conjunction with the words "this for a game of soldiers", it was the man whose chances of becoming the next Tory leader were nuked by this single television appearance. Firing bullets at the candidate's dancing feet, Paxman wore his why-do-I-bother? face. Thank God he does. The Tory party is imploding not, as has been suggested, like Labour in 1979, but like the Nazis at Nuremberg. Which is why Newsnight, with its crack team of cross-examiners, currently provides by far the most thrilling late-night entertainment.

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