10 O’Clock Live – when even an uneven series can still be important

The assembled supergroup presented to us on billboards throughout the country

10 O’Clock Live arrived in a blaze of publicity befitting its team of four high-profile presenters and yet seemed to instantly run aground under a cloud of mixed reviews which cited problems with its format, problems with the live nature of its broadcast, and which saddled it with unfair comparisons to great satirical shows of the past. Viewing figures which were initially healthy soon began to fall away, partly attributable to a swarm of hate from a mob of Twitter tweeters, who were merrily slagging the show off from their armchairs even as the first edition was broadcasting its first moments, and which snowballed onto the internet creating a “buzz” about the show that it was a failure.

In retrospect, you can see that it was set up for something of a kicking. By having four well known presenters the series was almost the comedy equivalent of the musical supergroup. And those never turn out so well. As a schoolboy I never ceased to be amazed at the wonderful possibilities of a new side project announced by members of various bands so that you would have the vocalist of one band, the guitarist of another, the bassist of yet another and the drummer of someone else. My young mind would instantly declare it the best band of all time just because of how it looked on paper, doing mathematical equations to surmise that the 1+1+1+1 of the band would equal 20,000, rather than the 0.0003 that it usually did. In short, it rarely works to force something together from bits of this and that and instead of the pieces multiplying their talent together they usually divide it, especially when, as was 10 O’Clock Live’s case, the individuals concerned are better known as solo operators. Add to this the fact that the series was trying something very different from recent satirical British series in terms of trying to introduce serious debate alongside the easy laughs of kicking politicians to a young studio audience – as well as doing it live into the bargain – and you could see that it was ripe for attack.

All of this was all very disappointing because, although the early shows definitely struggled at times, there were clear signs that it was a show worth keeping tabs on for the moment when they got it right. I’m glad to say that if ever there was proof that a show can find its feet during the course of its broadcast run then the Thursday 31st March edition of 10 O’Clock Live is just such an example. Of course, it’s easier for a live show, scripted each week after the broadcast of the previous edition, to achieve this than a sitcom which has its episodes all locked off before the first is broadcast. Nevertheless, the upturn in quality of this show has been heartening. And that’s not to say that it was the unmitigated disaster that some seemed to think it was to begin with.

One of the necessities of making this topical satirical show is that it has to be live. And it was this aspect of the programme that was its biggest failing in early editions. With the presenters not seeming entirely comfortable with the live nature of the broadcast and the format needing to have the rough edges smoothed over there was a lot of fair comment in those initial reviews to the series. The inescapable trips of the tongue as a presenter is delivering what are quite often angry and emotional monologues are unavoidably distracting in a live broadcast, taking you out of the moment and focusing your attention on the slip up rather than the message. In a conventional comedy broadcast the presenter would simply swear, stop, start again and the editor would make sure we only saw the impeccably delivered version of the script. On the face of it, with the presenting team so often stumbling it seemed as though a move to a recording and edit would be sensible. I mean, who really cares if the show is broadcast live anyway?

But, of course, the live broadcast is an integral part of the show without which it would be forced to become a very different beast instead. One of the great strengths of the series is that they are able to bring on politicians and place them in the spotlight. Of course, no party machine worth its salt would ever consent to allow any of its members to go before the cameras for an interview on a satirical comedy show for fear of them being edited to look like idiots and made the butt of every joke the interviewer cared to throw their way. By keeping it live the producers of the show are able to attract big name politicians who can come on knowing that they’re going to be attacked but that at least they can fight their own corner and that what is being recorded is what is being broadcast.

So, while the live nature of the series is sometimes a hindrance it is very much one that is necessary if the show is to be taken seriously as a political debate as well as an easy laugh at the expense of politicians. And this is where some of the early criticisms of the show were rather less than fair. By setting itself up as being something more than just comedy, by introducing political roundtable debate and one-on-one interviews with heavyweight government and opposition politicians then it inevitably sparked comparison to the granddaddy of all British satirical shows, That Was The Week That Was, or TW3 as it was often known. Broadcast for two series from 1962, TW3 is perhaps the earliest ancestor of modern satire on TV and a show which made David Frost, its presenter, into a household name, blending monologues, debate and sketches in a way which invites comparison with its modern day descendent. Among its many writers over the course of its run are such giants as Dennis Potter, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, David Nobbs and a whole host of up and coming Oxbridge talent who would go on to great acclaim in the fields of comedy, journalism and the arts in the decades to come. It’s hard to imagine the context now but when it was broadcast politicians were generally held in esteem, people who were our betters and beyond the indignity of being lambasted on TV. That was all to change with TW3 and the relationship between politicians and the viewing public shifted forever.

It therefore seems just a little harsh for critics who are either old enough to remember TW3 or well schooled in its history to compare 10 O’Clock Live to such a trailblazer. For starters, it can never have that same element of surprise again where TW3 suddenly blazed onto the schedules as something truly new and original. Secondly, we live in a society where we are now used to our politicians being mercilessly made fun of and where we no longer have any respect for them, so any show where they get a tough ride is pretty much par for the course and nothing unusual. Thirdly, with only two channels broadcasting on British television at the time TW3 was must-see programming for a generation in a way that can never be achieved now where even the main terrestrial channels reach a tiny fraction of the percentage of the viewing public that they used to. Therefore I think it’s fair only to judge 10 O’Clock Live on the quality of its presenting and the quality of its humour. And this is where it wins, and is winning more all the time.

Comedy is, of course, one of the most subjective forms of television available. With drama and documentary the lines between what is good and bad programming seem a little sharper whereas our reactions to comedy vary wildly from one individual to another. If you’ve stayed with 10 O’Clock Live and it hasn’t grabbed you by now then it’s likely that it never will. And if photogenic presenters are a must for your viewing happiness then you are unlikely to be coaxed far beyond the opening credits by the triple whammy of Mitchell, Carr and Brooker, an odd-looking bunch, as they themselves freely admit to on a regular basis.

So what has improved and what is succeeding? Well, the actual individual parts of the show are a fairly well-balanced mix in the first place usually consisting of two rants aimed at the media – often particularly at TV news coverage – by Charlie Brooker from behind a desk, a roundup of the week’s news by Jimmy Carr, who also chips in with a couple of topical sketches, a piece by Lauren Laverne either in-studio or pre-recorded on location, and three sections from David Mitchell: a monologue, a roundtable debate and an interview with a politician. Generally though it’s just the level of confidence that has improved, as the format hasn’t really changed at all, other than swapping a few bits around. Brooker, in particular, seems a lot more comfortable with the proceedings now. I felt he was a little restrained in some of the earlier editions and was struggling with the live delivery. Now, however, he seems to have twisted the vitriol dial up to the max for some well-chosen targets and that’s exactly what I would want from a skilled ranter like Brooker. To take the 31st March edition as our example, his attacks upon the media coverage of the Cuts protests and the anti-AV referendum posters found their mark brilliantly culminating in a mock-up of a poster of Fred West rogering a giant panda outside Great Ormond Street Hospital, using the tactics of shock to cleverly illustrate his point.

The only segment that he still seems slightly out of place in is the final round table talk between the presenters. Brooker is a superb writer of bile directed at deserving victims but he’s not really a man for a witty off-the-cuff remark. Mitchell does a little better in this regard but it’s obviously the stand-up comedian, Jimmy Carr, who carries this segment. For example, in an earlier programme they were discussing what could be done to help improve Ed Milliband’s image. When it came to Brooker’s turn he suggested that they should go the other way and give him no image at all, placing him inside a giant black box. It raised a titter from the audience but you could tell that Brooker was ready to divulge a lot more thoughts on this only for him to be interrupted by Carr who was able to deliver something snappier. A few days later Brooker had a full page article appear in the G2 supplement of the Guardian in which he hilariously talked at length about how this black box would interact with the nation and parliament while spewing forth ticker tape and dry ice. You get the impression that most of this was already in Brooker’s head on 10 O’Clock Live but it wasn’t the place for it and that’s why he works best either in print or presenting his own programmes or segments where he can go on at length without interruption.

Of the other presenters, Mitchell seems to be the one who is relishing the whole experience the most and who seems to have the highest vested interest. It’s to Mitchell that the weightier segments of the show are given and he carries them off with aplomb. That’s not to say he’s immune from the stumbles and trips of the tongue which riddle the show but when you’re delivering a quickly-paced monologue with real bite and passion and full of twisting and turning clever turns of phrase, then this is inevitable. His chairing of the debates is always well handled and while the novelty here is to have a Question Time-like setting with a spectrum of opinion represented on a particular subject, but with a chairman who makes jokes as well as asking questions, it’s refreshing that he’s not only interested in sticking the boot into the government, right-wing or establishment viewpoint, but is also prepared to make a joke at the expense of whoever is representing the liberal or left-wing viewpoints if there’s a joke to be made or if the person has made their point badly.

Following on from this point, this is the great strength of Mitchell as the main interviewer. I somehow think that politicians have become immune to the likes of Paxman nagging on at them. He shouts at them and is rude and aggressive but, hey, that’s politics and they spend their entire lives shouting and being shouted at in the Commons. No, far better to have a sharp interviewer who is quite prepared to make the politician look like a fool or to make him the butt of a joke for the whole assembled audience to laugh at. Being rude to these people is just water off their backs, but what human being can say they enjoy sitting in a room with every single person laughing at them? In the end, the only failing with this segment of the show is that it is often too short. I could easily watch Mitchell probing and poking fun at some grotesque politician for fifteen minutes rather than five and his debates often end up being cut off at just the point where they are coming nicely to the boil.

As for Carr, he’s someone I’d never previously warmed to through his televised stand-up performances or his many, many appearances on TV panel games. Often I would find what he was saying to be quite funny but his delivery wasn’t one that particularly engaged with me, him often coming across a bit too clever-and-he-knows-it and slightly smarmy. I’m delighted to say though that I’ve mellowed a little towards him as the series has progressed. While his sketches are often hit or miss they’re worth bearing with for those that do work and Carr, or at least somebody like him, is an essential ingredient in the series’ mix as it’s hard to imagine Brooker or Mitchell fulfilling the same role. And, as previously mentioned, he’s always the quickest to react with a quip when the four presenters discuss matters together.

Lauren Laverne’s presence in the team is another area of criticism the series has faced. A lot of the early reviews remarked that she had much less to do than the other three and was slightly out of place. Part of that is true in that she usually only has one individual segment allocated to her whereas the others have several each. However, her job is that of the chairperson, captaining the ship through its live broadcast waters and she does a good job of this. She’s not a comedian so it’s probably unreasonable to expect her to be one on live TV. Instead, she’s a presenter of some distinction whose instantly likeable nature was an obvious quality for the show’s producers to include when searching for someone to pull together their comedy supergroup.

And so, with regard to the combination of strength of writing and presenting, on the 31st March the show slipped into its most assured stride yet. The above-mentioned Brooker pieces combined with a lively debate on the government spending cuts, a monologue on police cuts and an interview with Ken Livingstone (all fronted by Mitchell) with able back-up from Laverne and Carr in the shape of sketches on dictator action figures, Gadaffi at a despot travel agent’s, a promotional video for a new privatised NHS and Carr being fairly pelted with all many objects and food while acting as a riot cop on duty at the cuts protests, all added up to the funniest, most entertaining and politically relevant edition of the show so far. Coming on the back of an ever-upward curve it promised much for the rest of the series.

And then the 7th April edition went out and it was markedly patchier. Perhaps a satirical show can only be as good as the quality of the news stories it attempts to satirise and while the week before had the easy we-set-them-up-you-knock-‘em-down of the cuts protests the most recent edition seemed to struggle to find targets as rich in potential for humour. But that’s not to say it wasn’t amusing and while Brooker’s piece on Wayne Rooney’s swearing was a bit below par his later segment on American news presenters losing their minds on air was excellent. While Carr’s sketch on BP resuming drilling in the Mexican Gulf fell flat on its face, his earlier sketch as God receiving prayer requests was one of his best yet. And while Mitchell’s debate on social mobility was one of the less interesting he has chaired, his abandonment of an interview in favour of a second debate between John Prescott and a sleaze-bag ex-News of the World journalist on the subject of phone-tapping was explosive to the point where I feared it might turn violent.

And this is what you get with comedy shows that are divided into sketches or a combination of sketches and other segments: some work and some don’t. The hope is that there are enough that do work and work well to keep you watching through those that don’t. I’ve seen enough of the series now to have the confidence of belief that, even when something isn’t going too well, something else will come along in a minute to more than make up for it. And while sketch-based comedy can rarely, if ever, be one hundred per cent successful (not even every Monty Python sketch is funny) then a sketch/segment-based comedy series which is beholden to the news in a particular week has an even tougher task. For me, they do enough even in the more inconsistent weeks, and when they get it spot on, as they did on 31st March, the show really delivers.

So, to get back to the original point made in the title of this piece, 10 O’Clock Live is an important series even when it’s uneven. A friend of mine once bemoaned the death of real protest in the UK by saying that people didn’t get angry about things anymore and that, instead, they just laughed at politicians being laughed at on TV and then got back on with their lives as normal afterwards, thinking the politicians had been taught a lesson. He was right and they, of course, hadn’t been taught any sort of lesson at all. Politicians don’t care at all what sort of ribbing or humiliation is served up to them by the likes of Have I Got News For You. They just switch off from it and the kind of rebuke they get from caricatures like Ian Hislop can probably best be described as almost cosy these days. Why 10 O’Clock Live matters is because there’s the serious element alongside the sketches and because politicians themselves appear on the programme. Question Time may ask more persistently pressing questions in front of its own studio audience but 10 O’Clock Live mixes this with skilfully ridiculing them to the sound of the audience laughing. In this modern society where politicians see almost nothing as a resigning matter, where they can ride out any storm in the face of public outrage and where they don’t care about people laughing behind their backs, then perhaps one of the best weapons we have in our bid to hold these people to account, other than waiting five years to vote them out, is to summon them for a spot of accountability in the face of live ridicule broadcast to the nation. Because none of them want to look a fool. Or so you would expect. And even if it achieves absolutely nothing in terms of holding them to account we still have the fallback of just being entertained.

As the run of 10 O’Clock Live draws to a close I sincerely hope that this experiment gets a second series where they can further hone their skills. Even if it doesn’t always work I’m glad that Channel 4 and this team of presenters and writers are making the effort. Perhaps they’ll refine the personnel involved and I’d suggest that someone already known as politically sharp, such as Mark Steele, would make a good choice if they really wanted to let loose the attack dogs. As it stands though, I salute the effort and I’m glad I’ve stuck the course.

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