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Satirical Concerns: Looking Back At Channel 4's 10 O'Clock Live
Toby Cook , April 4th, 2011 14:03

As the supposed answer to the Daily Show approaches the end of its run, Toby Cook takes an in-depth look at the strengths and weaknesses of this new wave of British satire

David Mitchell is sarcastic, Jimmy Carr makes puns, Charlie Brooker doesn’t much like the media and Lauren Laverne is a competent presenter. These are facts.

Political and social satire is notoriously difficult to pull off. A brief perusal of the TV listings looking specifically at what passes for a schedule in the graveyard for all things ‘lad’ that is Dave, will reveal as much. For starters there’s the soft-boiled excuse for a topical news quiz, Mock The Week, which is like watching six fourth-rate comedians – and Dara O’Briain – trapped at the bottom of a sack yelping, "No, wait, I’m hilarious, really! Just look, I made a joke that was almost related to an actual news story" just before you close it up and throw it into the sea.

Then of course there’s Have I Got News For You which has become the televisual equivalent of laughing at your grandad’s jokes at Christmas because you know he’ll be dead soon. Except he just... won’t... die! And, now that you mention it, isn’t Bremner, Bird And Fortune going the same way? Yes, The Thick Of It is superb, but it satirises the inner workings of Westminster politics, as opposed to politics and culture in general, and I suppose you might catch the odd repeated episode of Spitting Image here and there, but that’s about it (and even that wrapped up production nearly 15-years ago). Thinking about it, doesn’t it speak volumes that the bastions of British satire are still That Was The week That Was and The Frost Report? They’re both undeniably superb, and fully deserve their places in the great pantheon of British comedy, but haven’t we moved on from “I look up to him, but I look down on him...”? Channel 4 seems to think so.

After the success of last year’s Alternative Election Night, it always looked like only a matter of time before Channel 4 concocted some scheme or another to reunite the four hosts for the evening – David Mitchell, Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker and Lauren Laverne – and although going up against the BBC’s rather sterile election coverage (led by the sort of camp commandant figure of David Dimbleby and featuring such a dizzying array of CGI aids it looked as though Google had cum all over their studio) was far from taxing, it at least meant that they were free to play their satirical trump card. Those wanting a bit more beef, or indeed, those who were not newly self-righteous students, briefly obsessed with Nick Clegg, may well have turned over pretty sharp-ish, but on the whole the show was a huge success.

Seven months later, enter 10 O’Clock Live. It’s been eleven weeks since the programme hailed by some as the rebirth of satire hit our screens and on the whole it’s been eleven weeks of hair-pulling frustration and abject disappointment. You can’t knock the premise behind the show; there’s a clear gap in the market, and terrestrial T.V. has been crying out for a weekly show that takes a less reverent look at the week’s news for 25-odd years. You also have to admire the balls of Channel 4, if not merely for commissioning the show, then certainly for commissioning it for such a long run, scheduling it against the BBC’s Question Time and for entrusting the running of it to four people not known for their live television experience by any stretch of the imagination. But how long does it take to figure out that something just isn’t right?

Frankly, it was pretty disgusting (if not very surprising) that after the very first show certain newspapers and several corners of the internet laid into the show with a level of venom and bile usually reserved for Lindsey Lohan. Lauren Laverne has been labelled as "surplus to requirements", referred to as "the always grating Lauren Laverne", had her dress sense attacked – like the way a presenter dresses somehow impacts on the content of the show – and The Telegraph even stooped so low as to ask, "What is the point of her?". Charlie Brooker, on the other hand, was lambasted for essentially transplanting the Newswipe format to a condensed, live setting (because apparently it’s piss funny on the BBC, but not anywhere else) and had his "floppy fringe" attacked (a game he elected to join in with last week when discussing the ‘Hitler house’). Jimmy Carr, meanwhile, is guilty of "cheap one-liners" – obviously no one was expecting that from him for some reason – and is "un-original". Finally, David Mitchell was jumped upon for wanting to be too serious and at the same time for failing to sufficiently grill his interviewees. But aren’t they missing the point somewhat? Aren’t they guilty of the same crime as 10 O’Clock Live itself: alluding to an issue that warrants debate, but settling for cheap laughs instead?

The first problem with 10 O’Clock Live is that, honestly, it doesn’t need to be live. With the exception of Lauren Laverne, who let’s not forget has a reasonable level of live T.V. presenting experience, you can’t really say that the hosts ever look totally happy with the format. Through no particular fault of his own Brooker looks especially uncomfortable, and his regular stumbles when reading the autocue often greatly lessen the impact of his ‘stream of consciousness’ rage. At any rate, it turns out that not very many people watch the show ‘live’ anyway. The first episode on January 20th garnered a modest 1.4 million viewers, but by the end of March the audience had fallen to less than half that. In an interview with Broadcast Magazine the man responsible for commissioning the show, Darren Smith, said that 10 O’Clock Live attracted “an elusive young audience” many of whom “don’t watch it live – even though that is the point of the show”. He went on to say, “We could have done it as a pre-record but it would have been less exciting and spontaneous. That freshness is part of the reason why lots of people watch the repeat, and why there is an impressive video-on-demand uplift.” Smith added that if repeat and on-demand viewers were added to the total the figure would be more like 1.8 million.

What this means though, in real terms, is that Channel 4’s current flag-ship satire show, despite their ‘total saturation’ approach to advertising, is actually attracting fewer viewers than 15 year old episodes of The Simpsons, a Come Dine With Me outtakes show and anything that has Jamie Oliver’s boat-race plastered all over it.

The unnecessary live broadcasting and disappointing viewing figures don’t totally explain what’s so wrong with the show though. The reason the show is slowly falling on its increasingly smug arse is its brain-fuckingly disjointed and often piss-poor excuse for content, or rather, the show's handling of it. Granted a satire show based around current affairs is often only as strong as the material it’s given to work with; sometimes it’s just going to be a slow news week and there’s fuck all you can do about it; but that doesn’t begin to excuse the ham-fisted and often hurried way topics are dealt with.

It has to be said that Jimmy Carr’s opening salvo, where he takes a comedic look back at the major news stories of the previous week, is usually excellent. He’s given the perfect amount of time and does exactly what a good satirist should do: he informs and takes the piss simultaneously. But that’s pretty much where it ends, and Carr is guiltier than anyone when it comes to shoe-horning in pointless, ill-conceived ‘jokes for joke's sake’ segments. Take for example his rant about the royal wedding that compared it to the Channel 4 show Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. He performed the piece as a character inexplicably named ‘Tom Cruiseizgay’. Seriously, what does that have to do with anthing!? Then there was his attempt at pulling off an Italian accent that in the end proved to be more offensive than most of the jokes he’s ever told, followed by twirling round on a rope making jokes about the SAS (when he was facing the autocue that is). Finally, and worst of all, was his hurried skit about tickets for the 2012 Olympics going on sale where, without reference to any news stories I can think of, he suggested that terrorists will target the games with suicide bombers – and this while dressed and talking like Del Boy. Good one.

Brooker, on the whole, fares a lot better but it’s largely down to the fact that, as mentioned, he sticks to what he knows: the Newswipe formula. But he just isn’t given enough time, and more often than not his topics just aren’t worthy of his default level of rage. His overview of Sky News coverage of the Japanese tsunami was excellent; biting and informative, it showed Sky News for what it really is: ‘Current affairs go Hollywood’, and last week’s ‘Ritzkrieg/Titzkrieg’ look at the AV/anti-cuts protest was superb.

His take on Colonel Gadaffi on the other hand... well, is it really right to focus your coverage on how ridiculous he looks with an umbrella when he’s slaughtering his own people?

David Mitchell, mostly down to his self-styled persona as a sort of Stephen Fry type character for heavily sarcastic sixth formers, is usually left to handle the more weighty political topics as well as chairing the round table discussions and dispensing the usually terrific ‘Listen To Mitchell’ segment (his rant on the disappearance of public toilets is still a series highlight, however adding the visual element last week to accompany a rant about police staffing issues completely killed the flow of the segment). But again, even when it has little excuse, the show falls down on his parts too, although in contrast to Brooker and Carr the fault is often not of his own making.

The round table discussions, which so far have covered topics ranging from immigration and bankers' bonuses to the proposed forest sell-off and the pricing of alcohol in supermarkets, are usually pretty solid. Bar the odd weak personality here and there they stay just the right side of the mud-slinging, bear- baiting style that Question Time often descends into. But just when you think you’re finally getting some genuine, unscripted discussion, the show cuts either to Jimmy Carr dressed as a policeman or to a commercial break (a point Mitchell has himself picked up on, often closing the segment with links like, “Sorry, I must stop you there because the advertisers are clamouring for your attention”). Mitchell is, however, criminally guilty of an annoying level of bias during his one-to-one interviews. When speaking to RMU leader Bob Crow – a man who desperately needs to be taken to task over his policies rather than be allowed to spout clichéd pseudo-socialist rhetoric – Mitchell was extremely light and even failed to properly pounce on Crow’s ridiculous idea of a 1p tax on every e-mail sent. Yet when interviewing UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who in fairness is equally deserving of a punch in the cock, he frequently leaped on inconsistencies in his answers and was at times quite scathing.

And so what about Laverne and the remaining content passed her way? Er, um, well, there’s not much, is there? But that’s fine really. A show like 10 O’clock Live needs an anchor, an experienced presenter capable of keeping things moving, a ring-master of sorts. Whether or not down to some misplaced sense of sexual equality Laverne is simply not left alone to fulfil the role she is best suited to. To berate her due to her dress sense and hair style is appallingly sexist, but the fact remains that she is the weak link. Her brief exposé of the shocking level to which “the biggest company you’ve never heard of”, Serco, has its profiteering fingers in many of this country's supposedly public sector pies was passionate and genuine, albeit a little dry, but it warranted more than two minutes of air time. In contrast her impassioned plea to appreciate our libraries was overly long, smacked of filler and was pre-recorded to boot. Most disappointing of all though was her and Carr’s short lived recurring segment on bankers and their bonuses that parodied ITV’s Children In Need appeal (titled: Bankers In Need), complete with a man dressed in a pig costume called ‘Banksey’. Attacking bankers at the moment – whilst still valid to some extent – is just lazy, and the show's handling of the segment reeked of pandering to the idealistic but ill informed; smacking someone repeatedly in the face with a pink cricket bat, covered in £1 coins, whilst screaming: “HATE BANKERS! HATE BANKERS! A-HA, HA, HA! BANKERS! W-ANKERS!” is not satire, it’s fucking pathetic.

Somewhere in the current befuddlement is a quality show aching to burst out, but some very serious issues about content and agenda – not to mention target audience – need to be raised and dealt with. As far as target audience goes the show is squarely aimed at the 16 – 34 bracket, with seems sensible, and there’ll always be those outside of that range that tune in, but the audience – that is, those in the studio – are also proving a huge downfall. Setting the studio up in a sort of ‘circus ring’ arrangement may well look nice when you’ve got the round table stuff going on and when Brooker is doing his thing, but putting them on screen and expecting them not to act up is foolish at best. You can’t let Jimmy Carr dress up and be racist and allow the studio audience to boo, hoot, hiss etc. etc. through his nonsense and then expect them not to do the same when the likes of Alastair Campbell are being interviewed. To most he’s a villain, and villains should always be booed as far a mob-mentality audience is concerned, no matter how much Mitchell might exhaustedly cry that “it’s not a fucking panto”. Sometimes, David, I’m afraid that Channel 4 thinks it is.

So where does this leave 10 O’Clock Live? Many that have heaped scorn on the show for the last 10 weeks have all asked the question, in one way or another: “Why isn’t it more like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?”. It’s a fair question, and it seems no mistake that Channel 4 dropped The Daily Show to only the once a week ‘Global Edition’ just before 10 O’Clock Live premiered.

And why isn’t it more like The Daily Show? One of the many reasons that The Daily Show is held in such a high regard is that Jon Stewart knows his agenda. He knows that the best way to satirise is to at least appear to stay aggressively partisan in your political leanings – Stewart is almost certainly a Democrat, but that didn’t stop him being frank and challenging when he grilled Barack Obama ahead of the U.S. mid-term elections. Stewart also reins in the toilet humour when necessary too – his team of ‘reporters’ might front blatantly ridiculous pieces that pertain to be all fart gags and banality (Olivia Munn’s piece on the Chilean miners rescue is a prime example of this) but Stewart is there to provide a sane, and scripted, comic response. Run time is also an issue with The Daily Show. Ok, so the celebrity interview in the last quarter of the show is mostly a waste of time and just one of those things you have to put up with from American shows – everyone’s got a book to plug – but at around 22 minutes an episode, Stewart is limited in what he can cover, and usually elects to pour scorn on and poke fun at one or two key topics, whilst making time for brief round-up and a reference to the disgusting excuse for a news channel that is Fox News.

More than anything though, Stewart is a loudmouth in the best possible way. Despite his protestations to the contrary he clearly has a strong political agenda, but it’s not party partisan. Just look at his ‘Rally To Restore Sanity’, or the way he unreservedly shared his strong disgust when the senate refused to pass a bill allowing for compensation and medical relief for 9/11 first responders (Firemen, rescue workers etc.) and fought repeatedly, week in, week out, on his show for politicians to have a shred of decency and act.

10 O’Clock Live will never be The Daily Show, and nor should it try to be – let’s not forget it took the Jon Stewart-helmed Daily Show over a decade to achieve the status it has now – but it could stand to take a long hard look at it and try and learn something.