10 O’Clock Live: the saviour of satire?

Channel 4’s new show is flawed, but occasionally manages to rise above the usual cynical fare that passes for topical comedy.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

As King Lear came to realise, when your fools are the only reliable source of reason your empire is on the slide.

So there was a certain grim fascination in contrasting competing election night coverage last year. As the BBC, ITV and Sky experts grasped ineffectually at trying to analyse hung parliaments, potential coalitions, swing votes and the absence of Cleggmania, Channel 4 gathered a bunch of its top comedians together to have a laugh at it all on Alternative Election Night. So successfully did this slice of liberal-leaning laughter in the dark capture the electorate’s mood of laconic, despondent indifference – given the fantasy politics on display in the serious media – that Channel 4 has decided to give the format a weekly slot, up against BBC’s Question Time on Thursdays.

To give the producers and executives their due, 10 O’Clock Live is something of a bold gamble in TV’s risk-averse climate. The challenge posed by live topical comedy is considerable – as lovingly commemorated by Aaron Sorkin in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – and one which British broadcasters have tended to leave to the Yanks. The precautionary principle that lies behind the failure to produce a UK equivalent to Saturday Night Live is no doubt due to the prominence previous attempts have tended to give to Ben Elton and Marcus Brigstocke: satire’s equivalents of thalidomide and dioxin.

Given its Thursday evening timing – traditionally the high point of the Westminster news cycle – the BBC wouldn’t even have time to run a joke passed a compliance-enforcing bureaucrat in order to make a topical gag. Indeed, as a counterpoint, BBC1’s own increasingly tired and irrelevant Have I Got News For You is recorded two days in advance of airing, and BBC2’s pointless Mock The Week turns the sharp-witted Dara O’Briain into the warm-up man for pre-rehearsed vacuities from nonentities.

Perhaps understandably, however, the makers of 10 O’Clock Live have thrown in a few insurance policies. Knowing its target audience, two of the presenters – David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker – are rather handily Guardian or Observer columnists, augmented by more experienced and populist broadcasters in comedian Jimmy Carr and former pop-star Lauren Laverne. The jokes rarely moved beyond the stupidity of Sarah Palin, the hyperbolic emptiness of US media, double entendres about politicians’ names, greedy bankers and the odd angst-ridden rant about the unfairness and stupidity of it all.

But whereas British satire has tended to fall lazily back on the rolling-eyed ‘we know better’ smugness of Radio 4’s The News Quiz and Private Eye magazine, the tone of 10 O’Clock Live is at least tempered with an attempt at the earnest idealism which Sorkin mined so successfully in The West Wing, and which is now used (to occasionally grating effect) by Jon Stewart on the evidently influential The Daily Show. Rather than sourly revel in the default cynicism of the age, the show at least seems to want to believe in some form of enlightening impulse, interspersing the sketches with interviews, studio debates and reflections on political events.

The choice of controversial environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, Conservative policy wonk David Willetts and Goldman Sachs’ Richard Sharp (defending banker bonuses) at least implied a serious attempt to challenge some of the viewers’ preconceptions, even if they were too short and superficial to act as anything other than a sideshow. The segment where they all sat around discussing the themes of the show did, however, reek of those awful contrived General Studies lessons where smart-alec sixth formers swap pseudo-radical platitudes, with Laverne cast as the teacher charged with ‘facilitating a dialogue.’

Laverne has taken a lot of flak in the media coverage, just as she does from some mean-spirited corners of the arts press for fronting BBC2’s Culture Show, which was not helped by her not realising married couple Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper had previously served in the actual Cabinet. While it’s true that being an attractive and articulate young woman is probably her main qualification for being on the show, a new live format is hardly the place to look for television to break the habit of a lifetime, and she is probably the most experienced host of them all. Plus – I may as well say this now – she was in Kenickie and did the vocals to this song by Mint Royale, which is a benefit to society beyond the capabilities of most of the Twitterati, so STFU.

The one who’s clearly struggling, as it happens, is Charlie Brooker – who has the nervous eyes of a smart writer of funnies, clever enough to know he’s increasingly out of his depth in matters more serious than discussing Sky News coverage, and whose shtick of being an embittered and frenzied hack won’t sit forever with being a top-paid columnist and TV star. The slightly familiar air of his new show on BBC2 this week, How TV Ruined Your Life, confirms that he’s close to becoming a thinking man’s Harry Hill: no bad thing, as it happens, but Brooker’s numerous acolytes should remember that the unashamedly silly populist Hill used to be an unusually sensible-sounding doctor.

Mitchell is the real star of the show: clearly familiar with many of the issues and possessed of an inquisitive mind, his angry-bank-manager style and liberal brand of Little Englander pomposity make him the perfect host. He even made a decent stab of covering up for Laverne’s gaffe with a quip about bedroom role-play that rather brought home Labour’s position as the new Lib Dems. That said, his faintly haughty pronouncements on how he was going to avoid the hectoring style of journalists during his interviews was shown up as slightly naive after being given the run-around by Willetts. Carr is also a revelation: a reminder that his strict Christian background and previous career in the energy industry probably make him more normal and interesting than his showbiz fellow hosts and most of the media-political class he’ll be interviewing. The ‘edgy’ jokes are no less grating because they’re about politicians, mind.

There is much you could choose to criticise in 10 O’Clock Live. It is certainly unlikely to unleash a wave of satire to bring down the Tory scum as some more excitable types seem to want, nor is it likely to serve as an adequate substitute for More 4 cutting The Daily Show down to one night a week. But live TV is a skill that hopefully the team will hone and develop over the coming weeks and, in a wilderness for good mainstream current affairs chat with some jokes on top, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they will.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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