Monday, 12 September 2011


Monday, 12 September 2011
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Jonathan Ross has moved to ITV after his long-running contract with the BBC was terminated, and the channel will be hoping his Saturday night chat show performs better than the Ross-hosted Penn & Tell: Fool Us (which started promisingly, and was a decent show, but audiences nevertheless staged a vanishing act).

The chat show is a hard format to do something fresh with, but British shows are generally more experimental than their US counterparts—where there's largely no conceptual difference between Leno, Letterman, Fallon, Ferguson and O'Brien's nightly output. Over there, each host's personality is the only deciding factor over which one you watch regularly, as the caliber of guests is largely the same and shows follow the same basic template.

Ross's ITV show is largely the same as his BBC show Friday Night, wisely keeping the "green room" idea (where Ross occasionally speaks to waiting guests via video-screen) and ditching the Four Poofs & A Piano house band (finally!) Beyond the larger set and sleeker desk, where everything feels like it's been designed in a Coruscant branch of IKEA, there's not much to differentiate the two shows. If you liked Friday Night, you should like Ross's earlier Saturday night offering... but it could do with some better guests. The big premiere featured Sarah Jessica Parker (snore) and Lewis Hamilton (zzzz), with the down-to-earth, cackling Adele as the sole reason to tune in . Last weekend's lineup was better, but still felt underpowered: Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch (dull, but a good impressionist!), Alan Carr (overexposed, boring), and The Saturdays (gorgeous but asinine). Is it any wonder audiences dropped by a million between shows?

If you ask me, Ross is at his best when handling Hollywood elite, who are often putty in his hands because they're so used to handling fawning US chat show hosts that Ross's singularly British style leaves them bewildered, delighted, challenged, or all three. His mix of playful flirtation (with the ladies), tongue-in-cheek arrogance, kowtowing, and cheeky put-downs, often have Americans reeling to comic effect.

One problem facing Ross today is that, frankly, Graham Norton (whose own show replaced his at the BBC) has found a format that behaves differently to every other chat show. By getting three guests on together, Norton's show has appealing four way banter, and something develops beyond simple dialogue: a collective conversation. It can also be funny just seeing how various types of celebrity interact together. Everyone gets a fair chance to talk about themselves and plug their wares, but nobody's the sole focus of attention, so people generally relax more. It also helps that Norton's team apparently ply everyone with booze beforehand.

Frankly, no matter how good Ross can still be (and he's definitely a sharper wit than Norton), or what high-caliber guests he books in the future, his show's format feels dull. Unless there's a particularly attention-grabbing guest one week, I can't see myself wanting to watch for Jonathan Ross himself. In that sense, ITV may have another Paul O'Grady Show on their hands: talented host, decent guests, but no real magic.

Saturdays / ITV1