Sunday, 25 May 2014

What are the best British TV panel shows?

Sunday, 25 May 2014
One of the most common and popular formats on British television is the venerable "comedy panel show". The UK has cornered the market with this genre, largely because it's the only country that makes so many. It probably helps that they're so cheap and relatively easy to produce.

Oddly, the panel show is almost unheard of in America nowadays, although the US is credited with originating the genre and it was very popular in the '50s and '60s. But the comedy panel show sub-genre never really took hold across the pond, perhaps because there was no radio tradition of "parlour games"? Anyway, here endeth the history lesson. Below are my favourite UK-made comedy panel shows, of those currently in existence... do you agree with my choices?


The format: Sky's attempt to emulate the success of the BBC's QI, with a dose of Brainiac thrown in. The tweak is that three guests each volunteer a crazy-sounding "fact", which a pre-record then tests the veracity of. In a later round, audience members put forward their own trivia for three experts to appraise. Hosted by Lee Mack.
The good: Some of the experiments are genuinely entertaining to watch (like the embedded one about lying children), and it's lightly educational at its best.
The Bad: Quacks feels too long at an hour, including commercials. There are also some very pointless aspects of the format (like the celebs scoring each other's trivia), and a lot of needless recapping after breaks. It gets particularly irritating near the end, when the experts also rate the quality of facts they have passed judgement on. Why?! The set is also a horrible eyesore.


The format: Two opposing trio's (currently captained by original star Phil Jupitus and Noel Fielding) answer questions based on the music business.
The good: It's a classic format that hasn't aged as badly as you'd expect, and the fairly recent introduction of a "guest host" (emulating Have I Got News For You) has helped matters. It's also had its fair share of controversial moments to stir interest; like Preston walking off after jibes about his ex-girlfriend, or the Fun Lovin' Criminals' Huey Morgan angrily smashing a mug.
The bad: It's not the funniest of panel shows and it can be rather cruel to its guests, which is sometimes warranted and hilarious, but sometimes just mean-spirited and tiresome.


The format: A punk version of HIGNFY, only played entirely by stand-up comedians and involving improvised comedy interludes and games. Hosted by Dara O'Briain.
The good: The 'Scenes We'd Like To See' final round is always great fun (and always worth YouTube-ing if you don't watch the show).
The bad: It hasn't been the same since acerbic, risqué comic Frankie Boyle left the show. And the format has never clicked for me, as so much is obviously scripted and planned in advance. There's a whiff of artificiality to it all. The show has also come into trouble for the lack of female contributors; which is a general issue for the genre as a whole, but perhaps exacerbated on MtW because of its very competitive, blokey vibe.


The format: Two celebrity trio's (captained by Holly Willoughby and Fearne Cotton) answer questions on the world of showbiz and entertainment, while enduring physical and verbal abuse at the hand of deviant host Keith Lemon (love-hate comedian Leigh Francis).
The good: Some of the games are very creative, or pleasingly gross and shocking. It's perhaps the only panel show with such an abrasive attitude, which means it's not scared to belittle the foolhardy attention-seeking celebs who come on as contestants. Where else could you find a blindfolded Vernon Kaye sitting on a dildo?
The bad: The bawdy humour can get repetitive and vulgar, while Lemon's an acquired taste—coming across as either hilariously cheeky to numbskull celebs who deserve a kicking, or a repugnant one-trick sex pest who isn't funny. And for some reason Juice has never twigged that Holly and Fearne are the world's dullest team captains and should have been replaced long ago. Kelly Brook was a maternity stand-in one series, and was effortlessly more entertaining and game for a laugh.


The format: Two opposing teams of three (captained by stalwarts Paul Merton and Ian Hislop) answer questions on the week's news and current events, ripped from the newspaper headlines.
The good: It's the elder statesman of the panel show genre, having been on-air since 1990, which affords it continued respect, a healthy audience, and political awareness. Some of its guest bookings can be genius, as the show was arguably responsible for Boris Johnson becoming mayor of London.
The bad: I'm of the opinion that moving to a "guest host" format (post-Angus Deayton scandal) has been detrimental to the show. While there have been some very memorable guests in the hot seat, you usually end up with a safe pair of hands (Alexander Armstrong, Jack Dee, Jeremy Clarkson), or a humourless void that kills the whole episode (Robert Lindsay *shudder*). Oh, and Paul Merton should have been replaced years ago. The man's been on autopilot since 2006.

8 OUT OF 10 CATS (Channel 4)

The format: Two teams of three celebs (captained by misanthrope Sean Locke and nerdy Jon Richardson) answer questions based on the results of real-life polls, surveys and statistics. Hosted by Jimmy Carr.
The good: The content isn't dictated entirely by the week's news, which means Cats is able to tackle more diverse and unusual topics. Much of the team's banter can be very funny, too, and there's a good vibe with the guests who come on, which isn't always the case on competitive panel shows.
The bad: The rounds themselves don't have much variety, and each one can last a long time. Jimmy Carr also isn't to everyone's taste, especially after being outed as a tax avoider.


The format: Two teams of celebrity trio's (including regular "dunce" Alan Davies) answer questions posed by polymath Stephen Fry, with the twist being that the most "obvious" or "common sense" answer is usually incorrect... but the truth far more interesting. Cleverly, each series is themed around a specific letter of the alphabet.
The good: You learn a huge amount from QI, even if much isn't applicable to everyday life. It's a great source of fun facts to fuel some pub chats, and manages to be both amusing and enlightening almost every week.
The bad: There are times when a poor line-up of guests can dilute an episode, and it can become irritating that most rounds devolve into sex-based humour.


The format: Two teams of celebs (captained by David Mitchell and Lee Mack) tell each other hilarious anecdotes or admit to strange personal quirks, with the opposing team having to agree to each one's honesty or dishonesty. Hosted by Rob Brydon.
The good: Some of WILTY's anecdotes can be truly side-splitting (I still guffaw over Kevin Bridges' story about renting a horse), while "odd couple" Mitchell and Mack bounce off each other brilliantly. There's also enough variety in the rounds to make each half-hour pass by very smoothly. It also has unexpected repeat value, as you tend to forget many of the stories. Or if they were truths or lies.
The bad: After seven years on-air (how time flies!), it's noticeably harder for Mitchell and Mack to tell unbelievable-sounding anecdotes that are actually very true. This hasn't become a serious issue yet, but you do wonder when the show will need to find new team captains.