Sunday, 26 June 2011

Why have so many successful TV presenters been so terribly bad at it?

I feel genuinely grateful to Jools Holland for introducing me to so many great non-mainstream music acts over the years. Just think, without his BBC2 show, Later…, I might never have heard of CW StonekingJunior Brown, Alvin Youngblood HartBR-549Seasick Steve or Old Crow Medicine Show.

Despite that, I don’t watch the programme very often these days – partly because too many of the acts suck, and partly because, given he’s been presenting television music shows for more than two decades, I reckon Jools Holland (whose Boogie Woogie 78 EP on the Deptford Fun City label I’ve always cherished) should be a lot better at it than he is. 

After all these years, Holland still hasn’t a clue how to conduct a decent interview, or how to move his arms when introducing the acts of the evening, or which WORDS to emphasise, or how to ever say anything remotely funny, or how to learn his lines so they don’t dribble away into pure gobbledegook. And, given he’s an accomplished pianist, accompanist and band-leader, why hasn’t he managed to figure out that presenters need to get their timing right to make it all flow?

Or maybe his ineptness is an act designed to place him in TV’s long tradition of presenters who never improve in any way whatsoever, no matter how many hundreds of hours of live television they get under their belt.

As a TV producer who had to work with many inexperienced presenters over the years, I found they tended to fall into four categories: the ones who pick it up quickly and manage to hone their performances so they don’t get in the way of the content; the ones whose winning personalities make up for technical deficiencies; those whose personalities are so repellent it’s amazing that the studio audience doesn’t rush the stage and batter them to death; and those who are lousy on their first appearance, and who never seem to improve, no matter how long or hard you work with them. The weird thing is that, over the years, what used to be called Light Entertainment seems to have specialised in affording members of the last two categories - the repellent and the inept - long and successful careers.

And that drives me mad. It shouldn’t be this way! 

For instance, the worst TV show host I’ve ever seen was the American, Ed Sullivan (in this brief clip, he managed to get Buddy Holly’s name wrong - I mean, is “Holly” such a difficult name to remember or pronounce?) In 1955, Time described Sullivan thus: “a cigar-store Indian, the Cardiff Giant and a stone-faced monument just off the boat from Easter Island. He moves like a sleepwalker; his smile is that of a man sucking a lemon; his speech is frequently lost in a thicket of syntax; his eyes pop from their sockets or sink so deep in their bags that they seem to be peering up at the camera from the bottom of twin wells.”

In addition, he talked funny (“Welcome to the shoe”) and his small-talk with guests was hide-behind-the-sofa embarrassing. Technically, he was spectacularly useless. It’s odd that he rose to prominence at the same time as that other physically unprepossessing,  socially awkward man, Richard Nixon. Just as Nixon won two presidential elections, Ed Sullivan hosted the most spectacularly popular TV show in the world. Ever.

The UK followed suit. First up, there was Hughie Green, a peculiarly horrible Canadian who was professional enough at delivering lines, but about as funny as a kidney stone and, when trying to act sincere, as convincing as Tony Blair. Revolting. Yet Double Your Money andOpportunity Knocks were huge. (Green shows his true colours here in an interview with a Radio Trent reporter following the mercy-killing of Opportunity Knocks - what a charmer!)

Then we got Simon Dee who couldn’t do anything right: inept, awkward, chippy, unfunny, and unpleasant. How, we all wondered, did he get the job in the first place? And how did he manage to hold onto it for several years before deservedly and permanently joining the ranks of the unemployed? I know the Sixties was a silly decade in many ways – but was it really this silly?

Jimmy Saville. Need I say more? Deeply, deeply creepy. 

After his career as a comic fizzled out (for obvious reasons) Bob Monkhouse found success as the host of many game shows, including The Golden Shot, Celebrity Squares and Bob’s Full House. Monkhouse was professional enough, but claims made on his behalf by a host of supporters that he was a superb, quick-brained comic genius have always perplexed me. He was a deeply unfunny, smarmy creep. I mean, did any of us actually warm to Bob Monkhouse on TV? 

Ted Rogers on 3-2-1 fame was a cosmically untalented prat. He was like one of those ghastly sales reps who approach you in the bar at conferences and insist on telling you jokes which are so unfunny they make the act of smiling seem harder than running a marathon. Even allowing for the fact that the 1970s were generally deranged, his success was incomprehensible. (Robbie Coltrane played a comedian called Ted Todgers in a sketch show called A Kick Up the Eighties, who instead of telling jokes, would say things like - “The thing about Esther Rantzen is - hasn’t she got big teeth!” One of the cruellest examples of satire I ever saw, and very, very funny.)

Terry Wogan – acceptable on radio and presenting the Eurovision Song Contest – was a dreadful TV talk show host. The inanity of the questions, the twinkling avuncular oiliness, the endlessly repeated catch-phrases (“Steady, the Buffs!”), the boring on about rubbish like Dallas and Dynasty, the sheer tackiness of the whole enterprise – what were we thinking?

But Wogan was brilliant compared to Russell Harty. The sweaty upper lip, the annoying camp, Northern manner, the disastrous lapses into significance, the lack of timing, the physical awkwardness, his obvious delight at being surrounded by tawdry semi-celebrities. What, as a Radio Four stand-up might say, was that all about?

Trevor MacDonald on News at Ten – a National Treasure who habitually pronounced the word “government” as “gummint” and who could instantly spot the exact wrong words to stress IN any SENTENCE. 

When I first saw Richard Whiteley on Countdown, I assumed he’d be out of a job within a month. One of the two main characters in David Nichols’ fine novel, One Day, is a drink and drugs-addled TV rock magazine presenter who eventually realises – to his horror – that his supposed popularity with the audience is based on the sheer bumbling ineptitude of his performance and his utter lack of coolness. They’re laughing at him, not with him. Did the British public take to Whiteley precisely because he was so rubbish?

When you consider the sort of people who ran our major banks up to the Credit Crunch (and may still do, as far as I know), and the calibre of our leading politicians to this day, why should TV – an essentially shallow medium – be any different?

Inevitably, when the worlds of politics and TV chat collided in the mid-1970s, with Harold Wilson briefly hosting his own excruciating car crash of a talk show, it produced the most embarrassing experience in television history.


  1. Ed Sullivan once introduced Jose Feliciano in this way: " And here's a fine young man. He's not only totally blind, but he's a Puerto Rican as well."
    Sunday, June 26, 2011 - 07:42 PM

  2. Buddy Hollet??!! And his backing group the Crickys presumably. What a jerk. I'd not noticed the Nixon comparison before but it's apt. Jools's lame interviewing technique is not his only crime. When he decides to play along with his special guests, dive for the volume control. The Jelly Roll style tends not to go with all that much. He plink plonked his way through a recent performance of "Illusion" by Gregory Porter that sat on it's subtle tune and phrasing in much the same way as Tubby the Tuba did to Pepo the Piccolo.

    I was going to comment on the easy ride that Jim Naughtie gave Jack Straw this morning about ambulance chasing, but I can't be bothered any more. It serves me right for listening to Today and expecting balance.
    Monday, June 27, 2011 - 07:52 PM