The Rise and Fall of the Chat Show

In the late 1950’s a ‘chat’ show appeared called Face to Face – it ran for just 35 episodes ending in 1962.  The format was incredibly simple.  John Freeman, an ex-politician, sat in an armchair (his face hidden) opposite a celebrity of the day (also seated in a 1950’s type comfy armchair) and interviewed said famous person whilst the camera focused exclusively on the Star’s face.  No eye distracting scenery, no colour (black and white TV), no other guests, no ‘look at me’ type jokes or banter from Freeman the host.  A pure, unadulterated talk show.  In some cases the process resembled an excruciating job interview, or rose to the levels of a counselling session (or descended to that level – depends on your view of that popular pastime known as ‘navel-gazing.’)

This was powerful stuff, demanding that you focused entirely on what was being said.  It could be, in turns, mesmerising, uncomfortable and difficult to watch.  One of the best examples of this more serious type of ‘chat’ show (the 50’s went with ‘personal interview programme’) was the episode featuring Tony Hancock.  In it Hancock, a brilliant comic, was clearly trying to ‘come over’ as a quasi-intellectual, as someone trying to better himself, acutely aware of his lower class roots and non-existent formal education, when talking to the very posh and well educated Freeman (who died just over a year ago I was astonished to discover at the age of 99)  outliving poor old Hancock by 46 years. Many people, at the time, thought that Hancock’s experience on Face to Face in 1960 led to the self-critical introspection and obsession with all things psychobabblic that eventually killed him (that and the drink.)

In the clip below Hancock is clearly on edge – your average 2016 GP would be throwing the happy pills straight at him, based on Hancock’s facial contortions and frequent nervous but luminous smile.  Hancock visibly relaxes when he sticks a cigarette in his constantly twitching mouth (for a second there turning into his TV alter ego) but you can see that the personal, probing questions asked by Freeman are not disappearing like water off a duck’s back, the insecure Hancock is clearly taking it all on board, although he curiously seems to welcome the intrusive questioning.  It’s fascinating how he mentions, almost in passing, that his dad died when he was just 11 years old and that his brother was killed in the war – enough sadness to send anyone to the brink.   It’s not difficult to picture Hancock going home after this public grilling to mull it all over, doing himself, and his alcoholism, no favours at all.

This interview seems startlingly real and, oddly, more open and honest than anything put out in today’s, supposedly, no subject is barred as long as it counts as entertainment – telly watching climate.

On into the 1970’s and the chat show peaked, becoming more an entertainment show in its own right; losing the sombre, deeply psychological and personal vibe of Face to Face but retaining the intelligence and the focus on the interviewee rather than the interviewer.  Michael Parkinson is the name that comes to most everyone’s mind from this period.  Lauded as the epitome of a chat show host, Parkinson banged on about being from up north, flirted with all the women and supposedly got the best interviews on the planet by means of uttering a few simple umms and ahhs, letting the guest witter on without interruption.  His was a kind of working class continuation of Freeman’s posher, minimalist interviewing style but with music thrown in and more guests filling more chairs.  The 70’s was also the era when the chat show host began to attain the same kind of fame as the starry guests, the host’s character traits and appearance becoming an important ingredient in its success.

Although ‘Parky’ ruled the chat show airwaves, there was another interviewer around at this time called Russell Harty who, to my mind, outdid Parky in every way.  Harty was also Northern but erred on the ‘camp’ side, whilst Parkinson went with the more rugged, skin like old leather, can’t be bothered to comb my hair look.  Russell favoured a sort of back combed bouffant and gently minced on to the stage, looking like a business man (or school teacher, which he actually was for 10 years) who’d inadvertently turned up at the wrong place.  Whereas Parkinson was determinedly working class, leaving school to work on his local paper, Harty (also working class) studied English Lit at Oxford gaining a first class degree (it showed) favouring a more lilting, less stridently Ee By Gum accent.  His interviewing style is on a par with Freeman’s and Parkinson’s whilst, at the same time, being on a whole other almost ethereal and intellectual level.  There was also a sort of mischievous, impolite, inappropriate intention to ask very personal questions and to beat the guest down until he’d given the answers.  He was not beyond patronising his honoured guests or ticking them off for being a bunch of thick idiots; but it was all very charming and school ma’am’ish.  Harty was never phased by his famous guests, or ever stood in awe of them, seeming to treat the whole chat show thing as a kind of frivolous joke.  Sometimes you couldn’t help feeling that he was just taking the too clever p*ss – a style that really worked.

Meanwhile over in 1970’s America there was Dick Cavett.  Mr Cavett completely outshone any other USA talk show host.  Here he is maintaining his conservative, Yale educated composure in the face of the cigarette wielding, nervy John Ono Lennon and similarly cigaretted and unfortunately dressed Yoko Ono Lennon.

From the 80’s onwards the conversational, intelligent chat shows, led by men (seems to have been a male dominated genre) who let the guests do the talking, died a slow death, as the less scrutinising Wogan got in on the act, and the cruder Jonathan Ross.  Then the format morphed to become more of a magazine-type programme, flitting about from topic to topic, the occasional interview stuck in the middle, and that spelled the end for the clever, witty, serious, philosophical, lengthy and entertaining chat show .

Now we’re stuck with Graham Norton, This Morning, a now middle-aged, verging on the dirty old man, Jonathan Ross and Loose Women.  I never watch any of them, but maybe that’s age rearing it’s unattractive head.  It becomes more difficult to maintain an interest in light entertainment telly, when you feel you’ve seen it all before and besides it was all done so much better years and years ago.

The televisual types clearly believe that an audience now possesses the attention span of a 2 year old (this may be true due to the rise and rise of all things Internet.)  In order to stave off channel hopping, or delay gogglebox boredom setting in, chat show interviewers now frequently interrupt the interviewee, or introduce childish games, or do a bit of stand-up and cram everyone onto a communal sofa so the viewing public think they’re getting value for money.  There’s lots of inane book/tv/film plugging type chatter going on – lots of talking without much of any significance being said.

But never fear.  Where the telly once led, in the field of famous faces having a good natter; Podcasts and the old fashioned radio have now taken its place.  If you want to really hear what someone has to say then, as one of the only examples where improved technology did no one any favours, strip away the high-tech add ons and leave just the sound of the human voice.

Back to Michael Parkinson.  I never thought I’d say it (not being much of a fan) but it might be time to drag 80 year old Parky away from the funeral pay out Ads and let him loose once again, on one more chat show, just so he can show everyone else how to do it.   (I’d rather have gone with good old, slightly weird Russell Harty here, but unfortunately he died in 1988 aged 53.)

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