The Late Edition
Thursday, March 10, 2005 by John Walker
Unashamedly lifting the majority of its format from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, BBC4’s The Late Edition is the Corporation’s latest attempt to recapture the elusive topical satire that it thinks it remembers doing so well in the past.
The Daily Show is certainly the finest satirical comedy on television anywhere in the world. It would be nice to suggest it beats all the competition without trying, but the sad reality is that there just isn’t much else out there. Producing four 22 minute editions a week, it generates remarkably well written and vitriolic comment on the day’s news, the day it happens, and manages this in an acerbic and intelligent way despite the increasingly constrictive FCC rules imposed upon America’s cable channels. This is largely due to the behemothic talent of presenter and lead writer Jon Stewart. Before his appointment, The Daily Show muddled along, concentrating on the soft targets of celebrity debacles. Stewart’s arrival – bringing a combination of intellect, knowledge and cruelly sharp wits – transformed the content, driving its direction toward politics and, in contrast to everything else on American television, international news.
Marcus Brigstock is one of those comedians the BBC want to keep, but aren’t quite sure what to do with. Like Johnny Vegas, they’re hoping if they throw him against the walls of enough programmes, he’ll eventually stick to something. His Radio 4 presence has secured some small success, with a second series of his silly-but-affable Giles Wembley Goes Off finishing recently, and a regular position as The Only One Who’s Halfway Funny on The Now Show, serving to highlight quite how much Punt and Dennis need to go away forever. His stand-up routed ranting delivery generates a pace and energy that suits topical complaining, and is most likely to score laughs when he demonstrates a genuine passion for the subject. He’s well educated, and his anger tends to be backed up by a tangible depth of knowledge. You can see producer Bill Dare’s (also responsible for creating The Now Show, and Dead Ringers) thinking when putting him in the host’s chair. And while reading out the scripted topical jokes to camera, it looks like the right choice. From a large team of writers, you can hear both Brigstock and David Quantick’s writing shining through, and for a BBC programme, the hit-to-miss ratio is impressively high.
Sadly, this all falls apart as soon as someone else enters the studio. The Daily Show sees this happen in two ways: a team of spoof news reporters, and celebrity guests. The Late Edition is making a woeful stab at the former, but interestingly has eschewed the latter in favour of bringing in unlikeable individuals from the week’s news (week one was Stephen Green from the ludicrous Christian Voice, tonight’s was UKIP spokesman Steve Harris), and then bizarre, oddball characters (Stephen Pound, bonkers Labour MP, and very strangely, chief scientist of the failed British Mars probe project, Professor Colin Pillinger). While this relieves the programme of the grinding plugs for films and books that Jon Stewart must work around on The Daily Show, you begin to wonder if that might be preferable viewing over Brigstock’s stumbling panic when realising his script isn’t going to save him. Stephen Green should have been taken to pieces. Indeed, given enough space he would have taken himself to pieces, as displayed by a supremely well-made report on Radio 4’s Today programme the same week. But he wasn’t even challenged, Brigstock not quick enough to come up with the replies that every viewer was surely shouting at their television.
However, these moments shine when compared to the disastrous attempts to mimic the guest reporter segments of its superior brother. The Daily Show has a supporting team of astonishingly fine comics, whose desert-dry wits trigger moments almost comparable to the painful delights Chris Morris was generating before he forgot how to be funny this year. The format of their presence in the studio linking to a pre-recorded film is finely rehearsed and flawless. Finest amongst the team is Samantha Bee, whose specialty is reporting on the most ridiculous local news stories of rivalries and spats as if of international importance. She takes dead-pan to a level previously unseen, viciously cruel as a satirist should be, whether interviewing a politician or the head of a campaign against hair braiding. So when Marcus Brigstock introduces Hils Barker to link her report on “what is the new?”, the comparison is necessary. And disastrous. The report is aimless and makes no attempt to satirise or comment. It wouldn’t have been out of place as a “Press Pack” item on CBBC’s Newsround, interviewing friendly BBC types like Paxman and Sophie Raworth for dull soundbites. This culminates in Barker being questioned by Brigstock about what we’d watched, in which the guest reporter giggles uselessly while the host interrupts her every sentence to say nothing of worth. It becomes enormously uncomfortable to watch, and entirely out of place in the format.
But it never gets worse than during its only deviation from the template, where Brigstock mock-interviews the charisma-free Steve Furst, in a variety of dreadful guises. Were these skits scripted, they would be very poor. But mystifyingly, they attempt to perform them during the interviews, improvising on the responses given by the bewildered guest, and are hapless, hopeless car crashes. Please, please may they drop these soon.
The failings are all the more painful because the programme presents at least some hope. Of all the formats to copy, they chose the right one, but they’ve yet to come to terms with how exceptional Jon Stewart is as a comedian and host, and success is not as simple as plopping in the most available comic they can find. If they are able to admit their limitations, and focus on the gag delivery, this might settle into something worthwhile. But it’s hard to shake the thought that they should probably give up, and install Brigstock as the permanent host of Have I Got News for You where his strengths (and indeed failings) would shine.