John Walker's Electronic House

Guest Host Syndrome

by on Mar.10, 2009, under Rants

There’s a question that affects all our viewing lives, and yet no one gives it the attention it desperately deserves. Why is the BBC so absolutely incapable of picking new hosts for its TV and radio programmes? Since 2002, when Angus Deayton’s penchant for privately hired ladyfriends saw him fired from Have I Got News For You, the network has become riddled with this Guest Host Syndrome, rendering them incapable of making a single decision.

The most recent example comes with the announcement that the Beeb won’t let elderly, painfully infirm I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue die with any of the dignity it might have left. Instead it’s to be wired up to wheezing pumps and machines, forcing its feeble organs to keep huffing and puffing through painstakingly scripted gags, into some unspecified future. It’s presenter, Humphrey Littleton, sadly died last year, but this is apparently not recognised as a graceful opportunity to move on. So who is to replace the enormously loved Humph? Naturally, a rotating roster of guest hosts.

Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and the man almost single-handedly responsible for making QI unwatchable, Rob Brydon, will be tag-teaming the new series due to be heard this summer.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue has remained reasonably similar over its 37 years – a series of silly rounds in which the panellists offer horrible puns, ridiculous songs, and chase down the elusive Mornington Crescent. Similar, but for the cast having aged by an enormous 37 years. What began as a reasonably smart, semi-improvised spoof of the panel game format, for the last decade has sounded like someone hid a microphone in the lounge at a palliative care home. They’re visited by grandchildren like Jeremy Hardy, Andy Hamilton and Paul Merton, who shout their modern jokes into the curly horns jutting from the ears of the surviving regulars.

It’s probably a cliché to point out that it hasn’t been the same since Willie Rushton died, but it hasn’t been the same since Willie Rushton died. His sense for nonsense balanced out the Barry Crier-bot’s ghastly mechanical joke telling, Tim Brooke-Taylor’s embarrassing, “Ummm… how about…” fake pauses before delivering his line from the piece of paper in front of him, and Graeme Garden’s sleepy indifference. Of course, what kept it all tolerable, even outweighing the braying lunacy of the audience clapping like demented seals at the sound of any English word they’d heard before, was Humph’s script. Listening to the increasingly decrepit old man saying by far the most filthy things Radio 4 would broadcast outside Woman’s Hour, was undeniably entertaining. But now, very sadly, he is dead. And with him, surely everything bearable about the programme died too.

There’s nothing wrong with Fry or Dee, obviously. Both are extremely talented and funny men. ISIHAC, however, has been a horrible ordeal for many years, and a change of host isn’t going to address that. Perhaps a complete reformat, a new regular panel that doesn’t require ablutionary changing during recording, and one, dedicated new host, would do the trick. But then that was called The 99p Challenge and went out during the 90s.

What generates this fear of inserting a new host? Perhaps it’s the fear of audience disapproval. If they were to announce that surly Jack Dee was the new presenter, there’d be outcry from a tiny group of listeners who didn’t think him wholly appropriate. Choose Fry, or Brydon, and the same thing happens. So rather than face three weeks of noise from ludicrous fusspots, there’s an attempt to placate everyone by promising it will be different next time.

If, an astonishing seven years ago, the BBC had announced that, say, Marcus Brigstock was to be the new host of Have I Got News For You, people would have clattered and moaned that they’ll never like it again, until halfway through the series when they’d forgotten it had ever been otherwise. Look at University Challenge. Paxman’s appointment occurred before Guest Host Syndrome had become endemic, and people coughed up their lungs in horror. They then promptly forgot it was ever presented by Bamber Gascoigne, and would threaten your children with a knife if you suggested taking Paxman away. Watching an old episode with the curly haired prof at the helm is faintly laughable now. He’s not sneering at them! What’s wrong with him?

This rapid desperation to appease every viewer at every moment is a feature of the ruinous anxiety disorder that’s crippling every channel from every network. They’re so overwhelmed by the belief that they’re obliged by God and government to make every single person in the country collapse in paroxysms of bliss every time they switch on a television, that they’re too frightened to do anything.

However, all evidence suggests that appointing someone, inevitably initially unpopular, is always the right answer. Never Mind The Buzzcocks came perilously close to being yet another guest host-presented BBC regular. Fortunately, before bloody Boris Johnson had his inevitable turn, Simon Amstell’s remarkable effort was apparently enough to convince someone somewhere to take the plunge. By ignoring the outcry that a very young youth TV presenter would be replacing kiwi-faced tower of hate, Mark Lamarr, it’s become the only must-watch panel show left on the channel.

We need the BBC to make decisions. We need them to act like an authority figure, the parent who knows full well we don’t want to go to bed before 9pm, but that we’ll have a much better time at the theme park tomorrow if we’ve had a good rest. These desperate attempts to placate the whining few are creating a disjointed, clumsy atmosphere. Pick a host, tell the audience to shut up and live with it, and then laugh behind your sleeves when the idiots forget it were ever otherwise.

21 Comments for this entry

  • Seniath

    “If, an astonishing seven years ago, the BBC had announced that, say, Marcus Brigstock was to be the new host of Have I Got News For You …”

    Can I live in that alternate history please?

  • andrew

    I agree with every point, except that ISIHAC was going downhill before Humph died. Maybe it’s because I only came to the show a few years ago, but I still found it fresh and entertaining.

    And I always enjoyed Crier’s horny old man laugh that would sometimes roar in the background.

  • Alex Hopkinson

    Hmmm, Buzzcocks has become pretty dreary since Bill Bailey left though.

  • Theoban

    Are rotating hosts better than a bad host though? The News Quiz has decreased in quality since Sandi Toksvig took over (mainly in part because she insists on being the focus point for comedy instead of enabling the panel to be funny). Maybe a Guest Host situation wouldn’t be too bad in this case?

    Or just give it to Mark Steel.

    In fact just give him his own 30 minute Mark Steel rant show each week.

  • John Walker

    Yeah, Alex, that’s a good point. They caught Guest Captain Syndrome once Bailey went. Although I’d argue against its becoming being dreary. Bailey was always in the background.

  • Martin

    GHS isn’t so much the syndrome as just one symptom of the Beeb’s increasingly craven behaviour. The machinations of pro-privatisation goons in government and the commercial interest of their competitors has been prodding the Beeb into a corner for the last decade. Move one way and it panders to the mass-market, producing the kind of commercially appealing guff that little warrants the licence fee. Move another and they are accused of elitism, the drop in viewing figures being used to suggest active disenfranchisement of the people who pay for them. This latter argument is total shite, but rings like tinnitus in the press. The BBC absolutely should be making programs that don’t pursue viewing figures – because that’s what its unique role as a public service broadcaster allows it to do. It has the opportunity to serve the public in the ways that a commercial enterprise cannot, and, to some degree, as you say, it can act like the wise old Auntie. The BBC can be the best ambassador for this country and a champion of quality unmarred by commercial compromise. But, sadly, I foresee it slowly being sabotaged and ultimately carved into privately owned, commercially motivated pieces.

  • Del Boy

    You don’t like Rob Brydon?

    You’re weird, man.

  • mister_arnold

    I’d be quite happy if the Now Show had guest presenter syndrome. And guest participant syndrome. And guest format syndrome. And a few moments of satire.

    And agree, Buzzcocks is as predictable as ISIHAC and the Now Show.

    So Botherer, hurry up and get your comedy on the airwaves.

  • Joe

    Bill Bailey’s absence has been noticed in QI too, although that’s pretty minor compared to the real problem at hand with the program. I can’t help but think that the move to BBC1 has blunted the series a bit, and Fry, Davies and the regular guests (Sean Lock, Jo Brand, etc) seem to be coasting though it without really putting in much effort these days, while a lot of the irregular guests (Charlie Higson and Hugh Dennis spring to mind) just don’t seem to fit in. Such a shame.

  • John Walker

    I do not believe for one second that you could have predicted Simon’s rising chair in Buzzcocks. Thus I win.

  • Juliet

    I don’t like Rob Brydon either.

  • Masked Dave

    Since when did two occurrences SEVEN YEARS APART count as a syndrome? Your anger bemuses me.

    Personally I like all three presenters and am looking forward to being able to enjoy each of their goes.

    It’s a half hour of chuckles and smiles on the drive home from work, it is possible to just switch to something else if its not for you. Like I do every Thursday for that bloody awful Old Harry’s Game.

  • Ian

    When John goes on holiday RPS should have a series of “Guest Walkers” taking his place writing gaming entries for the site. Such as Murray Walker.

  • Bobsy

    Can’t agree with you on your smashing of Clue, but you’re spot on about the whole guest presenter thing. It’s utterly irritating. Everyone – EVERYONE – thought that Alexander Armstrong was the ideal host for HIGNFY, but the insistence to keep a rotation meant it just meant we got filled up on Jeremy Clarkson and a slew of retired news anchors, who the writers thought it hilarious to have deliver low-grade innuendo.

    And lest we forget, it was the rotation on HIGNFY that elected Boris bloody Johnson to the office of Most Powerful Tory.

    To be honest though, the era of the panel show is fading. Simon Amstell is perfectly funny on Buzzcocks, but he’s not hosting a talk show, not a panel game. HIGNFY lost its edge a good seven years ago and even Mock The Week is starting to look like it’s stagnating.

    If New Clue turns out to be utterly awful with its guest hosts, just think how much worse it will be when Nicolas Parsons pops his clogs. There’s no way the Beeb will let Just a Minute die, which should have happened some time ago.

  • EGTF

    I think the beeb relies on the captains Merton and the hateful Hislop to be the anchors of the show rather than the host. I’d rather they had a stable host, though occasionally I like the choices they come up with like Tom Baker. Buzzcocks is different nowadays but immensley enjoyable on a whole new level. My favourite moment has to be Simon’s retort of “I’m a jew!” to when that woman threw water on him saying “Christ compells you”.

    For the radio I do still quite like the news quiz and the now show, as well as the unbeliveable truth and does the team think. Just a minute I think is the best of them but that’s just personal opinion, ISIHAC I could never finish listening to. If they’re so afraid of people not liking the new host why dont they create a new programme with a similar format, as opposed to filling dead men’s shoes.

    Entirely unrelated but it amuses me when people get so riled up about Clarkson, as that’s pretty much the point of his humour. He’s not good off script with banter though, it’s really his rants and absurd statements that make him amusing.

  • John Walker

    I’m really surprised by all the ISIHAC love. Between Barry Cryer’s lousy showing off, Tim Brooke-Taylor’s painful pretences that he’s not reading from the script handed to him, and Graeme Garden’s clear boredom, I don’t know how it can be anything other than excruciating. Jeremy Hardy’s avant guarde singing was funny for a while, a few years back, but has now become yet another weary piece of repetition.

    But most of all, it’s the screeching stupidity of the audience that makes it too awful to listen to. A few years back, when there would be a gleeful whoop at the announcement of Mornington Crescent, I was on board. Now the same Pavlovian hollering happens at the naming of each and every tiresome round. Shitting themselves with convulsions of pleasure because it’s sodding Swanny Kazoo – good grief, it’s worse than Any Answers for making me want to release a lethal bacteria across the entire country. Screaming like 13 year olds at a Jonas Bros. concert because they’re going to torture us for up to ten minutes with One Song To The Tune Of Another. No. Just no.

    Someone explain to me how that programme is possibly defensible.

  • Pace

    Calm down a bit, the pigeon scene is surely going somewhere. As all the rest of that caprica stuff must. Have faith! If we hold out till next week, I’m sure we’ll see that that pigeon is an angel from god or a harbinger of death or a harbinger of life or a harbinger of small city dwelling birds or something. But yeah I wish they’d get around to the business of letting us know what’s going on.

    (sorry, me no tweet, yet see your updates over yonder and feel need to reply…)

  • Fat Zombie

    Great. Now I feel bad for enjoying the recent series’ or ISIHAC and the Now Show.

    Won’t you let me enjoy ANYTHING, you sour-faced lot? If not these, then what is there to enjoy? I’d like to know what I should be enjoying instead.

  • Bobsy

    I listened to some old Now Shows last night, circa 7/7 bombings. I was amazed at how much funnier they were. I’d always assumed that the Now Show was forever the runt of the litter, but now I’m less certain. Perhaps… perhaps even John Holmes was capable of being not-rubbish.

  • NM

    The Now Show from 7/7? I imagine the effective thrust of the limp-wristed liberalism on the show is that We All Had It Coming?