Posted by James Wignall Friday November 7 2008 12.21 GMT
Alas, it seems to have finally happened – Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the show that trumpeted itself knowingly as a "mildly amusing panel show", is now more often than not just, well, mildly irritating. Given that it still features the ever-dependable Phil Jupitus, and is hosted by the very talented Simon Amstell, of whom I'm a big fan, how did this happen? How did it go from being a must-see show for pretty much 12 years, to being such a pale imitation of itself that last week I actually turned off two-thirds of the way through due to exasperation?
The short answer is Bill Bailey, or rather the lack of him. The three episodes he took off in the previous series didn't seem to matter, thanks to his replacement for those shows, Noel Fielding, being fantastic value. But the decision by the producers to go down the Have I Got News for You route and use guest captains seems to have been its downfall. The absence of Bailey has rendered NMTB rudderless; with his departure, the fact that Jupitus is a nice bloke but not particularly funny is made painfully obvious, while Amstell seems increasingly uncomfortable with the burden of being the sole comedian on the show, and is less funny for it.
Iain Pattinson, a gag writer for I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, made an astute observation in his recent article paying tribute to the late Humphrey Lyttleton. He observed that NMTB is, along with Have I Got News for You and They Think It's All Over, a direct descendant of the groundbreaking Clue - a show "where the chairman appears not to want to be there and isn't too fond of either his guests or the subject matter." And this is what essentially made NMTB show funny for so many years. Like the show's original presenter, Mark Lamarr, who played the role of curmudgeonly host to perfection, Amstell, although he looks like a cherub, was just as acerbically witty and irreverant to his guests. Perhaps more so.
But what Pattinson didn't mention is that the host can't do it alone; there needs to be a method to the madness, a firm structure so that no matter how absurd the flights of fancy or diversions are, they won't turn the whole show into an unfocused mess. With Clue, the reassuring and consistently brilliant Garden, Cryer and Brooke-Taylor were there to provide the structure as much as the comedy; the chemistry between them all being down, in no small part, to them knowing each other so well. And so, with the loss of Bailey, the show has had its foundations severely compromised. Amstell looks increasingly self-conscious – the essential gung-ho confidence and lightning wit he brought to the show evaporating with every episode. On occasion he even looks slightly cowed by ballsy guests, and the constant references to the need to make the show "more exciting" reek of desperation rather than irony.
This week's episode, featuring guest captain Jack Dee, was probably the highlight of this series – thanks in no small part to the likeable and feisty Lisa Maffia. But that really is damning it with faint praise, given the nadir that was the previous instalment, featuring the woefully out-of-his-depth James Cordon as team captain and the increasingly embarrassing Germaine Greer. It was real scraping-the-barrel stuff, but only slightly worse than the preceding episodes where even Bob Mortimer and Johnny Vegas's schtick just seemed old.
I really hope NMTB finds its feet again, because at its best it really was superb television. But until the producers wise up and find a funny regular captain (harder than it sounds, granted), it will only get worse. If it's unlikely that Noel Fielding would be up for the role, there must be another big name comedian out there who would do it if the money was right. After all, with Brand's resignation and Ross's suspension without pay, the BBC as least has a bit of money to play with ...