Seen Ten O’Clock Live, then? …Yeah. Breathlessly billed as Britain’s answer to the Daily Show, a return to the satirical standard set by 1962’s groundbreaking That Was The Week That Was and the grand guignol glory days of Spitting Image, with hype like that the show was perhaps doomed to fall short of expectations.
I’ve been more or less enjoying Ten O’Clock Live’s exuberant attempt to blend righteous indignation and political analysis with gags about Ed Balls’ surname. Britain’s current political nightmares certainly need and deserve something like it. Inevitably, there’s a lot to criticise: the show can be lightweight and facile, and its concern with playing to a broad audience can lead it to simplify complex issues and treat them in a manner often unhelpfully flippant and glib. Tonal inconsistency exists between its sporadically vicious satirical intent and the soft-soaping it tends to give when interviewing political figures. The much-vaunted live format adds little, the graphics and set make Brass Eye’s intentionally eye-bleeding credits look soothing, and the pace of the initial episode felt frenetic and rushed, as though the show’s producers didn’t trust the audience to pay attention beyond the length of a YouTube viral – although they’d hardly be unique in that.
My main concern, though, is Lauren Laverne, whose involvement I’d been avidly anticipating. Full disclosure: I was a teenage Kenickie fan, and I hoped Laverne, their former singer, would bring some of the arch wit, droll delivery and star-spangled glamour which she used to rock onstage, as well as the stridently socialist principles she used to espouse (in the run-up to the 1997 election, she wrote a politically-conscious column for the NME, and Kenickie repaid Geri Halliwell’s pro-Thatcher drivelling by succinctly denouncing the Spice Girls as ‘Tory scum’). In fairness, over ten years on, that sort of expectation was both naïve and nostalgic. While she wasn’t great, her performance didn’t have me rapt in the slack-jawed horror which appeared to be affecting some reviewers, whose critical responses to the show singled out Laverne, its only female presenter, for her allegedly pointless and tokenistic inclusion and relatively toothless comic chops.
A few of these responses betrayed problematic attitudes of their own, seeming unwilling to countenance the idea of a regional-accented blonde with an indie-pop background and glittery eyelids as anything more than eye-candy. The Telegraph’s Ed Cumming, in a review entitled ‘What is the point of Lauren Laverne?’, dismissed her as ‘northern totty’ and declared ‘it’s hard to see what, apart from the sadly obvious, she brings to the table’. The Metro described her as the show’s ‘weak link’ and claimed, less than accurately, that she ‘looked lost and confused when The XX or Mumford and Sons didn’t pop up in the headlines’. Kevin O’Sullivan in the Mirror sneered that ‘Poor token female Lauren Laverne … comes across as a bland bombshell recovering from entirely successful comedy bypass surgery’.
While I’m sure her looks and residual indie cred didn’t harm her chances, asserting that Laverne was picked for ‘northern totty duty’, able to engage with little beyond the autocue, seems overly harsh. Apart from an occasional turn on Mock the Week, Laverne’s background is in presenting and live broadcasting on the Culture Show and 6Music, and her anchorwoman role on Ten O’Clock Live is presumably based on her abilities and experience in this arena, rather than that of live comedy. The two require different skillsets and Laverne is an excellent host, introducing and concluding the show, linking pieces, throwing to break and chairing roundtable discussions. That’s what she brings to the table – she’s not a weak link, she’s the link, there to be the viewer’s guide. Unfortunately, her function as this – the show’s secretary, or Mum, or primary-school teacher – means that she’s there less to perform and more to keep the boys in order and to ask them what they think, the opinionless eye of a satirical storm whipped up by her more vocal and dynamic co-presenters.
When Laverne does step out of the secretarial role, she’s badly served by her material. The opening show’s skit in which she played an airhead newscaster may have been an attempt to play on the superficially vacuous persona which several reviewers were expecting of her, but its feeble stabs at humour reinforced the image rather than subverting it. The same was true of the recent piece in which she haplessly ‘volunteered’ backstage, a part which could have been taken by one of the male presenters to make the same point – that making public services reliant on ill-informed and inexperienced amateurs is a blatantly bad idea – without the Ditzy Provincial Blonde aspect to which her material seems wedded. Elsewhere, Laverne’s rants on corporate accountability and the Coalition’s selling-short of liberal democracy, while gobsmackingly commendable (and she clearly means it, man), impress more for rhetorical power than comic panache. In the show’s third episode she invoked the spectres of her past by quoting the Manic Street Preachers during a defence of public libraries; I loved the principles behind this piece, but it was annoyingly punctuated by lazy self-deprecating gags – she’s a girl, so she’s looking up what ‘menstruation’ means! And she’s got access to all these books, but she just wants to read something by Katie Price! – which undermined her authority to make the serious points at the sketch’s heart. Again, perhaps the idea was to knowingly play on or subvert the dumb blonde image, but Laverne is alone in resorting, or having to resort, to jokes at her own expense rather than that of the show’s purported targets. Laverne is also a mother who frequently mentions taking her kids to the local library – this angle could have been used to support her case as well as introducing nuance to her persona, but I guess motherhood would have been unsexily out of step with the show’s desired audience. In a comedy catch-22, while I’d like her to be more than the attractive anchorwoman, when she does so the material she’s given seems to reinforce the recommendation that she stick to presenting.
All this says less about Laverne’s own intelligence or ability and more about her frustrating under-use by the show’s writers and producers. To place her in this ‘straight-man’ role, and to have her as the only female, seems surprisingly regressive. We’ve come a long way from women in comedy troupes, notably the Pythons’ ‘glamour stooge’ Carol Cleveland, being little but dollybird foils. The Morris/Iannucci axis of satire particularly excelled at utilising performers like Rebecca Front, Doon Mackichan, and Gina McKee throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Since Laverne’s position as the show’s lone female exacerbates any criticism she receives, might some of this critical heat simmer down if Ten O’Clock Live featured another woman, in a performing rather than presenting role? There’s no shortage of vocal and opinionated female comics – I can think, before Googling ‘female political comic’, of Natalie Haynes, Shazia Mirza, Jo Brand, and Josie Long – whose participation might be as interesting, amusing and incisive as that of Brooker, Mitchell or Carr. But after all, once we start analysing the show’s diversity beyond gender, it becomes painfully apparent that Laverne’s fellow presenters are three middle-aged, middle-class white Englishmen in suits, all but Brooker Cambridge-educated, with the most diverse thing about them being their haircuts’ degree of aerodynamism. My problems with Laverne are symptomatic of greater problems with the show: while sometimes refreshingly radical in perspective, it’s still small-c conservative in parts.
Written for Bad Reputation last month, and now somewhat outdated. I think Laverne has settled into what she does (ie not sketch comedy) relatively well. But let it stand.