It’s a strange time in the music business. The entire pop industry seems to be a bit lost. Much has been made of the fact that in the past month the three main Saturday morning pop programmes, TOTP Reloaded, CD:UK and Popworld (in its current form at least) have all bitten the dust.
I could hardly care less about TOTP and CD:UK, but Popworld is a different matter. It could probably have carried on for a good deal longer, but Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver have decided that it’s time to quit before the show gets too stale.
It’s good logic because the whole appeal of Popworld was that it was so refreshing. In the world of music television there is usually only space for overexcited bimbos to gaze on, gushing over the latest “brilliant” identiclone boyband, and for sycophants like Jools Holland to spew empty platitudes to the latest Radio 2 fodder on his supposedly grown-up but actually dire programme.
Popworld offers none of that. It’s easy to see why Popworld was such a slow burning success. When it was launched five years ago it was shoved away on a daytime slot on the then-fledgling E4 channel which was originally only available to one man and his dog — if they had a satellite dish. Even with its weekly Channel 4 programme it didn’t initially get much attention. Given the state of music programmes, it’s hard to get excited about the appearance of another one.
But when you were flicking through the channels, it was easy to see that Popworld was trying to be something different. More than just a pop show — a pop show that you want to watch, something that will make you laugh. I remember, for instance, some early episodes with Leigh Francis — some might not forgive Popworld for giving him a springboard, but he was genuinely funny back then. Meanwhile, Simon Amstell — who was sacked from his previous job as a presenter on Nickelodeon for being “too sarcastic” — sat on the sofa telling his funnies with one eyebrow permanently raised. Popworld was a comedy show as much as it was a music programme.
A typical Simon Amstell performance was when he recently interviewed Take That (minus Robbie Williams) who were about to embark on a reunion tour. Amstell began the interview: “This is great, but I think there’s something missing…” The members of the band looked at each other and mumbled something about Robbie Williams before Amstell chirruped, “No no no! I meant my water!”, as a bottle was passed to him.
Because of moments like that, Popworld gradually became a must-watch television programme. Criminally, (although in the past couple of years it moved to Saturday and had some late-night repeats as well) it was originally shoved away on a Sunday morning slot at about 9am on Channel 4. That made it difficult to watch many episodes. There aren’t many things that could get me up that early on a Sunday morning, but the promise of Popworld did more than a few times.
On the sofa, Simon and Miquita made its guests work hard for their respect. They weren’t prepared to paint a grin on their faces if a song was rubbish or if an interviewee was giving them banal answers. They would make a stand against it, as though they were the voice of the poor music fan who has to sift through all this crap. As this interview for The Observer reveals:
Does [Amstell] know whether or not [Simon] Cowell approves of Popworld? ‘I don’t know,’ he says, adding more firmly, ‘but I do know that we don’t approve of Simon Cowell.’
And don’t think it was just plastic pop stars who suffered on Popworld. Too many people give preening, posing indie bands the benefit of the doubt, the idea being that somehow holding a guitar makes a band less fake and harder-working. But most rock bands are just as bad as all the rest and Popworld knows it. That’s something Jools Holland could learn from them.
But it’s a bit too simplistic to say that Popworld just is a sarcastic programme and that Simon and Miquita only take the piss out of popstars. It genuinely loves music. If the music was good and the personalities were interesting, Popworld would recognise it. And the best interviews were always the ones where the guests could take the joke and play along. The Kaiser Chiefs got my respect as they always got into the spirit of the programme.
One regular feature from the recent past was Toolbox Jury, where a guest would review the week’s new pop videos by pulling items out of a toolbox (with larger tools meaning a better review). I won’t easily forget the time when one of the blokes from Bros seedily grinned as he selected his item from the toolbox and declared, “I’ll give Destiny’s Child a little screw.”
Contrast this jollity with the time when a nonplussed Gwen Stefani refused to accept Amstell’s gift of some cheese. Gareth Gates would only do a performance, not an interview. Girls Aloud, Rachel Stevens and The Kooks refused to appear on the programme ever again after uncomfortable interviews. Acts like Coldplay and Madonna were often derided for refusing to appear. Britney Spears also walked out of an interview. That’s fitting — Oliver, who was 16 when she first presented, apparently got the job because she called Spears an idiot. Easiest job interview evar!
Sometimes you could say that Amstell went too far. In recent years Popworld had grown much bigger balls, and sometimes they went further than just taking the mick as Amstell resorted to being unduly weird or offensive just to get a reaction. Was it really unreasonable for Gwen Stefani to repeatedly refuse to tickle him? And is it really such a surprise that Alex Parks reacted badly when he asked if her girlfriend had “nice honkers”?
Thankfully such instances were few and far between, and the programme worked much better when they stuck to their core ethos which Simon and Miquita explained in this article in The Observer:
‘If you don’t come in because you’re worried we’re going to take the piss then you must think we have the ammunition, so that means you think you’re shit,’ shrugs Amstell. He and Oliver recall an encounter with an unamused Ronan Keating, who they interviewed in the style of a police interrogation: ‘I put it to you that life is not a roller coaster, it’s a teacup ride, because it’s so boring.’ Oliver sighs: ‘If only he’d just relaxed and laughed, then it would have been fun.’ Quite.
Thinking about it, the Keating incident may lie at the heart of what has made Popworld so special. Watching someone like Keating bristle at silly ‘beneath-him’ questions, or Stefani sourly refusing cheese (or a ‘tickle’ from Amstell), behind their eyes it is as if they are screaming: ‘What happened to the untouchable celebrity dream? I bet Frank Sinatra didn’t have to put up with this!’ What Popworld is good at is highlighting the gulf between what celebrities want from fame (non-critical adoration, respect) and what they actually get (automatic ridicule; talking horses). How they deal with this, in situations such as they find on Popworld, has become a modern celebrity litmus test of cleverness and humour – some pass, some don’t.
All of which may sound hugely mean-spirited. You might argue that it’s pop TV, not Paxman. Their defence: it’s because they care about good pop and “proper” pop stars that they get frustrated with people such as Keating.
“When you’re coming out of an interview that’s been quite boring, you can’t really say, ‘Wow, that Rachel Stevens, what a laugh!’ The public just saw the conversation,” says Amstell.
In short, Popworld is about a genuine love of music and escaping the media world of sycophancy, banality. Why give these people an easy ride? But at the same time, it’s not about a hatred of celebrity either. Acts that could take some gentle teasing always came across well. Aloof, boring or bad bands — deserving targets — got the harshest treatment.
There can be no doubt that Amstell is the driving force behind Popworld’s distinctive nature. A year or two ago I saw Miquita Oliver presenting a Craig David special on late-night Channel 4 and it was soul-destroying. On Popworld, Craig David is one of the prime victims (a regular feature was Craig David’s DiamantÃ© Ball Bag). But on the Craig David special, Oliver was just as sycophantic as all the other boring music programmes. So it was natural that when Amstell decided to move on, Oliver had to go as well. Pretty useful for Channel 4 as well, who were probably getting worried that so many acts were refusing to appear on their flagship music show.
The new presenters are unfunnyman Alex Zane (why?) and Alexa Chung (who?). I think they must be hoping that in the haze of Saturday morning hangovers, the majority of the audience won’t notice the difference. Popworld fans will be hoping that it can somehow retain its cheeky sense of humour. But I and many others fear that it will probably be absolutely rubbish.
Let’s just hope that Simon Amstell ends up with a late-night music show!