10 O’Clock Live is back. One of 2011’s most anticipated programmes has become one of 2012’s least-looked forward to second series. Even Channel 4 took six months of humming and hawing to decide whether or not to bring it back. Their hesitation is understandable. On paper, the show should be brilliant. It has Lauren Laverne, the sassiest presenter on British television: Charlie Brooker, the most acerbic; David Mitchell, the most astute; and if you want a borderline joke about anal sex, then Jimmy Carr is very much the go-to man. Yet somehow, this supposed comedy dream team has turned out a programme that garnered as few viewers as it did glowing reviews.
How so? The answer lies in the fact that the 10 O’Clock Live presenters are less of a dream team and more the latest example of that wonky old seventies cliché: the supergroup. The supergroup is a hoary old concept that, like the supertax and Abba’s Super Trouper, and should have stayed in the historical dustbin where it belongs. Yet like a dodgy kebab, the supergroup keeps on coming back, as though each new generation has to discover for themselves why it doesn’t work.
The origins of the supergroup are found in late sixties rock music, when someone came up with the apparently brilliant wheeze of pulling together the best elements of different bands, in order to produce one supposedly fabulous new entity. The archetypal outfit was the aptly named Blind Faith, which united a post Cream Eric Clapton, a post-Traffic Steve Winwood, another post-Creamite Ginger Baker and former Family bassist Rick Grech. The concerts sold out before anyone had heard a single note, which was probably just as well as the group’s solitary LP failed to live up to the sky high expectations. The group’s only contribution to musical history is to have come up with the worst album cover of all time: a topless photo of a not especially attractive pubescent schoolgirl.
The supergroup is a hoary old concept that, like the supertax and Abba’s Super Trouper
The supergroup quickly became shorthand for a bunch of talented musicians getting together and showing off to each other how virtuoso they were at their instruments. The more fun it was for them, the less it was for the audience. The seventies offered up such delights as prog-rock trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, where former members of Nice, Rooster and King Crimson wondered what a rock version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition would sound like. The eighties gave us the Power Station, where Robert Palmer, the drummer from Chic and half of Duran Duran had a shoulder-padded karaoke bash through ‘Get it On’. More recently, the band Superheavy answered the question no one was asking: what would it sound like if Mick Jagger, Joss Stone and Dave Stewart got together for a jam?
Yet despite the concept of the supergroup having singularly failed to produce a single decent record of note, the idea has somehow found traction and spread to other areas, with equally disappointing results. Take sport, for example. In the 1990s, Real Madrid launched their infamous galacticos transfer policy, which consisted of buying as many outrageously brilliant forwards as they could and spending as little as possible on defence. The resulting unit, boasting the talents of Ronaldo, Zidane, Beckham and Figo might have sold a lot of replica shirts, but didn’t exactly leave the trophy cabinet bulging. Over the pond in the United States, a similar scenario occurred in basketball: at the 2004 Olympics, the US ‘dream team’ of NBA all-stars seemed nailed on for gold; instead, they found themselves beaten by such basketball giants as Puerto Rico and Lithuania.
10 O’Clock Live is essentially no different to Real Madrid’s galacticos or Eric Clapton’s Blind Faith. The individuals involved are all at the top of their game, but that’s not what creating a stand out team, dream or otherwise, is all about. In his 1990s book ‘Friends in High Places’, Jeremy Paxman describes spending a weekend observing the Conservative Party selecting prospective MPs. What astounded him was that far from picking the top candidates, several of ‘unremarkable calibre’ got the nod instead: ‘The assessors explain that they are not looking for the best; ‘that’d be hopeless. We’d end up with 350 MPs who all wanted to Prime Minister.’’
You might argue that explains a lot about modern politics. You’re probably right. But I think in that assessment, there’s an understanding about what is required to make a successful team: one person in charge, and everyone else there to back him or her up. In football terms, the key to every great side is not the star striker, but the Claude Makelele or Didier Deschamps-style ‘water carrier’: the midfielder who sits back, breaks up the opponent’s attacks and pushes his team forwards with the simplest of passes. If you stuff a band with great musicians, then everyone will want to have a solo: that’s why Oasis had Bonehead, U2 Adam Clayton and the Fab Four Ringo Starr – not even the best drummer in the Beatles, as Lennon caustically noted. The great comedy double acts, meanwhile, rely not on two laugh-out-loud comedians, but a joke teller and a straight man. You wouldn’t have rushed out to see ‘An Evening With Ernie Wise’, but in helping get Eric Morecambe his laughs, the man was indispensable.
What Channel 4 should really have done is to follow the formula of America’s The Daily Show
That’s the problem with 10 O’Clock Live: it’s four (ok, three and a half) brilliant individuals, each doing their own, individual headline thing: literally disproving the coalition’s claim that we’re all in it together. Brooker is his usual acidic self, even if you know that were he was still doing ‘Screen Burn’ he’d be taking the show apart; David Mitchell is equally sharp, even if his main contribution is essentially just reading his Observer column to camera. But who’s the main guy? Where’s the focus? It’s like Ronaldo passing to Figo, flicking it on to Zidane and, oh bugger, everyone’s switched over to watch the Kardashians.
What Channel 4 should really have done is to follow the formula of America’s The Daily Show. They should have built the programme around one central Jon Stewart figure (any of the above, bar Jimmy Carr), and backed him or her up with a supporting cast of budding John Olivers and Samantha Bees. Actually, what Channel 4 should really have done is to have used the money spent signing up such high profile names in not cancelling The Daily Show in the first place. To have that back on our screens instead: now that really would be super.
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