‘Cringe!’ said Boy, after I’d exposed him to a few seconds of last week’s special nostalgia edition of TFI Friday. And he did have a point. From its once almost-daring name to its zany title graphics to its whatever-happened-to guest list (Shaun Ryder, Blur, Ewan McGregor), Chris Evans’s irredeemably Nineties game show now looks so dated and impossibly remote you might as well be looking at an early episode of Face to Face with John Freeman, or The Black and White Minstrel Show or Muffin the Mule. Gosh, time is cruel.
But it was great at the time, right? No, it wasn’t, actually. I watched this one-off revival mainly to remind myself why I almost never watched it when it was on originally. Very quickly I remembered. Because it was shit.
Why was it so shit? Well, there’s material for several PhD theses there, but I think what it boils down to is partly the awkward atmosphere — like turning up at the beery barbecue of a leery neighbour and instantly regretting it. And mainly to the eerie mediocrity of its presenter Chris Evans, who rose without trace in the early Nineties to become one of the era’s most ubiquitous, overpromoted and best-paid ‘personalities’ without any of us really understanding why.
With hindsight, the answer seems fairly obvious. He was commercially astute, incredibly pushy and brimming with bold and novel format ideas, as he demonstrated on shows such as Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. In the penultimate episode, Evans announced that if the studio contestants won their exotic holiday, then he would take the entire audience for a week’s holiday at Disneyland, Paris. They did win: so off to Paris everyone went.
Strip away all the whacko stunts and amusing wheezes, though, and what you’re left with basically is a host with only three noticeable qualities: big glasses, carrot-coloured hair and a ready laugh. Evans learned his trade as a sidekick to Timmy Mallett on Manchester’s Piccadilly radio; but compared even with Mallett, Evans has a hinterland so shallow it makes Peter Andre look like Madame Bovary.
Quite simply, on pretty much any subject other than fast cars he has almost nothing of interest to say. Which lack of threatening intellect, of course, rendered him perfect for an era so vapid that Oasis were widely accepted as the new Beatles, and in which Tony Blair was promoting this marvellous new place called ‘uni’, where everyone could go and read Windsurfing and My Little Pony studies at some grandiosely renamed former polytechnic and be guaranteed a well-paid ‘graduate’ career in the bold, new, forward-looking, history-free Britain.
Here’s Evans in action, from last Friday’s edition, reading out a tweet from an alleged viewer. ‘Stop effing around,’ Evans begins, before adding cheekily, ‘I’m paraphrasing there.’ Which might have worked, just about, if we hadn’t seen the actual tweet reproduced on the screen. It said: ‘Stop effing around.’ Not a paraphrase then.
Am I being horribly snobbish? You bet I am. But it’s not that I’m arguing that all TV presenters should be fellows of All Souls: just that they should have a glimmer of personality or a hint of talent or some mildly unconventional take on the world. Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden can sing and act; Jonathan Ross is a twinkly-eyed naughty boy; Jeremy Clarkson (please, God, let it not be true that Evans is replacing him on Top Gear) is a shameless reactionary with self-parodic vocal mannerisms; Alan Carr (and various others) are flamboyantly camp. Evans’s schtick is that he’s on TV and radio a lot. Sorry, not impressed.
Just time to say how very much I’ve been enjoying Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, now drawing to the end of its run on BBC1 (Sundays). If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, read no further: just buy the box set and give yourself a treat. If, on the other hand, you’ve stuck it this far, you’ll probably agree that it has been one of the best treats on TV this year this side of Game of Thrones.
Among the highlights: the shabby Georgian chic; the spectacular production values, notably last week’s extraordinarily well-realised Battle of Waterloo; the Peninsular War zombies; the superb ensemble acting, perhaps above all by Marc Warren as the sinister Gentleman; the utter plausibility with which Susanna Clarke melds real history with gothic magical fantasy; the way so much seems to happen in each episode, leaving you as disturbed and enchanted and ensnared as if you’d been transported to the dark Escher-meets-Gormenghast realm of the Raven King himself and were trapped in a waltz lasting all eternity…