So, farewell then, 10 O'Clock Live

Even though I liked it, I have to admit it was a flop. But why did it fail?

Do you remember the heady days of January, when every billboard in the country was graced by the beatific smiles of Charlie Brooker, David Mitchell, Lauren Laverne and Jimmy Carr?

Back then, 10 O'Clock Live was Channel 4's white-hot hope. How could it go wrong? Four well-loved television personalities, each bringing along a pre-existing fanbase. A Tory-led government to boo at. The full might of the Channel 4 PR machine. Hell, More 4 even scrapped its nightly broadcast of The Daily Show so there was no stablemate to overshadow it (probably).

Despite all this, we have to conclude that 10 O'Clock Live, which ended its run last Thursday, was a flop. The programme which inspired it, the Alternative Election Night, attracted 1.4 million viewers. By its eighth show, 10OCL, as I've arbitrarily decided to call it now to save wear and tear on my typing finger, attracted 631,900 viewers (a 4 per cent audience share). There has been a conspicious lack of chatter about a second season.

What went wrong? Here are five answers.

1. Overhype

As I pointed out here, The Daily Show (my benchmark for a good satirical show) was rubbish for years. Jon Stewart's been doing his thing there for more than a decade now, so it's no wonder that he's got it down to a fine art.

10OCL, on the other hand, was given the poisoned chalice of wall-to-wall publicity in the weeks before its launch. Yes, they did several non-broadcast pilots, but that's very different from the real thing.

As CNN found to their cost when they tried a similar strategy for the launch of Piers Morgan's chatshow, whipping up this kind of hysteria means that anything less than the televisual Second Coming will feel like a disappointment.

2. The Twitter backlash

The producers had clearly read the Big Book of Social Media Publicity, too, because they decided early on to pitch for the show as a Twitter "event", complete with its own hashtag.

But -- and I don't mean to shock anyone here -- Twitter can be quite mean. In fact, one of its less winning qualities is its capacity to turn into an extended kick-a-thon for anything the hivemind finds wanting.

The instavitriol hobbled the show, giving many people I follow the feeling that judgement had been passed, and there was no need to return for future episodes (which improved dramatically).

3. The Question Time switch-off

The show's audience was presumably intended to be politically engaged youngish people, the kind who read Mitchell or Brooker's newspaper columns and might conceivably care about AV. But those people were already watching something made for them on a Thursday night: Question Time.

It boggles my mind to say it, but QT is huge on Twitter, and attracts a much more varied audience than other political shows. By scheduling 10OCL against it, Channel 4 ensured that a decent chunk of their audience only ever watched the first half of the show, then flipped over to see who Kelvin McKenzie was shouting at this week.

4. Going Live

What, exactly, was the point of it being broadcast live? I hardly count myself as one of the yoof any more, but even I rarely watch TV programmes when they're scheduled.

To prove my point, it's worth noting that 10OCL did very good business on Channel 4's online viewing service, 4OD -- something the broadcaster itself wheeled out when questioned about the disappointing TV ratings.

As far I can see, broadcasting it live simply increased the potential for cock-ups, rogue camera swoops (there were usually a few of these per episode) and stilted filler chat.

All we'd have lost if it had been pre-recorded on a Thursday afternoon is the chance for Brooker and Mitchell to take the piss out of the first editions of the rightwing papers, but that's not exactly a scarce resource given that I seem to hear their opinions more often than my closest family's.

5. Bitesized

In my review of the first episode, I wrote: "Next week, I hope they'll focus less on cramming loads of stuff into the show and let their undeniably talented line-up go off the cuff a bit more." Unfortunately, it didn't really happen. There was always a dichotomy between the bits (Carr's monologue, Listen To Mitchell) which were the right length for the format, and those which felt hopelessly compressed.

The panel discussions, chaired by Mitchell, were the worst offenders: most degenerated into: "Soundbite. Soundbite. Angry counter-soundbite. Tension-easing gag by David Mitchell. Chortling by the crowd. The end." At least one of the three guests usually ended up hardly saying anything at all.

So, farewell, then

So there you have it. Of course, there were other annoyances -- I never got used to seeing the crowd in shot, smirking behind the presenter's left ear, and Jimmy Carr's dressing-up sketches ploughed such depths of tastelessness I'm surprised they didn't end up drenched in magma.

But what makes the show's failure so annoying is that it was, despite all this, good. There isn't much topical comedy on telly, and after this, I doubt any broadcaster will be splashing cash around to try to change that.

I don't feel too bad for the presenters (they're hardly stuck for work), or the producers (the show was backed by Endemol, where I imagine the printer uses £50 notes instead of A4 paper). I do feel bad for the writers, who must be wondering why they slaved over a hot script for 14 hours a day to general indifference, as a result of someone else's bad decisions.

Anyway, it's gone now. And I, for one, will miss it.

UPDATE: Just heard from the Channel 4 press office, who say: "The series has just finished and no decision on its future has been made. Contrary to rumour, it hasn't been cancelled." Hardly cause for optimism among fans, but I suppose there's still a glimmer of hope.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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How Serious Sweet upends our assumptions about love – and politics

A L Kennedy’s satire on Whitehall has moments which fire like gunshots across the page. A shame, then, that other parts are plain overcooked.

One of six UK-authored titles on this year’s Man Booker longlist, A L Kennedy’s eighth novel is a treatise on both the politics of love and the politics of politics. Its presence on the list is perhaps no surprise: although it was published in May, before anyone knew the outcome of the EU referendum, Serious Sweet – with shades of Nineteen Eighty-Four – is a satire on Whitehall. Timely, too, in a more literal sense, is the novel’s structural conceit of containing the narrative within a single day (flashbacks aside), which links its literary DNA with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The action focuses on two central characters, Jon Sigurdsson and Meg Williams, who stumble haplessly across the capital towards each other, teetering between civ­ilities and catastrophe. (“In case of apocalypse, take tea,” Jon quips.) A generous reliance on inner monologue – a device that Kennedy employed more frugally in her award-winning 2007 novel, Day – dilutes the plot’s tension in favour of a glutinous psychological interiority.

Jon, a scholarship boy made good, is a 59-year-old, divorced civil servant with moral capital but bankrupt emotional reserves, whose favourite place to visit is Monkey World in Dorset. Meg, a newly sober, actually bankrupt former accountant, is 45 years old and working at a home for damaged animals. Both individuals are navigating perils. Meg is undergoing treatment for precancerous growths, an experience made doubly harrowing by her refusal of anaesthetic. Jon, having stayed too long in Whitehall, providing services that he no longer believes in, is spilling secrets: he is a whistleblower. A self-confessed reality-rephraser-turned-reality-leaker, he wonders, “What is a political party? A conspiracy theory with membership cards.” Later, he decides, “Politics is just an organised and expensive way of being furious.”

They enter each other’s orbit when Jon advertises his services as a writer who, for a small fee and under the pseudonym “Mr August”, will write letters of gentle comfort to female readers. Of his readership, it is Meg who understands that her letter writer needs the immaculate kindness that he posts out. The damage suffered by both characters allows them to see each other clearly – the refrain “to see and see and see” weaves throughout the book – but also intermittently impairs emotional clarity.

They are agonised by intimacy. The closer they become, the harder away they tug. If Jon is a man who can paper over the cracks (adroitly observing of his role as a civil servant, “If you feel that you can’t quite like some part of reality, I’ll step in and rephrase it for you”), Meg “had an interest in damages, you might say; damages and gaps. They could both be educational.” Words on the page – ­written, erased, reassembled – pull them closer. Meg muses: “I can have faith in words. I like words. I like them more and fucking more.”

Amid this angst are snapshots of altruistic London life as collected by Meg: a man plucks a spinning balloon from mid-air; two women help a distressed fellow passenger at Canada Water Tube station; a father spontaneously introduces a babe in arms to everyone at a café as “Nina”. “Every time I see something good, or kind, or silly, or worth collecting, I remember it,” Meg tells Jon. These observations, lucid and laser sharp, can read like compressed versions of Kennedy’s short stories, such as those in her 2014 collection, All the Rage.

Indeed, this is an author with a proven ability to see – truly see – and whose prose can fire like gunshots across the page. Some lines are to be treasured: “The parakeets were lively already and sleeking about, flaring to a halt and alighting, an alien green that never was here before, bouncing and head cocking in dull trees.” Echoing the fineness at the heart of the book, Meg says she locates “fissures in the world’s hardness, where I can find what’s right, sweet, harmless”. Kennedy delights in seeing the world in a grain of sand, but her best, most tickling gifts lie in upending our assumptions. Lights at Harrods are “white pimples”, letters are “napalm and velvet” and, memorably, the handshake of a minister is “like being handed a warm shit in a sock”.

Aiming for high scores is not without risk. Phrases such as “Jon feeling his own sweat creeping down the back of his neck like the feet of shamed insects” tread a fine line between superb and plain overcooked. Yet Kennedy’s problems lie mostly in sustaining any kind of tautness through the course of a long book – especially when the work is largely a two-hander with an emphasis on interiority. Sometimes things turn sodden. “You find yourself disgusting, because you always do,” Meg thinks, and Jon pronounces: “I am the spineless son of a spineless man.” Voices become diluted. Jon’s voice, specifically, transitions from florid to plain to poetic in the space of a single day.

United in love, undone by their frailties, Jon and Meg make poor page-fellows. Previous works have testified to Kennedy’s faith in love, but with these two characters oscillating between sadness, pessimism and nausea, even Meg gets irritated: “She really does understand being scared – it’s not like he’s so fucking special.”

Ian Rankin once said of London, “It’s a different city if you’ve got money in your pocket.” Kennedy admirably presents this case, lobbing Molotovs at political rottenness and hollow elitism. Yet it is reasonable to expect rewards in return for readers’ time. Bloated novels are a puzzling trend. Had Serious Sweet undergone judicious whittling, its benefits would have been ­seriously sweeter.

“The Common People” by Rebecca Swirsky appeared in the collection “Best British Short Stories 2015” (Salt)

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge