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.

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon