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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era