Andrew Billen - Marr's the merrier

Television - A youthful egghead replaces Sir David on the sofa, writes Andrew Billen

Sunday AM

David Frost knew everyone; Andrew Marr knows everything. And so, last weekend, renaissance man succeeded the celebrity junkie on the BBC's Sunday-morning sofa, a rare instance of the media wising up rather than dumbing down. The question in Frost's final decades as an inquisitor was whether his inarticulacy and weird digressions were neuropathological in origin or, just possibly, deliberate ploys to lull his interviewees into states of complacency from which they might let slip indiscretions. Certainly, as the Waldens, Humphryses and Dimblebys fruitlessly dug and gibed, the semi-meditative state Frost induced in his victims produced, for a while, newspaper headlines his rivals would have killed for. But by last summer the game was up, and Sir David was persuaded to retire.

Marr, like Frost, is a cult figure. An unusual creature for modern television, and loved for his brain rather than his looks, his grasp of far-flung metaphor, demonstrated on many a chilly night's two-way outside Downing Street, spoke of a political editor with hinterland. The question nevertheless remained. Could he do sofa? Can an egghead do Sunday-morning folksy?

The first, eponymously Marr-initialled Sunday AM (9am, Sundays) answered the question in the affirmative, but there were moments at the beginning that gave me pause. Marr came tripping down the steps spouting about the link between Hurricane Katrina and the Kyoto Protocol. Sunday morning was a bit early to get my head round that one. The pace felt as if it was going to be breakneck, at least in comparison to Frost's. Marr introduced his interviewees on the hoof and commanded Moira Stuart, the newsreader, to tell him what her top story was. "It's the aftermath of last night's rioting in Northern Ireland," she replied, in all of ten words. By now, Marr's hands were either windmilling like Peter Snow's or getting rubbed together like Uriah Heep's.

Nothing, however, slows a chat show down so much as a batch of politely uncontroversial guests, and Marr was not especially lucky in the choice for the opening show. The new US ambassador to London, Robert Tuttle, burbled on about how he loved Britain, how all would be well in Iraq, and how Brits kept telling him they admired George Bush's "visionary leadership". Marr, as well briefed as one could hope, asked the ambassador how, in his other life as a car salesman, hybrid automobiles were selling back home. Very well, apparently. And there was nothing very Hollywood about Kevin Spacey's performance. He declared himself philosophical about the press's mauling of his flops at the Old Vic, and paraphrased his forthcoming Richard II as being "about a king who becomes a man" (which would surely get him an A* at A-level).

Marr's big set piece was with Gordon Brown, inadvertently, thanks to the Times, advertised by John Humphrys as the most boring interviewee ever. Brown began, as Humphrys complained he always does, by making a list of points, and did not flicker for a moment off-message. "Inflation has been bubbling up a little bit," suggested Marr. "Inflation has been kept under control by the judicious policies of the Bank of England," he was corrected. Marr asked about their fellow Scot, Robin Cook. Would he have had a place in a Brown government? No good speculating about there even being one, answered the Chancellor, although "we didn't value Robin's contribution enough". He wanted to say that Cook's passion had been for social justice. "More social justice in a Brown government," Marr concluded, as he stood up to say farewell. "More enterprise," corrected Brown, still sedentary. The liveliest contributions, in short, were from the paper reviewers, Ann Leslie and Alan Rusbridger - but then, that was often the case under Frost.

Barney Jones, who was Frost's producer, seems keen to emphasise his 46-year-old successor's youth and virility. The opening titles show him driving to work in a sky-blue sports car of 1960s vintage, presumably the first purchase of his fat new contract. It is quite a pad he has to come to, a fake penthouse made of grey bricks and large windows looking out on projections of a suspiciously sunny London. A small, silent, but youthful-looking audience watches the performers from around street cafe tables. The shelves are decorated with kitsch knick-knacks, including a china hen and a bust of Churchill. There is the odd reminder of the former inhabitant: books by previous guests and even a dog-eared Who's Who with the letters "FROST" felt-tipped down the side.

By the end of the show, Marr was smiling the smile of a man who knew he had been put through his paces but not put a foot wrong. Soon that Who's Who will be all we recall of his predecessor. As one would expect from someone who had to fan Frost into life over so many Sundays, Jones came up with some nice touches for Marr's debut. To fill the one gap in Marr's omniscience - sport - John Major reported live from the Oval, and the programme ended with what looked as if it might turn into a madrigal: the Chancellor, Marr, Spacey and the paper reviewers all perched round the sofa to listen to John Williams "play them out" with an unannounced piece on the classical guitar. There were no bum notes from him either.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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