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When 'Room 101' began, the British vogue for panel games had yet to reach the heady heights of 'Tibs and Fibs' or 'Ps&Qs', and so it found itself committed to the structure of the interview. This structure was simple. A celebrity, often 'C' list would sit opposite Nick Hancock reading off a prepared list of things they had a particular hatred for. Nick Hancock would duly produce an obvious prop to demonstrate the pet hate (you can imagine what was brought out when someone mentioned they didn't like 'Baked Beans'), Hancock would work his way through some hackneyed scripted comedy and video clips, we'd laugh or pants off, and if the item was deemed worthy of being in 'Room 101' (ie) oblivion, it'd find itself on a small conveyor belt, (which looked like it had been nicked from the 'The Generation Game', through some swishy Star Trek doors to the tune of some chart-topping inanity, usually by Black Lace. At the time, Hancock hadn't been in TV for too long and if the guest wasn't quite up to scratch (naming no names) the show sat there.
I say we laughed. We were more than likely laughing at the show rather than with it. It was must-see TV, but only because it was on after the first season of 'Friends' and the alternative was the last season of 'Roseanne' (ugh!). Much of the time you'd tune in to see how smug everyone was going to be.
This lasted, I think, three series. I say I think, because never has show been so unmercilessly repeated. So often in fact that some guests had died since their selections appeared and there is nothing funny about a dead person telling us how much he dislikes the idea of death, when we know that in a few short years . . .
The new 'Room 101' is a whole other animal. Shorn of a cast-off set from the Colin Baker years of 'Doctor Who' and given what looks like something from a west end production of 'The Borrowers' we find the erudite Paul Merton presenting. When Merton began, there was some reservations as to his ability to interview someone -anyone. This somewhat misunderstood the context of the show. Hancock never actually asked many questions. It's not deep for Richard E. Grant to tell us he doesn't like booze (or whatever - I think that was one of his). And so it goes with Mr. Merton. What he is good at it reacting to comments and creating an atmosphere were the visiting guests feels like they have to perform in order to keep up with him. And simply because improv has always been his stock (in trade?) the odd dullish guest (again couldn't think of anyone), doesn't ruin the show. And if a guest is particularly sparky (Anne Robinson, perhaps) he's sure to remind them whose show it actually is.
We laugh now, because at times it is genuinely funny, at times with the show. It's nearly must-see TV - the news or some detective drama being the alternative - marooned until a recent moved into a new Monday Night Comedy slot - and with the introduction of more light-entertainment guests (Mel & Sue being particularly good) things might just improve more.
But of course the smugness is still there - but in a nicer way. The audience is allowed to disagree. Serious and often quite poignant moments creep in (Phil Jupitus). Instead of beating about a subject its often hit with one of those giant Looney Tunes comedy mallets. And for some reason I've been agreeing with the guests more (although that could be my age).
So rather like the devil, if there is still hatred and intolerance in the world, 'Room 101' will still be there . . .
(and finally - in case anyone is wondering . . . dress codes in night clubs, Vanessa Feltz, school holidays, liver in mixed Grills from the chippie, badly designed websites, famous people with nothing to say)
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