TV Cream

Cream over Britain

“Live from BBC Television Centre, it’s the Tonight Show! And here’s your host…”

The almighty kerfuffle that’s been going on across the water over who should be on NBC at 11.30pm each weeknight might have passed you by.

That’s fine, and perhaps that’s how it should be; at one (hell of a) remove it’s akin to the small screen version of bald men fighting over a comb.

Nonetheless it’s the sort of thing that obsesses TV Cream, as it awakens our slumbering ire at the fact there still hasn’t been a successful equivalent to Johnny Carson and/or the Tonight Show on UK screens – both of which, preferably together, some of us can’t get enough of.

Many have tried. No, wait a minute – many haven’t tried, and that’s been the problem.

Johnny Vaughan Tonight took too much for granted: the format, the studio audience, the viewers at home. The Last Resort was funny but not topical. The Late Edition on BBC4 was topical but not funny. The 11 O’Clock Show was neither. The RDA had something of the right spirit, but was on at the wrong time and had the wrong calibre of guests. Graham Norton’s nightly Channel 4 effort had the right calibre of guests but was too niche and undignified.

And so on. There’s always been something missing, something the producers and presenters can’t quite nail or simply don’t bother striving for.

So who could do it? Who could be Britain’s version of Carson, or Letterman, or even newly-redundant multi-millionaire Conan O’Brien?

It would have to be somebody (in no particular order):
a) funny
b) intelligent
c) dignified
d) who exudes warmth
e) who looks at ease behind a desk

And they would have to get a show that was:
a) in the same slot every weeknight
b) had a decent budget
c) blessed with excellent guests
d) had a proper, i.e. not a comedy, house band

Shall we quit now? It seems a near-impossibly tall order. It might not have been so implausible, say, 20 years ago. Aspel would’ve been perfect at it; Clive James possibly, though he wouldn’t have had the warmth; Wogan might have looked discomfited behind a desk.

But today? Well, Jack Dee ticks a lot of boxes – funny, intelligent, dignified – but hasn’t exactly made a career out of being warm and affable. At least he has the same sort of background as Carson and Letterman: an entertainer. Plus he’s a mainstream figure: remember we’re after someone who’s already well-known and who’s not going to surprise anybody.

Stephen Fry has become too much of a caricature of himself to do the job, though he would’ve been great 10 years ago. Danny Baker? Probably still too prickly. Tim Vine?

The fact it’s a struggle to come up with someone reflects the absence of engaging, all-round entertainers between the ages of 40 and 60 from British television. They’ve been driven out of the business, or rather, not allowed to get in.

But then, when you think of the esteem in which Johnny Carson was held – someone an entire nation would stay up for, someone a population looked to amuse, distract and console them no matter what the day had brought – and then think of the esteem which Britain metes out to talented, intelligent, dignified telly folk, perhaps we just don’t deserve his like on our screens.



  1. annoyingmouse

    January 23, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    What no mention of Jack Docherty???

    Personally I’ve never understood what’s so great about the US late night format in the first place. Whenever I’ve watched Leno, Letterman, etc. I’ve found them to be quite dull. It’s like watching people patting themselves on the back for an hour, from the typically unamusing intros to the crappy interviews. Maybe it’s just me.

  2. annoyingmouse

    January 23, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Oh actually, I would have to admit that there’s something amusing about seeing the US late night format giving a place in the world for Bing Hitler!

  3. televisualcabbage

    January 23, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    How about someone out of left field? Perhaps, Giles Coren or even Dara O’Brien (Hope that’s how you spell it!) Can’t be worse then any other attempts!

  4. gerard-wiley

    January 24, 2010 at 12:19 am

    There’s a heap of reasons why the UK’s never really had an enduring nightly chat format. But mainly it’s the lack of ratings and commercial impact. 2330 is seen as a ‘graveyard’ slot here, but American viewers have always stayed up later. And British TV bosses will never throw big bucks at the late night schedule.

    Also- as Jack Docherty found- it’s far more difficult for a British show to generate 5 nights of decent guests. That’s why we’ve stuck to weekly chat shows.

    I reckon “V Graham Norton” (2002-3) was by far the best attempt to date at a daily show…but I remember Norton moaning afterwards how it took its toll on him.

  5. Mark Jones

    January 25, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    I think the main reason UK chat shows are never quite as slick is that the US networks throw an absolute shedload of money at staffing their late night shows. While watching an episode of The Tonight Show last week, I noted a twelve-strong writing team in the end credits, with most of the scripted content of the show being restricted to the opening monologue and early NBC-bashing pieces. And yet, going by the figures at, the likes of The Tonight Show and Late Night With Letterman generally attract between three to four million viewers per night. That’s around the same audience (slightly less, even) than Friday Night With Jonathan Ross gets over here, despite Ross having about one-fifth of the potential audience. Admittedly, with so many competing shows on at the same time, the viewers are going to be spread out accordingly, but it’s not as if all the major broadcasters would take that route here.

    As for who could realistically pull off a Tonight Show on this side of the pond – it’s slightly odd that in the US, talk show hosts have traditionally been comedians (again, Leno, Letterman, Conan, the great Johnny Carson, even Jack Paar), whereas here, if anything, they’ve tended to be former disc jockeys (Wogan, Chris Evans) or regular TV presenters (Ross, Johnny Vaughan). The notable exception to that would be Jack Docherty, who as mentioned above by Gerard W, was hindered by few guests really wanting to appear on Channel 5 after 11pm (and, truth be told, some really weak material).

    Another thing I’d note is that the successful US hosts tend to have been already experienced when starting at their Really Big Shows. Here, when the format has been tried, we’ve ended up with people perceived as box-tickingly ‘hip’ (Norton, Vaughan, Docherty), when maybe it’d have made more sense to try someone already popular with a wide range of viewers (as the Beeb did with Wogan, of course). I was too young at the time to really remember it now, but the memories I do have of Lord Boob Monklouse’s BBC Two Monday night chatshow are good ones. If such a show was being put out in the early to mid-90s, Bob Monkhouse would have been perfect. Affable, quick-witted, intelligent – he could have been ‘our’ Johnny Carson.

    Who is there like that now? It’s tricky to say, but if there was to be (say) a twice or thrice weekly US-style talk show, and we wanted a crochety old Letterman type to front it… it’d be nice to say “Barry Cryer”, but he’s probably a bit too old. Arthur Smith, anyone?

  6. Richard Davies

    January 25, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Jonathan Ross’s show is probably the closest to The Tonight Show at the moment.

    Chat shows seem to be very hit & miss, Davina McCall’s recent effort took a mauling by the press before being taken off air.

    I liked the Kumar’s mix of interviews & comedy.

    Harty was fairly good by mid 1980s standards, though it’s mostly remembered for Russell being clobbered by Grace Jones.

    I was trying to remember the show that Danny Baker did in the 1990s that was very close to David Letterman’s show in format.

    For lots of info on The Tonight Show:

  7. MartS

    January 26, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Danny ‘Candyman’ Baker, in my opinion, did the best Letterman-by-numbers show of recent times.

    Danny Baker After All, even had the set nailed down to the Letterman style of the NBC days (city backdrop behind desk and sofa only with more brighter colours than Dave’s nightime lights in the gloom) and the format aped it pretty closely (topical monologue, using people around TVC to do filmed set pieces, guest1, desk based jokes, guest2, more fooling around, music act, end credits), he even had a house band stage left, led by one Dr. Mark Kermode.
    For some reason, the Beeb didn’t like it and reformatted it to become ‘The Danny Baker Show’ dropping the stunts and Americanized gags to become a boring post-Match of the Day chat show, and dropped after one series.

    Bakers last proper solo tv venture though was another Letterman idea lift – Pet’s Win Prizes was effectivley the ‘Stupid Pet Tricks’ segment of ‘Late Night’ minus the chat show afterwards. He did one series, and then Dale Winton was brought in a host and sadly the fun nature and sarcasum of the Baker led show was removed and it was suffocated without it.

    I still have my ‘Danny Baker After All’ tee-shit after I sent in something, that amused me at the time – he never used it on air though…

  8. televisualcabbage

    January 27, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Like my brother MartS! He sent in a B&Q advert out the local paper, all the people in it had a twin in the same drawing! Candyman, yes please!

  9. David Pascoe

    January 28, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    I agree with annoyingmouse. Unless the guests are much good (or Jim Carrey), the shows are often quite dull.

    Bill Maher’s Real Time (while not a mainstream show) knocks them all into a cocked hat.

  10. Richardpd

    April 13, 2024 at 4:14 pm

    Ben Elton is another possibility, probably in the 1990s after he moved on from his angry young man phase & wasn’t writing as much of the BBC’s light entertainment output. Certainly he was able to interview people, as that clip of him chatting to a railway memorabilia collector shows.

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