Put the Now Show out of its mediocrity

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The show was great but is now banal and complacent. It’s time for Radio 4 to ditch it.

I can understand why the commissioners at Radio 4 want to keep the Now Show going. It’s an institution. It began airing when Clinton was in the White House and has clocked up a remarkable 44 series since. It is one of the channels most recognisable programs and the live recordings are very popular. And most of all it has produced some phenomenal comedy.

Take this wonderfully vitriolic skit about BT by Marcus Brigstocke:

Or John Finnemore cutting to the core of the Eurozone crisis in the funniest way possible:

Or loads of stuff from Mitch Benn:

Nonetheless, the show’s existence should not be dragged out into a second Clinton presidency. When I listen to new episodes my main impression is how stale it’s become. After two decades, Punt and Dennis seem to be on autopilot and lacking in new ideas. A joke whose punchline can’t be guessed by the halfway point is a rarity indeed.

I meant to write this piece a week ago. However, last week’s episode made so little impact that by the time I began drafting, I’d forgotten what was in it. So this week I made a particular effort to remember what I heard. And you know what? I still can’t find much to say about it. It keeps going for half an hour because it needs to not because it wants to. The best part was Mitch Benn returning for a song about the recent spate of celebrity deaths but it felt like something produced by a Mitch Benn tribute act rather than the man himself. In recent years the best parts of episodes have often been the guest comedians. This week Jessica Ransom had some good material about Sam Smith incorrectly claiming to be the first LGBTQ person to win an Oscar and she was the only person to bring any sense of freshness (or indeed diversity to the proceedings). But she meandered and was undermined by her doubts about whether or not to skewer her subject. For the remaining twenty or so minutes Punt and Dennis just seemed to be avoiding dead air. They seemed out of their depth trying to do a Stewart/Colbert style interview with an academic expert on AI. Overall, it just reinforced my impression that the show now aims for polite chuckles rather than proper laughs, and can only get those with jokes that are apparently delivered by rote.

Despite this the Now Show remains one of the greatest shows in Radio 4’s history. Nonetheless, if something has ‘Now’ in the title, it can’t seem stuck in the past. If Punt and Dennis have mentally checked out, they should be encouraged to actually do so. The Now Show might seem like a dependable staple but these days its achieving consistency mostly in mediocrity. It’s time for the BBC to go on the hunt for a new format with some new talent and a renewed edge.

Why we love Radio 4 (Predator Drone edition)

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The US drone strikes against the militants in northern Pakistan are one of those rare policy questions on which I don’t really have an opinion. I’m just not sure I understand it well enough to come down on one side or another.

So I was fascinated by this morning’s edition of Broadcasting House. First, it had an interview with a drone pilot about what it was like to commute from Las Vegas to the front line on a daily basis. That was followed by Owen Bennett Jones explaining how Pakistan is more divided on the drone strikes than is generally appreciated in the west. The elites in the Punjab loathe the intrusion on Pakistan’s sovereignty. However, Jones suggests that the majority of people living in the Tribal Areas are quite content to see the CIA kill the militants terrorising their communities.

This seemed to me like a distillation of what is best about Radio 4: informative, interesting and not serving you up a pre-packaged opinion.