It’s the point!

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In 1993, my then-partner Stuart Maconie and I had a meeting in a loud Chinatown pub that’s since changed its name and become a gay bar (actually, maybe it was always a gay bar but we didn’t notice) with a gigantic, enterprising young television writer and an also-fairly-tall, equally enterprising comic actor, both in their early, postgraduate 20s. (We were both nearer to 30.) They had an idea for a radio show in which Stuart and I would play our broadcasting selves, or versions of our broadcasting selves, and the comic actor – whose name we took to be David Williams, but which he’d just changed to Walliams to avoid a clash at Equity – would play a parade of people who called in. It was a genial meeting. We were keen. We liked the men. They seemed to like us. The idea never went to the next stage, and other meetings and projects got in the way for all four of us. At the time, Stuart and I were most excited about having met the writer, Richard, who we discovered was the younger brother of Suede’s bassist Mat Osman. Mat was very much the famous Osman in 1993, and Stuart and I knew Suede well. Look! (Mat isn’t in this photo, but you get the gist of our familiarity with the younger, cooler, arseless gentlemen of Britain’s most happening band.)

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We crossed paths with the less famous, non-bass-playing Osman a year or so later, when we were put up for an audition by our new showbiz agent. This took place at the production company Heyland International, who made the computer game show GamesMaster and were looking for two new presenters for a similar but nightly show called GamesWorld. Richard worked there as a researcher – his first proper job in TV, I have since learned. If we took his presence as a lucky charm, we were wrong to do so. We gave it our best shot, commentating on some gameplay, but even though Stuart and I loved playing on the NES in my flat, we were out of depth.

All of which makes me feel a lot older, and dovetails nicely into an appreciation of Pointless, the BBC daytime quiz show that has recently passed its 1,000th edition and leaves all other daytime quiz shows in the dust. While surely nobody could object to the ease with which Alexander (“Xander”) Armstrong has slipped into the role of quiz show host, it is the high regard and public profile Pointless has bestowed upon Richard Osman that is its most important and unexpected achievement. He was, after all, a backroom boy at Endemol UK, the production company which conceived the format and according to origins fable only filled in as co-presenter in a demo for the BBC. (Execs liked him so much, they commissioned him into the format. Had he not been, he would still be one of the six who can lay claim to the format.) Quiz show hosts are traditionally drawn from the pool of recognisable entertainment figures, usually comic – think of Bob Monkhouse, Terry Wogan, Les Dawson, Bruce Forsyth, Lily Savage, Chris Tarrant, Bradley Walsh and even, latterly, Mark Williams and Mark Benton – but in the case of Pointless, a star has been born.

I have my Mum and Dad to thank for getting me hooked on Pointless. Each time I go back to Northampton to visit them and stay overnight, I willingly succumb to their routine of catching up with their favourite shows, which includes Pointless, The Chase and Only Connect, but it’s the former that proved the revelation. Its low-key geniality is deceptive; this is a true test of general knowledge in pairs and singly that’s about so much more than getting the “right” answer. While the early rounds, which eliminate two out of the four opening pairs of pals, siblings, relatives and partners, can be built around a straightforward binary right-or-wrong answer to the clue, anagram or picture, the best are those that offer up a potential pool of answers, such as US Presidents whose surname comes alphabetically between Bush and Reagan. The “pointless” part is the pivot – indeed, its “point”; whatever the composition of each round (or “pass”), the more obscure your answer, the less points you notch up.

I have been attached to Pointless for a long time now – although I cannot claim to have been in at the ground floor (a claim I cannot make for The Great British Bake Off, or Masterchef: The Professionals either, but both became staples once I saw the light) – and once you’re in, there are repeats and Celebrities editions to catch up with. It’s the gift that goes on giving. While it’s fun to see the celebrities paired up in themed shows, it’s the civilian shows that really describe the comfort and joy of the format. As the world gets darker – and I can’t remember a time since the 80s when it felt so irredeemably insane – Pointless becomes ever more of a beacon.

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It’s eight affable people who, whether academic or self-taught, take sufficient note of the world around them to take an educated guess at some assorted subjects (“Words” “Famous People” “Countries”), be they celebrities or non-celebrities – and in fact, the non-celebrities are nearly always more impressive, if not, in the case of sportspeople, more competitive. (Rhona Cameron is one of very few celebs to actually embarrass themselves on the show by being too triumphant, and for failing to stay on her mark.) When Pointless began, in 2009, the world was a much happier place. As events have ground grimly on in the intervening years, its place in the world seems ever more vital to our sanity. Even after a hard day at the coalface of sanity in the face of almost insurmountable vulgarity, avarice and violence, Pointless calms the nerves. The banter between Armstrong and Osman – warm, spontaneous, genuine, without malice – is a balm for a broken world.

The duo are co-hosting this year’s Radio Times Covers Party next week. After the ceremony, I shall be accosting that young researcher in person and volunteering for the next Pointless Celebrities with a radio theme. I got two pointless answers in the final last night – cast members of the film Rush.

If only Osman and Armstrong could co-host Earth.

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It takes a game man

Did Gregg Wallace really say this on last week’s finale of Celebrity MasterChef (BBC One)? “It’s a gay man who comes on to a final of MasterChef and does octopus.”

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No. It turns out he didn’t. But it sounded like he did when he said, “It’s a game man who comes on to a final of MasterChef and does octopus.” (Surely it’s a game man who comes on and does partridge?) On this week’s Telly Addict, I wave a fond farewell to one programme with the prefix “Celebrity” and say a cautious and transient hello to another programme with the prefix “Celebrity“. It all seemed so optimistic for pantomime dame Christopher Biggins when he went into the Celebrity Big Brother (Channel 5) house with every intention, one assumes, of not coming straight out again after insulting bisexuals and a Jewish woman (I had stopped watching by then, so have to take the tabloids’ word for it).

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From one game man to another bunch of game men. It’s a funny time of the year for TV. Most of it is now filled with the Olympics, which I’m boycotting, as I don’t really enjoy the Olympics, and it’s a bit of a silly season for the rest of telly. I’m delighted that my favourite gay drama Looking (HBO/Sky Atlantic) came back for a valedictory, feature-length episode, and I beamed all the way through it, wishing I lived in San Francisco and moved in this social circle as the token heterosexual. It would have been preferable, of course, for Looking to have continued with a third, fourth and fifth season, but it was not to be.

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This is a grab of me giving a sideways look at TV. Why? I am honouring pop historian Dominic Sandbrook and his trademark three-quarters-on delivery style. I’ve had my quibbles with some of his previous 20th century history lessons, not least the Thatcherite way he looks at the past, but since his new series The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook (BBC Two) is about the Thatcher Years, one can hardly complain. (Except, of course, he says it isn’t about Thatcher, it’s about us, somewhat letting her off the hook.)

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As you’ll see in the various clips used in this week’s Telly Addict, Jimmy Osmond, runner-up on Celebrity MasterChef, is one of my heroes of 2016, for his joie de vivre and his propensity to cry while still calling everyone and everything “Awesome.” No, you are!  He’s come a long way from Andy Williams to Gregg Wallace.

Oh, and look out for the tiny clockwork mouse on the coffee table at the beginning. I found it in my goodie bag after the National Cat Awards at the Savoy during the week, at which I am proud to say I was a judge! Here’s a photo of me with some fellow dignitaries, and then one of me with the judges and the winners! Awesome!!!!

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As ever, you can view the full YouTube playlist of every UKTV Telly Addict here. Why not subscribe? I do.

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Hooray, Telly Addict No.5 is up on time! View it here and check out Telly Addicts Nos. 1-4 while you’re there.

And here is your actual Water Cooler Moment from this week’s TV: an actual water cooler in a rented office from the first half of the first episode of Channel 4’s newest reality TV format The Job Interview, bubbling away to itself. It is, as gently hinted at by its title, based around job interviews, which are filmed for our entertainment, and, one presumes, the participants’ narcissism.

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Channel 4 have built a wall around their new show by calling back the top brass off of Very British Problems, who sit and unravel anecdote by the yard in what I always assume are NOT their kitchens to camera, and getting them to say similarly pithy things about employment for My Worst Job. Is this Jimmy Carr’s kitchen? Or the kitchen of one of the show’s producers?

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There’s a new season of glossy US legal drama Suits on Dave, who are owned by the same people who own me, although I was already a fan, so happy to report back from Episode 1, which makes me wonder why I wandered away from Season 5. It’s still super-slick, glamorous, alpha and a little bit eugenic in its casting, but the beautiful people at Pearson Specter Litt are in trouble and that’s always a good place to start. I’m already a fan of First Dates, as you’ll known, and I approve of Celebrity First Dates on a purely anthropological level. Here are its charming waiting staff, craning their necks at someone who they partially recognise.

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And finally, this week’s What’s On The Coffee Table? It’s a promotional Masterchef apron, which I am fond of, even though it gets its own catchphrase wrong (“Cooking doesn’t get better than this”?!) I’ve noticed that the pastries always look like they are for giants, when in real life, they are normal pastry-sized. The lies that TV tells.

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The return of Telly Addict. Can it really have been a whole week since the first “soft launch” broadcast pilot went live under my new roof at UKTV’s YouTube site? I have yet to wean myself off the “refresh” key, as it’s a new toy to me. There was no way of monitoring views on the Guardian website, but YouTube make it too easy to fixate and tap. We’re also under a whole new dictatorship of stats, so when I ask if you wouldn’t mind awfully clicking on “like” and “subscribe”, be gentle with me. I’m new here. It’s fortuitous that Celebrity Masterchef gets a nod this week. Regular viewers will know that I have no defences against this brand and have even succumbed to Masterchef The Professionals, thus swelling my portfolio. It’s a tired old dig to remark that you have not heard of some of the “celebrities” on Celebrity-prefixed formats, but having been on Celebrity Mastermind myself (I came second), I can hardly mither. Not knowing who this young gentleman was is my failing, not his.

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He’s Marcus Butler, 24, and he has over 4.5 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, despite not enunciating his words very well. He seems nice enough. hey, I am over the moon to have had 817 views of the first Telly Addict. But give me time. (Oh, I watched the first of Marcus’s clips, and it seemed to be about him saying that men should be more empathic of women, and then trying to put on a pair of tights as if to prove what a hard life women have. It was pretty thin stuff.) I am not in competition with Marcus Butler. I’m not in competition with anybody. I review three or four programmes that I watched last week, which this week also includes: the series finale of Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic), the series finale of The Good Wife (More4), and, to please my UKTV overlords, the new series of format-of-formats Taskmaster (Dave), which I raved about on Telly Addict long before UKTV came to my rescue. Also, a tip of the hat to The Secret Life of a Bus Garage (ITV), which is on ITV Hub here. It’s a heart-warming, pre-Brexit vision of a functioning South West London multicultural utopia, in a place of work where 50 languages are spoken. I hope everybody we see on the show still has a job and has not started getting sly abuse from emboldened thickos.

Get clicking.

The plateful eight

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And then … there were eight. This series of Masterchef (BBC One) has been one of, if not the best ever. We’re on the cusp of the semifinals. The nine contestants in the above screengrab were reduced, like a fine sauce, down to eight on Friday. (We were sorry to see queen of puddings Natasha go.) But even in the early weeks, we were seeing talented and inventive cooks being eliminated, so high has the standard been. It’s hard to believe we got here without Pedro, and Jacob, and Julie, and Alec, and Mark, and Noma, and Kath, and Caron, and Jessie, and Tom, and Rob, whose names are already fading from memory (I made one of those up, just to prove it). In any other year, some of those competent and imaginative preparers of food would still be in the competition, but the heat is so intense this year, and has been since the start. Usually a “home cook” would still be in the running, but although “full-time Mum” Jane was initially patronised into that Masterchef archetype, it seems a dim and distant memory. It’s true that some of the “characters” have fallen by the wayside, but that tends to happen, as the quarter-finals require a raising of the game (especially when cooking game) that allows less room for mucking about and/or getting away with it.

Masterchef12final11 Last year was a big one for me and Masterchef – and I speak as someone who watched the very first Sunday-afternoon incarnation of the show in 1990, with future sauce mogul Loyd Grossman – it’s the year I accepted Masterchef: The Professionals into my heart, after seven years of denial. A full-time adherent to Celebrity Masterchef – a spin-off format I even stuck with after Michael Buerk tried to derail it by not only being a bad cook but by clearly not wanting to be on the programme in the first place – I snubbed The Professionals, as I could not for the life of me see the appeal of watching professional cooks cook. (In many ways, this is what sucks Bake Off: Creme de la Creme of the mothership’s charm.) I was wrong. In August last year, I met and interviewed no-nonsense Professionals judge Monica Galetti at an exclusive screening of the first episode in a cinema in Edinburgh attended by hardcore Masterchef fans, and it opened my eyes. (Yes, the contestants work in professional kitchens, but at a level that makes them just as keen and hungry as the non-professionals. The format works. I’m in.)

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It’s a big commitment watching a full series of Masterchef, as, unlike the Bake Off, it’s way more than just a bucolic weekly pleasure. We’re talking at least three, and up to five times a week (the precise format is constantly tinkered with). That’s a lot of reductions, fondants, tuiles, ganaches, three-ways, crumbs, purées, brittles and inadvisable sous-vide bags, and a lot of variations on the clichés: “I’m gutted,” “I like to push myself in the kitchen,” “I want to show the judges what I’m made of,” “I go to bed at night thinking about food and I wake up in the morning thinking about food,” “Food is my life,” “I hope I’ve done enough to stay in the competition,” and the bingo classic, “I’m cooking outside my comfort zone.” (Every time we hear one of those phrases, I’m inside my comfort zone.) Sometimes it can feel like an endurance test, but when it catches fire like a blowtorched lettuce leaf, rarely does an edition goes by, not even in the wheat/chaff early rounds, when some magic doesn’t occur, whether it’s the crescent shape of the accompaniments to a beautiful dish, a Gregg Wallace gurn or a John Torode “lovely, lovely thing”. In most hour-long programmes, it’s all three. Masterchef done three ways, in fact.

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We all have our favourite rounds. I’m not sorry to see the back of the palate test (unless it re-emerges in semifinal week), where they have to guess what’s in a dish John has cooked and copy it. The meat and potatoes of Masterchef is, for me, and has always been since the 2001 revamp, a round in which a dish is prepared, or three dishes are prepared, and evaluated by John, Gregg, past finalists, restaurant critics, or fellow chefs. (I understand the need for the professional kitchen round, which is more of an insight into how much of a git a professional chef can be, but it’s too tense for me.) This series, the visiting critic has chosen a key ingredient for the contestants to showcase – that’s new – but it all boils down to the basics: can you take some things and make them taste nice? As John and Gregg habitually put it: “food you want to eat.” As opposed to the other kind: food you want to look at, or Instagram. (In a later episode of Parks & Recreation, while everyone else tucks into a tasting menu, Tom takes photos of the food and is the only one who avoids getting food poisoning from a mini calzone.)

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Of the remaining “Plateful Eight”, the favourite has got to be either Jack (above, glasses), or Liz (above, top of head), with Annie and Juanita in the running. But there’s always room for a late spurt, and the more arduous cooking tasks of the semis sometimes reveal new frontrunners. I was glad that the two early contestants who had that Apprentice-style over-confidence and outward determination to “win” didn’t survive. It’s not about winning, it’s about cooking. You don’t “win” the professional kitchen round; you survive it. You don’t “win” the blockbusting semifinal tasks, you just cook, in teams, in pairs, or individually, to the best of your preternatural ability, and with the ingredients provided, and leave it to the judges to judge. (As with the Bake Off, Masterchef contestants support one another – they all want each other to win.) Billy is the closest to a “win” contestant in the remaining quorum, but he’s a softie. I can’t think of a knockout competition with so many hugs and tears.

In The Apprentice – a Hunger Games for monkeys which I forsook many years ago – it’s “You’re fired.” In Masterchef, it’s “You’re fried.”