Cometh the hour

As talk show hosts go there aren’t many who come anywhere near Michael Parkinson. With his easy geniality and almost complete lack of intrusive ego he has been a British hit for heaven only knows how many years.

They’re running some recent Parkinson shows on BBC Prime and last week’s guests included two English funnymen and an American actor so obsessed with himself and the cultural importance of his work as to be embarrassing. The first two were the pint-sized Lee Evans and Martin Clunes — the latter of Men Behaving Badly, who was once described as looking like he’d had a second helping of face.

Both of them came across as utterly without pretension, each enormously appealing and each desperately trying to keep control of his walloping comic vitality. What is it that makes some people naturally funny? Like musicality, it must be a gift. Someone without that gift will tell what otherwise would be a good joke and it’ll fall flat on its face. Prototypes of this breed of killer raconteurs can often be watched on things like the Smirnoff International Comedy Festival, which is a sort of warehouse packed with low-grade comedic bombers, all about as scintillating as an SABC3 television news reporter.

On the other hand people like Lee Evans can read an obituary column and, if you aren’t already, have you weeping with laughter — as he did when he recalled taking part in a German television show.

He’d been sat there, on one side of the stage, for about half an hour, studiously ignored by the host. Suddenly the lights came up on him, cameras swooped in close and the host loomed over and instructed him in true Nuremberg tones. “Now, do something funny, ja?”

Martin Clunes, large and clumsy, a shambling creature all wonderfully out of kilter with himself, was perfect interview material. Another natural: unstudied, gawky, a joy to watch.

The small-time talent out of the way, time for an implosion of all this unforced merriment. Cometh the hour; cometh the wanker — in the shape of Hollywood luminary Kevin Costner, as authentic as one of those plastic ketchup tomatoes. There must be some sort of an academy of Hollywood hype that specialises in teaching stars how to flog the “intellectual and relevance” values of big-budget schlock movies that Costner specialises in. He must have graduated cum laude. There wasn’t a thing he recalled about himself or the film business that wasn’t runny with his glop.

“I guess I just have to go on … no, go on having to make films which serve as a reflection of ourselves as an American people, our ambitions and our terrible struggles to rise above our numberless past triumphs. With Dances with Wolves we had 27 passes from the major studios and top directors. That’s when I decided that in human and historic terms this significant story just demanded to be told, so I wrote the intensely moving screenplay, directed myself in the starring role, designed the costumes, did the music, fought the unions, organised the catering, swabbed out the Native American location shithouse and sucked off the wolf. All by myself.”

After about four minutes of watching Costner pump out his bilges, his eyes ever cunning as to which camera he should play to, you start to feel that acidic sting in the back of your throat. I stumbled for the remote.

The rugby encounter between South Africa and France showed once again how incredibly bad the French are at televising sport. The French Open tennis tournament coverage was dreadful enough. Do you remember how French television completely shafted the final of the World Cup soccer a year or so ago?

The French televised rugby was re-run of that disaster: a flurry of confusing close-ups, extraordinary long shots of the field offering about as much detail as a satellite reconnaissance picture, and the usual mish-mash of reverse angles, zooms, quick pans and all the rest of it.

All this was made far worse by a sound balance that managed to put stadium ambience in the far distance while commentary and Naas Botha’s grotesque English were cracking the speakers. Somewhere in the background, right on the edge of hearing, you could make out what could have been a cheering rugby crowd. This crude aural presentation is, of course, the fault of SuperSport itself, which, like the SABC, seems to pay little attention to unnecessary technical details.

They’re far more interested in getting in their relentless squeezebacks for Vodacom.

The Mail&Guardian, November 16, 2001

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