3 minutes reading time (608 words)

The late, Late Show

The late, Late Show
The quality of discourse which currently pervades many of our media channels seems to be inversely proportionate to the number of channels that we can now access. Where governments over time have equated choice with quality, we all now know that this clearly not the case. Analysis and criticism, particularly in arts and politics, have suffered at the expense of vapid formats such as dramatised reality and overstaged cookery programmes.

This is not to suggest, of course, that everything was rosy in the garden when we only had 3 or 4 TV channels to choose from, but it was at least easier to pick out the gems - the diamonds in the rough. One of these was a nightly arts programme that ran from 1989 to 1995 on BBC2, called The Late Show.

The Late Show had a small audience. It had a rotating set of presenters including Matthew Collings, Tracy MacLeod, Michael Ignatieff (who became leader of Canada's Liberal Party) and spawned two spin-offs: Late Review, and the still-running Later With Jools Holland.

It's hard to look back on the programme without thinking of it being "all killer, no filler". Looking back at clips certainly suggests that. A programme devoted to grunge. One on ITV franchises. Fetish in film. A Clockwork Orange. The Comedy Store. And so on.

There are two programmes which stick out in my mind, both of which I had on VHS tape and played until the tape became worn. The first, from 1990, is a hip hop special. It's a shame that the whole show isn't available, but here is a clip of KRS One and Ice T.




In my later teenage years, my tastes became more diverse and so, out of curiosity, I recorded a Late Show documentary on Frank Zappa. It became regular viewing for me, and enabled me to gain a love for early Zappa/Mothers albums. The documentary still stands up today as a truly masterful piece of work, particularly as it's only 45 minutes long (the standard length of a Late Show episode).



Although the show had a slim audience, it was popular enough to be parodied. I still recall the more right-wing press considering it as being a ghetto for "BBC luvvies", which perhaps led to its downfall.


But, my overwhelming feeling of The Late Show is that it was diverse, insightful, unashamedly intellectual, and allowed thick uncultured types like me to dive into something gorgeous and beautiful for three quarters of an hour each day.

One might consider that BBC Four more than covers the Late Show's remit now. But it doesn't. BBC Four is crammed with repeats and more popular programming. What the The Late Show did in 45 minutes can't be done by BBC Four in a week, let alone an evening. The channel that hosted The Late Show, BBC Two, appears to be now occupied by pseudo-reality shows and white male-dominated comedy.

And, The Late Show wasn't necessarily expensive: put people in a studio to argue, talk about art, or play music and it's not going to break the bank.

The simple fact is that we are bereft of televisual content that makes people feel enriched as well as informed. Political scrutiny by media is failing. Artistic interrogation by media is failing. The stuff that allows us to ask new questions as well as seek new answers is becoming less valuable and less available.

The Late Show is symbolic of a BBC, of a media, which I loved. I hate to feel nostalgic, but in this case, an exception might turn out to be entirely justified.


​Paul Squires is the publisher of Imperica.

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