There's life after Simon Amstell for Never Mind The Buzzcocks – and it's funny

We go behind the scenes at the comedy music quiz, where it's all "flowers and unicorns" according to Noel Fielding

They are Googling "Alex James" in the production office of Never Mind The Buzzcocks. The Blur bassist is this week's guest presenter.

"How old is he?" asks a twentysomething member of the team. CLICK.

"Oh my god! Born in ... 68... He's well old!" she says scanning a web page. CLICK-CLICK.

"And his real name is Steven? He is so married, too ... Damn. But he doesn't look happy with it does he?" CLICK-CLICK-CLICK.

At the other end of the crowded room, a couple of producers iron out a few bits of the script.

"Is 'Googlebox' a word?"

They are brainstorming names for the former pop star lineup section of the show. This week it's ViX from Fuzzbox and they want names that play on "box".

A few furious scribblings out later, they've got it.

"Graham Box-on," says a producer, proud of his play on Alex James's sometime bandmate. "That's funny isn't it?"

We're here on the set of the third episode of the 23rd series of the panel show. Host Simon Amstell has departed since the last series because he wants "to concentrate on his stand-up" and the powers that be have decided that instead of a permanent replacement, a series of weekly guest hosts will better usher in the programme's new age.

"The thinking behind it was that we wanted to give airtime to some new comic talent who wouldn't otherwise get the chance," says the show's producer, Stuart Mather.

In that vein they've got the likes of stand-ups Jack Whitehall and Rhod Gilbert to fill Amstell's rather large comedy shoes.

"It's also really hard to book pop stars in advance …"

While Mather is keen to play down Amstell's hold on the show, he admits that his Bafta award-nominated tenure changed Buzzcocks forever.

"Our demographic changed with Simon," he says "He showed you could do things in a TV format that you couldn't do before."

There was an outcry when he departed, with posters on web forums wondering how the show would continue without the comic ("I'm done with Buzzcocks," said one), who, as he did on C4's Popworld, made his ability to cut musicians down to size a defining characteristic of the show.

'Everyone is chipping in … I think the show is working better' - Noel Fielding

So how has it changed the on-screen vibe?

"It's like a Mad Hatter's tea party now," Noel Fielding thinks. The Mighty Boosh star is another new element, replacing Bill Bailey as a team captain. "Everyone is chipping in," he says. "And I think that the show is working better for that actually, instead of the focus being on Simon having a go at someone in particular. He's genius at that, but sometimes it makes some of the musicians a bit tense and they don't open up."

Fielding cites last week's appearance by burlesque pop star Paloma Faith as a prime example. "When she started she was a bit weird. But then as the show went on she became funnier and funnier. Everyone ended up loving her," he says. "I don't think she would have been given that chance if Simon was still here."

Still, some of the show's best moments were the ones where Amstell baited the stars. Producer Mather recalls booking a pre-chart success Dappy from N-Dubz after Blue's Lee Ryan had pulled out.

"He was a last-minute booking; we got him the night before the show. Dappy was quite taken aback with Simon going, 'Who the hell are you?', and making fun of his hat, but the tension made for brilliant TV. The second time he came on we played on the fact that in the press he'd said he'd like to spank Simon. He was a bona fide pop star by this point and I just thought, 'We made you!'"

More infamous was Preston and Chantelle-gate: the ex-Ordinary Boy walked off mid-show when Amstell began reading from his then wife's autobiography Living The Dream.

"Hang on," says Mather. He then asks the PR if he's allowed to "talk freely" about the former Celebrity Big Brother contestant ("I don't want Talkback to go mental," he says). He's given the go-ahead.

"I saw the interview in Heat where he said he was wrong to react the way he did to the incident. And then I read that he said, 'I've always been about pop,' and I thought, 'No, you wanted to be a fucking mod!"

Would you have had him on again?

"Well we could have made a joke about it if he came back on but we'd rather have a new comic on the show than him. He was just one joke, really. The thing is, Preston needs the PR more than we do."

Clearly. His single didn't even make the top 100.

"Fuck me!" says Mather, genuinely shocked.

Watching the show being filmed, the absence of Amstell as curly-haired ringmaster has inexorably changed the panel's dynamic. This is mainly thanks to the captains; long-serving Phill Jupitus and new guy Fielding.

They've transformed the slightly tense and caustic atmosphere created by Amstell to one of mild surrealism.

"The chemistry is different to something like Mock the Week," says Fielding. "They are brilliant and skilful but it's a bit aggressive and male; they need some women on there. I'm a token woman anyway. Phill can be aggressive if he wants to, but he doesn't like to. But it was never going to be a bear-pit-type panel show. When shows become a bit 'alpha male' I don't like them. I prefer them when they're all flowers and unicorns." He laughs at the idea: "The ladyboy speaketh …"

Guest host Alex James is surprisingly eloquent. Pre-show he says, "They've made me funny, it's amazing! Despite the fact I'm slipping into Simon's shoes, it's not intimidating. Only because I've got six people writing for me."

Indeed, tonight he puts his previous hosting experiences in the shade. Sadly there's nothing like BBC2's If Music Be The Food Of Love where he played a cheese bass, but there are lots of dairy-centric gags and obscure Blur tracks in the intros round.

Interestingly, the interjections by panelist comics Peter Serafinowicz and Holly Walsh fall a little flat in comparison.

"It doesn't work if you're constantly worrying about getting gags in," says Jupitus.

'I can pinpoint the moment that Chris Moyles crumbled' – Phill Jupitus

"All the comics who've had a hard time on the show are thinking, 'Must do jokes, must do jokes', instead of interacting. And it's 90% about listening to what the other people are saying."

He cites the example of Chris Moyles, who appeared on the show and slagged it off the next day on his radio show.

"He got me on his show and accused me of having a J-Lo-like fit about chips not arriving from catering, which was a lie. It was ungracious," he says.

"I can pinpoint the moment he crumbled. We were doing the intros round, he wasn't doing well, and Vic Reeves turned around and said to him, 'Chris, do you actually like music at all?" Just because he wasn't funny on the show … he should have just gotten over it."

During the show's two-and-a- half-hour filming session, it's somewhat startling to find that the Buzzcocks' format and stalwart set pieces still work, 22 series and many lineup changes later.

It's still edgy (potentially unbroadcastable gags include ones about Kirsty Wark blacking up, Gordon The Gopher being a prostitute killer, Tom Cruise's sexuality, and "retarded Wombles"). Most importantly, it's enjoyable.

Jupitus believes it's "purely maths" that makes it work. "The show is constantly refreshed because the new faces outnumber the old ones. And we have a great mix of comedy people and pop people. So we get a zeitgeisty mash-up. I said when I began on the first series that I'd still being doing it if it was fun. And it still is."


Priya Elan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Noel Fielding joins Never Mind the Buzzcocks as team captain
Music quiz show also announces string of guest hosts to replace Simon Amstell, including Alex James and David Walliams. By Leigh Holmwood

Leigh Holmwood

14, Sep, 2009 @5:01 PM

Article image
Has Never Mind the Buzzcocks survived Simon Amstell's departure?

Will Dean: There's now a new focus on team captains and the guest hosts have been good but do you still miss Amstell's catty wit?

Will Dean

25, Nov, 2009 @3:58 PM

Article image
How Never Mind the Buzzcocks went out of tune
Over 28 series, the panel show’s anarchic spirit gave way to punching down and diminishing returns

Danny Wright

24, Feb, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
Is it a mistake to axe Never Mind the Buzzcocks?
Last week BBC2 announced that the anarchic music quiz is to be dropped after almost 20 years. Are they right?

Julia Raeside and Amy Dawson

30, May, 2015 @3:00 PM

Article image
Simon Amstell: 'I thought: ‘I’ll never be happy'
A decade on from Popworld, the comic has faced his demons, found love and made a mock doc about veganism. He explains why fame couldn’t fix him

Nosheen Iqbal

11, Mar, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
TV tonight: Never Mind the Buzzcocks comes over all festive
Greg Davies plays Santa to guest elves Holly Johnson and Lauren Laverne in this seasonal special. Plus: Christmas at Castle Howard. Here’s what to watch this evening

Phil Harrison, Graeme Virtue, Alexi Duggins, Henry Wong and Simon Wardell

15, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

The year 2008 in lists: Simon Amstell's 12 funniest lines

From Craig David and rabbits to Germaine Greer, NMTB in full

13, Dec, 2008 @12:01 AM

Article image
Simon Amstell: 'Dysfunction is my career'

Put downs. Piss takes. Come backs. Simon Amstell can hand it out, but can he take it? Simon Hattenstone talks to the presenter-turned-standup

Simon Hattenstone

09, Mar, 2012 @11:00 PM

Article image
‘God, I never thought we’d be this old!’: Miquita Oliver and Simon Amstell on Popworld turning 20
Celebrating the seminal ego-pricking teen TV show, its original hosts talk friendship, grilling musicians and why the show wouldn’t work in 2021

Hadley Freeman

01, May, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Never Mind the Buzzcocks: top five moments
As the BBC axes the music show after 20 years, here are some of its best bits – from Huey Morgan’s mug-smashing to Lorraine Kelly spanking Noel Fielding

John Plunkett

26, May, 2015 @4:51 PM