Bring back Popworld: the music show fans loved and celebrities feared

Fifteen years after it first aired, we take a nostalgic look at the show that questioned the very nature of pop-culture stardom – and then threw cheese at it

Stop the clock: it’s here. The 15th anniversary of the start of T4’s Popworld is upon us. The big ONE-FIVE. And with this seismic decade-and-a-half anniversary looming, what better time to look back on history’s greatest music TV show? Arguably on the 20th anniversary, but media as we know it will cease to exist in 2019, so let’s get this done now.

Perhaps Popworld should have been a generic pop show, and given its insipid theme tune, nondescript branding and half-hearted set, perhaps it was meant to be. But each Sunday, Popworld’s hosts Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver seemed to draw up a list of the questions every other show would ask its guests, then throw that list out of the window. Back in January 2001, Top Of The Pops would not have featured Daniel Bedingfield throwing cheese at Sam & Mark on the Brits red carpet. CD:UK would not have included Gary Barlow discussing pube-related paranoia. BBC1’s The Saturday Show would not have run a VT that has now passed into broadcasting legend: Lemar From Afar, in which a megaphone-wielding Amstell fired questions at the Fame Academy graduate from the opposite end of a car park.

This was TV made for the entertainment of viewers rather than with any concern for the blood pressure of an artist’s publicist. A musician agreeing to appear on Popworld was tacitly agreeing to be tested. Some failed; others triumphed. The media chooses to remember Amy Winehouse via slow-mo footage over sad-sounding songs, but it’s arguably more powerful to remember her canvassing for Brit award votes from the back seat of a Nissan Micra, clutching the trusty Popworld megaphone and bellowing “DON’T VOTE FOR DIDO!” at passers-by.

Were it to exist now, Popworld interviews would be endlessly giffed every single week. As things stand, low-quality uploads from the pre-HD YouTube era are all that remain. On one, we find Amstell firing questions at Bob and Alex from Franz Ferdinand. Having asked the pair: “Is there any part of you that would rather be the Kaiser Chiefs?” (Alex: “I don’t think so”), Amstell pauses.

“Do you know what,” he tells the pair. “I’ve been doing this five years. Where’s it got me? What are we learning here? Are we furthering our lives here? Are we growing as people? Who are we? What’s the point of it all, Bob? I mean I’m not having a go at you, but do I even exist? Or am I just a stupid question machine reading endless moronic questions?” (Bob: “There could be a bit of that, yeah…”)

Amstell’s monologue continues (“Sometimes I get so lonely”) and it’s clear that by the time it hit its stride, and despite its clientele, Popworld wasn’t really a show about music, in the same way Top Gear reinvented itself by not really being a show about spark plugs.

As a brand, Popworld started life in 2000 as a portal (website) created by Simon Fuller for eight- to 16-year-olds. With over £6m from private backers it also launched arena-sized live events and a print magazine. There was even talk of a theme park. But Popworld was both too ahead of its time (the site would have made more sense five years later) and too backward-looking (the print title folded at the start of 2004). In four years, Popworld lost almost £10m, much of it on the magazine. The company’s chief exec was candid: “We thought there was a gap in the market for a quality, mainstream music magazine,” he admitted. “All our research said that. But we were wrong, and we lost a lot of money.”

Ironically, Popworld’s real success came where there wasn’t a gap in the market. Top Of The Pops and CD:UK were still on air in 2000 when Channel 4 took a minority stake in Popworld, commissioning independent company At It to make half-hour weekday shows for E4, and Sunday shows for Channel 4. The show was hosted by 16-year-old Oliver and former Nickelodeon presenter Amstell (21), who developed the voice for which Popworld is now remembered. Credit should also go to producer and writer Dan Swimer, who later worked with Amstell on Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Grandma’s House, and recently collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen on The Dictator.

“You have a way of asking questions,” Marilyn Manson once told Amstell. “They’re leading questions, as they’d say in a court of law.” Looking at clips, what strikes you now is the show’s willingness to leave space in its interviews. Excruciating, tumbleweed-strewn, glorious space. There was no studio audience, and virtually no off-camera whooping from the production team, creating an almost unbearably intense atmosphere. In 2016, interview packages on TV and online are tightly edited productions that attempt to emulate music videos; Popworld seemed to be taking place in the vacuum-sealed interrogation room of a far-flung space station.

Amstell and Oliver left in 2006; Popworld continued for two years with new hosts, a shadow of its former self but still twice as good as any music show that 2016 has to offer.

These days, mainstream music on TV is limited to chatshow appearances, panel-show lineups, or awkward souffle escapades on the cookery programmes that have replaced youth shows on weekend mornings. Channel 4’s focus is on late-night “curation” and “tastemaking”. Meanwhile, many audience members now seem to engage with The X Factor for hatewatching purposes, and a cursory glance at Twitter suggests that viewers also approached last month’s Top Of The Pops specials in a similarly negative spirit. One argument runs that, in the age of the meme, fans make their own jokes, and that social media is now the place where egos are pricked. But, without wishing to overstate the subtlety and panache of a Simon Amstell interview, firing “Ellie Goulding can’t sing – LOL” into the ether really doesn’t cut it.

Online, artists do silly things in the name of #shareablecontent, stunts only a couple of steps up from Mentos in a Coke bottle. How publicists must groan when they’re told: “So, we’ve got an idea for something silly…” Popworld wasn’t silly, it was funny. But at the same time, it was oddly serious. No mainstream music show before or since has asked chart stars with such regularity: why are you here? Beyond the fact that you may or may not have a decent record out, what is your point?

It doesn’t feel over-sentimental to miss Popworld. But with the right hosts, and the right maverick creative spirit, could Popworld itself happen again, perhaps online? There’s an easy way for someone to find out: the domain name is currently for sale, and megaphones are 20 quid on Amazon.


Peter Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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