When good TV goes bad: how Popworld's bubble burst

In a new column pinpointing the moments great TV shows jumped the shark, we remember Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver’s irrepressible double act – and the ship that sank without them

Back in the halcyon days of 2001, when people still bought CDs and pop music TV didn’t exist purely online presented by two quiffs from YouTube, there was Channel 4’s Popworld. Hosted by gangly geek Simon Amstell and the apparently perpetually hungover Miquita Oliver, its aim was to crawl under the veneer of pop stardom and poke it until it said something interesting. Sometimes interviews were delivered by two horses, Richard & Trudy; or they’d be framed as police interrogations (Ronan Keating being challenged as to whether life really is a rollercoaster); while recurring segment The Big Ones, asked the sort of questions – Rachel Stevens being put on the spot with: “Have you got any power tools?” – that would chip away at the sturdiest of media training. Crucially, its aim wasn’t to be nasty, but to reveal the person behind the facade, whoever that may be.

Popworld was created by pop mogul Simon Fuller, initially as a website and then as a show intended for a much younger audience. However, Amstell and Oliver’s obvious boredom at having to inflate the egos of the various dullards who peppered the pop landscape at that time – Amstell once suggested the kicking of one of Atomic Kitten’s unborn children was a plea for her to stop singing – slowly set the tone for the show. Moved from its evening slot on E4 to the more teen-focused T4 strand on a Sunday morning, it offered an irreverent alternative to the anaemic Top Of The Pops and ITV’s Cat Deeley-assisted CD:UK. Although its ratings weren’t as impressive as either, and appearing on it carried a real threat of being shown up, pop acts flocked to it. Water-cooler moments included the openly gay Amstell flirting with the openly homophobic Beenie Man; Gwen Stefani refusing a piece of cheese offered by Amstell on the Brit awards red carpet; and Björk gamely telling a story about how she once urinated on a rock.

In 2006, however, the bubble burst when Amstell and Oliver decided to leave. “I’m 26, I shouldn’t be on a space hopper racing McFly,” Amstell told the Observer at the time. In a post-X Factor pop world even less interested in risk-taking, Popworld was also struggling to book acts. But rather than stop the show, the producers carried out what they assumed would be a like-for-like swap, replacing Amstell with comedian Alex Zane and Oliver with newcomer Alexa Chung. Suddenly the show’s endearing playfulness was replaced with a more heavy-handed sense of irony; a sneering, in-joke-obsessed curse that was infecting a lot of “youth” TV at the time. Plus the pair had all the chemistry of two wet towels.

One of the original show’s great moments involved Amstell and Amy Winehouse – who had a fairly low tolerance for fools, at least outside of her personal life – driving around London campaigning for Winehouse to win a 2004 Brit award. Most of the segment features Winehouse laughing like a drain, especially when Amstell barks: “Woman with cheap bag, support Amy Winehouse!” out of the car window. Fast-forward to 2007, the show’s last year, and Winehouse is asked questions next to a barrel for a segment called – wait for it! – Scraping The Barrel. Bored and confused, she utilises one of those deadening pauses she was so good at, looks at Zane and Chung and lets out a sarcastic “Right”. In that moment, it was clear the magic was gone and the show was over.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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