“Oh God, this whole thing is like what we used to take the piss out of on the show!” groans Simon Amstell, horrified by my question. I am sitting in my garden with him and his former co-presenter Miquita Oliver and I just asked if they see the influence of the seminal Channel 4 music show, Popworld, which they hosted from 2001 to 2006, on TV shows today.
“It’s like when we did a McFly special and pretended to be a pair of pretentious directors in the future, looking back on the enormous influence of McFly,” he says.
“Yup. And now, we are those twats,” says Oliver, and they both hoot and cackle.
Pre-Popworld, pop TV generally consisted of Woodward and Bernstein-worthy journalism such as: “So how does it feel to be back in the charts, Noel?” Then suddenly there was Amstell, with his kamikaze determination to find joy through authenticity, and Oliver, who didn’t know or care about the conventions of celebrity TV, and they asked Snow Patrol what their favourite hospital was, and whether Britney Spears had ever licked a battery. They would do things such as interview Fame Academy graduate Lemar from across a car park with a megaphone, just so they could call it “Lemar from Afar”.
“Beforehand we were like: who wants to know anything about Lemar?,” says Amstell. “And then our producer said: ‘What about Lemar from Afar?’ And we said: ‘We don’t know what that is, but we’re doing it!’”
Then there was the time Amstell flirted with Beenie Man, whose lyrics were outrageously homophobic, and end the interview by giving him a banana with his phone number written on it. “It was really important to me to be out on TV because I knew what a big deal it would have been to me if there had been someone who was out on kids’ TV when I was growing up, and for it not to be a major thing.” he says. “I think we used elements of our lives as magic bullets in interviews. It was nice that I could ask Rachel Stevens: ‘What’s the best thing about being a Jew?’”
Unusually for a pop show, the music on Popworld was irrelevant. “It never mattered to me if a band’s album was good or not. All I cared about was what their image was and did they seem authentic, because that’s where the funny stuff lay. Either the celebrities got us, or they didn’t, and either way it worked for us,” he says.
We are talking today because it is, gallingly, 20 years since Popworld first aired. It is, even more gallingly, 18 years since I first interviewed the two of them about Popworld, back when Oliver was 18 and Amstell 23. And now, well, you do the maths.
“God, I never thought we’d be this old!” groans Oliver, who still looks 18.
“What, you thought we would just die?!” barks Amstell.
It was their first newspaper interview and my first proper interview for this newspaper, and maybe because of that, they are the only people I have ever interviewed that I actually became friends with afterwards. “I just thought: wow, this chick is in her 20s and has a job – cool!” says Oliver. (It worked in my favour that I met them when their standards were extremely low.) For a mega fan like me, this was and remains the ultimate dream, because Amstell and Oliver really are how they seem on screen. Oliver is hilarious, honest, always herself. When I was heartbroken and living in New York, Amstell came over and the two of us spent days discussing the meaninglessness of life in vegan cafes, laughing hysterically as he cracked me up, again and again.
I loved Popworld for all the reasons everyone of my generation did: the hilarity, the absurdity, the honesty. To me, it felt like the TV child of Smash Hits magazine, although Amstell says his influences were “David Letterman, Chris Morris and Ruby Wax”. But as funny as all those Lemar-from-Afar-esque jokes were – such as when the Strokes were interviewed by a horse (“We were running out of ideas when we got to the horse,” admits Amstell) – the real joy of the show came from the hosts. Oliver was only 15 when she auditioned for Popworld (“Which was probably illegal”) and when she screen-tested with Amstell she “fancied him for about a minute. I was so nervous I couldn’t see straight,” she says.
“She found me attractive because she couldn’t see,” says Amstell.
“I was interested in how confused you were by me,” she responds.
“That’s because everything you said was hilarious and absurd,” says Amstell. “You were like: ‘I went to this squat party last night,’ and I was like: ‘What’s a squat party?’ I’d grown up in this suburban Jewish bubble, and I was 21, but Essex 21, which is like 12. And she was west London 15, which is like 36. We really were fascinated by each other.”
After some initial wariness (“I refused to laugh at his jokes for about a year,” Oliver says), the two became, and remain, great friends. One Christmas, they went on holiday to Thailand and Amstell happened to look out at the ocean.
“What the hell’s that?” he said.
“And I was like: ‘Don’t be a dick, Simon, it’s obviously some cool Thai thing, whatever,’” Oliver recalls.
It wasn’t. It was the deadly 2004 tsunami and the two of them spent the day sitting up a hill, in case there was a second tsunami.
“Then this nice person comes around with a basket of bread, because we’d been up there for hours, and Miquita goes: ‘Sorry, I can’t eat carbs.’ Not even a tsunami will make her fat,” Amstell says, clearly still fascinated by her.
“Meanwhile, I’m looking at Simon and I can see in his head that he’s edging towards making a joke, and I put my hand on his arm and said: ‘It’s too soon, Si,’” she says.
Initially the show was on Channel 4’s youth strand T4, and screened daily. “The scripts were all written – we weren’t ad-libbing yet – and were full of words that were totally fake,” says Oliver.
Like what? “Like ‘smörgåsbord’.”
“I remember having to say: ‘It’s your one-stop shop for pop,’ quite a lot in that first year,” says Amstell. “Also they straightened my hair for the first three months. When I see those clips I think: ‘Who were you trying to be, Jamie Theakston?’”
Oliver had to say a scripted line about how she drove a band somewhere. Amstell turned to her on air and said: “But you can’t even drive!”
“… and that was the moment when I realised we could make this our own thing; we didn’t need to do this fake stuff but just speak like us. And that’s when it got fun,” she says.
Watching old episodes of Popworld, with Amstell asking Craig David what’s his favourite type of sausage [Cumberland], is a glimpse back to a time when pop was seen as just something fun; when Amstell could needle the Kooks about their stage school background, and not get monstered by Kooks stans online. Would Popworld work today, now that pop stars talk more about mental health and personal identity?
“It wouldn’t work, not because of the times, but because we’ve both developed more empathy,” says Amstell.
“That’s what I think,” says Oliver.
“So, I think we’d spend the whole time asking: ‘Are you OK?’”
Amstell quit Popworld in 2006 “because it just got too easy”, and went on to host Never Mind the Buzzcocks. With Oliver leaving at the same time, Channel 4 tried to keep Popworld going with Alex Zane and Alexa Chung but it folded after a year. “I got a sense that there was an attempt to have an edgy, sarky vibe, but they didn’t understand the joy we felt doing it,” Amstell says.
After Buzzcocks, he continued to adhere to his joy-through-truth mantra, making the sitcom Grandma’s House (2010-2012), the pro-veganism mock-doc Carnage (2017), and the 2019 film Benjamin, all with autobiographical elements and all critically acclaimed. He has just finished writing a new film that he’ll direct next year, and embarks on his first standup tour in four years in September.
Oliver had a bumpier transition to life outside the Popworld nest. Unlike Amstell, who had dreamed of being in showbusiness since he was a child, she’d had no such ambitions and was unprepared for the level of fame Popworld brought her. Her mum’s best friend is Neneh Cherry, “so I thought I knew what being famous meant, but I didn’t know it for me”, she says. She hosted shows on T4 and photos of her going out with her mate Lily Allen became tabloid staples.
“Lily and I were written about as if we were silly little girls. But we were employed and making good money and we were only young, and we liked to go out and celebrate that,” she says. “But I think a lot of people have trouble with successful young women, so the Daily Mail was definitely not like: ‘Good for them!’”
When she left T4 at 26, she had been working for 10 years, and in 2012 she had to declare bankruptcy over an unpaid tax bill. “That was very, very tough. I had a mini-breakdown and had to move back in with my parents. But then I got a great therapist and it saved my life,” she says. Since pulling herself back together she has returned to TV presenting and talks excitedly about her plans to move into producing and editing. This summer, she has an upcoming project with her mum, the chef Andi Oliver, that she describes as “a nice little commission”.
Amstell generally hates looking back at the past and this interview was very much Oliver’s idea, not his. “It just feels a bit like you’re eating lunch and someone says: ‘Hey! Shall we talk about breakfast?” he says. But this, he admits at the end, “has been nice. We had fun, didn’t we?”
“We did!” shouts Oliver. “I love looking back on it because it wasn’t just Popworld – it was my life.”
Simon Amstell’s standup tour Spirit Hole begins in Margate, 8 Sep; for dates see simonamstell.com