Why don’t we have a late-night TV culture in the UK? America has it: Seth Meyers, SNL, hundreds of men called Jimmy laughing emptily at the first sentence of an anecdote. And British hosts have conquered it, too: Craig Ferguson, hands in his pockets doing a monologue, or James Corden and five GoPros inside a car. But why do we not have that here? Why, in the UK, does the clock strike 10pm and TV folds itself up into Newsnight and maybe, on weekends as a treat, Match of the Day? (Imagine watching Ant and Dec host a show that starts at 11.30pm and ends just before 1am. I feel sick even writing it down.)
Personally, I think the issue is two-fold: we are, as a nation, on a deeply different circadian cycle to Americans; and also, in this country, we want our bombastic, celebrity-led jamborees to be on at a time when we can watch with the kids, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to say a swearword. We’re either too sleepy or too conservative for true late-night: the clock edges closer to midnight, and all we crave is a mug of herbal tea and a news presenter quietly telling us the progress of a war.
The Lateish Show With Mo Gilligan (Friday, 10pm, Channel 4), then, will never actually work in this country, but I am intrigued to see it continue to try, especially as it seems to have learned from decades of late-night TV failure on dozens of other channels. For a start, it’s on Channel 4, which excels at those multi-celebrity chatshows where you can hear the camera operators laugh at the jokes and they sometimes really need to rush to get to the adverts (see: The Last Leg, at night, and Sunday Brunch, in the morning: spiritually similar but doomed never to meet).
Second, it’s not just the roll-the-celebs-out-one-at-a-time-and-let-them-have-nine-minutes-of-small-talk-and-one-anecdote fare of Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross who, yes, are deft presenters and always get glamorous movie stars, but sometimes it feels a little lifeless seeing them go through the same old moves with them. The Lateish Show is a bit bumpy, a bit anarchic, smooth enough to be high-profile TV but not like it’s been rehearsed to within an inch of its life. They still haven’t figured out what configuration to get all the guests on one sofa, for instance.
The guest booking contrasts are delirious (Steve Coogan, Tyson Fury and Jessie J at the same time?). Gilligan is still a green-enough host that he can be totally derailed by a YouTuber shouting off a balcony. The camera sometimes flips to the house band and you don’t quite know why. All the sketches are quite bad. But this is a good thing, truly: it shows an honest attempt to take an old format and drag it into a new era. The show has won two Baftas, and it’s good to see Channel 4 keeping the faith with it. It’s not quite right, but it’s so close to nearly there that it really could be one day soon (and perhaps that is the true spirit of late night – it’s not meant to be perfect, it’s meant to be fun).
It helps, obviously, that Gilligan is a deeply assured conversationalist who is genuinely funny in his own right. Guests don’t seem overawed by him as they might one of the older chatshow dons: the quick back-and-forths and matey interludes feel more like you’ve overheard some famous people sharing a lift than you’ve seen performers do a performance. When he lures them into playing a stupid game, it rarely feels embarrassing, and often feels as if they’ve had a couple of drinks beforehand. It’s suitably gossipy, then, to justify the lateish timeslot, not just 7pm chat transposed to a 10pm shift.
So will series three herald a new era of late-night TV in Britain? The answer is dependent on our national sleep cycles changing, and a deep cultural U-turn against streaming giants, who produce shows that have no sense of time at all (you can watch a Netflix gothic horror at breakfast – terrestrial TV can’t do that). But I do think it’s nice to have a lively, unforced, fun alternative to watch at 10pm that isn’t just Family Guy reruns. The Lateish Show probably won’t change us as a nation, but it does fill a fun void that’s been gaping open since Celebrity Juice got bad.