THIS week was a sad one for those TV viewers who liked to go to bed with either Jeremy Paxman or Craig Ferguson. Tears may even have stained their pillow. On this side of the Atlantic, the news broke that the grand old lion of Newsnight would roar out his last irritated question in June after 25 years on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme.
On yonder side of that vast expanse of salt water and sea spray, one of Scotland’s most successful cultural exports also announced that he was stepping down after nine years hosting The Late Late Show on CBS. While both men wear suits and ties (mostly, Paxo has occasionally slipped in the sartorial stakes and gone on air flaunting his naked neck) and both men sit behind desks and discuss the week’s events, only one has a robotic skeleton sidekick, a mug shaped like a coiled rattlesnake and marked his 1,000th episode by presenting the programme as a crocodile puppet called Wavy.
Then again, only one has won a Peabody broadcasting award for an in-depth interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Curiously, both are Craig Ferguson, the former apprentice technician from Cumbernauld, former drummer with The Bastards from Hell and former occupant of the comedic persona of Bing Hitler. Yet before we lift the sheets on Mr Ferguson’s nocturnal success in the United States, perhaps a few words on Mr Paxman, who once complimented me on my brown leather Knomo laptop bag. “It’s very nice,” he remarked. “It’s so difficult to find a bag that carries everything you need but doesn’t look, well, effeminate.”
Lest I give the wrong impression, Jeremy Paxman and I were not in the habit of meeting regularly to discuss the merits or other wise of man bags or other forms of male fashion wear. I was interviewing him in a Manchester hotel whose lobby was decorated like a Chinese opium den, which was appropriate as the subject of discussion, before we moved on to leather accoutrements, was the British Empire, which generously did so much to assist the Chinese in the development of their 19th century drug problem.
On his down-time from Newsnight, he had written a book to accompany a new television series on the British Empire, and for those curious to know what he’s like in person, the answer is irritated, bored, humorous and friendly, as changeable as the British weather dependent on what question one is lobbing at him.
He strenuously denied ever being deliberately late with his on-screen handover to Newsnight Scotland (a grudge and suspicion long nursed by staff north of the Border) but admitted never warming to the Scottish idea. After the handover he once said to the remaining English viewers: “And now that the Jocks are jabbering amongst themselves…” which I think is rather funny, but which the then head of BBC Scotland watching in a London hotel did not.
Yet Paxman’s departure will be a blow, not only to the programme which always enjoyed a spike in ratings on the evenings when he was in the chair, but to viewers who find him a strangely comforting presence, for, setting aside the sinful pleasure of watching a junior minister like Chloe Smith being slowly roasted on live TV, he’s provided continuity for a quarter of a century. Prime ministers come and go but Paxman on Newsnight was a reliable constant. Until now.
Yet of the two announced departures this week, I would argue that Craig Ferguson has been the greater personal achievement. As a Cambridge graduate and former editor of the university’s paper, Varsity, Jeremy Paxman, who joined the BBC graduate programme in 1972, was exactly the sort of bright chap you would expect to wrestle the truth from our politicians on Newsnight, but few would imagine that an alcoholic Scots comedian who left school at 15 would prove suitable material for one of America’s most popular chat show hosts.
Craig Ferguson’s route to the Late Late Show and poking fun at president George W Bush and Barack Obama as host of The White House Correspondents dinner was circuitous to say the least. As a drummer who talked too much to the audience, Ferguson graduated to stand-up comedy.
He then dabbled in TV presenting as a pseudo Neil Oliver in the archeological series The Dirt Detectives and then made his first foray into American television by playing a teacher in a TV pilot that was never picked up by the networks. One of his students on the drama was Gwyneth Paltrow.
A second assault on the US in 1995 led to a recurring role for the next eight years as a curmudgeonly English store manager in the sit-com The Drew Carey Show, as Ferguson quipped it was a Scotsman’s revenge for all those dodgy Scots accents perpetrated by English actors.
Over the next eight years he also wrote and directed three movies, The Big Tease, Saving Grace and I’ll Be There, but all these skills – writing, directing, acting and comedy – seamlessly coalesced when in 2005 he was the surprise choice to take over as host of The Late Late Show.
The late-night TV chat show is an American institution crafted by Johnny Carson and handed down with reverence to each new generation of comics such as David Letterman and Jay Leno and their own disciples.
What Ferguson did was go for a looser, more relaxed and laid-back approach to presenting. He rarely watched the new films the guests were on to promote, threw away his question cards at the beginning of each interview and used the opening monologue not as a comedic Gatling gun to hit the audience with as many barbed gags as possible, but as a charming, rambling fireside chat that drew in those viewers still up at 12:30am.
Over the past nine years he has proved particularly popular with female viewers, not the time slot’s usual audience, and he has achieved this not only by flirting with the camera but being unusually confessional and, at time, genuinely touching.
When Ferguson’s mother died, he spent eight minutes talking about her love of children and teaching and how he felt now at her absence, pointing out that as this was close to the Christmas holidays he wouldn’t be alone in feeling this way. Then, when Britney Spears endured her own “Lost Weekend” in which she shaved her head and attacked a paparazzi’s car, Ferguson was alone among the late-night hosts in his decision not to use her public breakdown as material for jokes. Watching his monologue on YouTube, you can hear the audience wanting to laugh, thinking that at any minute he’s going to accept the bait, but he didn’t. Instead, he talked about his own battle with alcoholism and how, after waking up in a room above a bar in London on Christmas morning in 1992, he decided to throw himself off Tower Bridge and how after a glass of sherry, he changed his mind. “Alcohol saved my life that morning, but it was also killing me.”
He talked about how he got sober a few months later and that Britney’s meltdown had coincided with the 15th anniversary of his last drink. He explained that sick people could get better and that if they were looking for assistance they should look at the very beginning of the phone book, a nudge towards AA. It was a bold, risky move, but it paid off with the viewers.
This week Alex Salmond, who has appeared on Ferguson’s show both in LA and when he brought it to Edinburgh, declared in an interview with GQ that Scotland is “a nation of drunks”.
Given the statistics, can we genuinely argue against such a statement? Yet Ferguson is proof that you can climb back out of the bottle and achieve remarkable success.
David Frost said: “Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home.”
Yet should either Jeremy Paxman or Craig Ferguson turn up on your doorstep in the quiet days after their departures, the pleasant fact is viewers would actually want to welcome them in for a cup of tea.