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TV Interviewers 2011

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"Oh, that big, fat, smug face."

"You mean you don't like him?"

"No! I love him. He's beautiful."

My elderly transvestite cleaning lady was looking at Piers Morgan on CNN. She phrased it strangely, but appeared to approve of him. He's not always so lucky. When his ITV travel show took him to Dubai, John Preston in The Telegraph summed it up as "a travel documentary about somewhere you wouldn't want to go to, presented by someone you wouldn't want to go with".

It's Piers Morgan's gross over-confidence that seems to upset people, like when he moved to CNN and announced, "The secret of getting great interviews will be not doing them live." What piffle! If an interview isn't live it's as unexciting as pro-wrestling.

He soon realised his mistake (or his producers did). A month ago the show went live.

And what happened? Nothing! It's still as unexciting as pro-wrestling, and even reminiscent of it - too false, too much mock controversy.

Before he left the UK, Piers Morgan was making progress towards becoming a serious interviewer in the old-fashioned David Frost mould - talking to top people and digging into their private thoughts. He even got Gordon Brown to shed a tear on camera (though Brown's PR chap was probably the man most responsible).

But in America, faced with an interview every day and a show-business culture that doesn't like to dig too deep, Morgan's interviews have quickly become standard celebrity obsequity.

Perhaps his name being mentioned in connection with the phone hacking scandal will give the programme a lift. Or give him a reason to leave it without having to admit he's failed at what he set out to do - repeat David Frost's success of forty years ago as America's best TV interviewer.

These days, as always, TV interviews on both sides of the Atlantic are mostly jokey chit-chat - "Nice to see you, tell us a funny story." But when it comes to digging beneath a guest's smiling face, Britain has always had the edge. David Frost was the first to turn it into a primetime sport, cosying up to guests to get their confidence, then popping the unforgiving question.

The BBC's current first choice seems to be Andrew Marr - like steel when he doesn't like a person, but easily put off if they brim with charm, something Hardtalk's Stephen Sackur wouldn't even notice.

Sackur's technique is to leap from his corner like a boxer going for a first-round knockout. Hardtalk's back-up interviewer, Lyse Doucet, is even more intimidating. Purse-mouthed and persistent, pressing for answers like an investigating headmistress.

And there's a new breed of interviewer too - Martin Bashir and Louis Theroux - who often seem more like private eyes.

For sheer tenaciousness there's still no one to beat Jeremy Paxman, who once asked Home Secretary Michael Howard the same question fourteen times without getting an answer. The BBC editor who hired Paxman described him as having "the slight air of danger - you switch on and you don't know what's going to happen". Which is how all good interviews should feel.

As for the need to go out live, nothing underlines it better than the Murdochs' appearance at Westminster last month. Questions stuttered, questions repeated, irrelevant questions, and questions that went on for so long the questioner forgot what he was planning to ask. Considering the appalling lack of cut and thrust in the questioning it should have been unwatchable. Yet it was electrifying. And the reason was - it was live - anything could happen.

I wouldn't be surprised if Piers Morgan and his producers watched it and thought, "If only we could produce a crowd-puller like that." And why shouldn't they? It could be a new concept in TV interviews.

Of late, British parliamentary inquiries and Senate hearings have become compulsive viewing. So why not try the formula on TV? A panel of six people grilling someone currently involved in a controversial situation. Something of an inquisition, but why not? The public love that sort of thing. And there'd always be people prepared to undergo it for the sake of publicity.

Who knows - Morgan's producers might decide a show like that is worth thinking about. In which case his denial of being involved in the phone hacking scandal could turn out to be a lucky break. If he's asked to repeat it in front of a Parliamentary Committee he'll get a chance to try out the concept for himself.

Could be the most unmissable interview he's done for months.

Find out more about Simon Napier-Bell's work and interests at www.simonnapierbell.com