First run of 14 programmes, late 1998
Second run scheduled to begin April 1999
One of the many drastic changes to the Radio 4 schedules in April 1998 was the axing of Week Ending, the long-running topical satire revue, which left the station without a permanent outlet for satire. The gap was partially filled by a number of new shows, appearing for short runs in disparate scheduling slots, which were broadly satirical or topical in various ways. Almost from the outset, however, one particular show — The Now Show — was signalled as the nominated successor. This was somewhat confusing as it was almost six months until the first programme arrived, having been trailed in comments to the media for some time: the suspicion is that there were serious delays in getting the programme together. It also transpired that the new show would run for only a few months, after which it would be off the air for a similar length of time (Week Ending had been almost permanent, vacating the airwaves only during the summer months for a break of ten weeks or so). Nonetheless, The Now Show must, presumably, be treated as the new flagship of Radio 4’s topical comedy output. The only other contender for this title is The Beaton Generation, which also ran for a few months and which did appear straight after the disappearance of Week Ending, although it has not been heard since.
In a nutshell, The Now Show was a concoction of sketches and monologues delivered in front of a studio audience by a small group of writer-performers. This was constituted from three double-acts and one solo comedian, all of whom were established when the series began. Playing the central role, anchoring and occasionally introducing the other performers’ segments, were Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, a pair of observational comedians who had shot to fame with Radio 1’s The Mary Whitehouse Experience and its television spin-off, before their career followed a gentle downward trajectory which had seen them largely absent from radio and TV in the middle years of the 1990s.
The other two double-acts appealed to opposite ends of the comedy spectrum (the aim presumably being to create a show with "something for everyone", a questionable motive), but had both gained radio experience performing short pieces on the station’s Loose Ends and subsequently fronted Radio 4 shows of their own. David Quantick and Jane Bussmann were a pair of popular-culture journalists with an abrasive comedic style, as demonstrated in their late-night series Bussmann and Quantick Kingsize; Dan Freedman and Nick Romero, by contrast, exhibited a more gentle, almost archaic approach, and had recently hosted The Wildebeest Years, a series which positively groaned with abysmal puns. The odd man out was Simon Munnery, star of the Radio 1 series Alan Parker’s 29 Minutes of Truth and The League Against Tedium. Munnery appeared each week in one or more of his comic guises: old favourites Alan Parker and The League were joined by the relatively unfamiliar (and frankly incomprehensible) Act Of Supreme Supremacy, a character who talked in "a Michael Caine voice". Also appearing regularly in the series was Emma Clarke, whose thankless function was to supply additional female voices as and when the various performers’ sketches required them.
Given the strong perceived associations between the programme and the reviled Changes, which had brought an increase in Radio 4’s comedy output at the expense, as it seemed to many people, of quality, there was no chance of the new show getting an easy ride, and the majority of public and critical reaction was lukewarm or hostile. Wags were quick to rechristen the programme as "The Then Show", firstly on account of its obvious shortcomings in topicality (each programme was recorded on a Thursday but not transmitted until Saturday; the repeat, which came the following Tuesday, was thus almost a week behind the news) and secondly owing to the stale familiarity of its approach. The show resembled The Mary Whitehouse Experience in far more than the presence of Punt and Dennis: the linking of different performers’ segments by a resident double-act, the mixture of topical observation, stand-up and songs, and even the audience-participation questionnaire results which were dropped in at the end of the show had all been heard, to much more potent effect, almost ten years earlier in the radio version of Whitehouse.
Perhaps this criticism is unfair, but two important admissions are difficult to avoid. Firstly, topical satire is not the natural territory of any of the Now Show performers, and the programme, whatever its merits, fails to provide the kind of sharp, rapid-response satire associated with the "Friday night" tradition of shows, from TW3 to Have I Got News For You, of which Week Ending was a conspicuous part. Secondly, The Now Show is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. There is considerable talent behind the programme, and the skills of the individual performers save it from being downright poor; unfortunately, the effect of the manufactured format is to lump their different styles together in such a way as to prevent it from ever rising above the merely average.