20 years of ‘Popworld’: the anarchic chat show that revolutionised music telly

Gary Ryan remembers Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver's greatest hits – like when they asked Britney Spears if she'd ever licked a battery

Noughties music TV could be so cloyingly sycophantic that the height of presenter Fearne Cotton’s incisive probing was probably: “Natasha Bedingfield, were you born in a manger?” But 20 years ago, Channel 4’s Popworld had just arrived to disrupt the deferential circle-jerk, fronted by Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver (who always sported the perma-hungover expression of someone who considered it far too early for the onslaught of S Club 7’s very happy faces – even if it was probably recorded at 4pm).

It swiftly amassed a cult following for its irreverent tone, surrealism and renegade spirit. Memorable moments included the time Simon interviewed Natalie “You’re too beautiful!” Imbruglia with a bag over his head (replete with expressions drawn on to react to what she was saying) and the occasion when Take That’s Gary Barlow revealed that Robbie Williams used to make fun of his pubic hair, and Simon responded with trademark switchblade wit: “Maybe his man-hair was more entertaining for the British public – but yours had integrity.” By the end of Simon and Miquita’s imperious reign in 2006, such giddy heights of nonsense had been reached that a Mötley Crüe drummer could be asked: “Tommy [Lee] have you got Sean Paul’s slippers? Lenny Henry said you had them”, without any eyebrows being raised.

Arguably Simon and Miquita’s child-pointing-at-the-naked-Emperor approach shaped youth TV for the next decade, albeit without the charm. Even their Popworld replacements Alex Zane and Alexa Chung replaced the playful piss-taking with infantile sneering, and the show only limped on for another year. But for five years, Popworld was unassailable, so what better excuse to marinate in nostalgia with some of its greatest moments…

Amy Winehouse campaigns for a Brit

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Competing against Dido for Best British Female Solo Artist at the Brits, Amy Winehouse and Simon beetle around London, armed with megaphones to canvass votes. It’s joyous watching her cackling heartily as Simon bellows: ‘WOMAN WITH CHEAP BAG, SUPPORT AMY WINEHOUSE!’ at a passer-by, but the pinnacle is when she hurls an apple at a billboard for the ‘White Flag’ singer, while yelling ‘I HATE YOU DIDO!’ at the top of her Grammy-winning lungs.

Memorable quote: “DON’T VOTE FOR DIDO. DIDO WILL KILL YOU!’

Simon Amstell flirts with Beenie Man

One of the show’s most infamous moments, where homophobic dancehall douche Beenie Man was getting on swimmingly with smiling assassin Simon – until he revealed he’s gay and had just broken up with his boyfriend. Cue Simon asking for a hug. Beenie Man refuses, so Simon gives him a banana with his phone number written on it. It’s a clever, precise shaming of a bigot – all while giving him one of his five a day. Unsurprisingly, all traces of it have been removed from online.

Memorable quote: “You won’t even give me a hug?”

There’s a Rat in McCutcheon, but what are the Sugababes going to do?

An umpteenth interview with the Sugababes is enlivened by having the questions contained in a rat-infested effigy of Love Actually star Martine McCutcheon. Popworld frequently specialised in this anarchy of absurdism, such as in segments like ‘Lemar From Afar’ where Simon fired questions at the Fame Academy gradate from the other end of a carpark via a loudhailer. Or the time R&B artist Tweet was interrogated solely using questions that rhymed with her name: “Have you ever been to Crete, Tweet?”; “What do you think of the kinetic theory of heat, Tweet?”. Sadly, a grime artist not playing ball means we were denied an iconic “Kano In A Canoe” segment.

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Memorable quote: “Say something nice about Girls Aloud even though you hate them.”

The Strokes get interviewed by a horse

Back in ‘the day’, The Strokes were known for giving such car-crash interviews, it’s a wonder somebody didn’t tie flowers to frontman Julian Casablancas’ mouth. But here gold is spun out of straw by having Richard the Popworld Horse debrief guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., adding a pleasing element of ridiculousness as they glower balefully at being asked the usual well-worn questions.

Memorable quote: When asked what they eat on tour, Albert deadpans: “Horsemeat”.

The Brits 2005 Red Carpet

Standing out on the Brits carpet like a human red wine stain, Simon tries to foist cheese upon a bewildered Gwen Stefani and, in a call-back gag to an earlier episode, chides The Killers’ Brandon Flowers’ for not turning up to a previous interview, leaving him lumbered with drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr (“Instead I was left with this guy – who’s not very interesting”). Best of all is the spoof of charity bracelets with pop stars being given fake causes to endorse, such as Pyjamas for Lamas and Monkeys For Junkies. Were it not for the creepy laddish objectification of Kelly Osbourne and Dannii Minogue, this might be one of Popworld’s finest hours.

Memorable quote: Simon to Daniel Bedingfield: “You just threw cheese at Sam and Mark. Don’t you think they’ve suffered enough?!”

Baffling celebs with ‘The Big Ones’

A recurring segment, ‘The Big Ones’ hurled off-the-wall, sometimes innuendo-ridden questions (“What’s your favourite type of transplant?” “Have you ever had a fruit come right at your face?”) at artists in a bid to demolish the media-trained carapace. It was often said that interviewing Rachel Stevens was akin to talking to a coma victim (she could hear the words, but she didn’t know how to respond), but Popworld combated this by enquiring: “Have you got any power tools?” and “What’s your favourite thing about being Jewish?”.

Memorable quote: The most well-recalled moment is probably Britney’s reaction to being asked: “Have you ever licked a battery?”

God(da) Get Thru This

Simon and Miquita’s swansong episode in 2006 culminated with a parody Channel 4 News report claiming that the beloved presenters had been struck down by a freak instance of indoor lightning, stampeded by a now-extinct species of woolly mammoths, spat on by the cast of Whistle Down the Wind, then eaten by Jamiroquai. Ascending to the afterlife, they’re greeted by God played by none other than Daniel Bedingfield.

Memorable quote: “Even the worst presenters get a montage.”

The Kooks receive counselling

This was an internet-watercooler moment, although one where Popworld’s usual lightness of touch was replaced by something that errs towards bear-baiting with trilbys. Here, the landfill-indie-peddlers partake in a spoof therapy session with ‘The Si-chiatrist’. He has them squirming about their stage school background and makes jibes about frontman Luke Pritchard’s then-fresh breakup with Katie Melua. It’s unedifying, but we only mention it because when asked about it by the now-defunct Q magazine last year, Luke alleged (in a mind-boggling anecdote) that he ran into Simon years later, and he claimed he once pretended to be Luke to have sex with someone.

Memorable quote: “Did you ever call her Katie Manure?”

Duran Duran manfully handle their tools

Like CD: UK’s Hotshots with a Screwfix loyalty card, here Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes review new releases by Black Eyed Peas, Gwen Stefani, and The Killers via the means of DIY tools. Phallic double entendres and laughter ensues, as the old New Romantics take it in their paintbrush-wielding stride. If anything, they’re probably having more fun than pop stars are now pretending to be excited by Simon Rimmer whipping out his halibut for the dads on Sunday Brunch.

Memorable quote: “Gentleman, it is now time for you to put your tool where your mouth is.”

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