It’s hard to be mean about Jools Holland, bless him. Later… is the only live music show on TV right now, X-Factor et al notwithstanding, and has a uniquely human quality in an increasingly clinical, algorithm-driven musical landscape. A show like Later… is vital – it’s so important to be able to access live music on prime time television that isn’t just Ed Sheeran “rapping” over a backing track at the end of Graham Norton. And it’s a crucial platform for new talent to break through on, with the likes of KT Tunstall and Future Islands rising to prominence after riveting Later… performances.
But it’s difficult to discover that new talent if there isn’t much of it on the show. Jools has long been criticised for a lack of diversity on the Later… lineup – as far back as 2008, The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis recognised that “all the artists it breaks are essentially the same: MOR singer-songwriters”, and precious little has changed since then. A cursory skim read of artists featured the latest series is not exactly riveting stuff. We’re talking Jamie Cullum (yawn), both Gallagher brothers (again), Sergio Pizzorno’s dire solo project The S.L.P (why).
The Hootenanny featured such big hitters as Tom Walker (generic white boy with guitar #24), Stereophonics (for yer da) and Ruby Turner (rumour has it Jools refuses to tape a Hootenanny unless she’s within a five-mile radius of Maidstone Studios). This is music for middle-aged people who don’t like music. Jools will occasionally try and pander to a younger audience by booking a Stormzy or FKA twigs, both of whom appeared recently to much acclaim. But this just isn’t enough. A lame-line up doesn’t instantly become cool simply by adding the first rapper that appears in Jools’ head.
It’s so important to be able to access live music on prime time television that isn’t just Ed Sheeran “rapping” over a backing track at the end of Graham Norton
In fairness, BBC executives have recognised the lingering sense of naffness the show has gained in recent years. It’s been apparent for years that they needed to spice up the Later… formula and broaden the show’s demographics beyond your Uncle Nigel and his mates down The Crown and Anchor, but at last, the BBC have acted. Their solution? A new studio set… And… co-hosts for Jools. It’s baffling that anybody could believe a quick lick of paint and Jamie Cullum trading some ‘sick bantz’ with Jools would single-handedly change the fortune of the show, but evidently the people that matter do. If anything, these changes have made it worse. Episode 6 of the latest series, featuring Tom Jones as Jools’ co-host, exemplified this. The three-way “interview” between Jones, Jools and a reluctant Harry Styles was hilarious for all the wrong reasons, Jools and Jones simultaneously cross-talking and leaving awkward silences, Styles not knowing where to look or whose question to answer first. In this form, the show somehow feels even more clunky and MOR than it did before.
Perhaps Jools himself is part of the problem. He possesses a certain sense of charisma – admittedly one best enjoyed ironically – and there are, from time to time, enough glimpses of this to make you remember how he’s managed to keep Later… afloat since 1992. But the show increasingly feels more about him than the music he’s meant to be showcasing. At first, Jools accompanying an artist on the piano was an enjoyable novelty, two talented musicians joining forces for a unique performance.
After 52 series, there is no sight more chilling than Jools, all pinstripe suit and Just For Men hair, striding towards Pauline Black from The Selector, plonking himself on the piano stool and busting out some boogie-woogie chords. You feel it’s only a matter of time before he constructs one of his beloved model railways in the middle of the studio and starts playing with the trains during the acts he doesn’t like.
The show increasingly feels more about him than the music he’s meant to be showcasing
It’s hard to define exactly what “relevant” means anymore, but, whatever it is, it isn’t Later… with Jools Holland. The show is iconic, and a live music programme of its ilk is absolutely vital. But it must do more than occasionally jet Tom Jones in as co-host if it wants to survive for much longer. Right now, the show is stuck in a sort of purgatory. In attempting to appeal to a new, younger audience and the loyal, existing viewers simultaneously, it isn’t truly pleasing anyone. If Jools and the BBC are serious about attracting new viewers, they need to cut down on the beige, Radio 2-friendly acts that have plagued the show for so long, and devise a new format that is more than Jools awkwardly hopping from one vanilla artist to the next. It would be a real shame for Later… to fade into oblivion, but unless changes – the right ones, crucially – are made, it’s only downhill from here.