It may not have seemed like it at the time, but the early-2000s was a golden age for music television. Even if you didn't have cable or Sky, you'd have witnessed the dying days of Top of the Pops, Saturday morning CD:UK and, the underdog, Popworld. With just two presenters in a tiny, bright white studio, refusing to pander to pop star egos or regurgitate press releases, the show was a punt taken by the newly-formed E4 that absolutely paid off.
Simon Amstell's quick and biting wit and Miquita Oliver's innate bullshit detector shot Popworld from early-morning filler to must-watch TV. The hosts asked questions that made you curl inwards with second-hand awkwardness, and once sent Lemar to the other side of a carpark with a megaphone simply because a "Lemar from Afar" segment was too good to pass up. Eventually, Amstell felt he was too old to be partaking in space-hopper races with McFly and floated the idea of leaving. Oliver wouldn't continue without him, and both left in 2006, replaced briefly by Alex Zane and Alexa Chung, before the show ended entirely.
But for one glorious moment, Popworld shone with a wink and a laugh; that perfect storm of disposable pop and the absurd seriousness with which it was treated, joyfully and unapologetically sent up. Here, as part of VICE's look at the best British TV this century, we speak to Miquita Oliver, writer Dan Swimer and singer Will Young, to hear more about the background of the show.
MIQUITA OLIVER, PRESENTER
I was only 15 when Popworld started. We had no money, no budget, no one knew who we were – they just wanted a nice pop show. Well, they wanted an "edgy pop show" but they didn't really. I remember one episode trying to be really gassed about The Darkness and thinking, 'This just feels really forced.'
So the reason it became the hit it was – at least, I hope – is because it was a bit more honest than cool. It was never like, 'Let's do something edgy,' it was like: well, I don't want to say the new Atomic Kitten song's banging because it's not. It celebrated pop in the same way that it sort of damned it for its misgivings.
We didn't really like each other, Simon and I, because we didn't understand each other. We're very, very, very different people from very different lives. And then we watched something in the dressing room one day and I was like, "I fucking hate when people present like that" – and he was like, "Me too." And we just fell into this rhythm once we both knew we didn’t want to bullshit.
We were on so early, at 9AM, so no one was watching. I think producers were sent to us to be punished, so by the time the fifth producer came to work with us, they were like, "How does it work?" And we just lied to him and said, "Well, we say whatever we want and that's the links." So we did that for about three months. And it worked, so they couldn't say anything.
The interview with Busted changed everything – it was just so funny, and we were all on set and they couldn't stop laughing. And I remember thinking, 'We're onto something.' When you're doing 50 interviews a day and you're a pop band, we were this place where you go, "That's going to be a bit more interesting and a bit more honest" – and you can be a bit more honest. Everyone’s like, "Oh, people wouldn’t come on it" – are you kidding?! They were desperate to come on because they could just have a laugh.
It was so weird when it ended; because Simon left but I stayed at T4, and just at that point they were like, 'Let's amalgamate all the studios and make it a beautiful T4 universe." I'd have to throw to Alex and Alexa – like, are you joking? – and the week after I'd left the show that had changed my life, and that I was very protective of, I had to go, "So, Alex, what's coming up on Popworld?" It was very strange. I found it really emotional. I think I've been searching for it ever since I've had glimpses of it, but never quite it. It's kind of magic.
DAN SWIMER, WRITER
I arrived at Popworld off the back of a couple of years at MTV. At that time, all these morning pop shows were just inauthentic fluff-tests, and we were pretty clearly the runt of the litter, so felt kind of emboldened – and even obliged – to do something different. It had become agonisingly clear that Simon was desperate to do something edgier and funnier. Together, we all kind of slowly stumbled into what it was he wanted to say, and how best to say it – plus, if there was ever a motivator to get your act together it was the sight of a teenage Miquita rolling her eyes at your weak attempt at edginess.
People would always use words like "snarky" when describing the show, but that wasn't really what we were going for. Honestly, in planning every segment, the words we most used were "truth" and "joy". Sometimes we achieved that. And sometimes we just annoyed a millionaire pop star.
Simon and Miquita were so funny together, and both so brave. Simon, because he was on an anguished mission to seek joy through truth; and Miquita because she genuinely didn't give a shit. What a combination! If you took either of them out of the mix it couldn't possibly work. Actually, once Miquita was away and we did replace her. With Geri Halliwell. Terrible show. Who would have guessed?
I've got so many ridiculous memories, most of them involving McFly or the Sugababes. Simon Amstell confronting Beenie Man with his sexuality – and a banana – just fills me with respect and pride. People always remember "Lemar from Afar". Sometimes the memorable ones are also the ones that went so joyously badly.
There was a car-crash interview Simon did with the Libertines that I loved. In the early days, we did an interview with Mary J Blige in her hotel suite that was going so arse-clenchingly badly I found myself hiding behind a footstool. My personal low point was when I accidentally hit MC Neat in the face with a camera, broke his sunglasses and cut his eye. Or was it DJ Luck?
Not all the segments made it. I have this very faint memory of Kanye West pulling an interview before Simon had a chance to slip on his specially-made cardboard-box robot suit. And there was an interview piece with the reformed Backstreet Boys called "through the horse-hole" that involved vet's gloves and a cardboard horse, which they were happy to do, but it didn't meet Channel 4’s good-taste standards. Just as well, maybe?
Generally speaking, we fully believed that we not only had every right to put guests in awkward positions, we really felt it was an obligation.
WILL YOUNG, POP STAR, OBVIOUSLY
It was famous among artists – I will just preface this, I'm sure they're much nicer people now! – because they were quite horrible to artists. So no one ever wanted to go on it! I went on it six times; it never occurred to me to say no at the time.
There was quite a sycophantic atmosphere around the two presenters; they just weren't very nice to be interviewed by – I don't know what they were like off camera, because I didn't know them. But that did change and I did get on with them, but I know lots of pop acts didn't like doing it. It was kind of similar to the Big Breakfast in its way of doing things, but that was quite positive – Popworld didn’t feel positive at all! I seemed like I was having a nice time on it, but… well, I'm a very good actor.
Sometimes they'd tell you in advance what they were going to do. There was one funny time when they were going to have Lemar on, but Lemar cancelled, so they thought they would just film me answering Lemar's questions. And I thought that was quite funny – I got a kick out of that one. I did one that was just a walk in Battersea Park with Simon Amstell, and that was pleasant. I remember being rude once on T4, so, you know, we all have our things. But I think in that realm of pop they were sort of encouraged to be like that.
There was one time that I was really, really hurt. I think [Simon Amstell] was saying something like, "You know, you're a bit sexier now because you just weren't sexy before." And because it was my insecurities, I was really hurt by that. I think I said I would never do an interview with them again. But again, he's a very different person now and I don't harbour any resentment about it – that's the nice thing about being older: less bitterness.
Simon and Miquita were very sardonic – or sarcastic? I’m trying to think what the perfect word for their interview style was. It was like they were saying, "Who do you think you are?" Now, I think interviewers want to get the best out of people rather than tear them down, while I think they thought they were a bit too cool for school.
The good thing about Popworld – I'm determined to say something positive! – is that it got two young people, who were very intelligent, on TV and talking about pop music. It wasn't a good experience, but I'm looking back now as a viewer and it's great that it embraced pop fully.