I like Saturday night light entertainment. I like television that demands little of me while offering the world and more in return. I like set pieces, jokes I already know the punchlines to and excited, ordinary members of the public winning insurmountable amounts of money just for knowing the opening line of "Uptown Girl" off by heart. I watch Challenge out of choice.
Perhaps it's this level of investment that has led to my recent alarm at the quite silent rise of Stephen Mulhern. Last week I watched the Catchphrase Mother's Day special, a good portion of Saturday Night Takeaway, and an episode of Big Star's Little Star. Added up I got about two hours of solid Stephen Mulhern screentime. Now, I probably only watch a total of about four hours of television in a week, which means 50% of my freeview use was spent looking at Stephen Mulhern.
I didn't realise it was happening for a long time, I think because there is nothing eventful about watching Stephen Mulhern. You barely notice he's on the screen. He's a consummate professional, compèring his shows with ease, while always ready to shoot a knowing look to camera if somebody mentions something that might, if you think about it in a certain way, sound like a willy.
Despite coming off like the boy you went to school with who seems weirdly keen on making friends with your parents, he's not actually doing anything wrong, is he? He's just a nice chap, isn't he? Stephen's just a nice chap.
Is he though? Is he just a nice chap?
Let's first consider Stephen Mulhern's name: Stephen Mulhern. Some people sound like they are destined for fame: Harrison Ford, Whitney Houston and Idris Elba. They are names that are supposed to be up in lights. Stephen Mulhern is a name for the quoted eyewitness in a local news story about a sandwich theft. Stephen Mulhern is the name you hear getting read out before yours in a doctor's waiting room.
But this is his trick, this is Stephen Mulhern's ploy: to be so utterly unobjectionable nobody has any cause to question his motives. He is nature's greatest optical illusion, barely visible to the naked eye despite existing in all places at all times.
A brief history of Stephen Mulhern. Stephen Mulhern began his career in showbusiness as a magician. He learnt magic tricks from his father, holidayed at Butlins, and before long became the youngest member of the magic circle. From this jumping point, Stephen Mulhern became a Butlins redcoat, appeared on Blue Peter, then TV talent shows, then the Royal Variety Show, then CITV, then pantomimes, then Britain's Got More Talent, then Animals Do the Funniest Things, and then, the gameshow holy grail if you will, Catchphrase. When read like that it starts to become clear. Stephen Mulhern is the showbiz equivalent of a career politician.
Hard work is, of course, hugely important and completely necessary in any profession, but the entertainment industry feels like one where it, surely, cannot be the only quality. Where "putting the hours in" can't be enough. Yet it is for Stephen Mulhern. Stephen Mulhern seems to be where he is because there's no real objection to him. There's no comprehensive argument against Stephen Mulhern being a television personality. He's competent, well-turned out, always has a suit on, delivers his jokes on time, probably turns up to the studio early with minty fresh breath. Stephen Mulhern will never be involved in a sexting scandal. Stephen Mulhern will never make a racist remark while leaving a nightclub. Stephen Mulhern will never fight your husband. Stephen Mulhern will never fuck your wife.
Yet in this process, in the process of making himself a thorough-bred television personality, his scalped himself of any edge. A sort of genetically spliced combination of Ant & Dec with all the roguish charm, and even the threat of an accent, sucked out. On paper he is everything the British public would seemingly value: cheeky but not rude, handsome but not sexy, yet Stephen Mulhern now has so little edge he has become a circle contorting eternally in on itself. He is an endless spiral. An ever twirling point, endlessly leading nowhere, and on, and on. He is the Lego man that comes with the build-your-own TV studio kit.
You probably think I'm over-reacting, and I probably am, but there's something about the omnipresence of this small, smiling magician that unnerves me. Like words which if repeated too many times begin to lose meaning, in seeing his face so regularly he has started to look stranger and stranger. A replicant of the modern British TV host, laughing vacantly while Lee Ryan from Blue makes an accidental wanking reference at 8PM on Wednesday evening. And it will go on, Stephen Mulhern being nice and watchable and gradually presenting every programme on television and being nice and watchable. In the age of recession television, Stephen Mulhern the safest bet there is.
And therein lies his cold war-assault on Saturday night television. It is thought that the greatest achievement of the Manchu invasion of China was not their military prowess in attack, but rather their subsequent seamless assimilation into the existing Confucian culture. Their war was won by making themselves invisible. This is the terrifying miracle Stephen Mulhern has performed on ITV, by providing everything but proving nothing he is taking over completely unnoticed; his greatest magic trick to date.
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