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James Corden brings The Late Late Show to London one last time

With slick production, A-list guests and family watching on from the audience, James Corden's homecoming was a masterclass in how to host a talk show.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

I remember the first time I met James Corden, it was 27th November 2014 at a screening in London for his BBC Two series The Wrong Mans. We talked about the then-recent announcement that he’d be succeeding Craig Ferguson as host of The Late Late Show on CBS from March 2015.

Unsure how long it would last, James wondered if hosting a late-night talk show in the US would be the right move for him. And to a certain extent, I understood his reservations. Best-known for playing Smithy in the UK comedy Gavin & Stacey, Corden’s presenting experience was limited to hosting The BRIT Awards on three occasions and to a US audience, he was largely known as the Tony award-winning actor from One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway.

But over 1,000 episodes later, multiple accolades and a string of viral moments such as the magnificent Carpool Karaoke, it's safe to say that the decision to accept the job was the right one. The move significantly raised his profile and James Corden is now one of the most recognisable people in the world and has earnt his place as a skilled talk show host.

On Monday (27th June) afternoon, I was invited to Freemasons' Hall in Covent Garden to attend the recording of the first of four special London episodes. Described as "the hottest ticket in town" by warm-up Andy Collins, his claim was justified when he revealed that 300,000 people had applied for tickets. Looking around the room, the makeshift studio probably holds about 400 audience members, meaning there's probably a lot of fans of the show reading this now in envy.

And for good reason. The Late Late Show always attracts the biggest names and Monday was no exception. Kicking off the week in London was international music sensation Billie Eilish and Stranger Things actor David Harbour. And with guests this week including Ed Sheeran, Vin Diesel, Tessa Thompson, Sam Smith, Minnie Driver and a special trip to The White House to visit President Joe Biden, it's set to be an unmissable week for the show.

After being treated to Lizzo's Carpool Karaoke at the top of the show - which by the way is amazing - Billie Eilish played a game of Spill The Tea, a special English version of Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts where James and a guest take it in turns to ask personal questions. They have the option of not answering of course, but if they don't, they have to eat whatever disgusting dish is laid out in front of them.

Let's just say there was a lot of wrenching, lots of reaching for the sick bucket and lots of avoided questions. For example, whilst Billie Eilish was happy for James to scroll through her (rather lovely) DMs, he was less than willing to read out his most recent messages from Harry Styles.

Whilst the crew were setting up for Spill The Tea, James Corden didn't just sit behind the desk and ignore the audience (the way others might/do), instead he grabbed a mic and treated the audience to an impromptu Q&A, allowing the audience to ask him any question they'd like, from wherever they were sitting.

When asked why certain segments had been dropped from the show, he openly admitted "because we didn't think it was very good", he put to bed rumours of starring in Doctor Who, describing Matt Smith as "his Doctor" and when asked to pick his favourite Carpool Karaoke, he chose Sir Paul McCartney, despite Billie Eilish listening in from behind a curtain.

And quite right too. It's easily one of my favourite moments of The Late Late Show ever and actually just the other night I found myself watching it again after that epic Glastonbury set.

There was one condition though to the impromptu Q&A, no questions about Gavin & Stacey. Well of course, it wasn't long before this role was broken. Not by an audience member, but by Billie Eilish who was told to ask James about a possible return during a game of Spill The Tea.

To my surprise, James didn't decide to dodge the question, despite acknowledging that US viewers will have no idea what he's talking about. Whilst admitting that there are no current plans to bring Gavin & Stacey back, he was keen to stress that the show has always been a partnership between himself and Ruth Jones and trusts her judgement as to what feels right.

But never say never, James went on to describe Ruth as "incredible" and told us that instinctively, she will know when the time is right for Gavin & Stacey to return. Acknowledging the free time he's got coming up once he moves back to the UK in 2023, James teased that that could "be the time to get together and talk about something.”

As well as playing Spill The Tea, Billie Eilish spoke about her first headline gig, which happened in London in 2015, James congratulated her on 'The Queen' coming to see her perform at Glastonbury and David Harbour opened up about how he met his wife Lily Allen and teased an epic four-hour conclusion to this latest season of Stranger Things.

However, Billie Eilish and David Harbour weren't the only special guests in the room because sitting a couple of rows in front of me was James' wife Julia and two eldest children and down by the stage, sitting proudly in the front row, were James' parents, Margaret and Malcolm.

The record very much felt like a family affair, with James asking his mum to offer up advice to Billie Eilish, being conscious about swearing in front of his children who had come to see their dad at work and not wishing to upset his own father by revealing the sum of money he turned down when deciding that he'd be stepping away from the show in April 2023. So too, in the audience, was producer Ben Winston's father, Lord Robert Winston.

Whilst a quick scroll of social media will show you that James Corden has his critics, what struck me the most as I sat at the top in one of the balconies, was how slick an operation recording The Late Late Show is. And that shouldn't have really come as a surprise. I watch the show often, I'm a fan of James Corden and the team around him and the shows are always entertaining and littered with the biggest celebrity guests.

I've been fortunate enough to sit in the audience for many a television record in my 10+ years running I Talk Telly and before then just as a television fan and it's well-known that attending such records can sound like the dream, but often you're crammed into a small seat for hours on end, in a hot studio, watching people do the same thing again and again until the production team get the right shot.

There was none of that on Monday. The entire operation ran like clockwork. James didn't fluff his lines once, looked as though he was genuinely thrilled to be there and the recording - apart from setting up for Spill The Tea - ran pretty much as live, which meant no long breaks, no redoing parts of conversations or links and just one very small pick-up at the very end.

We were ushered into the studio at around 4pm UK time, and I expected the record, as it wasn't going out live, to last around three hours, so ending at around 7pm. After all, this is the experience I've had on other hour-long entertainment shows. But not here. Instead, we were done just after 5:30pm.

I have my theory as to why James and the team, headed up by executive producers Ben Winston and Rob Crabbe, are so damn good at what they do. And it's all to do with that age old saying, practice makes perfect.

If in 2015 James had stayed in the UK and hosted his own show here, even with one series a year, he'd currently be around the 50 or 60 episode mark, a tally he had already reached by July/August 2015. To date, there have been over 1,000 episodes of The Late Late Show and earlier this year it was confirmed that the next season will be the last as James has decided to return to the UK, despite the network wanting to keep him on.

To be given the space to record that many episodes of the same show is incredibly rare. In fact, in the UK it hardly ever happens. You'll get 6-8 episodes per series if you're lucky and then often the broadcaster will look at the numbers, notice three negative comments on Twitter and talk themselves out of a recommission.

In the US, these shows are an almost year-long commitment with anywhere between 100 and 200 episodes a year There's no doubt that the James Corden who I saw present the 1,085th episode of The Late Late Show in London on Monday was a much more polished, confident and skilled host, compared to the UK star that flew out to the US, hoping that this gamble would pay off. It really was a masterclass in how to host a talk show.

James made hosting a show of this scale look easy and natural. And of course, that comes as a result of working together almost every single day, trusting each other and being supported by from what I can tell an incredibly talented team.

The UK doesn't have the same tradition. Graham Norton is the King of the chat show and The Last Leg, hosted by Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker is a fantastically underrated show which whilst weekly, does often feel like it's always on.

More recently comedian Mo Gilligan's The Lateish Show on Channel 4 feels like a new way for the UK to do late night. Borrowing ideas from the late-night talk shows in the US, there's a house band, recurring segments that celebs love to get involved in and with series three currently on air every Friday night, Channel 4 have thankfully already committed to another series.

I'll be interested to see what James Corden does after The Late Late Show. I can't imagine with a profile like his that he'll manage to stay still for long. Will he host a version in the UK? Unlikely.

But after what will be 8 years in the US, James will return to the UK as one of the best television hosts around, leaving behind a legacy that the James I met towards the end of 2014 could have only ever dreamed of.

The Late Late Show with James Corden in London airs Tuesday to Friday at 10pm on Sky Comedy

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