Watercolour Challenge

Wednesday, August 7, 2002 by

There’s been something not quite right with Channel 4′s weekday afternoon schedule for a while now. It’s hard to point to one, guilty, overriding factor; it’s more an impression formed from a variety of sources. The expanded 45-minute Countdown has proved, frankly, to be a bit of a disappointment; once the novelty wore off, the distinctive and avuncular tone the programme boasted in its original guise has seemed all too absent or contrived. The first series of Richard and Judy was a good idea hampered by a botched production; it’ll be intriguing to see what, if anything, has been overhauled on its expected return later in the year. Fifteen-to-One, meanwhile, simply feels wrong being broadcast at 3.45pm instead of 4pm.

One show, however, is going from strength to strength – and, perhaps remarkably, doesn’t even seem to be trying. Watercolour Challenge has always been a clever, entertaining and imaginative programme, but that’s all the more surprising seeing as it’s made by Planet 24, who earlier this year arranged for a giant garden gnome to be deposited outside C4 headquarters and an oversized middle finger raised in the direction of the main entrance. In contrast to such a childish, undignified stunt (in response to the demise of P24′s The Big Breakfast) Watercolour Challenge has remained an altogether more sedentary and modest affair. Moreover its slight elevation into a minor daytime telly “institution” has been marked, unusually, by not one trace of interference with its format.

We’re still greeted by the sight of three accomplished artists settling down to paint a random outdoor scene, watching some of their progress, then hearing what a professional has to say at the end of it all. Hannah Gordon flits about in the background, keeping things ticking over. The minuscule production values have probably rendered it Planet 24′s most lucrative commission for ages.

Over time, the locations, from famous landmarks to everyday village high streets, have come to double as both adverts on behalf of the British Tourist Board and catalysts for small insights into the notion of a painter’s perspective and interpretation. The three artists always work on the same scene, of course, and always come up with entirely different-looking pictures, which in turn provides the substance for the closing remarks where the professional has to pick a “winner”. Despite this competitive element the show remains forever a very cosy and homely affair, thanks mostly to Hannah’s pleasantries, which are polite but never sycophantic. Ultimately everybody seems to go away happy; and everybody, including us, feels like we’re learned something.

And that’s more or less it. It’s to do the show a major disservice to try and read anything deeper into its success or its enduring presence. All the more reason, then, to refer to a recent article by the ubiquitous Tim Dowling, which appeared in Radio Times, and which used Watercolour Challenge as the riff for a self-consciously pithy and “sideways” look at daytime television. Opting to retread the tired old line of “so bad it’s good”, while gently mocking himself for a predilection for watching television during daylight hours, Dowling proceeded to describe the show as “a template for all time-wasters’ television”, and the epitome of a medium where the sole important factor is that “it only has to beat working”.

It’s instructive but also depressing that knocking daytime TV for the sake of it is still considered worthy of copy space anywhere, let alone Radio Times. The fact that Dowling’s piece was also rooted in exaggerated guilt at admitting to watching such telly in the first place just made his arguments feel even more redundant and from another age. There’s been plenty of fine, if not outstanding, daytime programming during the last five years or so – think Light Lunch, Wogan’s Web, or Collector’s Lot. More recently there’s been the Beeb’s inspired if tentative redeployment of selected chunks of its archive (currently Cagney and Lacey). Besides, daytime is still by and large the only time when you’ll find black and white films airing on mainstream terrestrial channels.

This isn’t to claim that off-peak hours boast wall-to-wall must-see telly; but on the other hand, to cite Watercolour Challenge as somehow representative of output that is fashionably naff, or hilariously cheap, is a particularly unhelpful and unsustainable hook upon which to hang an entire theory. Dowling’s also on dubious ground referring to the show as an “audacious piece of broadcasting” – there’s little that’s reckless, bold or daring about it, and it’s certainly not presumptuous. The programme goes about its business in a calm, entirely predictable fashion, which is perhaps just the right approach to best appreciate its subject matter.

Today’s show was therefore somewhat typical in not assuming that viewers knew either too much or too little about watercolour painting, or that they even especially wanted to know. Instead it let us make up our own minds, and to evaluate the finished artworks for ourselves. With the artists all being amateurs, and all looking and behaving refreshingly, well, normal (complaining about the cold, eating an ice cream) there was even less on screen that could be felt to be “off limits” or alien to the casual viewer. Even when the expert offered up a few tips, including how to successfully paint clouds, this was fun to watch as an act in itself, in the same sense that there was always enjoyment to be had from viewing Tony Hart go about his business, even though you never had the slightest intention of attempting his creations yourself.

C4 boss Mark Thompson has expressed a wish to have a thorough clearing out of his station’s daytime stables. There’s certainly some fine tuning to be done, and if there’s a subtle and polite way of returning Countdown to 30 minutes – rather than melodramatically axing it completely, as has been rumoured – then so much the better. But hopefully Watercolour Challenge will be around for a bit longer yet. Like the very best daytime telly, it does its level best not to call attention to itself, or its qualities; and most important of all, it doesn’t exist just for the hell of it.


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