Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway

Saturday, January 18, 2003 by

“Messing about” has never been such a serious business. It could be said that the second series of Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway is the most important programme on ITV1 at the moment. Yeah, there may be more prestigious or more expensive shows, but if this series fails, it could have huge repercussions. Take a look at Saturday night’s schedules recently – Cilla’s just announced she’s quitting Blind Date, and the week’s news has cast huge doubt over the future of Stars in their Eyes. Popstars looks to have run its course and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is nowhere near the draw it used to be. All of a sudden the schedules on Saturday are looking particularly threadbare. For most viewers Saturday Night Takeaway is a bit of fluff over teatime, but for ITV, it’s the show that’s keeping up the entire tradition of light entertainment on the sixth day. Ant and Dec seem to know it too – for all they keep up their persona as two cheery blokes from the North East, they’re now credited as “Creative Consultants”. This is the big time now.

The first series of Saturday Night Takeaway, screened last summer, was a likeable if fairly slight LE show. Yeah, alright, it was Toothbrush-by-numbers, but at least it was better than the boys’ first venture into prime time, Slap Bang. There was some nice banter between the pair, some amusing items and a decent finale with huge prizes being given away. Yet it never really felt like something that would get the nation staying in on a Saturday night. You didn’t really feel as if you were missing anything if you decided to go out instead and, unlike the early days of Noel’s House Party or Gladiators, it was hardly the talk of the office the following Monday.

Chris Evans’ agent Matthew Freud is quoted (in “The Nation’s Favourite”, Simon Garfield’s book on Radio One) as explaining the thinking behind Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. He says that after each show, they wouldn’t just ask “Was it a great show?”, but also “Are there two or three items that people will be talking about?” The idea is that rather than having to spend loads of money on promotion, if you have these items then people will tell their friends about it the next day, and those friends will perhaps watch the next week, and so on. It looks like the producers of Takeaway have been paying attention, as judging by the current series they’re trying incredibly hard to get these watercooler moments into the show.

For the most part, it’s working out. The best idea they’ve had is to increase the number of pre-recorded items in the programme. The problem with trying to engineer watercooler moments on a live show is that they can often fall flat and not work out on the night. With a pre-recorded item they can simply junk them if they don’t work, or edit them to make them a bit sharper and funnier. It may lose a bit of the immediacy and the idea that things can go wrong at any moment, but it increases the professionalism and the quality of the finished product.

In the new series, there are two main self-contained strands. So far, the most successful has been the “Little Ant and Little Dec” sketches. The concept is that Ant and Dec can’t be bothered to do most of the stuff they’re asked to do, so they’ve hired two young kids to fill in for them. This works because the two kids are great in the sketches, especially this week when they went out with Ant and Dec’s girlfriends for them. The writing is strong and they make for amusing, amiable viewing. The in-studio banter between Ant and Dec and their protégés is also fresh and uncontrived, and shows why Big Ant and Dec are such great presenters.

The other insert is Ant and Dec Undercover, which is a little more variable. Each week Ant and Dec are made-up – with some very impressive prosthetics – and then cause chaos in a different situation. The first sketch wasn’t that exciting, with the two dressing up as German popstars and appearing on This Morning, as it seemed that they didn’t really know what to do with the disguise, and the sketch just seemed to drag. The second outing saw them carry out a fake job interview with a member of the public, and it was certainly funnier, but the problem was that it could really have been on any programme. Yes, it was Ant and Dec under the latex, but apart from that it was identical to umpteen episodes of Beadle’s About. It’s perhaps also unfortunate that The Richard Taylor Interviews began on Channel 4 a few days before, which shares a very similar concept. It needs to be a bit more unique to really stand out. The forthcoming Simon Cowell “hit” should show the potential of the feature (incidentally, it was a bit cheeky to promote that heavily before the first show, and then hold it back, clearly to keep people watching).

The vast majority of Takeaway remains live and studio-based, though, and the “Grab the Ads” game is still one of the major items. They’ve managed to address one of the failings from the last series, in that now we’re actually able to see the prizes that the contestants are going to win. Last time round, they obviously had to avoid mentioning brand names, but this meant that while the contestants were told they’d won a car, we couldn’t see them actually get it, so it all fell a bit flat. However one of the other flaws actually seems to have been emphasized this time round. In the previous run, the game ran throughout the show, narrowing down the contestants from three to one before the final. Now just one person is plucked out of the audience and plays the final, but this means that you hardly know anything about them, and so when they win you just go “So what?” Both shows so far in this run have seen the contestants win the lot, but in both cases they’ve simply guessed the answer to the final question and it doesn’t really feel like they’ve deserved it. The game really needs to be a bit harder, or we need to know more about the contestants, because at the moment it’s hard to get excited over it. The same goes for the viewers’ phone-in game, where all we know is the caller’s name.

A lot of the show still feels a little contrived, with clunky edits and unspontaneous “spontaneity”. Maybe this is a case of trying too hard, and it will become better the longer it runs and the more everyone relaxes. Presumably it is going to be a long run, though, given the lack of any other ideas at the moment. It’s fortunate that Ant and Dec are still two of the most likeable people on telly, and so I don’t mind if it carries on. If only because it seems to be one of the few shows at the moment not presented by Davina McCall.


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