Slap Bang with Ant and Dec

Saturday, June 16, 2001 by

There’s no flop like a Saturday night flop. The archives are littered with the corpses of people who’ve attempted to succeed on a Saturday night and failed miserably (Lulu, Gaby Roslin, Shane Richie and so on). It’s odd as Saturdays haven’t been the big telly night of the week for ages – that honour passed on to Sundays years ago. But seemingly due to the halcyon memories of those golden ’70s Saturdays – from Doctor Who through Dick Emery to Parkinson – viewers seem to expect sensational programming on that evening, and moan louder if the programmes don’t come up to scratch than on any other night. Chris Evans complained in 1996 when BBC1 showed Morecambe and Wise clip shows at 8pm on a Saturday night, but nobody seemed very concerned when they filled an identical slot on Sundays a year later.

A Saturday night flop is also more excruciating for TV companies than a weeknight flop as the extended hours of entertainment on a Saturday (Saturday night entertainment starts at about 5.30pm, rather than the traditional 7pm timeslot during the week) means that the underperforming programme can be sent from a hallowed mid-evening slot to a time when the vast majority of the public are in the garden or having their tea. So Ant and Dec, having started their series six weeks before amid huge optimism at a useful 7pm slot, ended their run at that less-than-prestigious timeslot of 5.35pm, before even Catchphrase and repeats of You’ve Been Framed. You can’t have a party atmosphere at teatime. The penultimate programme even suffered the ignominy of being beaten by Friends Like These on BBC1, the programme Ant and Dec left last year to “move on” and currently doing just fine with new host Ian Wright.

So where did it all go wrong for the duo? They remained as charming and as affable as before, and they had a pretty impressive guest list – including Helen Mirren, Ricky Tomlinson, and this week Robbie Williams. But Slap Bang proved that you can’t just stick some popular personalities on a programme and expect the public to flock to their TVs – you need ideas, and these seemed to be particularly thin on the ground. So on five of the six shows we got Loose Change Lottery, where the audience put loose change in a pot before the programme, and then there was a draw when one person won the lot. But so what? Ditto Cher and Cher Alike, where a member of the audience had to guess which of three haircuts displayed belongs to Cher. This seemed to be the major attraction of the first part of the programme, even though this is the sort of stuff Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush would have used as a throwaway idea one week.

And did members of the audience really need so much airtime? Each week they seemed to have been ordered to scream and shout at everything, to make the programme seem really exciting, but this meant that everything took twice as long as it should do while the audience has hysterics. Much of the material seemed to be underwritten – weak jokes that should be part of a much better routine were treated as being on a par of the best of Fawlty Towers or Only Fools and Horses. Furthermore, this could just piss off the viewers at home – the regular “Beers” sketch, set in a spoof pub, used the same comedic style of its Saturday morning stablemate “Chums”, with outrageously bad puns and an amateurish style, which works on a low budget sketch that’s just a bit of fun, but when you’ve got a 500-strong audience roaring with laughter at it, it somehow rings hollow – they’re passing them off as real jokes on peak-time television.

There’s nothing here the duo haven’t done before, either – Challenge Ant is still fun, yes, but it had been done better on SM:TV Live. Other sketches struggled to find a consistent comedic style or tone – the “Donnelly” skit is a case in point, where Dec attempted to host a chat show while Ant interrupts. There’s very little original about this concept – seemingly it’s here so people can call them “the new Morecambe and Wise” – and also it works against the spirit of the programme, as it involved them pretending to hate each other when throughout the rest of the programme they’re best mates. Sure, it’s only supposed to be a bit of fun, but this “dumb and dumber” style of comedy is easy to write, and looks deeply contrived. Jokes about the size of Ant’s forehead are good, whereas this could be performed by any double act.

This whole “miscellany” format has never really been a big draw on a Saturday night – there needs to be a strong backbone to drag viewers back each week. Slap Bang, much like Red Alert, involved a mishmash of ideas flung together in the hope that some of them stuck, and in this case it appeared that they had little to replace any that didn’t (hence, presumably, why “Cher and Cher Alike” lasted for four weeks with what was basically one joke, and then it was replaced by exactly the same thing using Tony Blair’s hair), except for the “McPartlin Undercover” sketch that made its only appearance in this final programme. Heat magazine, promoting the series before it began, flagged this up as one of the main events in the series, but we only had one, perhaps as an indication that the others weren’t up to scratch; it’s certainly hard to see how this (hardly original) idea could have developed.

Much of the programme also seemed like Toothbrush-by-numbers; seemingly Chris Evans’ series is now the yardstick by which all these programmes must try and aim at. Here, though, this just translates into the “stupid spectacle”, so each programme ended with Ant and Dec joined on stage “just because we can” by a hundred chefs, or football mascots, who’d just dance about a bit. But who cares? This wasn’t funny, and nor did it look particularly good on screen. Each week’s programme just seemed to fizzle out; the final show had Robbie Williams performing live (live music being another aspect of the programme promised in advance and never featured until the last episode) but this was stupidly scheduled at the start of part four, rather than the exciting conclusion it could have been.

Slap Bang never plumbed the depths of the nadir of television variety, Hale and Pace’s terrible 1999 series h&p@bbc, which could leave you open-mouthed at the pointlessness of the whole thing. But too much of it seemed underwritten, underdeveloped, and lacked much of a reason for viewers to tune in. So it’s back to Saturday mornings for Ant and Dec, although given that the series was moved earlier and earlier each week, one suspects that if Slap Bang had continued they’d be back to mornings before long anyway.


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