Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway

Saturday, June 8, 2002 by

Despite everyone having differing views on TV, there’s one thing that the world seems to agree on – Ant and Dec are the future of television light entertainment. However, nobody seems to have noticed that they’ve not actually been that great at it. Yeah, SM:TV Live was a terrific show – and not just in a knowing, ironic way, it was genuinely funny and entertaining. But in peak time they’ve had less success. Pop Idol was a huge hit, but they were peripheral to the success of it, and it would probably have been a smash regardless of who was in charge. Friends Like These was watchable, but hardly the sort of thing that empties the pubs on a Saturday. The Likely Lads tribute was vaguely entertaining but not the sort of thing you’d want to see more than one of. Then there was Slap Bang.

Slap Bang was supposed to be the show that would transplant their Saturday morning supremacy into the evening, but somewhere along the line they forgot to think of anything to do when they were there. We were seemingly supposed to watch purely because they were Ant and Dec and they were popular – almost putting faith in the idea that we’d watch our favourites reading the phone book. All the good ideas had previously appeared on SM:TV, and the only innovation was performing them in front of a constantly screaming, shouting audience, which was just annoying – the weak material was treated as comedic gold. Yet seemingly nobody was prepared to slag it off, critics simply suggesting “Well, it’s not quite there, but Ant and Dec are still really good.”

So here we are 12 months later, and it’s time for the boys’ next attempt at capturing that big mainstream audience. Of course it’s important for ITV that they’re successful, partly because they’ve signed them up on expensive contracts and partly because they want a new hit show to ease the pressure on Blind Date and Stars in Their Eyes, both of which are playing to reliable but declining audiences, and will remain in the schedules until something better comes along. Saturday Night Takeaway shares some similarities with the earlier Slap Bang – it’s in the same slot, it’s live, and it too has an irritatingly large studio audience. It differs, though, in that it’s made by a different production team and it has – at last! – a reason to watch. So you’ve got various quickie games, a musical guest, and a central game which runs throughout the show and ends up with a big climax at the end where a contestant wins a huge prize. With Slap Bang most of the items didn’t really have much of a point, while here there are prizes on offer, and that makes a big difference.

Of course the major selling point in this series is that a member of the audience gets to win whatever was advertised during the commercial breaks in one programme shown on ITV1 that week. This isn’t really as revolutionary a concept as it first sounds, though. There’s no actual way of knowing if they are actually the products from the adverts, unless you’ve got a tape of the programme to check. Basically it means that at the end of it you get a list of 25 prizes, some good, some crap, and the point of the end game is to try and find the good ones and avoid the rubbish ones. Indeed, it could be argued that the conceit here is detrimental to the tension – this week’s winner got a car, but because they can’t mention brand names they couldn’t show him what car he’d actually won – or any of the other prizes. Despite this constraint, it’s hard to see how it could be altered without contravening broadcasting regulations.

Thankfully some of the other games make up for it. At one point they go live to a cinema and tell the people inside it that one of them has £3000 at their home, but they’ve got to go home and collect it before the end of the show. A bit like Noel’s House Party? Maybe, but it’s well executed, even if the ending seemed ever so slightly staged. Though what happens if the lucky punter refuses to go home is anyone’s guess.

The other standout feature is the item where someone is locked in a bunker for a week with Jeremy Beadle. It’s not brilliantly explained – has Jeremy really agreed to live there for six weeks, and if so, why? – but it’s diverting enough, as every week Jeremy and the punter have to master a particular task and then perform it on the show. This week they were asked to learn and then perform the Chinese national anthem, and if they got it right, the punter left the bunker and got a cash prize, and Jeremy got something to make his spell in the bunker a bit nicer. This is hugely refreshing because the programme refuses to do predictable “Jeremy Beadle is a complete wanker” jokes; instead he genuinely wants the contestants to win, and the contestants genuinely say how much they’ve enjoyed the week with him. It’s hard to say why this works and the similar Moment of Truth doesn’t, but it does. And Jeremy does come over as a really likeable person.

Some other bits work, and some don’t. On a personal note I’d like to take issue with them announcing a “newsflash” midway through the programme, because it had me fooled for a few seconds before I realised it was a spoof. A vaguely subversive and clever idea, yes, but at a time like this I’d rather we didn’t have jokes like that, please. Also, much as I have a soft spot for what one LWT staffer once memorably referred to as “big fuck off LE bollocks”, we don’t need huge hyper audiences screaming and shouting at everything on the show. Laughter and applause is one thing, acting as if The Second Coming is taking place on stage is another.

So, the future of light entertainment? Well, on the other side at the same time is the overcomplicated and stagey lottery quiz, In It To Win It, and it’s better than that. It’s also better than The Vault, which is on before it, and it’s better than the increasingly predictable Blind Date, which it replaces. So in those terms, it’s a success. It’s not going to get you to stay in on a Saturday night, but if you’re in front of the telly at that time, it’s worth a look. It’s clearly better than Slap Bang because, as Dec noticed, it’s actually got a point to it. So I wouldn’t mind if it ran and ran. But if I get a better offer, I probably won’t be putting the tape on.


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