Saturday, September 16, 2006 by

Saturday mornings have always had a unique place in the history of children’s television. Most of this is thanks to the efforts of Rosemary Gill who, in 1976, invented Swap Shop and managed to create one of the most durable formats in TV. Enveloping the whole morning, it involved a couple of cartoons, a live band or two, some big-name guests to be quizzed over the phone, a few filmed reports and lots of interaction between the hosts and the audience. All they needed to do was change the presenters when they got too old or famous to carry on, and before you knew it, it was 20 years later and the same format was still going strong.

Of course, these were the days when the only alternative to kids’ shows was Open University programmes, so it enjoyed a sizeable adult audience of those who weren’t in the mood for calculus over the corn flakes. It dealt with this by gradually increasing the target audience through the morning, with cartoons and games in the early part and the big interviews, often with celebrities who were adults were just as interested in, around lunchtime.

Things are different now, as can be seen by the fact the strand now finds itself on BBC2, making way for more general programming on BBC1. With adults and teenagers now catered for on umpteen other channels, the traditional Saturday morning programme now has no interest in appealing to anyone but kids. The increased competition, too, means that the miscellany format once beloved of Saturday Superstore and Going Live! has been cast aside.

This is by no means a bad thing, as Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow proved. This fabulous series was undoubtedly one of the greatest kids shows for years, as despite it appearing at first glance to be simply chucking gunge about, there was bags of charm and an endlessly impressive level of care and attention behind everything they did – it is unlikely any future CBBC series will require its participants to essay impressions of Stuart Hall and Arthur Ellis, as on one of the final episodes of the series (for “It’s A Muck-Out”. Such energy and innovation, however, virtually ensured it had a fairly short life, and so yet another replacement was required.

What would have been awful was to have seen simply Bungalow mk II, with all the gunge and the shouting, but none of the personality or wit. Fortunately, the Beeb have gone in a completely different direction with the new show. It’s not a hugely radical move, though – the presenters are two men best known as a pop duo, and a fairly unknown woman who’s previously appeared on the backwaters of satellite, fronting a show with an unprepossessing acronym for a name. For Ant, Dec and Cat, however, read Sam, Mark and Caroline.

There is a twist to the format, however, which explains the name (“Too Much Information”, if you’re not up on text speak). Sam and Mark apparently “live” in a flat filled with cameras where they “plan” the week’s show, and on a Saturday we can see what they’ve come up with. It’s not a bad gimmick, with the idea being that the viewers can get more involved in suggesting ideas, and the whole thing leads up to the big climax at the end of the show where the boys battle it out on a challenge they’ve been practicing for all week (shades of Ant and Dec again, this time from Saturday Night Takeaway).

Aside from that, the rest of the show is about as straightforward as you can get. There’s a couple of cartoons in the mix, as well as “Prank Patrol”, a self-contained strand (indeed, it’s made by a different production company and comes complete with closing credits, suggesting it was originally made with a half-hour teatime slot in mind) which is very much a juvenile Beadle’s About, concentrating on a big set-piece stunt to wind up the friends or relatives of a viewer.

Surprisingly there’s only one guest a week, who is interviewed and joins in with some of the games (which, in a rather low-key start, was Nikki off Big Brother, who’s perhaps not entirely suitable for a child audience) and there’s no live music, at least not on this first show, just pop videos, albeit voted for by viewers.

There are a few nice touches. Rather than being based in Television Centre, as all its predecessors have been, TMi is filmed in studios in the middle of Leicester Square, and they regularly go out on the streets to drag unsuspecting passers-by into the games. It’s always nice to see TV shows make good use of their surroundings, and it ensures an obviously “live”feel to proceedings.

It’s also hard to fault the presenters – Sam and Mark are infinitely better at this than they were singing. As well as having obvious affection for each other and being happy to go to any lengths for a laugh, Sam in particular is extremely quick-witted and likeable. Caroline Fleck works well with the two and is perfectly adept at holding together three hours of live telly.

However, there’s one major drawback – self-indulgence. The production team (who also appear in the sequences in the “flat”) are required to cheer, whoop and boo at every utterance. This harks back to the days of The Big Breakfast, where the blurring of the roles in front of and behind the camera was genuinely exciting. Now it all seems rather contrived and irritating, and it means that the presenters at times seem to address the crew first and the viewers second. This would be annoying on any show, but on a kids’ show it seems particularly out-of-place, where the audience thrives on one-to-one interaction and hosts talking to the audience as a friend.

Similarly, the sequences in the flat tend to involve endless practical joking and piss takes, and it’s clearly Sam and Mark are having a great time. However it doesn’t always come across so well on screen, where it’s not always clear what’s going on. The end of the show saw Mark, having failed the challenge, leaving the studio and wandering around Leicester Square in an ill-fitting catsuit, something that had Sam in hysterics, but it wasn’t quite as amusing for the viewers at home.

Overall, the one thing TMi is lacking so far is the feeling that the viewer plays as big a part in the show as those in the studio. Hopefully in future weeks, now all the features have been launched and the website’s up and running, there’ll be more scope for the audience to get involved. Better still, the rather uncharismatic production team can go back to their proper jobs. Because really, if they were any good in front of the camera, they’d be the presenters.


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