Tuesday, January 11, 2005 by

Watchdog – certainly for the last five or so years – has been a programme characterised by nit-picking, fussy idiots who’ve been a) happy to throw their cash into a gaping maw under the vague misapprehension it’s going to accumulate somehow, b) failed to read anything properly – ever, and c) keen on obsessing over the trivial, insubstantial wrinkles in life. Or at least that’s the way it’s seen in my house.

In its current incarnation, the show is slowly beginning to shake off that unwelcome, matronly brand of whimsy that beleaguered it throughout the Anne Robinson years (jovial biddies in appalling sweaters road-testing steam irons and the like) to embrace something else equally as off-putting – a certain sneery pomposity. Like this review, perhaps.

However, despite the changing times, there’s one thing Watchdog‘s always been good at, and that’s talking itself up. Thus the fulsome tribute it paid itself tonight for being on the air for 25 years was superbly thorough, taking into account (almost) all incarnations of the show.

Yes, they were nearly all here: its origins as a chucklesome Nationwide filler; its brief soft-spoken outing with Nick Ross whereupon it was immediately axed; the ball-busting but dowdy daytime (and then evening) sitting-at-desks revival under Lynn Faulds Wood and John Stapleton; its peak era with the constantly barking Robinson and the show’s unpleasant ubiquity (although there was no mention of the demented Weekend Watchdog thankfully, and those editions that played out with a live performance from the likes of Steps); and the current what-you-see-is-what-you get variant featuring Nicky Campbell cajoling corporate execs to “be a man” and Julia Bradbury, neatly maintaining her consistent track record for never appearing in anything good.

Along the way, this retrospective spoilt us with numerous clips of old logos and titles, commendably interviewed all of the show’s previous hosts and – best of all – brought us plenty of footage of its presenters being violently accosted by furniture salesmen and the wives of habitual conmen. To witness Hugh Scully being duffed up by an MFI manager – on camera and in an MFI store – was absolutely enthralling and felt like an excerpt from the “It Wouldn’t Happen Now” file. Less beguiling, due to its sudden nastiness, was Faulds Wood being whipped in the face with a chain. As for Alice Beer getting manhandled out of a building, well, here our sympathies started to blur.

As one might expect, the programme wasn’t afraid to linger upon its successes – which, somehow, seemed to include the elevation of the aforementioned Beer and WD funnyman Matt Allwright from sideline stooges to unwelcome in-your-face star players. With its focus during the Faulds Wood/Stapleton era firmly on safety, the show’s list of achievements was admirable, particularly in outlawing cookers that became red hot on the outside. When Robinson took over the series – the couple having to bow out after Faulds Wood was diagnosed with bowel cancer – the whole ethos changed. Now it was less about keeping Britain safe, and more about empowering the consumer. This new approach had been foreshadowed with the programme’s harrumphing over the Hoover flights scandal, but it was embraced with a frightening brio and any victories from hereon in were far less commendable.

Soon anyone grumbling over a squashed fruit or an explained call on their phone bill was given the full treatment. Elevated – seemingly unquestionably – to the heights of martyrdom, these dull Middle Englanders were allowed to rail at the corporate world from a national platform about their boring, petty provincial problems.

Perhaps sensing the show risked being stunted by all this trivia, it was also during this time the dread W-word crept into proceedings, and all reports took on an enforced air of whimsy in the hope of livening things up. From Robinson’s stilted banter with Beer, to ludicrous consumer reports which forced complainers to climb into the fancy dress costume which best reflected their gripe, that certain lightness of touch demeaned all and everything the series was supposed to stand for.

As this programme drew to a close, the current production team and barker Campbell seemed happy about where they are at, keenly stressing that it was indeed their real offices that could be seen on camera. By the same token, I’d like to stress this is indeed my real chair I’m sitting on as a write. Perhaps commendably, Watchdog has reformatted itself again in recent times. Instead of being Anne and her fleet of wacky muppets, its boy and girl versus the world (last “girl” but one, Kate Sanderson doubtlessly having a confusing time, having gone from doing corporates for WD enemy BT, to hosting WD, to getting engaged to WD bogey man Pierre-Yves Gerbeau).

And thus it looks set to continue – shouting, snarling, acting as the public’s very own buffer between itself and personal responsibility. “Your money, your show,” they tell us. Yes and no repectively, I say back.


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