Ministry of Mayhem

Saturday, January 10, 2004 by

Even those who weren’t alive at the time know about the battle between Swap Shop and Tiswas on Saturday mornings past. Swap Shop on the Beeb was a thoughtful, slow-moving series that centred heavily on informative content and cosy presentation. Meanwhile on ITV, Tiswas was a fast-moving burst of shameless entertainment, much brasher and livelier than the opposition. Of course, the main reason why these formats are so well-known is that over the following two decades, the respective channels stuck to a very similar blend, right up to the competition between Live & Kicking and SM:TV Live at the start of this decade. Both formats had their fans – ITV viewers thought the BBC was boring, BBC kids thought ITV was brainless – and both seemed to sum up their respective channels.

Now, though, big changes are afoot. Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow sees the BBC utilising a format that ITV always used to specialise in, and doing it with a great deal of panache and charm. The increase in viewing figures would seem to bear this out. After a few years where the Beeb were struggling on Saturday mornings, they’ve finally found another winning format. So what do ITV do now? In the past, most new ITV Saturday morning shows were not particularly scrutinised, as the BBC were always way ahead in the ratings – hence how SM:TV Live managed to iron out all its early teething problems without much pressure, before pulling in big audiences when the Beeb, for whatever reason, began losing the plot. However the new show, Ministry of Mayhem, has been charged with following a huge success, and as such needs to get the blend right almost straight away.

Promoting the new show, Carlton claimed that they’d had the format in development for many years, and they’ve certainly tried hard to assemble an impressive team. The likeable Holly Willoughby has been poached from CBBC to present alongside CITV regulars Stephen Mulhearn and Michael Underwood, and behind the scenes there are roles for Chris Bellinger – a veteran of Saturday morning TV, having edited the likes of Saturday Superstore and Going Live – and Trevor and Simon, also no strangers to this slot. The show certainly looks impressive, too, with a huge set, nice graphics, big-name cartoons and expensive prizes for competition winners.

Yet it could be that money and stars have been to the show’s detriment. Certainly, a huge part of the appeal of Dick and Dom is that it’s all filmed in a tiny studio, and clearly compiled very much on the hoof – so items can be abandoned halfway through if they’re not working and the duo regularly corpse when something goes wrong. At the Ministry, though, everything’s that much more regimented. The huge studio tends to dominate proceedings, especially as the content hardly seems to need much space – indeed, a large percentage of the programme consisted of Holly, Stephen and Michael simply sitting on a sofa talking to the camera. It also seems odd that, despite this huge set, the studio audience is for the most part out-of-vision and squashed into a corner, while bands perform on a tiny stage and don’t generate much of a spectacle.

The Saturday morning programme the Ministry most resembles is TVS’ early-’90s runaround What’s Up Doc – unsurprising given that The Foundation, who co-produce the show, was set up and is almost entirely staffed by ex-TVS personnel. Like that show, the Ministry is populated by characters, such as a mad scientist who speaks cod-German, or two telephone operators who always talk in unison. These are well performed by actors, but alas, that’s one of the main problems here. On Dick and Dom, it’s obvious to even the smallest child that all the “characters” are either their mate Dave in a wig or their mate Melvin in a wig – and they’re all the funnier for it because it’s clearly just messing about. Here, the characters are all scripted in advance so they’re less fun, and the actors are unable to improvise much. Furthermore, they’re all grotesques which makes the performances often unsettling or irritating rather than funny, and stuffing the show full of them means they get in the way of the presenters talking to the viewers.

The biggest problem, though, is that for a show that’s supposedly been many years in development, a lot of the items seem rather poorly thought out. Just half an hour in, for example, the Ministry made an appeal for young anglers to send in pictures of fish they’ve caught, which is surely unlikely to get the kids glued to their screens. Meanwhile the flagship competition for viewers is “Dat Door Dare”, which took an age to explain – despite it basically involving phone contestants picking a door and hoping there’s a prize behind it. Sure, the prizes are good, but it’s a really boring game to watch. Duller still is the climax to the show. On Dick and Dom, this is “Creamy Muck Muck”, a free-for-all with a load of custard pies. On Ministry of Mayhem it’s … a spelling competition. Sure, Stephen dresses up as a bee to take part in it, but it’s still a spelling competition – and one viewers can’t join in with because the answers are on screen throughout.

Perhaps the best game of the show sees Michael and Stephen sitting in chairs which electrocute them if they get an answer wrong – a rare bit of anarchy, not least because on at least one occasion they were clearly on the verge of swearing before remembering where they were. However if you take the electric shocks away, what you’ve basically got is “Challenge Ant” again, with the viewers turning the tables on the presenters. Meanwhile the programme’s celebrity guests take part in “experiments” with the scientist character – this week jumping in buckets of custard – but you can’t help but compare this to what’s happening on BBC1, and it just comes across as utterly tame and unexciting.

Indeed, remarkably little “mayhem” is actually generated on the show. The “agents of mayhem” patrol the studio in sunglasses wielding guns that spurt form, but this only happened twice in the whole show, making it come across as pretty contrived. Yet why bother with this sort of thing anyway? They’re opposite Dick and Dom, which is full of gunge and mess, and if kids don’t like that then as an alternative they’ve got a show that does the same thing, only much more half-arsed. It seems as if they’ve decided that kids’ shows now must include gunge. Indeed, the only genuinely spontaneous moment came right at the end of this first edition, when Holly fell over during a dance routine. At the beginning and end of the show, all the participants (plus some bloke in a bear costume who only appears in this bit for no reason) sing along and dance to the theme tune, but this sort of thing only really works if it appears to develop organically, rather than doing it for the sake of it.

What we’ve basically got here is a compendium of bits from many other Saturday morning shows over the years. At one point there’s an interview with members of the cast of Coronation Street, where Holly’s questions are supplemented with some from the audience and viewers calling in – a virtual shot-by-shot recreation of many interviews from Swap Shop onwards. It’s not a bad thing, of course, as it undoubtedly allows for real interaction between the viewer and the programme. Indeed, the show would be better off concentrating on this sort of thing, and allowing the undoubtedly talented presenters the chance to show off their personalities instead of being shoehorned into unimpressive formats.

Before Ministry of Mayhem launched, ITV1 insisted that the show was aimed squarely at the under-12s, and had no interest in appealing to an older audience. That’s fair enough, as certainly some of the worst Saturday morning series of recent years have been those that tried to pretend they weren’t children’s programmes. This, though, is like the last five years of Saturday morning TV never happened. It’s hard to see kids being blown away by tedious interviews with Michelle off Pop Idol. The show needs fewer, more interesting items for it to stand any chance against the opposition. For now, though, Saturday mornings sees the BBC dealing in anarchic fun and ITV1 being worthy but dull – exactly the opposite of what we’ve come to expect.


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