Sunday, 22 February 2015

Is ANT & DEC'S SATURDAY NIGHT TAKEAWAY still the show to order?

Sunday, 22 February 2015

ITV's light entertainment extravaganza Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway (hereafter SNT) is back for a twelfth series, and not before time after Harry Hill's Stars in their Eyes flopped. Truth is, ITV have a tough time finding a weekend ratings winner whenever X Factor's off-air, with the exception of Ant & Dec's two other shows (I'm a Celebrity, Britain's Got Talent), so they'll be glad SNT's back—and its only serious rival is BBC1's The Voice, which will surely fade in the ratings now the Blind Audition rounds are over. But is SNT actually any good, when you examine it? Or does the charisma of the Geordie duo cover a lot of cracks?

SNT has always been an amalgam of hits from light entertainment's chequered past, but its biggest influence is the BBC's Noel's House Party with a twist of Channel 4's Don't Forget Your Toothbrush from the 1990s. It's very much a throwback to the 'shiny floor' weekend programming Ant and Dec grew up watching as teenagers, really—but updating old ideas has worked for SNT, as it could never be considered trailblazing.

Each show is divided into segments, and their running order rarely alters. There's the amusing bit where someone in the studio audience is dragged out of his or her seat, to be lightly embarrassed by Ant and Dec as details of their lives are brought into the open—usually in the form of recorded VTs with friends/family/workmates, or a quiz-based scenario featuring the same. It's very much an appetiser, but I always get the feeling it's only really working for the person being surprised, and those who know them. While you can sympathise with dirty laundry being aired to the nation, and someone's white lies being exposed for all to hear, there's only so much I can watch.

The jewel in the crown of SNT is the weekly pranks on celebrities, "Ant & Dec Undercover", which either feature full-blown Beadle's About-style situations (which involve Ant & Dec in heavy makeup making a celeb's day hell), or alternatively have a famous person under the control of the Geordie duo via earpiece (technically, the "I'm a Celebrity... Get Out of Me Ear!" segment). Like all pranks, they're hit-and-miss in content and outcome, and always look better when being previewed, but in general this segment's reason enough to watch SNT. I've been known to record the show and fast-forward to the Undercover hoax, then go no further.

"Ant versus Dec" is a long-running segment where the hosts compete in an elaborate physical challenge, usually outdoors and involving heights. The ambition of the stunts is commendable, but after so many years doing SNT I find it harder to believe Ant & Dec have any serious issue with heights now. Shouldn't they be inured to it, even slightly? And, for awhile, I just didn't really see the point of this part of the show, so I'm pleased the 2015 series has added the idea that home viewers 50/50 vote for their winner, and a random member of 'Team Ant' or 'Team Dec' wins £1,000 at the end. Oh, and it also means a chance to see the gorgeous ex-Pussycat Doll Ashley Roberts, who presents this segment because Ant & Dec take a backseat—although the fact Ant's married and Dec's engaged now means the flirting with Ashley's likely to be toned down.

There was a time when "Little Ant & Dec" was a very popular segment of the show, but I've cooled on it considerably. This is where two kids (broadly similar in appearance to Ant & Dec) are sent to interview celebrities in their namesake's place. The idea is that two cheeky children can ask impertinent or risqué questions to famous people, and get away with it because of their age—and when it works, it's still quite funny. But I don't think it's worked that well for awhile now; perhaps because they changed the Little Ant & Dec's when SNT returned after a four-year break? But more likely the scripts aren't as good, and the celebrity targets have better media training to deal with a TV show doing 'stunts' like this. Still, there can occasionally be the odd good line, or celebrity reaction to something silly being asked.

Of course, the big finale game and raison d'etre of SNT is the "Win the Ads" game, where someone in the studio audience answers questions on the week's news and current events, in the hope of winning products advertised during the breaks of a popular ITV show. This portion of the show isn't much of a finale, which is why "The End of the Show-Show" was perhaps created, to end things with something more spectacular where Ant & Dec get involved musical routine with a famous act.

There are other aspects of SNT, like the "Super Computer" and use of a guest announcer every week, but those are the key ones the show has relied on since it began in 2002. Other games and format changes have come and gone, but I'm surprised there aren't bigger changes its year. To a large extent, SNT does indeed rely on its hosts to keep everything going, and I doubt the show would still be around if they weren't presenting. It also helped that SNT took four years off, and nothing came close to replacing it, so audiences are grateful it's around. You'll have your favourite segments, and it's tempting to record the show to skip the ad breaks and dull bits, but as a family-friendly Saturday show that has some money behind it, it's hard to fault SNT. It'll be most people's takeaway of choice for a few years to come.

Saturdays, ITV