SM:TV Live/CD:UK/S Club TV
Sunday, September 17, 2000 by Robin Carmody
SM:TV Live is the best Saturday morning show since Tiswas – and conceivably the best ever, anywhere. Of course its current domination can be partially attributed to the low point that the BBC’s efforts have reached, as the dead horse of Live & Kicking is flogged for one more season with its fourth set of presenters (the BBC presumably fears replacing the L&K title because it’s now a brand, and would impact upon the L&K magazine, amongst other things). The continued involvement of Chris Bellinger has perhaps not helped things – he’s been there too long, and the repetition and outmoded nature of L&K in the last couple of years recalls Blue Peter in the dying days of Biddy Baxter’s reign. But SM:TV is all the more miraculous precisely because ITV’s Saturday morning efforts have been so poor since, at least, the demise of Number 73 in 1988. The BBC’s material in the late ’80s and most of the ’90s tended not to be very inspiring, but they completely dominated the field, so atrocious, blandly promotional and blatantly commercial were ITV’s offerings.
In the last few years before SM:TV began in August 1998, the very mention of ITV on Saturday mornings was a joke. Programmes like It’s Not Just Saturday and Teleganticmegavision would deserve inclusion in any notional chamber of horrors, to represent the very worst of children’s television. But it’s all behind them now.
SM:TV Live is brimming over with life, a sense of enjoyment, risk-taking, humour, irreverence, and brilliance. Ant and Dec clearly enjoy what they’re doing more than any other presenters on children’s TV at the moment, and there is not a trace of the rampant consumerism and unofficial advertising for pop groups, computer games, clothes and other products that has become almost inexorably associated with CITV (and, as we’ll see later, there is a reason for this). When pop acts perform live (this week, the self-parodic Vengaboys and the awful Atomic Kitten) they aren’t presented with the usual orgy of sycophancy and reverence for these giants of pop, they’re just introduced and then they’re off as soon as the song finishes – sometimes they’re even gently sent up.
The programme plays brilliantly with clichés; the “Ant and Duck” item is a spot-on destruction of a certain type of “down on the farm” Play School feature, which could shamelessly offend all the most precious and humourless sections of its non-metropolitan audience (one of the best things about Ant and Dec is their complete lack of influence from the restricting hands of political correctness, or at least its worst excesses). The songs and mock-raps (which seem to target more artists from the ’80s than today) similarly undermine the conventions of children’s TV from within. There’s a camp parody of the tabloid phenomenon of mock-superhero righters-of-wrongs (Captain Justice – “He always disappears with a puff”), a rampant mockery of agony uncles à la Phillip Hodson on Going Live! (“Dec Says”), and the national mythical idea of What School Used to be Like (the brilliant, epic, semi-surrealistic, genuinely weird Country Dancing sketch). When this was briefly interrupted by the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”, it was almost as if the national cultural battle of the 1970s was being replayed in the most unlikely setting imaginable. Some sketches contain an astonishing pace and diversity of references that much adult TV comedy never manages. There seems to be no assumption that “the kids” won’t “get it”, and it’s wonderful to see the Saturday morning audience being treated with such respect. Still don’t get Pokémon or Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but neither of those should be our main concerns.
CD:UK, which follows, is – as its timeslot and audience requires – based around the pop that makes it to the upper ranks of the charts, but Ant, Dec, and Cat Deeley present it with such personality and vibrancy that it’s never dull. It’s easily the best programme of its type, currently. But this is where we must descend into the abyss, because Sunday morning’s S Club TV is quite literally unwatchable. This excruciating half-hour is introduced by a staggeringly poor opening theme song, which introduces us to seven gormless, vapid, grinning, inane models who laze around a hideous all-white set. In the absence of the actual S Club 7 (who nevertheless contribute a “video diary” and have their hits played in the background) we have a Surrogate 7 presenting the show, which is part of the S Club “media franchise”. The “Pop World” feature is laughably limp, almost Chris Morris-like in its insulting progression of images to explain every word mentioned. About three seconds of an old U2 video were shown to explain who Bono was when he was mentioned, and a brief reference to Harry Potter had to be telegraphed by flashing the cover of one of the books on screen. Westlife – quintessential examples of the MOR boyband genre which SM:TV can parody effectively when it wants to – were interviewed atrociously and with great reverence, the exact inverse of Ant and Dec’s healthy puncturing of pop’s bland promotional parade.
But this was as nothing next to the vile “First Kiss” feature, where the Surrogate 7 presenters didn’t just give their audience advice on how to handle their first kisses, they positively instructed the audience exactly what to do, what to think, and what to feel. With its obsessive pushing of its viewers to miniature adulthood, its blatant sexiness, and its air of thinly-disguised propaganda for the cause of personal and physical “perfection”, this sequence was not only embarrassing, but it was truly one of the most risible things it’s possible to see on CITV. Later in the show, a lengthy plug for what we should be buying (not “might” or “could”, notice, but should) informed us of £24.99 computerised puppies, £30 “truth machines”, and clothes costing up to £140 for one jacket and pair of trousers combined. These were shamelessly hyped up, their prices flashed ostentatiously and clearly onto the screen.
Other features – “Search for the Stars”, where a 14-year-old gymnast spoke in the usual terms of her ambitions for success, and a section where you are encouraged to form with a your friends a “human S Club logo” – are dully predictable. But one feature is truly hideous – the living fashion accessories giving members of the public banners reading “WATCH S CLUB TV” on one side and, on the other side which they can’t see, “I WET THE BED”. The sniggering new Beautiful People’s laughter is then filmed for the audience’s pleasure. Public humiliation on children’s TV; how much further can the S Club franchise sink?
That is not something I would care to predict, though S Club TV is almost certainly the worst thing on children’s TV right now. SM:TV Live, on the other hand, is one of the very, very best in recent years. How long they can keep this up remains to be seen, but Ant and Dec have undoubtedly restored to Saturday morning TV a sense of event, excitement and occasion it had previously lacked for far, far too long.