TV Cream

It's Saturday Night

132. The trip of a lifetime

 

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While ITV remained committed to the Saturday night pop talent show, the BBC was finding that dancing could be a reliable audience winner. A Christmas special, relocating the Come Dancing format to ice, was a success – and came to air around the same time ITV announced the imminent Stars on Thin Ice, where celebrities would learn to skate under the instruction of Torvill and Dean. Then Strictly Come Dancing was recommissioned for a third series. But there was more to come.

Graham Norton had joined the BBC in 2004 after the corporation had spent many years trying to lure him from his familiar home on Channel 4. The comic pointed out that on the Beeb he wasn’t going to be waving vibrators about or discussing sexual habits – well, not all the time – and that this deal involved Saturday night family entertainment. “The idea of trying a big family entertainment show was something I’ve wanted to do for quite a long time,” he revealed later. “That was always the temptation when the BBC approached me in the past. It was, ‘Oh, God, I’d love to do that’, but at the time I was really enjoying my Channel 4 show, V Graham Norton, and I felt we still had things to do.” However, eventually growing bored with the five-nights-a-week programme, Norton decided now was the time to try something different. Yet there was something of a pregnant pause after his arrival. The new shows took a long time to make it to the screen, and the press gleefully reported the Beeb was tearing its hair out to find a format that worked. Given his first appearance on BBC1 was to host a tribute to The Sound of Music, it seemed as if they may have been right.

In the end, Graham Norton did arrive on Saturday night BBC1 from March 2005 to present … a dancing competition. He was keen to point out, however, that Strictly Dance Fever was not simply a cash-in on their most recent light entertainment success, or an easy way to provide work for a BBC-contracted employee. He claimed that “when they pitched the idea to me, I did think, ‘I would definitely watch this show'”. Strictly Dance Fever was clearly not the most original of formats, however, simply opening up the Come Dancing format to members of the public instead of professionals – “Dance Idol”, if you will.

Despite the cynicism, it was a perfectly adequate Saturday night series, making for passable entertainment and pulling in unspectacular, but steady, audiences. Without Brucie’s old-school showmanship or the hoofing newsreaders, it wasn’t a very exciting affair, but Norton performed well enough as host. For many, though, Strictly Dance Fever was merely the warm-up to one of the most exciting Saturday night series for many years.

In September 2003 it was announced that, after over a decade of rumours, campaigns and speculation, Doctor Who was to return as a regular weekly series. Its revival was thanks to Russell T Davies, a huge fan of the show who, thanks to Queer as Folk and Bob and Rose, had become a hot TV property. Davies would later suggest that he said he would only work for the BBC if they let him bring back Doctor Who. The new series would be produced by BBC Wales and was expressly commissioned for the Saturday teatime slot it had filled during the 1960s and ’70s.

The press proceeded to go to town over the new series, and speculation immediately began over who was to become the ninth Doctor. The Daily Mail announced to the world that Bill Nighy was to take up the role – unfortunately on the same day the BBC, and every other newspaper, confirmed it was actually Christopher Eccleston. With credits including Shallow Grave and Cracker, this was a major departure for Eccleston. Later, pop star-turned-actress Billie Piper was unveiled as his companion, and Who fans started to turn up in Cardiff city centre to catch the filming and pore over news of the new logo and theme tune. Meanwhile BBC1 started trailing the programme from the start of 2005, three months before the series was due to begin, Eccleston promising us “the trip of a lifetime”.

Doctor Who began on Saturday 26 March, 2005 at, as announced, 7pm. No drama had filled this slot for many years, and it could have been a hugely expensive and embarrassing flop. With a head writer and actor who had previously been best known for post-watershed programming, one of the most demanding and critical fanbases of any show and an enormous reputation to live up to, it was surely a big risk.

The first episode pulled in an audience of 10.8 million viewers. This was more than the BBC had expected, but emphasised how the return of Doctor Who had captured the nation’s imagination. However, it was important the majority stuck around for the rest of the series to ensure it wasn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia. Inevitably ratings failed to reach the heights of episode one, but Doctor Whowon its slot every time, was often the highest rated non-soap programme on the BBC in any given week and was a huge critical success. The show was a massive national talking point and proved that a family audience would still gather around their televisions if there was the right programme to watch.

Perhaps the best thing about the new Doctor Who, though, was how it dealt with its ITV competition. For the first few weeks, Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway held its own, as was only to be expected. However it was then replaced by a new series. The idea of celebrities taking part in something they’d never previously done was a familiar and largely successful format for Saturday night TV – Strictly Come Dancing was the latest in a long line of examples, with the chance of seeing stars away from their usual surroundings and so showing off a different side often proving appealing. If this was encouraging a new talent, so much the better. So there was the hope that another series taking up the format would prove to be just as successful.

This was not to be the case, however, for Celebrity Wrestling, which almost immediately became a byword for failure. It’s quite remarkable how, despite the enormous publicity budget, almost everyone – TV critics and viewers alike – knew this was destined to flop from the word go. There were numerous factors conspiring against this show. The first involved the titular “celebrities”. There was Oliver Skeete, about a decade since he made regular appearances on TV as Britain’s only black show jumper, despite achieving next to nothing in the sport. There was Big Brother winner Kate Lawler. There was Lee Sharpe, former Manchester United footballer who had spent the previous few years clogging around the lower leagues. There was glamour model Leilani. You hardly knew what these people did in their real jobs, so who cared how they got on in something else?

If the “celebrity” half of the title was a problem, so too was the other half. Celebrity Wrestling was simply too tacky for Saturday nights, and watching page three girls grappling in lycra was hardly going to appeal to the whole family. It was hard to imagine anyone over the age of 12 taking this in any way seriously, while host Kate Thornton – all over ITV’s schedules like a rash – treated it with all the seriousness of the World Cup final. There was no wit or intelligence involved, it was simply uninspired and cynical programming. The 3.8 million viewers for episode one was half of that earned by Ant and Dec the previous week – and half of Doctor Who’s audience – and it plummeted from there. It was a major factor in helping ITV1 to its third worst peak time performance ever on Saturday 30 April 2005, where over the evening it pulled in just 16.9% of the audience.

Indeed ITV’s Saturday night schedule at this point had to be one of the least appealing in its entire history. Preceding Celebrity Wrestlingwas Hit Me Baby One More Time, another variation on the Reborn in the USA format, where veteran pop stars performed their old hits and new songs in the hope of returning to the limelight. Wisely located in a London studio rather than seedy American nightclubs, it was probably more fun than its predecessor, but resolutely pointless, only just creeping above the two million viewers mark. Following the wrestling was Celebrity Stitch Up, a series whose title told you everything you needed to know – including why there was little point in tuning in.

Eventually ITV bowed to the inevitable and moved Celebrity Wrestling to the hallowed slot of 9.50am on Sunday mornings. All involved claimed it was tough to pull in an audience against a hit like Doctor Who, though it’s worth remembering just what a risk the recommissioning of Who had been. Granada Chief Executive Simon Shaps laughed off the success of Doctor Who as “it was a revival,” as if bringing the programme back was the easiest thing in the world to do. ITV replaced Celebrity Wrestling in the schedules with films, including the ancient Beverly Hills Cop.

Next Monday: Epilogue – Why Haven’t You Written a Series of Articles on Tuesday Night Telly?

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