On Wednesday night, in a sign of just how phantasmically crap Britain is at being cool, Ant and Dec hosted the Brit Awards. Ant and Dec who presumably have bought one album between them in the past five years, on CD, probably The Very Best of David Gray or something involving Gareth Malone. Ant probably got it from Tesco's before lending it to Dec to record onto cassette on his Alba boombox.
Ant and Dec know nothing of Kanye's tantrums, of Stormzy's one-take videos, of running thru the 6 or #FingersInTheBootyAssBitch. They almost ignored the music entirely, instead doing bits about a smoke alarm going off because of a flamethrower, and interviewing Alan Carr about the bad traffic getting to the O2.
But while the duo were completely the wrong choice to host a music awards ceremony, a few days earlier, they proved why they are still the highest watermark of entertainment television, with the return of their 14-years-and-counting megahit Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway. If your 'almond milk and binge-watching political Netflix dramas' personal brand means you can't bring yourself to watch ITV on a Saturday night, here's what you are missing: a high-budget, meticulously planned live variety show, sort of Don't Forget Your Toothbrush meets Don't Try This At Home, but with more charisma and kitsch and a palpable sense of weirdness.
Let me be clear, my enthusiasm for the show is not some kind of post-ironic way of subtly mocking middle England's entertainment choices. There is a craft and tone and work ethic present in Saturday Night Takeaway the most highbrow telly could only dream of. There are stunts that take years to set up, there is perfectly pitched scripting, and there is the kind of format-bending innovation that hasn't been present in live TV for a generation.
David Fincher can fuck off if he thinks he's had to pull off anything as difficult as that.
Take last Saturday's opening segment, where they took a girl out of the audience and plonked her on the studio floor, shivering with nerves. They got her to talk about her close relationship with her parents and how hard she found it when she went away without them on a summer-long holiday with her boyfriend to south-east Asia and Australia over the summer. So far, so Cilla. Then, snap – turns out she needn't have actually missed them as the show had flown her parents out to Bangkok, so they could wander round in the restaurant where she celebrated her birthday, and then to New Zealand, so mum could go sky-diving at the same place she did. Her parents and a camera crew even flew on the same plane back as them, posing as air stewards. And then to top it all off, the boyfriend, whom she thinks is now working in New York, appears on the show and proposes.
Imagine the insane amount of planning that had to go into that: finding the family who were up for doing the trip and a boyfriend who was ready to propose, smart enough to be able to organise it all behind his girlfriend's back but dumb enough to want to do it on live TV. They had to fly a camera crew and the parents out to three different locations on the other side of the globe, working with the sky-diving centre and the restaurant and the airline to get the whole thing away, while hiding it from the daughter the whole. David Fincher can fuck right off if he says he's ever had put anything together as difficult as that.
There is also an auteur's sense of character development in those few minutes. Because even though they were spending all this cash and time, it was for the tiniest of wins: the parents jumping into the back of shot while their daughter was unaware a few times around the world. It was almost pointless, but it quietly distracts you from the fact that you are getting to know this family, so by the time the proposal arrived, it actually landed like a huge emotional crescendo. Three people texted me to say that they'd cried during the ad break. That did not happen during Wolf Hall.
In the next part of the show, the pair travelled to LA to prank James Corden, covered in thick layers of prosthetics so they wouldn't be recognised. In the complex segment, which everyone working on Corden's US chatshow was in on, Ant and Dec played Michael and Glenn, the supposed fiancés of two women on the show. There were a series of moments that didn't feel very ITV at all. Corden asked the couples about the most exciting place they'd banged and Dec's character got it wrong - nominating a hammock in Hawaii, and then saying "oh no, that was with someone else." Then a bookcase fell on Ant to make it seem like he had died live on the show with his fiancée standing nervously in Corden's arms, like the start of a Kathryn Bigelow film. There is a real moral grey area when the normally genial Corden starts to panic as his producer tells him, "genuinely, this actually isn't good James." Even though you know it's a stitch-up, it starts to feel real.
On it went, onto an actually quite good mini-drama called Who Shot Simon Cowell, a giant human Pac Man, Wet Wet Wet singing "Love Is All Around" cutting randomly to people watching on telly at home to sing karaoke. One new idea for this series was just to plonk four sofas in undisclosed places in Britain and tell people if they recognised where they were, they should go there and win a holiday. If David Cameron got on telly and told people to leave their homes on a Saturday night in February, it would probably trigger a mass revolt. Only Ant and Dec, the Chairmen Maos of light entertainment, can demand that kind of instant organisation. By the end of the show there were hundreds of people sitting on sofas on a cold dark night in regional Britain.
The James Corden stitch-up felt like the start of a Kathryn Bigelow film.
Ant and Dec have a sense of timing, a feeling for jokes, that you can only get having spent the past twenty years being filmed on mostly live television interacting with one other person. To see the secret of their success, just look at the one who isn't talking in any link. Everything about their expression, their reactions, their timing, is perfect. Great actors can make that happen after countless takes on set. Ant and Dec do it live on TV most weeks of the year.
The Brits proved that Ant and Dec are from another era, before TV presenters were discovered on Instagram, and great telly meant lengthy, cinematic US dramas about gangsters. They'll never have a Netflix series. They'll never have a HBO special. But on Saturday nights, in their own domain, they are better than anything else on telly.
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