When you write about TV, the law of averages dictates that you’ll have to sift through a fair amount of shit to uncover the occasional gem. But nothing could have prepared me for the staggering, stultifying and downright surreal sensation of sitting through Splash! By the way, that exclamation is part of the show’s title, and not my attempt to adopt a breezy, suitable-for-light-entertainment tone. Let’s be clear here, the last ninety minutes were about as much fun as invasive surgery with a balloon whisk. Less a TV show, more of an extended audition reel engineered by Tom Daley’s media agent, this actually made me long for the heady intellectual heights of Hole In The Wall.
The concept itself is ridiculously simple – it’s Dancing On Melted Ice, with Tom Daley attempting to fill a Torville and Dean shaped hole, by gamely posing in a tiny pair of budgie smugglers. Each week, five celebrities deemed too anonymous even for Big Brother, throw themselves into the water, hoping to win a place in the semi-final. Britain’s favourite set of obliques is on hand, to offer a few “great rotations” platitudes and smile at the crowds of teenage girls who’ve been bussed in from Dunstable for the evening.
The show doesn’t get off to the best of starts, as we discover that it’s sponsored by Dominos. Given the dangers of swimming on a full stomach that we had drummed into us as children, a carb-loaded pizza doesn’t really scream ‘competitive diving.’ Vernon Kaye and Gabby Logan are our hosts, and if I tell you that even they’re slumming it, that should give you some idea of just how bad this is. Tonight, Omid Djalili, Jade Ewen, Jake Canuso, Helen Lederer and Jenni Falconer “will be facing the most terrifying experience of their lives”. Fuck the ten metre board, it’s going to be more frightening trying to get an agent to take their calls tomorrow morning.
Vernon’s come straight from a Primark shop window, and Gabby appears to be channelling Penelope Keith, as they introduce Tom Daley for the third time in eight minutes. Tom enters by doing a quick dive off the highest platform, and instantly points out what’s wrong with the concept.
In a classic episode of 30 Rock, naïve redneck Kenneth invents a great new gameshow, that’s a twist on Deal Or No Deal, but with a suitcase of gold bullion. The producers are thrilled with Gold Case, and rush it into production. It’s only when they film the pilot episode, that they realise there’s a fundamental flaw in the premise, as contestant after contestant successfully guesses which model is holding a briefcase containing a million dollars in solid gold. “Right,” says Kenneth as the reality slowly dawns, “because gold is heavy.” And that’s what we have here – a ninety-minute show based around five minor celebrities plunging into water. That’s maybe 12 seconds of ‘entertainment’ in an hour and a half. Gabby breathlessly announces that “The atmosphere here in Luton is electric,” and I can’t help wondering if she’s planning on throwing a live hair-dryer into the diving pool.
In standard reality show fashion, we’ve even got a panel of judges, comprised of Team GB coach Andy Banks, Olympic diver Leon Taylor, and Jo Brand, who is to diving what Ann Widdecombe is to nipple clamps. She knows nothing about the sport, so she’s here for the entertainment. Based on the showing so far, she’s going to be shit out of luck.
Before we get onto the diving portion of tonight’s programme, we need to be re-re-re-introduced to Tom Daley and his furry thighs. Someone’s helpfully written him a speech about the pressures of diving, which he delivers with all the heady emotion of the Shipping Forecast. The producers also helpfully throw in some Olympics footage of Tom in action, along with a cheaply fabricated bit of commentary to pretend that the UK was delighted to settle for a bronze. As the VT ends, Gabby’s on hand to tell Tom “On behalf of everyone in the UK, thank you for everything you did for us.” To be fair, he did pop round and re-grout our bathroom after the Closing Ceremony.
Jade Ewen is the first of tonight’s contestants, and you may recognise her from the latest incarnation of Sugababes. She can’t swim and she’s terrified of water, so I imagine she’s only here because the group change members whenever one of them stops moving. She whips off her dressing gown and hands it to the hunky coat-rack standing by the pool side, revealing an impressive gold bikini that looks more like C3PO’s underwear than anything Princess Leia would be caught dead in. After all the VT drama, it’s a little disappointing to see her just topple into the water. If I really wanted to watch a bunch of people I’ve never heard of falling into water, I could just pop Titanic on. The judges are suitably condescending, and Vernon asks Tom whether he’s proud of his “first client.” I guess when you’ve got abs like that, you can charge people for it.
Our illustrious hosts keep trying to sell the concept of the show, telling us that this is the “show that takes celebrities to the edge, then pushes them off.” To be fair, it’s doing the same to the audience.
Jake Canuso plays a sleazy player in Benidorm, and is one of the few celebrities they’ve lined up for this debacle who looks good in a pair of trunks. He gets emotional when he remembers how he “nearly drowned in the Toon Army.” Turns out he meant the South Asian tsunami, but for a while he had me picturing him stuck at the wrong end of a Newcastle match. To help stretch out the running time, he disrobes at the far end of the pool and does an extended parade around the perimeter, high-fiving the bored-looking fans. At this rate, they’re going to have Omid Djalili disrobing in the car park. Up on the platform, he indulges in a few stretching exercises, but it’s not enough to perfect his dive. According to the judges, he “overcooked his rotation and entered a banana.” Not to worry, I know a few clubs where people would pay good money to watch him do that, as long as he’s happy to swap roles with the banana.
In the last twenty minutes, Helen Lederer has come on leaps and bounds. They’re now referring to her as a comedienne, rather than a ‘comedy actress’, and she no longer needs Tom to tip her off a mat into the pool, like he’s scraping diced chicken breast into a hot pan. She needs all the help she can get, since she’s terrified of heights, and it’s making her famously wide eyes bulge like a short-circuiting Furbee. In the end, she just plops into the water as if she fell out of a loose bowel, but even that’s enough to impress our soft-hearted judges. Leon tell her he’s in tears, but I think he’s just read the small print in his contract.
Can’t think of anything else to do, to use up your over-generous time slot? Try shouting out the name of some random props – “TEN METRE BOARD!” booms voice-over man, accommodatingly. Even Vernon seems embarrassed by this, and he’s spent the last decade on Family Fortunes.
Jenni Falconer has “amazing leg lines” and loves sport. She’s also a little bit pointy, so should cut through the water like a butter knife. After a bit of shoulder injury drama, that saw her wrapped in Bacofoil like a partly cooked jacket potato, she’s finally ready to take the plunge. She, too, takes her time getting round the pool, and for some insane reason, the producers decide to run this in slow motion, as it’s the opening titles of Lawrence of Arabia. Finally, she gets to the three-metre board and executes a lacklustre 1.5 rotation dive. Leon’s not impressed, and tells her “The springboard can be your friend, or it can be your enemy.” Jo tells him to be more positive, so he says “I love your costume.” Wow, dig deep. Andy says that the springboard “takes an absolute lot of bottle,” which may have been one of Fay Weldon’s rejected lines for the Milk Marketing Board.
Another ad break sees the Dominos bumpers point out “I think we’re witnessing something pretty special here folks.” It’s true – the only way this could be more staggering would be if the contestants were diving off the roof of an NCP.
With all the shoulder injuries, broken noses, vertigo and tsunami flashbacks we’ve had so far, Omid Djalili is going to have to fake a fatal allergy to water if he’s going to make any kind of sympathetic impression. He knows he’s not the classic diver’s shape, but he’s not too fussed, proudly explaining “I’m not a chiselled, high cheek-boned ponce,” just as the camera cuts to Tom Daley. That’s awkward. Tonight, Omid has decided to do a swan dive from the TEN METRE BOARD, and he’s surprisingly graceful, if lacking a little finesse on his entry. Gabby is breathless with enthusiasm, squealing “That may be one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. And I can look back and say I was there when it happened.” Funnily enough, Twitter is currently awash with similar comments, although motivated by a slightly different sentiment. Jo says that it was so majestic, it brought tears to her eyes, but that could just as easily be down to the slapping sound as the back of his legs hit the water.
After yet another break, Gabby tells us the phone-lines are now closed, but it’s not clear whether she means the voting numbers, or Ofcom’s switchboard. Promising “diving as you’ve never seen it before” our hosts introduce a weird variety act, combining dance and diving in a poorly choreographed James Bond pastiche. Think The Brian Rogers Connection, but wetter. One girl in the audience is covering her mouth in shock, and I’m making a very similar gesture.
With the votes in, Jenni and Jake have to dive again for a place in the semi-final. Both perform worse second time around, but Jake has done enough to go through to the next round. As everyone congratulates themselves on a job well done, Gabby closes the show with a lengthy catchphrase that involves dive-bombing and heavy petting, and manages to talk right over Vernon’s sign-off. Still, we can’t hold that against her.