Returning to television after a nine-month break has come as a shock. Before I had Sky+, now I have Freeview. Before I had a vague memory of knowing what was on and when. Now it breaks down into good, bad, adverts and utter shite. In the last week I’ve watched Dirty Harry and World At War (Good), Les Dawson’s Blankety Blank (Bad). Sainsbury’s, Lloyds, M&S, Erectile Dysfunction, Waitrose (Ads) and QVC (Utter Shite).
It was probably the same before, but at least with Sky I knew my way around. The first thing that struck me on my first day back was the Monkey Tennis School of Commissioning had excelled itself with Hens Behaving Badly. A programme you don’t need to watch because the name itself is probably more entertaining. The first week was very disappointing, Freeview has hardly any History style channels – just Yesterday and this is more likely to show Last of The Summer Wine than a decent war doc.
After a while of hoping but failing to find more Laurence Olivier voiced World At War, I settled back into the light entertainment sludge that fills most of the lifestyle channels. There followed a week of slightly disappointing Celebrity Antiques Road Trip (none matched the classic Peter Shilton and Peter Schmeichel episode) and a five hour Come Dine With Me marathon – where the contestants seemed to be the winners of the Cambridge Dullard of The Year Competition. I bounced in and out of a bit of Location, Location, Location – law enforcement lesbians seek an interesting looking refuge to entertain friends and keep their cats alive – and then I found myself looking forward to Don’t Tell The Bride.
DTTB is a new one on me but a great idea. Give men £20,000 to create the perfect wedding for their brides but make for compulsive viewing by only giving it to people who clearly have no idea of what sort of wedding a woman would want. So the first one I saw was on the Donnington Race Track and the second one was a heavy metal loving tattoo artist from near Leeds who kept referring to the wedding as a 'show' as he booked metal bands to appear at it, and intermittently fell out with his super-camp, gay hairdressing best man.
They’d been good friends since they’d both opened shops next door to each other four years before. His Mrs wanted a fairytale princess wedding “with unicorns”. They ended up with a metal gig at Otley Town Hall with lines like, “Fear stalks the air” as local act Bury Tomorrow serenaded the guests with a full frontal wave of death, carcasses and bomber command.
Throughout you’re confronted with the teary, silent stares of the mums as they wonder why their daughters have decided to ruin their most important day by agreeing to appear on trapdoor television.
Far more eye catching – because they’re on so often - has been the build up to Christmas in the ad breaks. The armada of commerciality sees the big shops with their own flagship films. Lloyds Bank have a story about two friends shown through stills from an image bank, not sure what it’s got to do with a financial bank. This feels like an ad that could have been bolted onto anything. It draws you in and then surprises you only because it’s for Lloyds.
The Erectile Dysfunction ad is everywhere. A greying Blake Carrington lookalike is struggling to chat to his equally attractive dining partner because there’s a massive bunch of flowers in the way. If you give this phone number a ring you can get an erection for Christmas it seems to be saying. Just try the Chinese health centres, they’ve got all sorts of boxes with dragons on them offering you a cock like a goalpost.
M&S have gone for the lovely Rosie Huntingdon Whitely in her pants joining David Gandy on the Yellow Brick Road, given this usually appears just after the Erectile Dysfunction ad this seems somewhat cruel.
On the subject of family planning you’ll have had to be asleep to not see the truly bizarre family day out on bikes playing I Spy, which ends in a little girl getting smashed to red spray by a high-speed train as she crosses some railway tracks. Always pay attention on train tracks, it says. Who the hell plays I Spy on train tracks? “Is it t…” she says as the 2.15 to Glasgow removes her from Grandma’s Christmas presents list.
Much has been made of the ad spend for the John Lewis animated Christmas animals commercial and it probably looked great in the lush red velvet seats of the screening room when the agency finally revealed the finished work to the client. I would however say that Sainsbury’s have not only stolen their thunder, they’ve also nicked the snow, the sunshine and all else on the weather front. They’ve also gauged the time better.
If you have a young family it’s impossible not to watch the Sainsbury’s commercial without a tear in your eye. Three young children and their mum are filming a phone quality message for their dad who is clearly working away. It cuts from spoken message to song and dance routine to the total joy when the dad walks in, in army uniform. Like John Lewis it sends you off to social media with a hashtag and a YouTube reminder, but it’s not just the simplicity and modernity of the package that works so much as the understanding that right now you can stuff your expensive alarm clocks, fragrances and tablets all most people want is to see the loved ones that cant be with them. It’s a brilliant advert.
Meanwhile Morrison’s have cheekily hi-jacked the notion of giant feasts from Iceland – who never managed the edible side of that idea – by sticking Ant and Dec amidst a load of grub you’d happily wolf down a week before I’m A Celebrity started. Waitrose have got themselves horribly out of kilter by having Heston ‘Harry Hill in Prada’ Blumenthal host what looks like a slightly posher version of Iceland’s traditional I’m A Celebrity ad. Loads of excitable young people mingling and eating tiny pies.
And finally I’ve found a place on TV I can call my own, C5USA or C5* - I’m not too sure what it’s called but it’s clear Channel 5 have left Channel 4 for dead in their factual output. A Sunday night featuring Charles Manson, Jane Andrews, JFK, British serial killers. All nicely interspersed with the erection ads. What more can a man want for Christmas?