Our dive to rock bottom is over with ‘Splash!’

Tom Daley in Splash!
Tom Daley in Splash!

From Saturday’s paper: ITV has managed to plumb new depths in this unmissably bad television show

Every human generation gets to witness a few genuinely historic moments. Three and a bit decades into my allotted time on Earth, I’ve been lucky enough to see the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of Communism in Europe. I have lived through the era in which the age of the universe – the date of the birth of existence itself – was confirmed, after thousands of years of speculation and study. I saw the election of the first black President of the United States.

A week ago today, I wondered whether I was witnessing another, similarly momentous event: the single worst programme in the history of television. The point when popular culture’s dive to the bottom of the barrel reached its destination in Splash!, the inexplicable new ITV reality show.

If you haven’t seen Splash!, the image of a dive is appropriate. It is, if you like, Strictly Come Diving: five celebrities – if that’s the word – get coached by Britain’s favourite perpetually semi-naked teenager, Tom Daley, then jump off a plank into some water and get judged by some judges. The public then votes on who did so in the most pleasing fashion.

It’s worth taking a paragraph or two to explain quite why it was such a cataclysmic misjudgment. For a start, even Strictly, which limits itself to an hour, has to pad that out to an unbearable degree. But at least dancing a Charleston or a tango takes a couple of minutes. Splash! decided it needed 90 minutes, but falling off a board, even a very high board, takes about a second. It was always likely to be a struggle to fill an hour and a half of programming using – by my estimation – 4.5 seconds of action. The attempts to ape Strictly’s “professional dancers show you how it’s done” bit, an excruciating few minutes of young men in tuxes jumping off the high board to the James Bond theme, only served to remind us that diving, when stripped of the tension of competition, is quite boring to watch.

Daley, while a sweet-natured and handsome lad, is not a natural TV presence. It feels as though the presenters, a visibly embarrassed Gabby Logan and a strangely dressed Vernon Kay, have been parachuted in at the last minute, so that Daley could be relegated to a coaching role and spared some time in front of the camera. The whole thing reeks of what economists and poker players call the “sunk cost fallacy”: we’ve spent lots of money on it, so we have to keep doing it, even though the sensible thing to do would be to bury the concept pitch and any extant footage at midnight in an unmarked grave.

But from a culture-studies point of view, it’s fascinating – a perfect distillation of dozens of reality-TV tropes, stolen with admirable shamelessness from any and every source the producers could find. From Strictly, it’s pinched the judge-and-vote format and the idea of coaching some E-list no-hopers to do something physically impressive. From I’m A Celebrity comes the public humiliation thinly veiled as challenge: watch as the slightly overweight middle-aged lady bellyflops into the water! From The X Factor, it has appropriated the “overcoming personal demons” narrative, so two of the divers on the first show are scared of water, and one of heights. Also, it gets to dress the attractive contestants up in revealing swimwear (and, of course, the others in decently Victorian neck-to-toe concealment, as befits the less than beautiful). All of this has been overlaid with a grim cash-in on the vague sense that anything Olympicky, anything featuring Daley or Victoria Pendleton or Bradley Wiggins or that ginger long-jumper, is part of the Celebration of Britain that 2012 became, and criticism is in some ill-defined sense unpatriotic.

Ironically, its magpie-like thieving of ideas is itself unoriginal. Every pitch for every new show, nowadays, seems to go along the lines of “It’s X meets Y!”. The only difference with Splash! is that the pitch must have gone on for a while: “It’s A meets B meets C… [continues] …meets X meets Y meets Z! Naked. Plus the Olympics.”

Which is why I wonder whether this is as far as it can go. Short of Celebrity Russian Roulette or Swinging with the Stars, it’s hard to imagine a more idealised form of the modern reality TV show. But maybe that shows the inadequacy of my imagination, not a real nadir: after all, the barrel has proved to have several false bottoms in the past. I remember watching Neighbours as a child, and my father watching me watching it, his face distorted with undisguised horror at what I was allowing into my brain. It all feels rather innocent now.

Of course, I am not the first thirtysomething to bemoan the paucity of the popular culture that followed my generation’s popular culture, and nor was my father: everyone thinks that their generation’s empty froth was harmless, but the next generation’s is warping their fragile minds. See the ongoing “do video games make kids violent and/or stupid” debate. It’s not new: 19th-century grown-ups told young women off for reading novels, Plato warned the young against learning to read at all, lest they forget how to remember.

So I don’t want to claim that Splash! is destroying Western civilisation, or symptomatic of the decay at the heart of our society, or whatever. It’s just a stupid, badly thought-through programme. But as stupid, badly thought-through programmes go, it’ll take some beating: it’s the type specimen of inanity, a sort of archetype of bad television. The second episode is on tonight. I honestly suggest you watch it.


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