It would be easy, on the surface, to see My Little Princess as a throwback to the dating shows of the 1990s or the madcap gameshows of the 1980s.
Any TV programme that involves men getting into fancy dress and being catapulted into a lake, or running about in mouse costumes, is in mortal danger of being compared to It’s a Knockout. And a female contestant putting prospective suitors through their paces with tasks which include serenading her from the other side of a wall, or trying to guess what type of fast food she prefers, obviously owes a debt to Blind Date, among others.
But examined in a bit more detail, E4’s new series is arguably the starkest example you could hope to find of how television has changed in the last few decades.
Listen to this: the catapult in question is connected to a lie detector, operated by a man – admittedly, dressed as a wizard, but actually called Dr David Lewis, not Merlin – who, we’re told, is a professional psychologist. A shake of his head after he spots a needle quiver and the bloke in the catapult is history, launched 30 feet into the air by a character known as The King (the eponymous Princess’s dad). A prospect which, in itself, is enough to mess with anyone’s galvanic skin response (not to mention their head).
And what about the men in mouse suits. Rather than having a laugh falling over because they’re wearing cumbersome costumes, the suitors are blinded and challenged to run directly at one another in a kind of weird humanoid-rodent jousting. Actually, scratch the superfluous “weird” from that sentence – I’m happy to go so far as to say that humanoid-rodent jousting is, by its very nature, weird. It’s dangerous, too – one young suitor has a visible bruise and look of self-loathing on his face after losing his bout.
Here, an outwardly innocent guessing game – does she prefer KFC or Burger King? – is enough to give Ben Fogle a flashback, conducted as it is by a chuckling disembodied horse with a flapping lower jaw and a giant gift ribbon stuck to its head.
And the singing part – which is suddenly and without warning thrust upon us as the endgame – quickly turns into a bizarre sort of music video (a bit like a more serious version of a Horrible Histories number). Even the Princess gets involved, despite the fact that she’s supposed to be concentrating on her suitors’ singing.
The prevasive sense of paranoia is only accentuated by the fact that it’s impossible to be sure whether or not The King is actually the genuinely frightening East End gangster he appears to be or an actor – or neither, or both – while the eerie fairtytale music and high-saturation cinematography all come together to create a nightmarish cartoon world more reminiscent of other recent Channel 4 productions Utopia and Black Mirror than a knockabout dating game show.
E4 know all this too: they’ve put it on at 10pm on a Monday, not Saturday tea time – partly to add to the sense of fractured reality, partly because they know it’s far too subversive and dangerous to be on when children or the elderly might be watching, and partly to take over in that very slot Black Mirror vacates this week. The cunning, cunning bastards…