What happens when you cross a sitcom with a game show?
That’s not a cryptic crossword clue. It’s a question Noel Edmonds asked himself before coming up with the concept for Cheap Cheap Cheap.
New to afternoons on Channel 4, this love child of genres takes the worst bits from Open All Hours (although faux-sitcom When the Whistle Blows in Extras is probably nearer the mark), The Price is Right and Deal or No Deal and creates a baffling hybrid.
The rule (there’s only one) is simple. Contestants are presented with three similar items – be it laundry detergent, noodles, baked beans, coffins, live poultry or lottery tickets – and must identify the cheapest one of the three in order to win money. That’s it.
No wonder Noel is on the verge of bursting into laughter throughout the whole programme (a quip about dropped balls almost has him hyperventilating). He probably can’t quite believe he’s getting away with this; not only have Channel 4 paid him actual money for this idea, but they’ve commissioned him to host 30 hour-long episodes of Cheap Cheap Cheap.
The thing is, I couldn’t stop laughing either. Cheap Cheap Cheap is just so bizarre, so tatty and so ridiculous that it verges on genius. On paper, it sounds completely daft. The reality is even more absurd.
Below is word for word a segment in which contestants Steve and Ady discuss tins of Heinz, Duchy Originals and Tesco own brand baked beans as they try to figure out which costs the least:
“Heinz. It’s a good brand. Organic as well. Healthy. I would think this is probably the most expensive one is my first instinct.”
“Let’s examine these as well. Waitrose. 400g.”
“Waitrose is nice, Waitrose is quite pricey.”
“Tesco baked beans in tomato sauce. Nothing wrong with these. Very nice.”
“I shop at Tesco all the time. Heinz are definitely more expensive than Tesco.”
“What other show on television gets so excited about baked beans?” laughs Noel.
Excited is a stretch. And this is barely television – it’s essentially market research. Instead of a focus group debating different products and brands of beans across a conference room in Peterborough, Channel 4 have pointed a camera at two blokes as they analyse the packaging, discuss the demographic of shoppers at different supermarkets and weigh up each item’s pros and cons.
It’s also worth noting that there’s no ‘P’ indicating any product placement in the opening credits for the programme, so it doesn’t appear as though these companies have paid for the airtime.
But if Noel Edmonds reading product descriptions for detergents aloud from a tome isn’t amusing, frankly we don’t know what is.
Here’s when Noel chooses to read from a big leather book (why? No idea) about the particulars of Lenor: “It’s 1.9l and you can infuse clothes with a freshness as strong as 100 roses,” he says, a little too enthusiastically, adding about rival Ecover’s own offering that it “reduces static for ironing” and has “scent release for two weeks of freshness!”
Alongside the free advertising is a blatantly-terrible sitcom. Taking up space next to the hardware and hats in ‘Noel’s Store’ are a cast of time-filling characters. It’s like a night at am-dram down the village hall with curmudgeonly old Barry (Actor Alex Lowe as ‘Barry from Watford’ as heard on Steve Wright’s BBC Radio 2 show), dippy hippy Marijana (that almost spells marijuana! Hilarious!), odd-job man Keith and dismissive sales assistant Kelly.
The characters have little point or purpose other than trying very hard to fill the 45 minutes of screen time Cheap Cheap Cheap has been afforded. They’ll interject with silly asides, muck about with a mop, flirt with the contestants. Anything, anything, to distract from the fact that grown men discussing the price of packet noodles is being disguised as entertainment.
The set is worth a mention, too. “You have turned my dream into reality,” Noel says to ‘Barry’ as he struts about the floor at the start of episode one. “This looks fantastic.”
It really does. As long as your definition of fantastic is a dilapidated department store from the mid-80s where the only question you’d ask yourself as you wandered around trying to find the exit is ‘what’s that smell?’
Also, there’s no audience as such, just a group of contestants-in-waiting who crane their necks to get a better view of the items from afar as if they’re slowing down to look at a pile-up on the M11. They’re poised on tatty, ripped chairs that may well have come from a skip. Presumably the same skip that was sat out the back in the Bristol studios when the Deal or No Deal set was dismantled (that ‘money board’ going from £250 to £25,000 looks terribly familiar).
As the game (such as it is) plods on, Steve and Ady are tasked with valuing other miscellaneous items. Lottery tickets (which is the cheapest: Euromillions, Lotto or the Health Lottery?) and pet products (is dog shampoo made from fox poo more or less expensive than a UV torch for locating pets’ piss stains around the home?) are put under scrutiny and valued before the pair are presented with three meerkat gnomes.
It was at this point I realised I was getting drawn into Edmonds’ nightmare. I’m suddenly asking internal questions to myself, wondering if the meerkat in dungarees is the cheapest (surely not – he has a wheelbarrow and is a little bigger than the others) or if the one wearing a red hat is made of plastic (therefore the cheapest) or resin (which would clearly make him the most expensive). Here I am, giving half a toss about the cost of pottery meerkats.
That’s the thing about Cheap Cheap Cheap. You very quickly get sucked into Edmonds’ world – a world where watching him converse with a bureau (“Hello furniture. Would you like to play Cheap Cheap Cheap?”) starts to feel rather normal.
It’s because of this that Cheap Cheap Cheap could quickly build up a cult following owing not only to the Edmonds element, but the fact it truly is unlike anything TV has seen before.
The scheduling would suggest that Channel 4 think Cheap Cheap Cheap is crap crap crap. Noel’s been lumbered with the wasteland that is 3pm and C4 have refused to bump off A Place in the Sun: Winter Sun and Four in a Bed repeats airing at 4pm and 5pm respectively in the schedules. But I reckon they’re missing a trick.
Is it so bad it’s good? Or just bloody awful? I’m still not entirely sure, but what I do know is that I was laughing almost continuously from start to finish.
Of course the show is going to be derided by most, but not only does Cheap Cheap Cheap give us a glimpse into the mind of Noel Edmonds (a man who is currently trying to sue Lloyds Bank for £300 million and has previously set up a personal telephone therapy service for pets) it’s also a show that once you’ve seen, you want to tell people about.
You want to share the absurdity, spread the madness and, most importantly, collectively revel in the televised valuing of baked beans.