You couldn’t make something like SM:TV Live these days. For starters, Saturday morning kids’ TV is barely a thing any more, cancelled entirely on the soon-to-be-nixed CITV channel, while over on the BBC, it’s relegated to the decidedly more wholesome Saturday Mash-Up Live on CBBC.
Perhaps this is because – deep down – everyone knows nothing will ever beat Ant & Dec and Cat Deeley’s iconic weekly three hours of Saturday morning mayhem that was SM:TV Live.
Dec described SM:TV Live’s goal from the outset when it launched in 1998 was to counteract the “cosier… nice auntie or uncle” vibe of Live & Kicking, the BBC’s Saturday morning show, by being more like their viewers’ “mischievous older brothers and sisters”.
This required them taking some pretty massive risks, like not being quite so nice to the children watching, and pushing the humour to far more grown-up places. It’s highly unlikely that a modern producer would be comfortable with some of the choices they made, but the nineties were wilder times in the world of television, and thank goodness for that.
Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had some genuinely hilarious comedy sketches, some of which might not have been quite at NSFW levels, but were definitely NSFCT (Not Safe For Children’s Telly):
ITV got away with a cheeky spoof of Friends, arguably the biggest show on TV at the time, with SM:TV Live’s regular sketch Chums. Even the theme tune was ridiculously similar, complete with outdoor sofa shenanigans and dancing around a giant fountain.
Their version of Ross and Rachel was Dec and Cat, who had a long-running joke where they were about to kiss but kept getting interrupted, and had their relationship foiled with shocking revelations like Ant and Dec accidentally getting married or Cat’s ex-boyfriend (played by Darren Day) turning up. Other shocking (and often violent) storylines include Ant getting shot (several times), Lorraine Kelly headbutting Ant, and Dec organising Ant Aid, a Live Aid spoof prompted by Ant pretending he has lost the ability to blink:
As well as the constant corpsing, the real joy of Chums was the way it convinced some of the day’s biggest stars – from The Spice Girls to Pierce Brosnan, Jerry Springer to Jeremy Paxman – to turn up and do some very silly things on live TV. Frankly, if they revived Chums in a primetime evening slot, people would watch it.
The ‘How Did They Get Away With That?’ Moments
While children’s humour leans towards the puerile and scatological end of the scale, SM:TV Live frequently pushed the envelope of what was acceptable to air on a Saturday morning kids’ TV show, aiming its comedy more at audiences of hungover students.
The examples are endless. While appearing in the recurring “SMTV 2099” sketch, Victoria Beckham drew the route for their space mission that was the exact outline of her breasts. Cat Deeley advertised her raunchy “Cat Chat” hotline, where she breathlessly pretended to be a “naughty little kitty” to a delighted Dec. While dressed as a bishop, Ant begins singing the hymn “We plough the fields and scatter” before changing the final lyrics to “…our clothes across the floor!” and doing a surprise strip tease. And when Caroline Quentin appeared in Chums and was about to kiss Ant, she recited the poem: “Make your tongue a deep-throat diver, let’s touch teeth and swap saliva!”
All of this in front of a live studio audience of kids. Who, much like the kids at home, laughed themselves daft at the lot.
Yes, nineties kids were double hard. Another way SM:TV Live tested this boundary was with its phone-in competitions and quizzes.
In “Challenge Ant”, an adorable child would come on to ask Ant some quiz questions. If he got them wrong, they’d win a huge pile of video games and a console, and put a dunce hat on Ant while singing a song with the lyrics repeating the phrase “You’re thick, you’re thick, you’re thick”. If he got them right, they won nothing, and he taunted them with a victory dance live on air. It was classic “big brother” banter and made the outcome entertaining whether the kid won or lost.
But “Wonky Donkey” was the ultimate in fun cruelty. Kids had to phone in and correctly guess a rhyming animal clue (a loved up cat was a “smitten kitten”, a daft goat was a “silly billy”… you get the idea). There was one simple rule: it had to rhyme, and when the children forgot this Dec would remind them – viciously. His highly comedic weekly rage became the highlight of the competition, screaming at children that they were a “stupid little idiot!”, and yelling at parents trying to help in the background “Yer mam’s rubbish as well!”
It was clearly nothing but harmless fun – look how well-rounded we all turned out to be.
The best moments of SM:TV Live were the ones that were just universally funny, making people laugh now as much as they did then. And nowhere is that more true than when they got Irish boyband Westlife to appear in one of their Pokemon sketches, only instructing them beforehand to come on and sing part of their hit Flying Without Wings, but not telling them anything else about what was going to happen. The result is the clip above, which band member Bryan McFadden described as “one of the funniest moments I’ve ever been involved with”, saying that fans still tell him how much it makes them laugh 20 years later.
Sadly, Ant & Dec only did SM:TV Live for three years, Cat Deeley for four, before they were all understandably snapped up for much bigger primetime shows. While producers tried to keep the show alive with new presenters, it was clear that the magic of SM:TV Live left with its original lineup, and the show was cancelled a year later in 2003. We might not get anything like it again, but it was brilliantly funny while it lasted.