Animal magic

Dale Winton, the cult TV quizmaster in the fine tradition of British campery, is suddenly very popular. Now everyone wants him to front their kitsch comedy format. James Rampton dodges the innuendoes
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Three praying mantises are racing up artificial trees, and the studio audience at BBC TV Centre is going wild cheering on these distinctly unprepossessing elongated grasshoppers. Stopping her whooping for a moment, the woman sitting next to me turns to say: "It's tragic. The English love anything that's got animals in it doing anything idiotic. The English middle and upper classes have always treated their pets better than their servants, haven't they? This is just an extension of that. It's kitsch and eccentric and totally English."

She is, of course, talking about Pets Win Prizes, the recording of which we are privileged to witness. Cited by some as incontrovertible evidence of BBC1's headlong plunge downmarket, the show certainly has no intellectual pretensions. Nevertheless, it works well on its own terms. Viewers obviously agree: one episode in the first series, fronted by Danny Baker, caged more than seven and a half million in the ratings.

The secret of its success is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. To that end, the programme-makers have secured exactly the right presenter for the second series: Dale Winton. The words "camp cult" could have been invented for the man best known as the host of the students' favourite, Supermarket Sweep.

Unwinding over tea and Peter Stuyvesants at his agent's swish offices a few days after the recording, Winton assesses his own appeal. "I believe there's a huge gap in the market at the moment. I'd never consider myself to be in the same class as Kenneth Williams, Larry Grayson or Frankie Howerd, because they were genuine comics, but the one thing we have in common is a campness, a predilection for the innuendo, which I think is something very British. In any other part of the world, it's just smut... It's like the Carry On films. You think, `Oh, that was awful - but it was funny'. The English public always like to think of themselves as eccentric - `Oh, I'm a real laugh, I am, I'm crazy, me'. Only the English would produce Pets."

His predilection for innuendo comes spurting out all over at the recording of Pets. Backed by a fairground-style set of candy-striped tents and gaudy signs, Winton encourages an old woman to tell an anecdote about her sheep's boisterousness - "I've been tossed twice from behind" - and introduces us to "three owners who have got crabs... hermit crabs, that is". When he has to do a retake interacting with the sheep, he sighs: "I feel I'm turning into Julian Clary".

As charmingly effusive off-screen as on (he sprays "darlings" around like they're going out of fashion), Winton's principal asset is his ability to send himself up. He won't discuss his sexuality, but he doesn't mind jokes about it. "Yesterday we had a call from Have I Got News For You," Winton says. "They'd got this gag about me they wanted to use. It was Angus Deayton saying, `American scientists have genetically created gay flies. Apparently, a swarm of them are now gathering outside Dale Winton's dressing-room'. I laughed, so I said, `Oh, it's fine', because the worst thing you can have is Angus Deayton saying, `We did have this gag about Dale Winton, but he wouldn't let us use it'. I've got no business being precious about this because it's a mark of recognition, and people will make up their own minds."

A self-confessed game-show junkie, Winton auditioned for Hughie Greene's The Sky's the Limit at the age of 14. After spells in print journalism (a local paper in Lincolnshire) and local radio (including the United Biscuits Industrial Radio Station), this self-styled "North London Jewish boy" achieved his childhood dream when he landed the presenter's job on ITV's daytime quiz show, Supermarket Sweep, in 1993. He was not an instant hit. "The press were merciless," he recalls, "they said, `Don't stand too close to the vegetables, Dale. We won't be able to see the difference'." But slow-burningly he attained cult status.

Now Winton intends to consolidate his position as a game-show host rather than make ill-advised excursions into other genres - anyone remember Bruce Forsyth in the dire sitcom, Tripper's Day? "I have to be me," Winton reflects. "I can't be anything else. I'm not good for very much. I can stand there and ask a few questions and just have a giggle with the contestants - some say that's a talent in itself - but I'd never push my limit."

After a summer fronting The Weekend Show, Supermarket Sweep and Just a Minute as well as Pets Win Prizes, Winton will be aiming to lower his profile. "You've got to be careful, because you can go through the usual phases: `Who's Dale Winton?... We like Dale Winton... We must have Dale Winton... We must have someone like Dale Winton... We don't want anybody like Dale Winton... We never want to see Dale Winton again'. I'm very much aware of over-exposure."

Like all the best TV stars, however, he has already worked out his own epitaph: "You could accuse me of being a serial killer, but just say, `He had a lot of class and he was never fat'."

`Pets Win Prizes' starts Sat 5.50pm BBC1