Britain's Next Big Thing, BBC2, Tuesday
If Walls Could Talk, BBC4, Wednesday
It seemed like a good idea on paper, but 'Britain's New Big Thing' failed to live up to its title
Sunday 17 April 2011
When Ridley Scott set out to sell his concept for the 1979 film Alien, he pitched it with three words that have gone down in Hollywood history as a masterclass in how to sell an idea. Alien, he told studio execs, was going to be "Jaws in space".
Likewise, when BBC big-wigs gave the green light to a show that promised to cross Britain's Got Talent with Dragons' Den, there must have been hearty slaps on the back all round.
The resulting programme, Britain's Next Big Thing, was itself all about the pitching of ideas. The format is simple: all over the UK people are devising new products. Team them up with retail buyers from Liberty, Boots and Habitat and film the consequences. Simple. Genius. What could possibly go wrong?
Week one of seven saw 600 people queuing from dawn for an "open call" at the venerable London department store. But before the action could commence, viewers were served the now familiar background footage in an effort to crank up the drama and get us to invest in the people Liberty was most likely to invest in.
There was Tom Hopkins Gibson and his grainy bowls carved from driftwood. There was Charlotte Sale and her underwater-inspired glassware. And there was Professor Richard Weston and his mineral-print fabrics. There was also the unmistakable fact that all of these people produced things that few people can afford, no one really needs, and which, at the very least, owed half of any future royalties to Mother Nature.
But for all the talk of once in a lifetime opportunities and journeys undertaken – hopefuls stopped just short of adding the now obligatory "This is my time to shine" – Britain's Next Big Thing was strangely lacking in drama. It can take months for a product to make it from pitch to shelf. The process involves meetings, more meetings, and much talk of costs, profit margins and lead times. Those who made it through the first pitch were handed nothing more exciting than the chance to give it another go in front of Liberty's buying director, Ed Burstell. It quickly became clear that there were not going to be any Susan Boyle moments here.
It is, though, to the programme-makers credit that we were spared the buyers' reaction to some of the more outlandish products. Instead, it was left to Dragons' Den's Theo Paphitis to walk up and down the snaking line in search of some excitement. "What exactly is that?" he asked one woman. "It's a prototype pigeon," she answered. "What does it do?" Paphitis persevered. "It's a decorative, lovable character." Of course it is.
Another woman was keen to explain how her "3D" necklace was made out of a Victorian cigarette case, the top of a 1920s umbrella, the bottom of a candlestick and a host of other objects. Her finished product had all the aesthetic charm of a child's macaroni collage. It was left to another jewellery designer to come up with the show's best line: "I want to make jewellery for women who sometimes whisper, sometimes shout with joy, but never mumble." Which could also be the secret of the perfect pitch.
Such moments of gentle humour were juxtaposed against Paphitis's spiel about the inventiveness of the British public. And inventive we surely are. Because the brutal truth is that the majority of the people standing outside Liberty have as much chance of being Britain's next big thing as Britain's Next Big Thing.
The perfect pitch, then, does not always result in the perfect programme, so it was left to the relatively unknown Lucy Worsley, "a historian who stumbled into TV", to whisper and shout with joy in If Walls Could Talk: The History of the Home.
Episode one, "The Living Room", promised nothing more than a look at the way homes have changed from "the medieval great hall to the gaming and leisure centre of the 21st century". That it delivered so much more was largely down to Worsley, who could no more say a dull thing than she could pwonounce her Rs.
How lightly she dropped the origin of phrases such as "burning the candle at both ends" and "daylight robbery". How deftly she recited Walpole. Her pitch got her hidden away on BBC4. Her performance could make her Britain's next big thing.
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