IF YOU ever need living proof that kitsch is hip, then simply look at Dale Winton. He is the presenter of Supermarket Sweep, a daytime game show so tacky that it makes Celebrity Squares look like Panorama. Yet 3 million viewers love him; and they'

re not all bored housewives. In the past few months, Dale has become a cult. He's been on The Word, where the audience gave him a hero's welcome; he's been in NME (which described him as "the main reason the nation's students are late for their first lecture of the day"); he even hosted a concert by the fashionable pop group, St Etienne ("it was a great honour for me").

Dale's elevation to fame has been rapid, and unlikely. When the first series of Supermarket Sweep started in September 1993, critics sneered. "Dale Winton brings a whole new perspective to the word `bland'," said the Daily Express. "His performance suggests a bright future as a bingo caller in one of Blackpool's quieter amusement arcades," declared the Evening Standard, before denouncing the programme as "the most tasteless, most moronic quiz show in the history of broadcasting". The Daily Mail was equally appalled: "If Supermarket Sweep represents anything, it's the way we are turning into two broadcasting nations. A cultural gap has always existed, but now it has grown into a chasm."

You've never seen the show? You don't know what you're missing. It takes place in a surreal mock-supermarket, where three couples answer questions about shopping (for example, "You clean your house from bottom to top / With a broom, a bucket and a squeezy . . . ?") By answering correctly, the contestants are awarded varying amounts of time to "go wild in the aisles", a process which involves piling as much shopping as possible into a trolley.

The couple which collects the most expensive assortment of goods (and, if possible, finds a strange inflatable object - such as a giant banana, ha ha) then goes on to the final, thrilling stage of the game: a hunt for clues which leads to a £2,000 jackpot cunningly hidden on one of the supermarket shelves. It is an undoubtedly foolish show, yet also curiously addictive (which explains why I, and countless other viewers, end up watching the telly and shouting, "Look for the tuna fish, you silly cow," on otherwise unremarkable weekday mornings).

And Dale is a gem, bringing a mix of camp self-parody and apparently sincere enthusiasm to his job. Far from dividing us into two broadcasting nations - the stupid people who watch day-time quiz shows, and the clever ones who don't - he has united a diverse audience (students, pensioners, housewives, gay men) in an unlikely alliance: the Dale Winton fan club.

Which is what brings me to his flat in north London. Dale has bought sticky cakes for the occasion, and leaps up and down to make tea and answer the phone ("Darling, I can't talk now, I'm being interviewed"). He is wearing a smart suit, just like he doeson his show, and he has a Tintin haircut. He shows me a picture of his mother, Sheree Winton, a glamorous blonde actress who appeared on television with Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Bob Monkhouse. "She was known as the English Jayne Mansfield," he says, and then mentions that she died in 1976, a few days after his 21st birthday, after taking an overdose in the family home in Hatch End, London. I am reduced to silence by this tragic story, but Dale is a pro and keeps right on. "I was always closer to Mum than Dad. I was very much my mother's son."

He was a fat child, and at an early age was sent away to boarding-school. He was expected to become a lawyer or an accountant (his father was in business, owning three furniture shops). But he wanted to be like his mother. "I was fascinated by this glamorous thing. She drew attention wherever I went out with her and I was totally captivated by the attention."

He left school with five O-levels, did a couple of dead-end jobs, and eventually became a DJ for Radio Trent. But he dreamt of presenting a television quiz show, just like the ones his mother had been on when he was a child: "I grew up watching them. I loved them all." While he was still working as a DJ, he says, someone asked him, "What's the highest accolade you could achieve?" "And I said, `My ultimate ambition is to be in a box on Celebrity Squares', which is a pretty silly thing to say, but it was a thought I nurtured - and Justine, I achieved it this year!"

But it was a long, tough haul. He gave up his radio job in 1988, moved to London in search of television work, and nothing much happened. He did a terrible BBC show called Public Enemy Number One, and spent a lot of time sitting at home by a silent phone. And then he got an interview for the Supermarket Sweep job, after someone more famous had turned it down. He knew the programme makers were worried that he was unknown and far too camp. He told them: "You will find Lord Lucan and Salman Rushdie before you find a better host for this show." Rather unexpectedly, they gave him the job.

But his troubles weren't over. When the first series came out, "I was slaughtered in the papers - slaughtered." He admits that he wasn't very good - but points out that his bosses were telling him to play it straight. "They were saying to me, `Think Ronald Coleman!' Well, to my knowledge, Ronald Coleman has never hosted a quiz show."

By the end of the series, in December 1993, "I was hysterical that we wouldn't be commissioned again - and that would be the end of me, I'd look like Mr Peculiar." But the second series went ahead this year, "and I said, I want to do it my way this time,and to their credit they said yes. So I did this very camp pilot show, very camp." And everyone loved it.

I ask him the secret of his success. "The bottom line is, people want friendliness," he says. "They don't want cleverdicks. No one wants a cleverdick. That's why I play it the way I do. I actually love the show - and I love people, I've always been a people person." He says that there is no irony about the show, though of course he's smart enough to know that there are some who think otherwise. "I remember saying to everyone, when this programme goes out it will either be slated or hailed as post-modernconsumerism."

In fact, he says, "I'm very old-fashioned. In the mid-Eighties, when everyone was talking about Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton, I'd say, `They're very good, but what about Bruce Forsyth, Bob Monkhouse, Des O'Connor?' There was a time in the Eighties when everyone that went on television had three earrings, a Cockney accent, and tried to look cred. That was never me. If I tried to look cred, I'd look like an Italian housewife."

But now he's got the chance to be himself - a perky Larry Grayson for the 1990s - and he's jolly good at it. "Dale has brought his own inimitable style to the show," says John Bishop, the controller of entertainment at Carlton Television. "I think he's got a great future. We'll be seeing a lot more of him."

Dale, however, has no plans to go upmarket. "I know what suits me," he says, "I'll never be Ludovic Kennedy. I'll never be David Frost. But if I'm going to be a quiz show host - and I'm good for nothing else - then I'll do it properly."

`Supermarket Sweep' is due to return to ITV later this year

Comments