Thursday, January 20, 2011

Honking Box Review - Mary Portas: Secret Shopper

Broadcasters, it seems, often dive into new projects without looking. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case when certain struggling writers are trying to get a show commissioned (COMEDY COUGH NOISE), but when talent exclusivity is involved, it’s generally a case of sign now, worry later.

Remember when the BBC snapped up Johnny Vaughan on the wave of his post-Big Breakfast sovereignty, and had no clue what do with him? Or when they signed Graham Norton, tried a load of clumsy formats on him, then eventually ended up with a carbon copy of his Channel 4 show five years later? Or how about ITV’s unqualified misfire in their snaffling of Trinny and Susannah?

Unfortunately, a similar issue has arisen in Channel 4’s rash new deal with Mary Portas, with whom they’ve not quite crashed and burned, but on the strength of the first episode of Mary Portas: Secret Shopper, they’ve certainly not got their money’s worth.

BBC Two’s Mary Queen of Shops saw her championing the independent shops and striving to get the individuality back into retail. And to give Mary her dues, she absolutely nailed it. Well, with the exception of the renowned Bakery Bitch in New Malden, but presumably she’s paying the price with no-one wanting to touch her sticky buns since.

And let’s not forget Mary Queen of Charity Shops, not only a worthwhile exercise in changing people’s perceptions of the charity shop, but introduced a cast of lovable old dears who Mary bounced off brilliantly.

That said, Mary Portas: Secret Shopper did unveil a fun side in which Mary donned a particularly lame disguise and matched it with a peculiar Northern accent. Let’s hope this is a key theme from week to week – perhaps next week she can put on a fat suit and be Scouse, or the following week she could nip into Mothercare in a yashmak with a dodgy attempt at a Pakistani twang. A bit of development and we might have found Mary Portas her very own comedy sketch format.

Admirably, the retail guru – for no mention of Mary Portas can be made without addressing her as such – went headlong into the challenge, starting right at the armpit of the high street: Primark. Although her later efforts saw her working alongside Pilot to achieve some positive results, her trudge through the elasticated doldrums of Primark and attempts to underline its problems was brave, if a tad foolish.

Let’s consider the typical Primark customer. They don’t care about customer service – they know that when they’re paying £2 for a blouse, the corners are going to have to be cut somewhere. They don’t care about the piles of clothes flung across the shop floor – they’re the ones who put them there. And if that doesn’t give some indication of Primark’s clientele, perhaps this clip will provide an even clearer illustration:

It sort of makes the whole exercise feel a tad futile, does it not? It’s one thing trying to polish a turd; it’s another thing altogether trying to polish a bubbling vat of diarrhoea. But this is a retail brand who are turning over absolute squillions every year, and people know what they’re getting from it. It’s hardly a revelation, and certainly not something worth dedicating a primetime format to.

And yet, Mary Portas remains one of the most level-headed and likeable individuals on television. But thanks to Channel 4’s clumsy attempt to cash in on that, it’s a shame to see her skills wasted on organisations who don’t actually require them. Now, where are those khaki harem pants...?

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