N.B. Before reading this blog it is worth stating that my cultish sensibilities frequently draw me to re-evaluate that which is targeted for scorn.
During the summer recess period I became mildly obsessed with a television series. It constructed for itself a temporally-unlocatable world which seemed to epitomise Fredric Jameson’s (1991) discussion of postmodern aesthetics as the collapse of distinct time periods into an eternal present. Its diegesis was populated with strange characters who would, in the manner of a soap opera, appear and disappear as they went about their daily duties. The narrative pace was slow – some might say laborious – as drama and tension gradually heightened and receded over the course of each sixty-minute episode. Given my previous contributions to CSTOnline, you may well think I am talking about the return of Twin Peaks (Showtime 2017) as many of these points echo the readings and critiques made of David Lynch’s surrealist opus. Alas, I am not. Instead I am talking about game show-sitcom hybrid Cheap, Cheap, Cheap (Hat Trick 2017) which aired on the UK’s commercially-funded public service broadcaster Channel 4 between 1500 and 1600 on weekday afternoons across the summer. You can watch the entire series here on Channel 4’s catch-up service All4.
I don’t expect many, if at all any, colleagues to be familiar with Cheap, Cheap, Cheap’s premise given its scheduling, national specificity and low domestic ratings so I shall provide a brief summary. The programme takes place in a fictional hardware store owned by British light entertainment star Noel Edmonds. ‘Noel’s Store’ is run by manager Barry (Alex Lowe) and he is joined by working class assistant Kelly (Emily Lloyd-Saini) whilst Marijana (Gabby Best), a yoga teacher with a flirtatious attitude and Eastern European accent, flits in and out of the action. Occasionally, handyman Keith (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) arrives in the shop to add new comedic interludes whilst heightening the sense of immediacy that the show appeals to; just don’t ask Keith to fix your roof. Edmonds interacts with each of these fictional characters at the same time as engaging invited members of the public to partake in a game where money (up to £25000) can be won by correctly guessing which of the three items presented to the contestants is the cheapest. These items can be anything from live animals to packets of cous cous. However as the value of rewards increases so does the difficulty of the task at hand: could you, for example, guess which is cheapest out of a margherita pizza sold by restaurant chains Zizzi, Pizza Express or Frankie and Benny’s?
Channel 4’s trailer for Cheap, Cheap, Cheap
By now you’ve probably produced similar reactions to Cheap, Cheap, Cheap as those of UK television critics. Stuart Heritage of The Guardian deemed the programme “like watching [shopping channel] QVC, if QVC was beamed in from an irradiated wasteland four billion years in the future” while Ed Power of The Telegraph deemed it “so mind-bendingly outlandish you can see the contours of reality warp and twist around Edmonds’ goatee as you watch.”
Rather than reducing a show to outright ridicule, I would instead argue that we as TV scholars need to keep in mind Randall Johnson’s statement from the Introduction to Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production that “no one enters a game to lose …[and] no one writes a novel …to receive bad reviews” (Johnson 1993: 8). By extension, Hat Trick Productions did not set out to make Cheap, Cheap, Cheap as an object of mockery for television critics and audiences. It is therefore better to take a culturally-disparaged programme on its own terms and tease out the underlying discourses upon which the hostility is based. Doing so brings into relief the wider power formations which structure the text’s interpretation. In the case of Cheap, Cheap, Cheap these lead to complicated interactions between discourses of nostalgia, class-aligned taste formations and celebrity.
Cheap, Cheap, Cheap’s construction of what is arguably ‘working class nostalgia’ is best evidenced by analyzing the show’s aesthetics. Put simply, Cheap, Cheap, Cheap employs a very brown colour palette which is similar to that seen in sci-fi-cop show fusion Life on Mars (BBC/Kudos 2006-7) and defines contemporary popular memories of British working class environments from the 1970s such as pubs and living rooms (Figure 1). Given that Cheap, Cheap, Cheap is a daytime television programme, and the almost-fifty-year time gap between the beginning of the 1970s and the present, it can be argued that the show uses this nostalgia to appeal to specific generational audiences aged 50+. Other textual elements of the show’s aesthetics reinforce this point. For example, ‘Noel’s Shop’ is intertextuality reminiscent of the setting used in the BBC sitcom Open All Hours (1973-85) – a series which also centred around a general store located in a working-class community. What’s more, the show’s studio-bound nature and basic three camera set-up directly contrasts with the ‘cinematic’ aesthetics of ‘quality’ series that are used to attract wealthy audiences to primetime material. This is a point that also applies to popular genres such as quiz shows because, as Matt Hills (2005) argues, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (ITV/Celador 1998-2014) drew praise for its ‘atmospheric’ lighting and sets which heightened its appeals to ‘quality’ audiences. In contrast, Cheap, Cheap, Cheap constructs a form of nostalgia which is rooted in imaginings of both ‘past’ working-class cultures and ‘outdated’ formal conventions associated with ‘popular’ genres.
The previous points may suggest an artistry to Cheap, Cheap, Cheap by alluding to a matching of form and content in the series’ aesthetic strategies (Cardwell 2013). Such claims are nevertheless compromised in two ways. Firstly additional aspects of the show’s style undermine intertextual appeals to status by violating what Charlotte Brunsdon (1997: 142) famously posited as the upper-middle-class taste codes that guide ‘quality’ evaluations of television. Although nostalgia has an ambiguous relationship to ‘quality’ discourses, one area where it has been valued is with regard to the aesthetics of period drama. Within this genre ‘getting the money onscreen’ by visualizing lavish period-specific objects and costumes encourages positive evaluations amongst viewers as such strategies are seen to show restraint and an appropriateness that appeals to ‘quality’ demographics (Brunsdon 1997: 142).
Despite its confusion of time periods Cheap, Cheap, Cheap is, of course, not a period reconstruction. At the same time, the show’s status as daytime television means that it would have a vastly smaller budget than that afforded to the ‘quality’ primetime programming that Brunsdon and Hills have discussed. These differences should be factored in to the discussion because, as Jason Jacobs (2001: 430) argues about television aesthetics, “It is necessary to think about the different aspirations of different kinds of television” and so not blankly apply criteria from one form of programming to another.
The coherence implied above is compromised by other elements within the construction of ‘Noel’s Store’ which differentiate Cheap, Cheap, Cheap from Millionaire in terms of class-based taste codes. One of these concerns the programme’s celebration of commerce through its price-guessing premise. Despite television’s commercial underpinnings as a medium, discourses of art and commerce have always had an antagonistic relationship. Additionally, the cluttered mise-en-scene which provides the backdrop against which events unfold is a jumble of consumer products ranging from a bull’s skull to soft furnishings of various colours (see Figure 2). ‘Noel’s Store’ therefore violates upper-middle-class notions of restraint which favour Ikea-esque minimalism as, by constructing the set in this way, the show’s appeal to working class dispositions are reinforced. Cheap, Cheap, Cheap therefore appeals to nostalgia coded in terms of imaginings of old-fashioned working class tastes but, though doing this, opens itself up to class-based ridicule by critics and cultural commentators.
Secondly, much of Cheap, Cheap, Cheap’s criticism focused upon Edmonds’s mediated persona. On the one hand, Edmunds self-presents as a mild-mannered but eccentric uncle who is warm-hearted but prone to outbursts of family-friendly scattiness and this can include demonstrating reflexivity towards his celebrity image by occasionally poking fun at himself (see the video below). On the other, he is a multi-millionaire who is prone to making off-the-wall statements in interviews about tackling cancer or appearing to support anti-immigration discourses. Edmonds’s star identity is thus like a reverse Jeremy Corbyn: his ‘everyman’ persona tries to appeal across generational groups (but with limited success) but he also offends those of a left-wing disposition. Nevertheless, he holds strong nostalgia value due to his ‘mainstream’ successes during what John Ellis (2002) deems television’s era of availability in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s such as Noel’s House Party (BBC 1991-9) and Telly Addicts (BBC 1985-1998). In televisual terms, and echoing Cheap, Cheap, Cheap’s shooting style, Edmonds is a broadcast man in a digital era.
Noel Edmonds’s celebrity persona
However, I would argue that another reason behind the hostility directed towards Cheap, Cheap, Cheap arises from how Edmonds’s mediated personality undercuts the show’s nostalgia and claims to authenticity. This is because Cheap, Cheap, Cheap is anchored to Edmonds’s author-function at both diegetic (e.g. the name of the shop) and extra-diegetic levels (the credits clearly state that the show is ’presented and created by Noel Edmonds’). Edmonds therefore performs his celebrity within the series by positioning his ‘character’ as a ‘man of the people’ through his easy intermingling with the show’s fictional working-class characters (e.g. friendship with Barry, bemusement at the younger Kelly). However, despite his diegetic alignment with working class identities, Edmonds is coded as superior to his colleagues as signified by the smart shirts and waistcoats that he wears. Within the programme, Edmonds is therefore reminiscent of the “‘cultural tourist’” (Creeber 2009: 427) discussed in relation to social realist drama as he is diegetically-aligned with a class identity that is at odds with wider information concerning his constructed persona. This is certainly not to argue that Cheap, Cheap, Cheap is a social realist text, however. Instead it is to highlight that the show appropriates specific intertexts of the form for the purposes of further authenticating its construction of working class nostalgia.
The contrast between Edmonds’s ‘everyman’ persona and real-life wealth means that his self-presentation in Cheap, Cheap, Cheap comes across as about as authentic as the person Pulp sang about in their 1995 hit ‘Common People’. The combination of his appearance within the show and his position as its auteur blurs the diegetic and the extradiegetic but consequently renders its appeals to nostalgia ambiguous by inviting us to ask the following question: if this is Edmonds’ creative vision, is he ridiculing the very class he is trying to represent and appeal to? As a concept, Romantic notions of authorship are grounded in appeals to personal experience and authenticity but, in this instance, the show’s nostalgia seems hollow. Rather than providing the claims to ‘quality’ that are associated with televisual authorship, then, Edmonds’ authorial persona compromises the show’s nostalgic appeals by suggesting that Cheap, Cheap, Cheap is, in fact, mocking the people that it represents.
This dissonance contributes heavily towards the show’s ‘weird’ tone which led to its ridiculing by critics but we must recognize that these dismissals are based in class-based ideologies where constructions of working class nostalgia become doubly devalued as these discourses are rendered ambiguous by Edmonds and then mocked further by TV critics. This produces a cycle of ever-increasing layers with nostalgia towards working class representations at the centre.
There is much more that could be said about Cheap, Cheap, Cheap including its fusion of popular genre discourses or its intersection with discourses of public service such as raising consumer awareness about the price of goods. For the time being, though, it is enough to recognize the discourses that structure the programme’s cultural interpretation and why this has led to a hostile response. Doing this can, as I have argued here, assist in recognizing how attitudes towards particular class-orientated forms of nostalgia underpin the negative reception of particular television series.
Ross Garner is a lecturer in TV Studies in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. His research interests cover cult TV, paratextuality, branding and debates concerning mediated space and TV-derived tourism. He has recently published articles exploring these issues in Popular Communication, Series: The International Journal of Serial Narratives and Tourist Studies and is currently working on the monograph Nostalgia, Digital Television and Transmediality (Bloomsbury)