Getting up at the crack of dawn on Saturday and putting on a happy head is most people’s idea of hell, yet kids’ TV stars Tess Daly and Brian Dowling do it every week. Simon Button hauled himself out of bed to witness them in action.
IT’S SATURDAY morning and you stumble out of bed, woolly-headed after a heavy Friday night drinking session. Popping a couple of headache pills, you slump on the sofa, switch on the TV and there’s Brian Dowling and Tess Daly, leaping around the SM:tv studio with beaming smiles and bright-as-a-button energy. If you’re capable of coherent thought, you’ll probably scratch your head and wonder. “How the hell can they be so peppy?”
The answer is simple – Dowling and Daly were tucked up in their beds long before you or I rolled in from the pub. “You have to get a good night’s sleep before doing a show like SM:tv”, says Daly, 30. “You need to be settled and ready for anything. There’s no way I can go out drinking on a Friday night. I’m usually in bed at 10pm and if it gets to 10.30pm and I’m still not asleep I start to panic that I’m not going to get the hours in.”
Dowling, 23, nods in agreement. “I haven’t been out late on a Friday since I started doing the shows,” he admits. “If I do go out it’s for a meal but I’m home by 9pm. You couldn’t do that show with a hangover.”
To the viewing public, being a kids’ TV presenter might seem like a doddle, but it’s harder than it looks. The work starts on a Thursday morning when Dowling, Daly and their co-presenters H and Claire (formerly of Steps) get together to read the script and walk through the skits. Friday is set aside for rehearsals and recording voice-overs then, on the big day, they have to be at the studio at 6.30am for make-up and rehearsals before going on air at 9.25am.
“Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a quick break before the show starts,” says Daly. “It’s like, ‘I’ve got to wee before we go live’ because once you’re on air you have to wait for two hours.”
To the viewer, the programme is fun but calm and collected. In the deceptively small LWT studio in which it’s filmed, the impression is more one of organised chaos. Scene-shifters rush to get the next set-up ready, the cameras dart in and out like lawn-mowers, guests hover in the wings frantically brushing up on their lines for the sketches and everyone has to take care not to trip over the electrical cables that snake across the studio floor. It must be exhausting.
“There’s so much adrenaline involved in doing the show that afterwards you feel like you’ve just run a marathon,” says Daly. “People come up to me in the street and say, ‘If Brian is ever away on holiday I could co-present the show with you’ – but it’s not as easy as it looks. You have to memorise a script each week. You’ve got sketches and songs to learn, dance routines to do. It takes a lot of energy and discipline. You have to put in the hours. You can’t just turn up on Saturday morning and go for it.”
Dowling and Daly are just as chirpy away from the cameras as they are on screen, and just as close. When we meet in a photographic studio, quips fly as fast as compliments. He ribs her about her age, then calls her “lovely”. She mocks his flailing gesticulations, then says he’s “brilliant at the job”. They joke about making a record together but are the first to admit what we all know from watching the programme – neither of them can actually sing.
“Only my mother could love me when I’m singing,” says Daly, who cringes at the memory of when she had to pretend to be Kylie. “My knees were shaking, my palms were wet and I was perspiring. I was supposed to go out there and gyrate in front of the cameras with just my bra on, but I ended up pinning my hooded top to the bra.”
DOWLING confesses he’s not too fussed about the acting side of the job. “I prefer the presenting part where I just get to be me,” he says. “I’ve come from being an Ryanair air steward to doing Big Brother to this. I’m not a singer or an actor. And I certainly can’t do accents. All of the characters I play are basically me with different names.”
Actually, that’s part of the fun. Giving H a run for his money in the hyperactive stakes, the on-screen Dowling is like an excitable kid who doesn’t even try to contain his delight at meeting his pop idols. Given his enthusiasm, it is amazing he has only made one professional gaffe so far. That was when he joked about a member of the At Home With The Braithwaites cast being “crap” at challenges like Men in Splat and Eat My Goal. Daly has a good way of resisting the temptation to swear: “I just imagine I’m at home with my mum and dad. I’d never swear in front of my parents.”
“Even when we’re off camera we don’t use bad language,” adds Dowling. “As an air steward I never swore… OK, there was a bit of swearing on Big Brother.”
Indeed there was, but it did not do him any harm. He won Big Brother 2001 with a landslide four-million-plus vote, but while runner-up Helen Adams walked out of the house into a media frenzy Dowling practically disappeared. There were rumours he’d had a nervous breakdown. The rumours were false. He didn’t rush home to Ireland, with the £70,000 cheque in his pocket, to crack up in the corner of his local pub.
The former Ryanair-trolley dolly simply bided his time, turning down big-money offers to sell his story to the papers and to present a fly-on-the-wall airline docu-series. He signed to London agents PFD (who also represent Kate Winslet and Ewan McGregor) with a view to a credible long-term career rather than quick-buck supermarket openings and cash-in TV shows.
Dowling’s appointment as SM:tv co-host is something of a milestone. For one thing, he was deemed worthy to follow in the footsteps of the almighty Ant and Dec, even though his television work was previously confined to running around the Big Brother house screaming about “evil demons” and throwing hissy fits when crossed by Josh Rafter.
More significantly, he’s the first openly gay man on children’s TV. Dowling doesn’t hide his sexuality – he flaunts it, shaking his fluid-hipped groove thing with the likes of Britney Spears and cheekily flirting with the Westlife boys, though not in an aggressive fashion.
Dowling won over Big Brother viewers with humour and vulnerability. He was the softer, more acceptable side of homosexuality, camp and hilariously self-deprecating.
Even so I wonder if the producers told him to water things down for the Saturday morning audience? “They asked him to stop wearing the gold lame jumpsuits,” giggles Daly. “And of course my thongs and nail varnish,” Dowling fires back. Getting serious, he adds: “They’ve never once told me to change. It must have been a risk for SM:tv taking me on, with me being openly gay. Maybe they expected a few problems, but honestly there have been none. Even when I meet parents after the show, me being gay has never been an issue.”
Whereas Brian Dowling got the presenting gig on the back of a reality TV series, Tess Daly followed a more traditional route to the SM:tv sofa. Spotted by an agent while standing outside McDonalds’s in Manchester, she landed a contract with Models One and for 10 years modelled all over the world before setting her sights on TV.
Stints on The Big Breakfast and LA Pool Party followed, then she co-hosted SM:tv alongside Cat Deeley before the latter opted to seek pastures new (Deeley still presents cd:UK, the chart rundown that airs straight after SM:tv).
It has been reported that she and Deeley were rivals, but Daly says that’s nonsense. They’re mates, and she has nothing but admiration for her former co-host. “With Ant and Dec, Cat did an amazing job. SM:tv is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never had to act before and here I am doing live comedy. You have to get it right first time.”
DOWLING admits he has no previous experience on which to base comparisons, but thinks children’s television is one of the hardest things a presenter can do. “It’s really hard to please kids,” he reasons. “I’ve got six younger sisters and for them to find a programme interesting it has to be funny and different. You have to keep the energy levels high and hold their attention, otherwise kids will just flick over to another channel.”
They must be doing something right. Cynics predicted the programme would go down the pan when Ant, Dec and Cat left, but it is holding steady at an average 1.4 million viewers a week. The BBC’s Saturday Show (presented by Joe Mace and Dani Behr) only manages 800,000.
Why? Because SM:tv lets kids cut loose. Contestants on Brian’s Brain get the chance to answer back to an adult, chanting: “You’re thick,” whenever Dowling loses. It also helps having presenters who act like big kids themselves – a trend Ant, Dec and Cat started and that Brian, Tess, H and Claire are equally adept at.
“We never act our ages,” says Dowling with a childlike giggle. “Whenever the bands are on we’re dancing and screaming and leaping about on the sofa.”
The programme also attracts 30 per cent of 16- to 34-year-old Saturday morning viewers compared to 15 per cent for The Saturday Show. The reason? “Because it’s not just a kids’ show,” says Dowling. “It’s a good show in its own right. We get really good guests and the sketches are very funny.”
Daly, whose boyfriend Vernon Kay presents the similarly adult-friendly T4, backs him up: “Primarily our audience is kids, but a lot of adults also tune in. We’re lucky because the writers are brilliant. They’re Bafta award-winners. As soon as we get the script we’re laughing out loud. If it makes us laugh, we know it’s going to make our mates laugh.”
Success on kids’ TV is by no means a passport to success in the prime-time adult slot. Some presenters make the transition, others fall by the wayside. How do they rate their chances?
Dowling is too new to the game to really worry about that. Daly ponders the question for a minute before saying: “I haven’t really thought about what I’ll do after this. I’ve never had a grand plan.” But she isn’t worried, either. The girl who grew up watching Tiswas adds: “Just look at Chris Tarrant. He’s done all right, hasn’t he?”