Television programming often goes through phases of prevalence. At the minute, we seem to be going through an expert-people-sit-around-judging-other-people-with-a-view-to-mutual-financial-gain phase.
The 764th series of erstwhile Spurs owner comedy vehicle The Apprentice has just finished to the usual rapturous applause, while Dragon's Den has freshened up their roster with a new fire breather for their upcoming series. Arguably, The X Factor slots into that drawer too.
It's odd then that I would find in the shadows of those lumbering beasts one of my favourite new shows: Four Rooms. Odder still is that not only is it a show that features financial gain and judging, but it also features antiques, another topic that doesn't normally get me scrambling for the schedule planner. And yet, it absolutely works for me.
With so much competition in their genre, Four Rooms seems to have mastered the notion of variation of a theme. Yes, it's a bit like Dragon's Den in the sense that punters make a pitch to experts in their field who'll either offer them money or tell them to take a hike, but it's how they jump off that baseline that makes it interesting.
First, the punters aren't bringing a business idea but stuff they own that they hope is valuable. Not everyone necessarily has an idea that'll set the entrepreneurial world alight, but everyone definitely has a trinket or two they fancy could make a mint at auction. That also feeds in to a fundamental human curiosity: we love knowing what kind of stuff other people have, and indeed how valuable it is, especially if it's something weird like one of the Ramones' guitars or a dinosaur fossil - items that flummox even the experts.
And it's with those experts that Four Rooms really wins. Brilliantly cast, each one covers a different base and humour: Gordon Watson is a gruff though loveable academic type who, if this show was an animal cartoon, would be played by a scowling owl. Jeff Salmon looks and talks like a recurring character in Minder who owns a large warehouse of exotic stuff. Andrew Lamberty is the physical manifestation of the Royal London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. And then there's Emma Hawkins, to whom I'd probably sell my kidney for three pounds if she stared at me for long enough, and who presumably sells antiques on the side when she's not being John Steed's sidekick.
The fact the prospective seller meets them all one-by-one instead of en masse adds a level of psychological intrigue. Not only do they have to eek a good deal out of their chosen buyer, they also then have to wager on whether their next appointment would render that deal peanuts. Compared to David Dickinson, Four Rooms is Hitchcock.
The whole thing is held together by presenter Anita Rani, who I'd only previously heard filling in for Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 and seen as a reporter on Middle England Miscellany The One Show. And a terrific job she does too, showing other people off rather than making it all about her, a rare quality in a presenter that's rarely appreciated.
Last but not least, it passes the final test: when I found out the first series ended, I actually audibly harrumphed and gesticulated at the TV in disappointment. Hopefully More 4 (or possibly Dave, you know what they're like) show them in the meantime while they make the second series.Suggest a correction