"It's a lovely blue colour isn't it? Aquamarine," coos designer Ian Stuart as he sloshes some Toilet Duck down the staff loos. Welcome to the Posh Frock Shop, Channel 4's tea-time oddity where women come to consult Ian and his team at his glitzy London store, purchasing outfits for their big do from weddings to various black-tie affairs.
It's Say Yes to the Dress but relocated beside the Underworld knicker factory in Coronation Street. As the title suggests, The Posh Frock Shop is all about a relatable kind of glamour.
In an era of sophisticated reality shows where young wannabes seem perfectly primed for their 15 minutes of fame from birth, it’s a welcome change to find a show that’s populated by people who mostly appear not to want to be on TV. Unblinking Ian, the colour of a Toffee Pop, spends most of the series wringing his hands nervously while chatting to customers. His attempts at speaking directly to camera in a conspiratorial, confessional style among the hangers in the backroom have a slightly unhinged quality.
He's the Col Kurtz of couture who at any second you feel could end up becoming volatile
His laughter is a little too loud, the stare a little too intense. He’s the Col Kurtz of couture who at any second you feel could end up becoming volatile, teetering on the edge of a colossal breakdown that no amount of “oh no I forgot to plug in the iron!” scripted antics can save him from.
Chic stylist Carrelyn deals with demanding brides, eyes widening unable to disguise her concern at their ever-more outlandish suggestions (more feathers! black lace!). She routinely smiles down the camera lens through gritted teeth as an older bride pulls out a selection of sequined gowns that look like rejects from Jane McDonald’s cruise-ship wardrobe.
It’s not just the staff who seem ill at ease, the customers and their companions that trip through the store have a vaguely anxious look about them as though they were asked to appear on camera as a favour or were grabbed off the street unexpectedly in a sartorial ambush.
It's the show's rickety, shonky aspect, devoid of polish or modern slickness that makes the Posh Frock Shop strangely endearing. It brings reality telly back to its roots, the days of Maureen Rees careering her car off the road in Driving School when there was a winning lack of self-awareness. The plinky pianos and pizzicato strings of the soundtrack try to give it a warm Great British Bake-Off charm, but instead the show is reminiscent of Victoria Wood's parody sitcom Acorn Antiques. There is always someone wandering hesitantly into the shot wobbling a tray of prosecco to hand out to the bridal party as a mannequin arm falls off in the background.
Unlike its American counterparts, there isn't any true drama or ricocheting high tension in the Posh Frock Shop. A bride may have a friend who is unsure of her choice but by the next scene they have patched things up at an alarming speed.
One difficult maid of honour, Bernie, ends up changing her rigid opinion on her friend Aggie's dress completely within minutes as if to hurry the show along. This is bizarre given the fact that half of its running time is taken up with clips as narrator Nigel Havers recaps something that just happened five minutes ago. The constant repetition makes it feel like each episode is on a never-ending loop giving the viewer a woozy feeling that they're suffering from mild concussion. If the Posh Frock Shop was an Office-style mockumentary, viewers would complain it was too farfetched.
There’s a certain kind of unwieldy madness to it that can only be unscripted. Take Pauline, a client who needs a show-stopping dress to attend the Pawscars, which is a ceremony organised for pedigree dogs before they head to compete in Crufts (a kind of dog Oscars)
As reality telly has become more successful it's mutated into a formulaic format
"I've never been a grey wearer," she says, unhappily surveying a ruffled silver dress young assistant Charlotte has chosen for her, which is surprising as Pauline arrived in the shop earlier clearly wearing a charcoal-grey jumper. It's these moments of surrealism and the general air of fatigued fatalism that could turn it into a docu-soap masterpiece like Channel 4's unexpected triumph, The Hotel, if the more blatantly contrived elements were ditched.
As reality telly has become more successful it's mutated into a formulaic format that has meant even shows like Coach Trip undergoing a sexy face-lift. Thankfully, the unpredictable nature of the daytime schedule can reveal hidden gems like the Posh Frock Shop which retains that certain bargain basement appeal of cheap telly which will never go out of style.