Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Dale Winton had a way of turning daytime dross to television gold... not a bad way to be remembered

Supermarket Sweep host had his demons, but always found a smile for the cameras, writes Gail Walker

Dale Winton was above all a curious British phenomenon. He wasn't good-looking. As such. He wasn't gifted with any singular outstanding talent. As such. He wasn't a comedian. As such. Cynics would sneer at the genuine outpouring of affection for the host of such tat as Supermarket Sweep, National Lottery Live and - be afraid - Hole in the Wall.

And yet. And yet. Winton was more than the apparent sum of his achievements. The outpouring of genuine affection at the news of his sudden demise at the untimely age of 62 spoke volumes.

He may not have troubled our screens much for the past several years, but there was a collective gasp of sorrow that a cherished old friend had left the stage. A regret made more poignant by his recent absence, as if we had somehow let him down by not seeking him out.

Winton may have been a perma-tanned, pleasant but anodyne gameshow host, but he was our gameshow host.

Twenty years ago, a generation of us were raised on the post-modernist delights of Supermarket Sweep (later, naturally, to be renamed as Dale's Supermarket Sweep) - the Pricing Gun, the Inflatable Bonuses, the Shopping List and the Big Sweep. This was cheap, daytime, student bedsit land duvet viewing.

It even had the most twee of catchphrases: "The next time you're at the checkout and you hear the beep (followed by an actual beep), think of the fun you could be having on Supermarket Sweeeeep!"

Not for Winton the Wildean aphorisms of the like of Brucie's "Nice to see you. To see you nice." No, all that was a touch too sophisticated for the audience. Instead, we had the delightfully lumpen daily exchange:

Dale: "Good morning shoppers!"

Contestants: "Good morning Dale!"

But it takes a curious alchemist to make television gold and Winton was that man. He walked a fine line between taking the game "seriously" while deliciously sending it up with asides, glances, a gentle mockery which - crucially - was never aimed at the audience, or the contestants.

Perhaps the only other person who could have held the tacky mess together would have been the World's Greatest Irishman, the late Sir Terry Wogan. It takes someone with a genial nature and a fine sense of the absurd to make such a cheesy format not just into an enjoyable half-hour, but a cultural event. Of sorts.

This was Winton at the beginning and at his very best. He would go on to bigger paydays and (perhaps) bigger audiences, but this was a high water mark indeed. A man is born to do just one thing ... even if it is to host Supermarket Sweep.

Of course, there was a dark side to Dale Winton's fame. The child of an unhappy home, he was estranged from his father and worshipped his beautiful actress mother, Sheree. In what proved a harbinger of the troubles that were later to engulf Winton, she battled depression.

He recalled how she'd place a "Do Not Disturb" sign on her bedroom door when she was going through a particularly black time. A few days after his 21st birthday, Winton arrived home from work to find her dead from an overdose and himself an orphan.

At the height of his fame, Winton spoke openly about the turmoil in his background. Just as he went on to talk publicly about his failed relationships, unrequited loves and loneliness. Such frankness was, of course, endearing, not least because this was typical of his showbusiness bona fides - he understood that the pact he had with his public meant sharing life's ups and downs with them. He didn't invite them in, then shoo them away when it didn't suit. And he was candid about his demons.

Speaking on TV's Loose Women, he said: "If you've never had (depression), you don't understand it. I didn't want to put one foot in front of the other. It was triggered by a very bad break-up. I wanted to withdraw, but you know what this business is like - the money wasn't the main thing, it was letting people down. People were saying 'come out' and I would not leave the house ... five years."

If it was characteristic of Winton's courage to speak out about his mental heath issues, it also typical of his persona to try and keep this dark side at bay. And so he was also the sort of TV star who always found a smile for the cameras, even when talking about grim days.

There are those personalities - from, say, showbusiness or sport - who have that certain something that forms a special bond with the public. It's hard to define what exactly that is, but essentially people realise that, even when their hero stumbles, they're fundamentally a decent human being.

So, it wasn't surprising that no one had a bad word to say about Winton. Generous, warm-hearted tributes poured forth both from showbiz pals and the pensioner who had lived next door to him for years. Iain Grant (84) said that, no matter what his troubles, Winton put a smile on his face and "was such a cheery chap".

Close pals also talked of Winton as a man who wanted to find love and who was desperately hurt by failed - and sometimes painfully unsuitable - relationships. It's emerged that he even carried a torch for straight men like David Baddiel - according to Baddiel precisely because he was so straight. Which only goes to show that, above everything else, Winton was foolish and human. Just like the rest of us.

Of course, it is inevitable that Dale Winton will fade from memory. Unlike singers, actors and comedians, gameshow hosts are rarely honoured by retrospectives, cultural reappraisals, or the screening of their work on major channels.

After all, a series - even a long-running one - like Supermarket Sweep is at the end of it all just televisual ephemera, a kind of flotsam and jetsam. But that doesn't make the lives of the hosts valueless.

Dale Winton brought an all too fleeting genial viewing pleasure to millions. And that's not a bad legacy either.

Belfast Telegraph

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