Weaver's Week 2019-04-14

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Fogg. I'm the one who made the bet, and I know I'll be exactly right on time.


Race Across the World

Race Across the World

Studio Lambert for BBC2, 3 March – 7 April

Over a hundred years ago, Jules Verne popularised a Great Overland Journey. His creations Phileas Fogg and Jean Passepartout travelled around the world, via Aden and India and Hong Kong and San Francisco. Set in the 1870s, before aeroplanes had been invented, Fogg travelled by train and steamship. He wanted to win a bet and earn £20,000 for his troubles.

Verne's book proved a massive success, and inspired people to emulate Fogg's journey for real. Nellie Bly of The World newspaper emulated most of Verne's route, though she sailed around India to Ceylon, and returned to New York in seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds. Rival newspaper The Cosmopolitan sent its intrepid reporter Elizabeth Bisland the other way round, her journey took four-and-a-half days more.

Race Across the World Hey, now the story must go on, we must be ready to go away.

The idea of a Great Overland Journey has remained potent. The novel has never gone out of print, and been adapted for films and a well-remembered Spanish animation. Thirty years ago, Radio 1 presenter Simon Bates tried to emulate Bisland's journey, and filed daily reports for transmission on air.

Yes, there have been game shows based on this idea. At the turn of the century, ITV2 sent Keith Duffy and some teams to have The Race in areas around the world; they cherry-picked interesting parts of the world, and avoided difficult places. We're aware of The Amazing Race, which has been a massive success in North America, but has never caught on over here.

Race Across the World asked a lot of its competitors. They were to go from Greenwich to Singapore, via five checkpoints of the producers' choosing.{1}

Race Across the World How to get There from Here.

Like on The Race, like on The Amazing Race, like Fogg and Passepartout, the contestants travel in pairs. Like all the other competition shows, these "pairs" are actually trios, with a camera person filming the contenders but not taking part in the contest.

The teams use technology from the age of Phileas Fogg. No credit or debit cards, no mobile phones or other electronic equipment. Transactions are cash only, and draw from a limited budget. Fogg liquidated all of his possessions for cash, realising a sum of £20,000. That's now about £1.5 million – "limited" only in the sense that it could potentially run out. Our modern-day travellers are gifted £1400 (about €1550), the price of two economy class airfares to Singapore. It will be possible for them to earn extra money by working en route.

Race Across the World Some transport was fast.

And like Fogg's journey, Race Across the World is a continuous challenge. While teams will stop for 36 hours in each checkpoint, it could be that the leaders depart before the last team arrives. Back in its day, The Race was an episodic programme, each show plotted a course from start to finish, before relocating for next week's exciting episode.

Race Across the World needed to be a continuing drama, but each episode needed to be a self-contained play. The show – from checkpoint to checkpoint – took about five days in real life, edited down to an hour. And that's a BBC hour, 58 minutes of programme. Commercial networks have about 43 minutes of programme; already, each episode is that bit longer.

Race Across the World Some transport was not fast.

The show needs to be longer, because there's a lot to get through. At any time, we're juggling three variables. The physical journey, getting from A to B on coaches, trains, taxis, and all the rest. The relationships between the competitors, how their friendship is strengthened – or weakened. Cash is an ever-present concern.

Another dimension, time, is represented by the passage of the episode; we can believe that segments were seen in order. Daylight activity on day 35 comes before nighttime activity on day 35, and both come before anything on day 36. We don't have to think too hard about time, it just happens.

Race Across the World Some landmarks were familiar.

A good show is all about the story, how they tell a tale through words, pictures, sound, and judicious editing. The opening episode was more confusing than it needed to be. Here are five teams, we meet them all at Greenwich, and set them packing. We don't know them from Eve, and within minutes one of the teams is wobbling, and pull out of the race. It's a messy start, and disjoints the narrative flow almost to breaking point.

After this very awkward start, Race Across the World settles into its style. There's a lot about the mechanics of travel, about navigating connections and crossing town. Establishing shots and big captions make it clear where we are, and John Hannah's insistent voiceover tells us about the place.

Race Across the World Some landmarks looked familiar.

A map tells us where everyone is at any given moment, and helps us transition between teams – though sometimes it would have helped to show how close they were (or weren't) to the checkpoint. The pace is brisk, we're always moving forward and travelling on, but we're only hurried in the last moments of the episode.

And the show falls into a rhythm, and it's the rhythm of a process show. It's a bit dull to see people travelling: we're on a train, we're on a train, we're on a train... Much of the programme is about the planning, finding the routes, negotiating for the tickets, wondering whether to take a hotel or a room of easier virtue.

Race Across the World And some landmarks were unknown.

Because the footage is mostly of the contestants negotiating, we see a lot of Anglos Abroad, talking slowly and loudly in a limited English, so that they can be understood by these tourists and their cameraman. Would it be possible to give the contestants basic vocab in the local language? Just enough to say "please" and "thank you" and "goodbye", do something to dispel the colonial mindset.{2}

Earlier, we noted that the BBC tv hour is 57 minutes, somewhat longer than the commercial tv hour. We can easily see where the advert breaks would go – there are pauses in the action, quiet moments and recaps of the episode so far. In some episodes, the action felt duplicative and prolonged, as if the natural length was 53 minutes and they'd had to pad it out just a little.

Race Across the World Top up your income by shifting sand dunes.

The teams were able to earn extra cash by taking jobs on the side. Most of the work had been arranged by the production company, and this much was said almost every week. Is the delay to your trip – a once-in-a-lifetime chance to herd elephants – worth £25 and three square meals and a night's bed? That sleep means you can spend tomorrow night on a rattly coach, and the dosh lets you book the express train later in the trip.

There was a single elimination in the race, the last team on the leg from Delphi into Baku would go no further. An effect of this – whether intended or not – was to make it less likely that teams would work in Europe. Money earned in the west will go a lot further in the east. We also found it much easier to concentrate on four teams rather than five – a lesson producers on The Race learned years ago. If there's to be a second season, we'd counsel towards four teams from the off, and no eliminations.

Race Across the World Location captions could not be ignored.

As each episode followed a similar formula, our mind wandered. The teams don't have access to a mobile phone, but it's legit to use someone else's phone, or to pay in cash for them to make a booking on your behalf. Does the rule of three from The Amazing Race apply: can the players take transport without their camera person? Take accommodation without their camera person? We found ourselves wondering if everyone had to do some sightseeing in the leg to China, and some work on their journey – or was this happy coincidence?

BBC2 wanted to commission a show with ambition and scale, and they've certainly managed that. But while it felt like it was running off the rails – particularly when everyone got stranded on a becalmed ferry in the Caspian Sea – this column *liked* Race Across the World, we didn't *love* it.

Race Across the World How they got from There to Here.

The pace within an episode was almost metronomic: if it's 20 minutes in and we're already starting day 3, the winners will reach on day 8. Michael Burns' original music was stirring and rousing, but we felt that it dictated our emotions rather than allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

We found one of the teams was bland, another was quite annoying, and we couldn't really connect with any of them. If it's a contest, we need to cheer for a winner, or have a villain so villainous that we're comfortable cheering against them. Julian the old Etonian from another travel show, Lost, is a first-rate villain. This column didn't get enough emotional connection with the competitors.

Having set the various waymarkers, the producers stepped back and didn't interfere with progress at all. It was then a major surprise to see them pull a stunt at the finish line, and hide it behind a pay-to-visit rooftop. That felt completely out of kilter, and not what we'd come to expect, and – frankly – spoiled the ending more than it ought. The last team to arrive had planned their budget beautifully, and had just S$7 (€4,60) remaining. To reach the finish line cost S$46. Knowing that they'd lost, we would not have blamed the final team for snubbing the producers and going straight to the airport.

Race Across the World The finish line is on top of the hotel.

Was Race Across the World a good show? We admire the technical brilliance, and the logistics and planning behind the scenes. This column found the show to be emotionally flat, but we know there are lot of people who did love it. Amongst the five best shows of the year so far? Yes, but it is week 15, the year is still young.

Ultimately, the travellers most like Phileas Fogg were Tony and Elaine, the standby contestants who were parachuted in during the first episode. They were first across the line in Singapore, win the bet, and claim Fogg's prize of £20,000.

Race Across the World Made the bet, were on time.


{1} The route was a masterpiece of planning, worked out to protect the competitors and production staff. The journey is primarily limited by geopolitical concerns: both Burma and Laos are completely off limits to the teams, much of eastern Ukraine is too dangerous, and the border from Armenia into Azerbaijan is closed. The waypoints force the teams' hands: Delphi to push them south of the Black Sea towards Baku, then on to Tashkent via the Caspian Sea – this removes potentially awkward trips through both Russia and Iran. Huangyao forces the teams through China rather than India, and Koh Rong in Cambodia makes the route pass through safe Vietnam.

Over at the Bar, Brig reminded us of supercool David Jensen quiz Worldwise. We've dug out our notes of the flight network they used. One legal route from LON to SNG is quite similar to that taken by the teams: LON-ROM-ATH-TEH-TAS-BEI-SNG. Most players would do the trip in five: LON-WAR-MOS-TOM-BEI-SNG, or LON-ROM-ATH-TEH-SRI-SNG.{back!}

{2} From the first series' success, we predict there will eventually be a series set in Africa, for which French would be useful; and in Latin America, for which Spanish will help. Subtitles or "I said this..." can carry through many language gaps.{back!}

Countdown Update

When we last looked, Maggie Barlow was on the verge of octochampdom. She completed her eight wins, with a total of 794 points. A solid player, rather than a spectacular one, and than can be enough to pressure a flashy player into a series of errors.

Jane Basford won a couple of games, but was soundly beaten by Steven Turnbull. It was the first, and highest-scoring, of his octochamp run; a total of 619 is barely two-thirds that of top seed Dinos Sfyris. When Steven can offer a valid word, it's a winner; too often, his declarations fell invalid.

There was a single win for Charlie Kavanagh, and two for Geoff Markham. Then Mark Decouto moved in, he's got six wins so far. His six-small numbers selection appears set to drive down the score, an interesting tactical choice.

More Countdown in four weeks.

OC and UC

The top half of the Only Connect series had its final. The Time Ladies (Charlotte Jackson, Emma Harris, Rebecca Shaw) were against the Poptimists (Oliver Levy, Bob De Caux, Matt Loxham). One team has been revising the operas of Beethoven, the other has practised tie-breaks.

"Punctuation marks? That's too easy", said the Poptimists about their picture connection. It's not too easy, this is an Only Connect semi-final. Wheel of Fortune is thataway. Zombie names had evaded the teams (as in the MoT test, the ministry is dead, the test lives on), but the Time Ladies knew biological names inspired by pop stars.

"They offered their children for sacrifice". The things people do to win this show! Bonus for the Time Ladies, but there is a limit to everyone's evilness, no-one spots synonyms for anagrams of "vile". Rejected Bond themes fall to the Poptimists, and they take a 4-3 lead after one round.

Groups of married couples provide a bonus to the Time Ladies, after no-one knows the points of equal Northitude and Eastitude on a map. Pictures of people and things with names from Sunday to Wednesday in their own language give a balancing bonus to the Poptimists. Er, does that sentence make any sense? It's an Only Connect semi-final.

Here's a surprise: no-one sees a traffic light sequence and translates it into heraldic colours. Nor do they know shortened names of French presidents, from Emma M to Jacq C. A music sequence closes the round, going out from Electric Avenue to a song about London. A low scoring-round, the Poptimists are ahead 5-4.

A horrible wall for the Poptimists, who fail to find any of the connections on their own, and are beaten by one of the groups even when they're explained. Time Ladies find a couple of connections, but can't explain the last two groups. It's an 8-8 draw.

Missing Vowels splits the teams. Poptimists take the advantage on invaders, but the Time Ladies boss parts of the anatomy named after people, and spot a couple of sex-changed Best Picture winners. The Time Ladies emerge winners, 16-13, and will progress to the final.

University Challenge pitched Durham (Sian Round, Cameron Yule, Matthew Toynbee, Ben Murray) against Edinburgh (Matt Booth, Marco Malusà, Max Fitz-James, Robbie Campbell Hewson), a rematch from the group phase. Durham won that easily, and get off to the best start, as Edinburgh pick up a missignal penalty for an incorrect interruption.

The Kalinga prize sounds filthy, Maria Gimbutas sounds interesting, and the Schlafi {p,q} geometric symbol is a nice gentle bonus set more suited to the second round. Financial events as charted on the S&P index are the first visual round, after which Durham leads 40-35.

Another missignal doubles Durham's lead, before Durham take elements in Chinese province names, with modern design to follow. "These bonuses are on swans, Edinburgh", a lifeline they need. A short extract from Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture introduces the music round for Edinburgh, and gives them a lead of 70-65.

A missignal for Durham doubles Edinburgh's lead, and the Scots take modern literary criticism. Durham strike back with various physics laws, and an application of "when in doubt, say Poisson". Welsh orthography would be simple if anyone knew what a "voiced dental fricative" was, or how many they use in Llandudno. After no-one recognises Corazon Aquino, Edinburgh's lead is 115-85.

She's here to tee up parent-and-child political dynasties, a complete miss for Durham. Edinburgh get novels about slavery, Durham turn polymerases into "pass" responses in no time at all. Edinburgh have wars of independence on film, and if they run down the clock... but they don't run down the clock. They don't need to: Edinburgh emerge the winners by 180-110.

This Week and Next

The death of Charles van Doren, the man at the centre of the Twenty One scandal of 1956-7. Van Doren, a quiet academic type, was coached by the show's producers, told both the questions and answers, and instructed on how to act before the camera. He pocketed $128,000 (now more than $1.1 million, €1,25m) and had a brief turn on NBC's Today programme before the scandal broke. Afterwards, he took work with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He died on Tuesday, aged 93.

We must also note the death of Rex Garrod, Robot Wars regular, inventor of model car Brum, and contributor to Tim Hunkin's fabulous Secret Life of Machines. And the death of Pete Cashmore, journalist and champion of Countdown in 1997.

Molly Hocking won the final of The Voice on ITV last Saturday night. The show aired on Irish partner channel VM1 on Sunday night, by which time her single had both reached the top, and been toppled from, the one-day rolling sales chart. "I'll never love again" finished number 5 on this week's single sales list, and number 73 on the sales-and-streaming mix used by Radio 1. Well done if you got that at home.

A new one-day record for a North American game show. James Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, won Tuesday's episode of Jeopardy! with a total of $110,914 (€98 392). To the best of our knowledge, the biggest one-day win on a quiz show in Europe by a non-celebrity team remains Morgane and Renaud on The Wall Face au Mur, taking €308 647 in June 2017. If you're going to argue about the quiz status of that programme, try The Chase and the £100,000 (€112 000) team from September last year.

Darcey Bussell will step down from the Strictly Come Dancing panel. She's been judging since 2012, and will have a landmark birthday later this month. BBC Studios has yet to announce who will replace her on the critical list.

In other news, Ayda Field and her husband Robbie Williams have left The X Factor after one series. They are expected to be replaced by Roland Rat Superstar and Mike from Mike's Pie Stall.

Second Take Thanks to everyone who let us know that Al Murray hosts his Pub Quiz as himself, and not in his "Pub Landlord" character.

BARB ratings for the week to 31 March.

  1. A new top show, Line of Duty (BBC1, Sun) came back with 11.35m viewers. Wow! Top game was the Masterchef final (BBC1, Fri, 5.35m).
  2. Behind: Celeb Bake Off (C4, Tue, 4.6m), The Voice (ITV, Sat, 4.2m), and Sewing Bee (BBC2, Tue, 3.65m). We don't recall when the top four games last came from four different channels.
  3. Also over 3m this week: Pointless Celebrities and All Together Now (BBC1, Sat), The Chase (ITV, Tue) and Celebrity Chase (ITV, Sat). But The Family Chase (ITV, Sun) fell below 2m.
  4. Race Across the World continued to climb BBC2's ratings (Sun, 2.75m) – the first episode was on 1.95m. University Challenge (BBC2, Mon, 2.2m) beat Only Connect (2m), but both beat the show forcing them earlier, Mary Berry's Quick Cooking (1.8m).
  5. We don't have ratings for Sky's channels (so no Portrait Artist) nor for UKTV (no repeats on Dave). We do know Celebrity Juice returned with 780,000, a disappointing figure (ITV2, Thu). 8 Out of 10 Cats (E4, 450,000) did OK, and Comedy Central will be pleased that Blockbusters is only down a few thousand (Thu, 220,000). They'll be happy that Your Face or Mine hits a new peak (Wed, 260,000).

High culture this week. On BBC4, Young Dancer of the Year returns (Fri). On Artsworld, the final of Portrait Artist of the Year (Tue).

Photo credits: Studio Lambert.

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