Weaver's Week 2020-08-02

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The death was announced last weekend of Regis Philbin, aged 88.


Regis Philbin

Born on 25 August 1931 in New York, Regis was educated at Cardinal Hayes High School, and took a degree in sociology at Notre Dame of Indiana. He got into television at KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, as a stagehand and later as a news writer. He delivered sports and news bulletins on various stations in southern California.

This is sports desk, I'm Regis Philbin.

He hosted a Saturday night chat programme, The Regis Philbin Show. What the programme lacked in titular originality, it also lacked in budget: there were no comedy writers, Regis had to begin each show with a monologue about his life. That emotional honesty would become his calling card.

The Regis Philbin Show was picked up by the powerful Westinghouse Broadcasting, and sold across the USA. Many of the stations dropped the show quickly, and Regis was replaced after one year – by another game show legend, Merv Griffin.

Joey Bishop and Regis Philbin.

His network breakthrough came in 1967, as the sidekick on another late night talk programme, The Joey Bishop Show. Regis was the sidekick, the stooge for Joey's jokes, the man who would egg on his friend but always deferred to make the Rat Pack star look good. The late night television battle over there is as fierce as any, and ABC's Joey Bishop couldn't dent The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson on NBC. Joey Bishop was ended after two-and-a-half years.

Regis returned to California, where he co-hosted AM Los Angeles, a morning show with a mixture of guests and lifestyle tips. From what we've seen, it looks similar to This Morning on ITV. Regis's programme turned into a hit, lifting KABC to the top of the local ratings each morning.

Strewth Street

Yes, Regis did some game shows. The Neighbors, a gossipy programme where five women from one neighbourhood come to the studio and pass judgement on each other. Two of the players have been selected as main players, and sit at the front of the set. Three other neighbours sit behind the players, and answers some embarrassing questions.

The set is bright and like the LA suburbs.

"Which of these neighbours wears so much junk jewellery that she's in danger of getting magnetically stuck to the refrigerator?" Harsh. "Which woman's children rule her life?" Personal. $25 if you match the majority opinion displayed behind you. ($25 in 1975 was five hours' average wage. For contemporary dollar equivalents, multiply prize figures by 5; for contemporary equivalents in pounds, multiply by 3.)

Round two is a game of bluff and bluster. "Which neighbour wants to know why you have no problems." The three other players briefly explain why they said this, even though two of them didn't. $100 if you match the person who said it, and $50 for the neighbour chosen "for being so convincing".

Write it and say it.

Round three has a number of statements that all three of the neighbour panel agrees on. The players buzz in when they think they know, and say "It's me", or "It's her". Four statements in this round, worth $50, $100, $200, and $300. Get the question wrong, the money goes to the opponent. Yep, all of the big money is in this final round, a hallmark of a show that doesn't know what it's doing.

The winner gets a grand prize, such as home furniture. There's a colour television for each of the neighbourhood panel. The set is meant to look like the local architecture, wooden-fronted houses painted in pastel colours, with low fences and an ornamental trellis.

Our winner emerges.

There's a fine line between being friendly and being snide, and we fear that some of the statements were a little close to the knuckle. They wanted to have the honesty of Loose Women, at times it felt like we were going to watch Regis orchestrate a stand-up row like on The Eastenders. But then the show pulled back from such backstabbing bitterness, and ended up being sweet; this column's frown turned into a smile by the end. The Neighbors (a Carruthers Company production in association with Warner Brothers Television) wasn't renewed past its original 13 week run.

That's why they know anything goes

All Star Anything Goes was exported to ABC as a version of It's a Knockout. The actual format, between teams from familiar shows, was somewhere between We Are the Champions and Crackerjack. Slide down a slide and throw things as you descend? Burst balloons using poppers on your head? The Doughnut walk – hop down the track gathering rubber tyres as you go?

Tired already?

And it's all done by the young stars of The Mickey Mouse Club in front of huge numbers of their fans? Er, we'd rather not. They came in cars sponsored by Playboy magazine? We'd really rather not. Regis was one of the sideline reporters, but he couldn't make sense out of this organised chaos.

Regis moved back to New York in 1983, taking the format of AM Los Angeles with him. With The Morning Show co-host Kathie Lee, Regis shared slices of life, little homilies everyone could relate to. A digital alarm clock that he couldn't program, wondering where he'd misplaced his car keys. Having been syndicated into more markets, ABC put the show out nationally from autumn 1988. He'd remain part of Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee until 2011, the last ten years with new co-host Kelly Ripa.

Computer says: sag-it-ar-i-us.

We've had a look at their Big First National show. Regis introduces a man who does computer horoscopes, and asks him if the show will be a success. "There will be trouble later in the year," prognosticates the computer, and because it's a computer it's completely infallible. There are lots of identical twins in the audience, to help bring alive a feature about twins. Later in the hour, a pet horse; later in the week, cookery and relationships; every day, a star guest.

Whoever he was talking to on the other side of the sofa, Regis knew that he was also talking to people at home. Regis was a gentle, affable person. Always interested in what his guest had to say, always wanted to let the guest tell their story in their own way. Whether that guest was a highly-drilled movie star or someone off the street, whether they were scary-but-friendly punks or a bankrupt real-estate magnate, Regis let everyone speak their mind so that we might see into it.

Regis gets a haircut, back when this was something we could all do.

When it's done well, television can be an intimate medium. You're sat there, on a comfortable chair in familiar surroundings, looking on as this friendly guy Regis tells you about his life. Not the big events, but the daily minutiae. Stories to humanise him, not to big himself up. He's trustworthy, he's genuine, he's sincere. We felt like we could know the chap, and he's as solid and honest as oak.

Is there a similar character, of complete calm and professionalism, familiar to viewers here? Some will remember Terry Wogan, the avuncular and irreverent chatterbox. Some will be familiar with Gay Byrne, he shut up so that Ireland could talk. Others will recall Richard Whiteley, a knowledgeable interviewer always ready to play the fool. For some, it's Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby, the safest pair of heads on television.

By the time of his retirement, the Beer World Records company said that Regis Philbin had clocked up more hours on television than any other host – over 16,000 hours. How long would Phillip Schofield have to stay on This Morning to match that? Many years yet, but it might be worth having someone tally up all the hours, it's a record Phillip could gopher.

Regis raises a toast to Kathie Lee.

The path to a million

This column got to know Regis as as the host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. His trademark was to point right down the camera as he began the show: "Who wants to be a milionaire?"

You do!

Dressed in a similar fashion to Chris Tarrant – dark suit, perhaps a brighter tie – Regis used many of the familiar story-telling devices. For fifteen minutes, this contestant was the centre of his world, the only person he needed to focus on.

Regis would start with a quick interview, ask the contestant about their life, tell us an entertaining anecdote, or about their family. Something to turn the contestant into someone we can relate to. Something to set the contestant at ease. And then the quiz: five easy questions to set the mind at ease, five more taxing ones to build up the pot, and four exceptionally difficult questions to weed out the great from the excellent. While the million dollar questions are never as difficult, it's a question of psychology: is our contender so certain of their answer that they'll risk everything on it?

A million dollar question in 2000.

Valleycrest's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire had some lovely camera angles: a shot of Regis from behind the contestant's back, so we could see what our avatar is seeing. And a shot of what Regis is seeing, the contestant with their supporter in the front row of the audience behind. Perhaps we're less convinced by the sound editing, some sharp cuts from background theme to final answer music, we hadn't appreciated Celador's careful audio mixing until we weren't hearing it.

Of course David got it right.

Millionaire came off primetime television in 2002, a year after Regis had won Best Game Show Host at the Daytime Emmy awards, Regis hosted the first series of Got Talent on NBC, an overwrought version of single-word vocabulary game Password, and various other light entertainment shows. He retired in 2011.

Regis with later co-host Kelly Ripa.

Do we have a moment to remember Regis Philbin by? The moment when the million dollar prize is won. Regis congratulates the winner, then goes to his mark at the back of the set. This is a moment for the player, for the newest millionaire. Regis can remain silent, literally step back, step out of the limelight. We have a bigger star, and Regis would always defer to the star of the moment.

Look in the shadows to the left, Regis lets David have his moment.

Pleasant, friendly, and self-effacing. From what little we've seen, Regis looks like he was a great television friend.

In other news...

BAFTA winners Congratulations to Taskmaster, winner in the Comedy Entertainment Programme category. Strictly Come Dancing won Entertainment Programme, and Race Across the World took Reality and Constructed Factual.

Task on! The new candidates for BAFTA award winner Taskmaster have been named. Daisy May Cooper, Johnny Vegas, Katherine Parkinson, Mawaan Rizwan, and Richard Herring. Recording has already begun, and the new series is set for Channel 4 later in the year.

The Favourite Button ITV has announced its autumn line-up of new thrills.

That's all coming to channels 3 and 6 later in the year.

We plan to take next week off, so here are the highlights for a fortnight. Old editions of Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1, Thu) and Total Wipeout (BBC1, Sat) are given new licks of paint. Masterchef Down Under returns to pay-tv (W, weeknights).

Stephen Mulhern is Rolling in It (ITV, Sat). After interruptions, we resume series of Countdown and BBC Brain (C4 and Radio 4, 10 August). And not seen since the 1970s, Runaround with Mike Reid (Talking Pictures, from 8 August).

Photo credits: KABC, Joey Bishop Productions / ABC, Carruthers Company / Warner Brothers Television, Bob Banner Associates / Robert Stigwood Organization, WABC, Celador / Valleycrest Productions.

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