Weaver's Week 2022-01-09

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Walk the Line

Will we get our gems back? Will we make one of the pesky pirates...


Walk the Line

Syco Entertainment & Lifted Entertainment for ITV, 12-17 December 2021

Back in the day, this column came up with a theory about children's television. Bad shows would emphasise how much gunge they had, it would be their calling card. We first saw it in 1980s Crackerjack, where Stu Francis would end each show covered in BBC soup. Two decades later, Live & Kicking added gunge to their mixture. They didn't need such silliness on SMTV, but did on Ministry of Mayhem.

The shows would talk about nothing but the gunge, who was going to get gunked, who wasn't. They completely forgot about the other elements to make a good show. These days, children's television has a healthy relationship with gunk: just watch an episode of Swashbuckle to see how often Gem talks about the pirates walking the plank into some slop. (SPOILER: twice, once at the start of the show, and again at the end before it happens).

Walk the Line Half a million quid: grown-up telly's equivalent of gunge.

Telly for older viewers has a similar problem, except it's not with gunge, it's with big prizes. Walk the Line has a big prize. Half a million pounds (€550 000). Every time there's a chance for host Maya Jama to mention this big prize of half a million pounds, Maya will mention this big prize of half a million pounds.

Who walks the line?

Walk the Line Tonight's famous five.

The format is simple. Five singers take part each night. One is the winner from the prior night. The others are "randomly selected" by the producers. Somehow, this "random" selection always produced exactly one band or vocal group, at least one solo bloke, and at least one solo woman. And the selection was diverse. We have no problem with the producers picking a balanced lineup, at least not in principle.

All the acts have photos appear on screen before we hear any of them. And already, the show gives us fantastic attention to detail: everyone is in a sort of hero pose, looking to the left and up. Reminds us a bit of some Communist-era propaganda pictures.

Walk the Line A coherent look, and a bit stylish.

Maya explains how, at the end of the show, the defending champion is going to be asked to make a decision. Accept the buyout – it starts at £10,000 and grows by that much every time the champ wins again. Or "walk the line", and hope they've come top of the audience vote again. Get it wrong, and our champ risks leaving with nothing. Get it right, and they're one step closer to that £500,000 in Friday's final.

Walk the Line The panel of experts: Craig David, Alesha Dixon, Dawn French. Gary Barlow.

"To help make that decision" are four experienced people from the entertainment industry. Craig David, who met a girl on Monday. Alesha Dixon, who gave her sage advice on Tuesday. Dawn French, who made her laugh on Wednesday. And there's Gary Barlow, who bored her to sleep on Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday, and all through Sunday. The defending champion always goes last, and sees the other performances from the "champions' chair" at the side of the studio.

Five minutes in, and it's all been explanations. Nobody's sung a note. We finally see a video about one of the singers. And then we see them perform, a two-minute performance of singing and dancing and any other gimmick the singer might like to show off. The judges give their honest opinion – Alesha has sharp and accurate opinions, Dawn emphasises the entertainment angle. Craig is the all-rounded star, and Gary repeats what the others just said.

Walk the Line This contestant drums.

So that's 90 seconds of introduction video, two minutes of performance, and three minutes of critique. Rinse and repeat for all four challengers, and again for the defending champion. Maya might ask who the contender sees as their main challenger, is it in their interest to give a truthful answer?

Walk the Line has all forms of singing: opera, drummers, someone who is channelling the spirit of R Wayne, boy bands, rappers, soulful singers. Turned out to be a lot of soulful singers: the audience rewarded vocal capacity and control and the ability to channel emotion through song. In this, they were guided and "helped" by the judging panel. Did the svengali-like Simon Cowell want a soulful woman singer to win the series?

Walk the Line A soulful woman (Nadiah Adu-Gyamfi) won the series.

Alesha and Craig proved able to torpedo a challenger's ambition. "Your songwriting still needs developing... cute but a bit gimmicky... some pitching issues... not strong enough to go all the way." It's not exactly subtle, telling the audience to ignore their emotional reaction, and not to vote for this contender.

When one of them really liked a singer, they were fulsome in their praise. "Last night wasn't a fluke... I love the raspiness in your voice... It was relaxed, confident singing." For a couple of episodes, Alesha joined the panel by video link from her home, isolating her further from the atmosphere in the studio. The critique on these nights was strong on technical flaws and vocal excellence.

Walk the Line Ella Rothwell was the other winner, taking £40,000.

After everyone's performed, the audience chose their favourite act. A hundred people in the studio, and a "virtual audience" watching the recording from their homes, picked a fave. It feels like this was originally going to be a phone and app vote, but ITV didn't want to make Walk the Line a live show. Everything was pre-recorded.

Walk the Line Maya Jama stands in front of pictures of the audience at home.

OK, how do they walk the line?

Once again, Maya introduces the acts. After an interminable pause, we find out the challenger with the most votes. The others file off the stage.

Walk the Line Ella Rothwell's remaining challenger is Darby.

"It all comes down to this", says Maya. The champion and the challenger face off. Will the champion choose to take the cash offer, or will they play on and hope to come back tomorrow? There's a minute for the champ to think things through. The champion gives her thoughts, the panel tell us what they're thinking, there's shouting from the audience, and a countdown in the background.

Walk the Line The hubbub suddenly stops.

Time expires. Lights go down. The noise ceases, it's the most effective transition in the whole show. Our champion makes her decision. Let's assume the decision is to "walk the line". And Maya reads from the autocue.

"If the champ has beaten the contender, she'll go through to tomorrow night's show. If not, she'll leave with nothing, and the contender will perform again tomorrow night. So it all comes down to this."

Walk the Line Maya Jama demonstrates how they expect people to walk the line.

Hang on one cotton-pickin' minute. Two minutes ago, Maya said it all came down to this, but that was a different this. Walk the Line looks coherent, sounds ace, but the host's script contains horrid logical solecisms. Kevin Day's scripts are usually better than this.

Anyway, while we're pondering the ontological meaning of life, the titular Line appears. We haven't seen it since the opening minutes of the show. Have they not learned from the success of Rolling in It? If you've got a titular gimmick, we need to see it all the time. Can't just bring the Line in at the beginning and end of the show, like it's a tank of Swashbuckle slop. No, if you've got Line on your show, we need to see Line (and Cook) a lot.

Walk the Line See this? This is how you Walk the Line. You literally walk along a line.

Anyway! The contender walks along the line, in slow-motion, with a tense heartbeat playing. When she reaches the end of the catwalk, we find the result. Assuming it's a win, Maya waves to the defeated contender from the other end of the studio.

Walk the Line Maya and Ella say goodbye to Darby.

Looking back on the series, we can see the outline of a series plot. Night 1, find a great singer. Night 2, put her against an even better singer, give a difficult decision and ensure a huge emotional payoff whoever wins. Night 3, ramp it down a little, a clear win for whoever is in the champions' chair. Night 4, introduce the selected winner, hope the champ cashes out. Night 5, another quieter night/ Night 6, will the champ take £20 grand or risk it for half-a-mill?

And, always dangling out of reach, the prospect of a complete fiasco to end the series. Goodsinger reaches the final, decides to take the buyout. Othersinger thus gets £500,000 by standing there. We find out Goodsinger would have won anyway. All hell ensues. Gary Barlow could sing and lift the mood.

So, why was Walk the Line such a failure?

Walk the Line The stage has had some money spent on it.

On paper, this was a tremendous show. The star-studded panel are just the most visible of many big names. Florian Wieder was the production designer, you'll know his work from most of the recent Eurovision Song Contests. Beyond Dispute are the independent adjudicators, the best-known in the business. The show had many established directors, and more editors than Fleet Street. There's a Welfare Producer, look after the contestants' interests. The theme tune is by two professionals and a ringer: Nigel Butler, Simon Cowell, Ray Hedges.

Unfortunately, Walk the Line didn't go out on paper, it went out on television. And viewer reaction ranged from "er" through "ugh" and "grrr" to "click!" Mostly "click!". Viewing figures were terrible: 3.2 million curious about the first episode (or tuning in early for the I'm a Celeb final). 2.4 million for the second, 2.2 million for the grand final. It was the 12th (TWELFTH) most popular game show of the week, behind Pointless, less popular than University Challenge, and miles behind Only Connect.

Walk the Line Ella wins, but did anyone care?

What went wrong? Why did this show allow people to make snarky comments like "Well done if you sat through that at home" and "Missing Cowells"? The scheduling didn't help, 8pm on a weeknight isn't where we expect to see a singing show. The atmosphere was awkward, the way it was entirely pre-recorded and felt like watching a party you're not invited to. But that wasn't a fatal problem. These were.

Problem 1: straightforward singing shows are passé. What singing shows have been recommissioned lately? Celebrity Karaoke Club, more about the company than the singing. The Masked Singer, more about the disguises than the singing. All Together Now, more about the experience than the singing. Got What It Takes?, more about the mother-daughter dynamic than the singing. We haven't had a straightforward singing show since The Voice launched ten years ago, the viewer doesn't care for a simple singing contest.

Problem 2: the show was too serious for its own good. "It all comes down to this", "T-minus 60 seconds", it's irritating fluff to obscure the central conceit and make the show feel worse than it is. We knew nothing about the format before the shows aired, all we knew was that it was a singing show with 25 acts and a big prize. Even when Maya Jama told us something about how the format worked, the message was vanished from social media. And when the show is silencing its own host – the person who is literally paid to communicate with us! – it's too far up its own backside.

Walk the Line Maya Jama: better than the show.

Problem 3: the show was obviously not fair. Remember how we said four acts had been chosen "at random" to appear in the episode? That means four acts have been chosen "at random" to appear in the very final episode. It's a brilliant way to alienate your audience: Geri Verypopular wins from Sunday to Thursday, but gets usurped in the final by Kelly Brillsinger and leaves with nothing. Winner stays on only feels fair in head-to-head competitions. Which brings us to

Problem 4: the elements are done better elsewhere. In the summer, we looked at Beat Me! The Five Knockouts, a Dutch singing show with limited horizons. Here, the contests were straight battles, head-to-head. Simple enough for anyone to follow. The top prize was a decent €50 000, and there was clear progression, a narrative from one show to the next. And, best of all, if you didn't like one particular champion, there were four others to follow.

The Big Deal boasted Boy George and Jedward.

Buy-outs are also done better elsewhere. General talent show The Big Deal went out in Ireland at the start of the autumn, and again had a clear structure. If you weren't sure the panel loved you, a small prize was available. If you are, and you're right, come back in the next round for a bigger prize.

Would Walk the Line have worked better with the format we expected? Five heats, the nightly winner can choose to advance to the final for half-a-million. Or they can take £50,000, and send the runner-up in their place. It's a different show, it would have been easier to follow. Better? We'll never know.

Walk the Line The titular line.

Ultimately, Walk the Line was about one question: does a contestant have enough confidence in their own ability to make a good call. Can they read the crowd; will arrogance stop them from recognising a better singer. And so many of the elements were there: the show looked a million euro, it sounded a million euro.

But every element of Walk the Line had been done better somewhere else. Other programmes cover the same ground, and in a more compelling way. It's as if they came up with the title, and shoehorned a format around it.

Christmas programmes

The Greatest Snowman Knight takes food mixer, check.

"It's as if they came up with the title, and shoehorned a format around it" was the basic conceit behind Channel 4's The Greatest Snowman on Christmas Eve. Sue Perkins and five celebrities go to the Alps and carve sculptures from huge blocks of snow. We get giant food mixers, Barbie dolls, a small gingerbread house, a collapsed lion, and an abstract sculpture to represent the new year.

We weren't convinced by the judges' reasoning – if all the elements counted, then how come Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen won? He was miles behind Liam Charles on the first task, alongside him on the team task, and not so far ahead in the finale. But that didn't spoil an entertaining and lightweight show.

The Greatest Snowman Cheers!

Watch more

The Greatest Snowman at All4 (.uk only)

The Greatest Snowman (worldwide, not .uk or .ie)

2020's new thrills became 2021's familiar toys: Blankety Blank and The Wheel occupied similar times on Christmas night to last year. 6pm still feels odd, it's too early for The Wheel. The novelty's worn off, we know what we're getting from the shows now.

University Challenge had its editions with famous alumni. Someone wondered if UC might invite great quizzers to represent their old institution, which would make a change. Only Connect had Victoria in some understated costumes; there was also a Champion of Champions match, 007s beat Puzzle Hunters. Highlight of the season was the slight return of Quizness, a great show put in the wrong spot.

Two new shows began during the Christmas period. We're going to discuss The Weakest Link and I Literally Just Told You in future Weeks.

Poll of the Year

Voting is open in the UKGameshows/Bother's Bar Poll of the Year 2021. At least it is for those reading the Week on the day it comes out: votes close at 23.59 UTC on Sunday 9 January. This column will give its votes next week.

In other news

We were very sad to hear that Janice Long died on Christmas Day. This column is exactly the right age to have heard Janice on mid-evening Radio 1. She played unfamiliar music to expand our boundaries, glistened through the dial with enthusiasm and boundless joy. Janice will be remembered as a radio presenter, the night shift on Radio 2, under-used on 6 Music, and most recently an evening programme on Radio Wales.

Janice Long Janice Long, 1954-2021

In the quiz world, Janice popped up on the very first episode of 3-2-1. With her first husband Trevor, Janice turned down the car, turned down the bin, and went away with a canteen of silver cutlery. They sold the goods and put the money to a deposit on their flat. A commentary gig on Radio 1's Marathon Music Quiz proved great training for the Live Aid concert in 1985. Janice only hosted one game show, The Great British Quiz in 1994; her talent would have made her a natural for many more. Janice Long was 66; she is survived by second husband Paul Berry, and their two children.

The death also of Jay Wolpert, one of the most important creators in American game shows. He was part of the team behind shows we know as Play Your Cards Right, Blankety Blank, and Family Fortunes. His daytime shows didn't travel well, but programmes like Whew!, Hitman, and Shopping Spree are fandom faves. In later life, Wolpert turned his hand to movie scripts, working on The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). Jay Wolpert was 79; he is survived by wife Roslyn and their two daughters.

Jay Wolpert, 1942-2022.

Around the Web The Ringer asks why there are so many long winning streaks on Jeopardy! this series. A backlog of great contestants not from California, a more democratic casting process, and ruthless preparation by the best. We're reminded of how Countdown contestants raised their game about ten years ago, and seasoned online players dominated for some years.

Quizzy Monday showed that Mastermind is back in full effect. Anthony Fish scored a perfect round of 14 on Alfred Hitchcock films of the 1960s; he moved quickly enough to squeeze in an extra question just before the buzzer. On general knowledge, he added a further 16 points, for a stonking total of 30 (THIRTY). We haven't seen a 30 in years, not since the questions turned into miniature novels so they didn't have to pay for so many.

Only Connect had its first semi-final, the Golfers beat the Animal Lovers by a distance. Questions fell for the Golfers, they didn't fall for the Animal Lovers. For instance, the Golfers got a sequence obviously heading for an EGOT winner, and named someone for three points. It's the way the cookie crumbles some times.

University Challenge completed its knockout round, where Imperial London beat Exeter quite comfortably. One question asked the teams to identify a clip of Elvis Presley singing "All shook up". It's a 65-year-old performance, like asking teams from Paxman's first series to recognise Harry Richman's version of "Putting on the Ritz", or teams from Bamber Gascoigne's first series to identify a specific original recording of "O sole mio!" played from the wax cylinder.

Next week, a new series of Junior Bake Off brightens C4's evenings. There's a couple of Celebrity Beat the Chasers (ITV, Mon, Tue). Dancing with the Stars returns to RTÉ1 (Sun), and Glór Tíre to TG4 (Tue). Sara Pascoe's back with Guessable (Comedy Central, Mon), and Landscape Artist of the Year returns (Artsworld and The Satellite Channel, Wed).

Next Saturday has Rav Wilding on The Weakest Link, Sarah Millican and Gary Delaney on The Wall Versus Celebrities, sitcoms on Pointless Celebrities, Alexandra Burke on Celebrity Catchphrase, and more guesswork on The Masked Singer.

Pictures: Syco Entertainment & Lifted Entertainment, Bigger Stage Productions / Fox Alternative Entertainment, Southshore, BBC.

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