Weaver's Week 2024-01-14

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The Week has been around the block a few times. Long enough for University Challenge and Only Connect contestants to be younger than this column. And long enough to remember Survivor from first time around.

For the most part, we're going to review the recent series on its own merits, but will occasionally hark back to ITV's version of 2001-2.




Remarkable Entertainment (a Banijay company) for BBC1, 28 October – 16 December 2023

Joel Dommett is our host. This is an interesting choice, seeing as how it's Joel's third big Saturday night gig of the year. Joel hosts The Masked Singer on ITV, and he hosts In With a Shout on ITV, and now he's gone to Hispaniola for a month. Lucky chap.

Joel isn't alone, sixteen strangers have joined him. They're a mixture of ages and shapes and sizes – though, like on The Traitors, like on Big Brother, the cast tends to be in their twenties and thirties. Before boarding a boat, they've been split into two tribes, the Oranges and the Blues.

Survivor Joel Dommett (centre) with the contestants.

Before leaving the boat, the teams are set a challenge. Get as much booty and bounty from the boat ashore as you can. Then complete a spectacular physical stunt: built a pyre high enough to burn through a rope suspended above you and release a crate of goodies. First team to complete the stunt wins the crate, and what they've brought ashore – and what the other team have brought ashore, too. It'll end up as food for eight people for a week, and it's a properly cut-throat introduction to the series.

Joel Dommett is our host. He interacts with the viewer, says what we're thinking – or what we're about to think. Good. We like that in a host. What we really don't like is how he chunters along during the challenges, and says what he sees. Or the endless stream of puns: this might not be a serious life-or-death situation, but Joel seemed to treat it as a lark throughout.

Survivor There is an art to publicity photos: don't hide under a cap.

There is an art to television commentary: you need to explain why we're seeing what we're seeing. You don't need to tell us what we're seeing, as we can see it with our very own eyes, and there is a perfectly good audio description service if we want it. Joel hasn't mastered the art of television commentary, he never goes beyond the literally obvious. And, over the course of the series, this gets really annoying. Every single challenge, we have to put up with "Oh, Bob's fallen off the log!" when we have literally just seen Bob falling off a log.

How do you win Survivor?

A normal episode of Survivor is a five-act play. There's an opening segment, establishing how life is going in the camps. Then they come together for a Reward Challenge, which – in the immortal words of Ed Hall – is a challenge for a reward. After a short interlude where one group enjoys their reward and the others bicker about not getting a reward, everyone's back together for an Immunity Challenge. The winning team is not going to eliminate anyone tonight, the losing team will lose somebody, and the next phase is all the plotting and scheming about who will vote for whom. Finally, Tribal Council is the denouement to the episode, where we learn who each player wants to remove.

Survivor Joel with the Log of Immunity, a regular night is assured.

Typically, we'd want Survivor to come in with a bang. The first Immunity Challenge should be big and bold, action-filled. Some sort of relay race, or ending with a spectacular kaboom. What we got was an endurance challenge, asking the contestants to hold on to rope. The rope was attached to weights, and when somebody couldn't take the strain any more, they could pass the weight to someone else on their team, and the first weight to fall to the ground lost.

Survivor Lifting the weights for the first immunity challenge.

It is bizarre to launch a show with sixteen people standing around, holding on to big pieces of rope, for hours on end. It's either confidence that BBC1 viewers will love this new show they've not seen before, or it's cockiness that Survivor is a hit around the world and will be one here whether the viewers like it or not. The BBC put a lot of promotional effort into its new show, we recall a Survivor trailer airing during the Wimbledon tennis final in the middle of July, almost four months before the programme eventually aired.

The first episode introduced us to the captions: clear, brief, informative, and with enough visual grammar to show whether someone's on the Oranges or Blues. Well, "Caleton" and "La Nena", as the producers would have us say. They might have told the audio description narrator: "On La Nena beach, four of the blue tribe have gathered for a discussion"

Can we play "Spot the sexist"?

Survivor looks a million dollars. It should do, it cannot be cheap to spend a month in the tropics with a complete film crew in tow. That said, they could have afforded some thicker paper for people to write their votes on – we could read through the back of paper on the first episodes, and we suspect later episodes were digitally altered. It's got all the trappings of shows we like, but seemed to be remarkably light in content. Our memories of Survivor are mostly that it's about the internal politics, who likes whom, who is a threat, which tall poppy are we going to chop down today – and can you rely on your friends to support you?

Survivor They put this out before the watershed.

For the first few weeks, this BBC series seemed to be Big Dumb Challenges On A Tropical Beach. Is it a physical challenge like we'd get with Bear Grylls? Is it a psychological assessment like that SAS guff on Channel 4? Is it all about the politicking? From the first few episodes, we viewers could be forgiven for thinking it was just strength and power they wanted to test.

The contestants certainly got the idea that they just wanted to test strength and power. People were voted off just because they appeared weak. And by "people" we mean "women"; after sacrificing the man who lost the first immunity challenge, the players didn't manage to vote a single man off the island until the sixth time of asking, and one particularly odious mansplainer managed to make it all the way to the merger. A tone of misogyny and sexism ran through this series, it can be traced back to the producers.

Survivor The orange team are heckled by righteous sisters from the blues.

The editing was great, right?

Each episode was edited coherently. We always understood where the story was going, and that's a credit to the editors and loggers. Just about every word on Survivor is filmed and recorded, so there is footage to cover almost every possible outcome of Reward, Immunity, and particularly Council. The result of the Council was always presented as a possibility: if there are plots to remove Kevin and Brittney, we're going to see both schemes canvassed, but we might not know the result until it's declared.

Towards the start of the series, there was a very satisfying progression for Ren's downfall. In episode 3, Ren takes a hint to an Immunity Charm, but doesn't tell the rest of their team. The next episode, someone is suspicious and asks the other team what the reward was, and gets confused. Two episodes later, a player comes across from the other team, and can give lots of detail. Suspicions are aroused, Ren's fate is sealed, and it was foreshadowed for the viewer – albeit not to Ren themself – perfectly.

Survivor Later in the series, the Log of Immunity was replaced by the Ruff of Immunity.

But although each episode was well edited, and some cross-episode plotlines were well foreshadowed, the series as a whole felt disjointed. We had hoped that the editors had looked at the series as a whole, and picked out the storylines they'd use throughout the season. If the editors did plot out the whole series in great detail, then we missed it. Even after the series had ended, we couldn't see a plotted storyline for most of the players.

Scheduling did this show no favours. It went out on BBC1 on Saturday evenings, immediately after Strictly Come Dancing; and on Sunday evenings, displacing Antiques Roadshow to BBC2. Viewers didn't appreciate this interloper, and Antiques Roadshow got more viewers most weekends. Viewing figures of around 2.5 million are not good for primetime BBC1, and the rest of the schedule took a hit – Blankety Blank fell from almost 4 million viewers before Survivor started to 2.56m, 2.34m, 2.93m, and 2.73m. Yep, after the first episode, more people wanted to see Bradley Walsh prat about than Joel Dommett in the tropics.

Survivor The orange team look out for any viewers.

The players matter

As we've mentioned, there were sixteen contestants. Mostly young, all physically fit, but otherwise representative of the public. All shades of skin colour, of social class, sexuality, gender, and ability to speak on camera.

With sixteen unfamiliar faces to get to know, the first couple of episodes are always going to be a mess of "who's that" and "where are they". By the time we've got our heads around the people, some of them have gone. We heard a lot of cries that "the players are all various shades of dull"; we don't agree, the players are all entertaining and sparkling people. On the show Survivor, many of the players were made to look interchangeable, and this may go back to the lack of a clear editing plan.

Survivor The blues are identified by their kerchiefs.

On the first episode, we'd rather hoped to see about five main characters – including the person who was voted off. On the next episode, about four more characters are introduced, including the person leaving us. Same in the later eps, so by the end of episode four we have got to know something about everyone. But no, all the way up to the merger we were still asking ourselves "who's that? Did they do wotsit, or was that the similar bloke?"

They might have borrowed an idea from Strictly Come Dancing – have each player appear briefly in the opening sequence, perhaps editing folk out as they leave the game. A narrated introduction to each episode doesn't work, because we're not here to watch Joel Dommett.

Survivor Tug of war-ter? Sandy! Seaweed! Stay away from the script!

Survivor is an international hit

...and this show feels like it's been adapted from an international template and nobody thought "what do we need to change for people who haven't seen this show before?". Although it traces its roots back to Network 7 in the late eighties, and has been running in the current format since the late nineties, recent years have seen Survivor homogenise into a cross-cultural form that everyone recognises and nobody loves.

Take the title music. Please, take it and throw it away so we need never miss it again. It's a banal dirge, especially irritating as the ITV version had a much more memorable theme by Russell Landau. Incidental music, ditto – could they not license the ITV version, or commission someone to come up with a fresh suite?

The challenges never rose above "this is a task, go do it". To build rivalries – introduce dramatic tension, expose characters – we need lots of sparkpoints, plenty of places where things go wrong. They needed to do an assault course on episode 1, not ep 4; the endurance task would have been better around episode 8, just before the merger.

Survivor Hold your breath under a cage. Doesn't pry the group apart, does it?

Joel's script also suffered from translation into Survivorese, a language closely related to English. The series would not produce a winner, but a Soul Survivor, always with capital letters. The immunity charms were "idles", perhaps harking back to an earlier version when they were small statues about the size of your thumb.

And what do we make of, "The last of you surviving wins reward."? Joel, sweetheart, can we interest you in some determiners? "The", or "A"; we're not bothered which determiner you use, but please use one.

For those of us who watched Survivor on ITV, the one memory is the Standing On A Log challenge. It's as simple as standing on a log, in the shallows just off the beach. Survivor contestants were able to do this for hours on end, sometimes as much as a whole day. Did they bring back the iconic Standing On A Log challenge? Of course not.

Survivor We did get mud wrestling, if that's your bag.

Because Survivor is an international hit, some of the viewers – and maybe some of the contestants – expected the game to be played in a certain way. Lots of plotting, lots of alliances that weren't visible to other players. Covert power struggles, and an understanding that some eliminations will be a surprise to the viewer because the editing hadn't foreshadowed them.

The contestants could have plotted and schemed like they were Dick Dastardly, but didn't. The contestants chose only to remove the biggest threat as they saw it on the day. Clever people were picked off, and we've already seen that most of the women were removed early. It meant that some contestants were able to plod through to the final, without ever doing anything outstandingly good or anything particularly bad.

Survivor Fire represents your life on the island...

Closing thoughts

This column watched every episode of Survivor. We confess that we weren't watching some of them particularly hard, and many were watched in a slight state of inebriation. And it would be wrong to say that the show was entirely bad – there was a really great show lurking under the surface until about halfway through, and by then we were sufficiently invested in the characters to keep watching.

Survivor When is a locked cage not locked?

There were some spectacular comedy moments – not least the whole farce surrounding the lobster pot. Chris and Matty find the key, and even though they unlock the cage, they don't take the Hidden Immunity Charm. And, apparently, they fail to lock the cage properly. And, by a bizarre coincidence, Nathan – the person Chris and Matty most want to remove – is the one to check the cage, finds it open, and takes the Hidden Immunity Charm.

But Nathan then tells everyone that he's got a Hidden Immunity Charm, with the implicit threat that he'll play it tonight to ensure votes cast for him don't count, so you'd be wasting your paper. This could be a clever plot, if Nathan then plays it for one of his allies. But that requires Nathan to have allies, and ... you get the drift.

For every lobster pot farce, there was a Letters From Home sequence, half an hour of mawk and schmaltz on Sunday night television. We may have flicked over and found something more interesting on The Test Card Channel.

Survivor A contestant fails their audition for The Traitors, by holding their slip the right way up.

Quite honestly, we got the feeling that someone somewhere senior didn't understand Survivor at all. Yes, it's about putting people on a desert island for weeks on end, with limited rations and no outside contact. But the key point isn't physical survival, it's mostly about getting along with people, about eliminating people and hiding the knife in a velvet glove. Survivor is a game of politics, a challenge of interpersonal contact and emotional manipulation.

Do we wish for a second series? Yes, in part so the producers can demonstrate that they've learned from their mistakes. And in part so that the contestants can play a different game – not necessarily the game the fans want, but one with more nous and intelligence. And we would like a new host, or at least one who is a little less flippant.

For the 23rd year in a row, Survivor is a worldwide success. Except here.

Survivor Matthew was named Soul Survivor, and hangs a Michael Bolton CD around his neck.

Exit Poll of the Year

Voting has now closed for the UKGameshows / Bother's Bar Poll of the Year 2023. Here's how this column voted.

Hall of Fame

Broadly, we've voted for shows we can see coming back for years ahead, perhaps with a few tweaks.

Hall of Shame

  • Next Level Chef
  • Picture Slam
  • Selling Super Houses – Other channels have fly-on-the-wall documentaries about the houses of the super-rich. There's a way that a game show for the best estate agent could work. But the combination of the two shows went together like a builder and sugar-free tea.
  • Tempting Fortune – The producers started from the moral position of "let's make a show about how money is more important than experiences", undermining their claim to run an "experiment".
  • fifth vote not used

Here, we've gone for shows that felt redundant on screen, either that they shouldn't have been commissioned in this form, or needed significant work, or had been done better elsewhere.

Golden Five

  • Bridge of Lies remains compelling playalong television, every step of every game. Unlike In With a Shout show, here we do shout at the telly.
  • Countdown has recovered from its mistake with the last presenter, Colin Murray's enthusiasm and energy is infectious. Really glad to see viewing figures are at their highest in years.
  • Eurovision Song Contest because the BBC had been planning this for a quarter of a century, and it felt like they'd planned it for a quarter of a century. Every item they could control worked, with the added poignancy that it was somebody else's party they hosted.
  • House of Games (3) is a solid teatime fave, something for all ages to play along with. How they still come up with such funny Answer Smashes after 600 episodes is incredible.
  • Only Connect (2)

An honourable mention for The 1% Club, the only show to help you work out where you stand on the line from OC to AI.

Because this column gets to discuss our favourite moments every issue, we'll leave Golden Moments to others.

And we've not voted in Streaming Five, for shows on streaming media. Our abstention is purely because we don't watch enough streaming media to form a decent judgement – our eyeballs are full of programmes from mainstream broadcast media.

This year, the category has changed in that we require nominees to be reasonably professional programmes, not self-published. Everyone at UKGameshows loves Ash the Bash and [http://twitch.tv/topper1gaming Topper and Royal Flush and other Twitch streamers, and the communities these fine folk have built, and we hope that nobody sees this as a slight on anybody. This column hasn't been involved in any discussions, but we reckon the idea behind the change is a) to give other shows a bit of a chance, and b) to let us talk about programmes that are still timely a few months down the line. However good these interactive streams are to watch, they mean so much more when you're playing.

We've commented on some shows but not others - maybe we wrote something Nick used in Poll of the Year 2023.

Since we last met...

Four weeks of news, games, news about games, and games about the news. Here are some of the highlights.

Olly Alexander will represent the BBC at this year's Eurovision Song Contest. Olly had a number of hits about ten years ago, when he performed under the name "Years and Years"; he's since done some acting on shows like Doctor Who. Olly is a familiar name, can sing, can dance, and is reasonably contemporary. In short, he's the most famous and current pop star to accept the ticket since Olivia Newton-John half a century ago.

I Literally Just Told You Who has the best memory in daytime quiz?

Ben Shephard has an elephantine memory. So does Bill Bailey. They went on Celebrity I Literally Just Told You and smashed it out of the park. Both gentlemen missed just one question in the main game, and Ben won the final round 3-2. He'd got just two questions wrong in the whole show – some contestants get more wrong in the first pass!

Stephen Mulhern let us down a bit on Christmas afternoon, we hadn't twigged that In for a Penny was a compilation of previously-seen clips. His The Big Quiz (2) ended in a tie-break, but Stephen doesn't wear a tie on this soap opera quiz, so they had to use "what number am I thinking of".

Michael Owen played Deal or No Deal, and devastated the blues. Once a red, always a red. Harry Savage won the Countdown series, eleven centuries in eleven games means he'll be a strong contender in the next Championship of Champions. We're sorry to see that Riddiculous has trimmed its prizes, taking about £1000 out of each episode. And Limitless Win annoyed us by giving away what happens on next week's episode (and, no, it's not that Ant's shoelace comes undone and he has to tie it).

Quizzy Monday

Counterpoint had a seasonal edition full of Christmas music, and a new years' edition pitting potential Egghead Nicki Cockburn against recent BBC Brain finalist Emma Laslett; Nicki won and made her specialist round seem easy. Graham Jones won this week's heat, accounting for reigning Brain of Brains David Stainer. All of this puts Daniel Adler's recent achievement – winning series of both Counterpoint and BBC Brain – into sharper relief.

House of Games (3) Wasn't it good? Oh, so good!

House of Games (3) had two festive weeks; the week before Christmas was spectacularly good quizzing, the week after felt like boozy fun – or was that us viewers? Dianne Buswell managed to avoid going neggo, just about. And if this column ever has to do karaoke with Richard Osman, we're singing "I know him so well". And then it'll rain, because you don't want to let this column sing.

On civilian Mastermind, wins for Helen Lippell (the wood carver Grinling Gibbons), Tom Adlam (garden birds), and Sharon Reading (the actress Myrna Loy). The first two were perfect in their specialist rounds, and Helen came through a tiebreak.

Celebrity Mastermind has had some interesting games, not least the draw between Troy Deeney on Spider-Man, and Dana Domestic on hit singles of the early seventies. Neither Troy nor Dana scored on their specialist rounds; mercifully, they were better at general knowledge.

Over on Only Connect (2), the quarter-finals completed. Also Rans beat the Video Nasties thanks to words missing one of the vowels, and a description of the Sgt Pepper album cover. Mercians won against the Isotopes, with mythical hybrids, big cats in book titles, and a stunning Missing Vowels round.

The first semi-final ended with a draw. Suncatchers 20-20 Thrifters. Suncatchers had had the best of the early stages, picking up three points in a very hard Connections round, and six from some stinking Sequences. Thrifters didn't concede any bonuses, but didn't score until their own final Sequence. But they spotted words that come before US states, the Suncatchers didn't spot words after US states, and the gap narrowed. And we know Thrifters are good at Missing Vowels, where they cut the gap to nothing, and won the tie-break.

Only Connect also had some familiar faces back, not least in the Politicians versus Activists special, with contestants we've not seen in fifteen years. The show is old enough to watch horror movies in the cinema, but not the worst of them.

Student University Challenge saw Sheffield beat Aberdeen in a low-scoring game, and Imperial beat Lincoln Oxford with an incredible display of buzzing. The alumni contest was won by the University of Middlesex.

What's coming up this week? A new run of Dancing on Ice (VM1 and ITV, Sun), and it's Taskmaster Championship of Champions (C4, Sun). New episodes of The Chase Celebrity Special (ITV, Sun, next Sat); Dick and Dom today, Brian Conley returns to Saturday night ITV. Love Island All Stars begins for all those contestants who failed first time around (VM2 and ITV2, from Mon; also ITV on Monday). What's back on Friday? I Literally Just Told You (C4). Finals week on Junior Bake Off (C4, final on Fri) and Celeb Cooking School (E4, final on Thu).

Pictures: Remarkable Television, RDF.

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