Weaver's Week 2024-04-14

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University Challenge

Starter for ten, anyone?


University Challenge

The 2024 final

So, you know that really complicated series structure on the show? High-scoring losers come back in round one, no losers return in round two, all losers return in round three but only the once? We didn't need any of it. University Challenge is between two undefeated sides.

Playing on the left, Imperial College London

  • Justin Lee, from Canada, reading chemistry
  • Adam Jones, Hong Kong, computer science
  • Suraiya Haddad, Manchester, medicine
  • Sourajit Debnath, Calcutta, masters in applied computational science and engineering

University Challenge The finalists from Imperial.

On the right, it's University College of London

  • James Hall, North Finchley, law
  • Ali Izzatdust, Portugal and Azerbaijan, taking a masters in intellectual history
  • Tayana Sawh, north London, medicine
  • Jacob Finlay, Cranleigh, masters in public administration

Like so many matches before it, this one begins with Ali Izzatdust buzzing on a question about days of the week, and UCL scored a full house on bonuses about Baybars, a ruler in Egypt. 25-0 to UCL, becoming 25-(-5) after a penalty for an incorrect interruption. Same procedure as every show, right?

Wrong. UCL are too fast to buzz on a question about the synthesis of urea, allowing Imperial in. One set of bonuses on artworks formed by destroying other artworks later, it's 20-20. Two starters later – including the first visual round on The Canterbury Tales, we're at 40-40.

University Challenge UCL have been pegged back already.

They may have changed the host on University Challenge this year, but they haven't changed the basic quiz format. Each show has two visual and one music round, spaced roughly equally through the programme. Effectively, these questions split the show into four "quarters".

It's become customary for the first visual round to be diagrams and maps, effectively a word question presented in picture form; only the second visual round asks to identify the artist or subject of a painting. That feels like a budget cut, UC may literally not have the cash to put artworks on the screen, and the producers reckon it's cheaper to make diagrams.

University Challenge This question has a quote from the Canterbury Tales and locations of the character.

Back at the game, Imperial have continued to buzz in quickly. Apostles martyred in Armenia, the theatrical director Elia Kazan, and definitions of "spline" all fall to Justin Lee or Sourajit Debnath, and in no time at all the lead is up to 60 points. "In no time at all", because Imperial only needed to hear part of questions about award-winning video games, Sourajit Debnath could answer before the host had finished.

University Challenge has a very particular format to answer bonus questions. Answers must come from the captain, and the captain must pronounce the answer correctly – or in a way acceptable to the producers. The captain doesn't have to say "Our answer is", anything said while looking in the host's direction or in a louder voice will be taken as the answer. Or the captain can nominate a team-mate, who is expected to answer promptly. "Nomination" has become more a part of the game in recent years, as the producers got less lenient on mispronunciations.

University Challenge Both teams sit side-by-side.

Imperial fired up the rocket, UCL were caught in the blowback. Two starters, two incorrect interruptions, allowing Imperial to march on with the history of Maastricht and Thai film and theatre. After the music round fell to Imperial, the lead had stretched to 125, and the host gave encouragement. "Plenty of time, UCL".

Often in this series, a call of "Plenty of time" has been a rallying point, it has rescued a team from the arms of Morpheus and set them well down the path to unlimited points. On this occasion, not so much; UCL are incorrect on a question about the term "cultural capital", and pick up another penalty on a question about cryolite the aluminium ore.

For the last twenty years, University Challenge starter questions have tended to be long, prolix speeches, circling around a topic before finally zeroing in on the nub right at the end. It's like peeling off the layers of an onion: there's lots to do, and it's probably going to make you cry. Occasionally, the producers throw in a more simple question, or one with the obvious fact first. For instance:

Q: The daughter of King Sancho VI and described as the only...
A: Berengaria

That prompted a buzzer race between Justin Lee and Ali Izzatdust; Justin Lee won, and his Imperial team took full advantage of mythological figures in Angelica Kauffmann's paintings.

University Challenge Amol Rajan now hosts the show in a landscape format, not like he's on Tock Tick.

University Challenge remains an academic quiz, it will tend to ask after geography and history and specific science points and relatively high art. There is space for low culture – award-winning video games this week, hip-hop production last week – but these questions are quite rare, and are still couched in terms of high culture.

Where University Challenge has changed is in the specific canon within those topics. In the 1960s, you might not have needed to know paintings beyond the dead white men shown in the National Gallery. These days, you need to know about women, and Black creatives, and art outside the Western traditions. UC will not reward you for memorising fourth-place finishers on I'm a Celebrity, though it might ask about the literary metatext of Taylor Swift.

And this is the one remaining unanswered question about Amol Rajan as host. He is able to enunciate questions at a fast pace, much faster than Jeremy Paxman could physically manage in the last few years. He is supporting the teams, geeing them up in a way that seems genuine. Rajan has made a few snide remarks about the teams' lack of knowledge about cricket, just as Paxman was chippy about teams not knowing the English language.

Will the host push back against this expanded canon, as was feared when we heard he was to take charge? Is he a hired voice to support the student stars of the show, or does he labour under the delusion that people watch University Challenge for whichever Cambridge graduate is currently asking the questions? Much of this series would have been prepared on the assumption that Paxman would have been host. Our last fears will be assuaged when we see next year's series – which, we expect, is now mostly in the can.

By the second picture round, the show is done as a contest. Imperial lead by almost 200 points, and UCL will not come back from that. We understand that there was a lengthy pause somewhere around while the producers considered an answer, and both teams recognised that the contest was done. All that would be solved in the final minutes was whether UCL would merely be hammered, or be utterly pulverised. Three strong bonus sets ensured it was merely a tonking, Imperial emerged winners by 285-120.

University Challenge Suraiya Haddad lifts the trophy.

We intend this as no slight against UCL: they were a fine team, undefeated in their first five matches, never really at risk of going out of the contest (closest they came to a loss was in the qualification quarter-final against Trinity Cambridge). But Imperial were – well – imperious all series (their near-miss came in the qualification quarter-final against Manchester). The better team won.

Two trophy presentations took place, one in the studio by Amol Rajan from Radio 4's The Today Show, and one on Imperial's roof with playwright Tom Stoppard. This marks Imperial's fifth victory on University Challenge, having won in 1996, 2001, 2020, and 2022. Until now, no institution has ever been credited with more than four series wins.

University Challenge Tom Stoppard salutes the finalists.

Can Imperial College's imperial phase continue next year? Will an Oxbridge team ever make the final again? Can a team from Aston University ever appear on screen? We'll see when University Challenge returns in the summer.

Saturday Night Takeaway

Saturday Night Takeaway

Roll the titles!

LWT for ITV, 8 June 2002 – 13 April 2024

Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly met on the set of Byker Grove in the early 1990s. They became firm friends, and were outstanding performers on the television drama. A pop record followed, on which both "PJ" (Ant's character) and "Duncan" (played by Dec) attempted to rap; "Tonight I'm free" had minimal artistic merit but proved there were fans who would buy anything. When they put their names to better music, it sold well.

Ant and Dec left the fictional Grove and made a studio comedy programme for Children's BBC. After two years, they moved to Channel 4 so their work could mature a little, but this proved a slight mis-step. Back to children's productions for ITV's SM:TV Live, which improved over its first months and became compulsory viewing with skits like CHUMS and Challenge Ant and the Pokémon battles.

Many of the elements from SM:TV were lifted for the lads' 2001 entertainment series Slap Bang. Perhaps too many elements were lifted: Beers paid homage to a sitcom from ten years ago, Challenge Ant lost a lot when played with OAPs instead of children. New elements like Formula 6½ showed promise, but the general feeling was that it simply wasn't good enough. We viewers thought it, ITV bigwigs thought it, Ant and Dec knew they could do better.

Saturday Night Takeaway Let's do better, Ant.

Don't just watch the adverts – win 'em!

Saturday Night Takeaway was the culmination of all their hard work, and had a unique proposition. Somebody would have the opportunity to win the contents of an ad break. Not the adverts you're seeing during this programme, but some of the adverts shown during other ITV programmes. In the first episode, they paid a lot of attention to Win The Ads, returning to it all through the programme, and it felt cluttered and not much fun. They quickly figured out the most important thing – keep the show compact and pacy, tell us what's coming up but don't split items more than you must. By the end of the series, Win The Ads was one element in the SNT mix.

Viewers at home weren't left out, Grab The Ads allowed us to call in, and win one of nine prizes that were featured in a different show's ad break. If we're lucky, we'll get a holiday somewhere nice; if we're really lucky, we'll get a ball of wool. Banged Up with Beadle also featured in these early editions, a viewer would spend a week on the isolated Spitbank Fort with Jeremy Beadle, and be set a challenge for £5000. Home Run allowed Dec to get properly angry, at the thought of people not staying at home to watch Saturday Night Takeaway.

Saturday Night Takeaway Lord Terry Wogan (left) led a merry band of minstrels, revels, smarties, and glacier mints.

And there was singing, and dancing, and showbiz performances. There were jokes, and comedy routines, and plenty of larking about. ITV knew this was their big show, and it got a big budget to match. All the stars would be here – Take That, Kaiser Chiefs, McFly, people from Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm, David Tennant, Gorgon Ramsay, Ashley Roberts, Jason Donovan – the list goes on and on. Entertainment bookers knew that Saturday Night Takeaway was a way into people's living room, a way to promote your project, to advertise what you were doing.

Saturday Night Takeaway always acknowledged the debt it owed to past Saturday night entertainment shows. It had only been three years since Noel's House Party ground to a painful halt, Ant and Dec always said that Saturday Night Takeaway was inspired by Noel's work, even down to being a live broadcast.

Saturday Night Takeaway Ant and Dec in a coffee shop, for comedy reasons.

Another of Noel's works, The Late Late Breakfast Show, may have inspired Ant vs Dec, where the lads are set spectacular challenges, like abseiling down the studio building, or training dogs, or a spelling bee. This time, we could be sure that all safety precautions were taken, because nothing would damage ITV's share price faster than Ant or Dec picking up a serious injury live on network television. Even Little Ant and Dec would have problems covering them – these youngsters asked cheeky questions to celebrities, on the pretext that Big Ant and Grown-Up Dec couldn't be bothered to do the interview. Children grow up, and Little Ant and Dec have twice been re-cast.

Saturday Night Takeaway Dec makes sure Simon Cowell is locked up. Do we have to free him?

Saturday Night Takeaway also drew from magic even more ancient. Ant and Dec Undercover was a revival of the Gotcha Oscars, putting celebrities in difficult positions for our entertainment. Ever wanted to see Simon Cowell imprisoned? Now's your chance. Other pranks, usually with members of the public wrestling with uncooperative technology, harked back to Candid Camera. Jim Didn't Fix It For Me reminded us of the show where Roger Ordish arranged for children to have their dreams come true, and someone we don't talk about would claim all the credit. Opportunity Knocks Again drifted all the way back to the original talent show.

Saturday Night Takeaway Your Money

In the early years of this century, it was common for ITV shows to have competitions that you entered by calling a premium-rate number on your telephone. These contests were expensive for the viewer, and profitable for ITV. But ITV didn't run them as honestly as they might have done, and the whole concept of premium-rate numbers was discredited in the 0898-gate scandal of 2007.

Saturday Night Takeaway was one of the most guilty shows. Callers for Grab The Ads and Win The Ads were mixed together, which confused viewers and the people running the contest. Another feature, the Jiggy Bank, was going to be somewhere in the country next week, and everyone was invited to call in for selection. The producers only considered people in the area where they were planning to be – so if they were in Edinburgh, they'd discard entries from Leeds. People in Leeds were still charged, and that's not at all fair.

Saturday Night Takeaway A player rides the jiggy bank: rock it forwards and back so pound coins fall through tiny holes and into a hopper beneath.

Although Ant and Dec were listed as "Executive Producers" for Takeaway, ITV claimed that this didn't actually mean they took any active role in the planning of the series. While this might have been true in 2007, it was no longer true when they made a documentary programme in 2023. There were calls for Ant and Dec to step down, but Takeaway returned – albeit with its tail between its legs. The Jiggy Bank had jigged off, replaced by The Mouse Trap where a contestant dressed as a mouse tried to get cheese out of a maze.

The happiest show of the week – it's a scientific fact

Saturday Night Takeaway was rested after the 2009 series, to allow Ant and Dec to concentrate on other projects. By the time it returned in 2013, product placement had become more common and ITV had become more confident to use it. Win The Ads no longer offered "a car", but "a four-wheel two-door sedan from Bolton Road Bangers".

Product placement was at its most obvious in The Happiest Minute of the Week, which gave away tickets for the final show of the series. First time they ran it, in 2016, it was tickets to Barcelona and a cruise on the MV Britannia floating hotel. Later years gave away trips to Florida, variously to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando; file this under "things they oughtn't do nowadays". There's also been a Takeaway Getaway, valid for a family trip somewhere lovely.

Saturday Night Takeaway Inflatables and clapping and cheering for the Happiest Minute (which lasts about 240 seconds).

Happiest Minute – which always fell during the second part of Saturday Night Takeaway – rewarded people who had raised money for charity, or overcome personal difficulty, or otherwise would make the viewer feel good about seeing someone else get a place on the plane. It's a thread from light entertainment history, from Noel's Christmas Presents and Cilla Black's Surprise Surprise.

Another light entertainment strand stretched back even further: Saturday Night Takeaway Presents... a comedy drama shown in short serialised parts, later stitched together as a full programme. Was this a throwback to the children's movie specials of the 1930s, where youngsters would spend tuppence to see the latest adventures of Robin Hood, Betty Boop, Flash Gordon, and Nicholas Parsons?

Saturday Night Takeaway Popcorn at the ready for this week's part of the movie.

There were more contests. Singalong Live invited viewers at home to join in with karaoke favourites. Read My Lips tried to get the star guest to work out what someone was saying just from the shape of their mouth. Sofa Watch asked viewers to race to a location, where someone would win VIP seats on next week's show. There was some nonsense with a slide, and the lads dressed up as pandas for some reason. Hey, whatever's good for you guys...

For a time, it seemed that Saturday Night Takeaway was cursed. The 2018 series lost an episode after Ant was involved in a drunk-driving incident, and Dec presented the last couple of shows on his own. Together, they stepped back for a year and there was no run in 2019. Then came the Takeaway Everything series – first they took away the end of series trip to Florida, then they took away the studio audience, and then they took away the studio. In the space of a month, we'd gone from a full West End cast in the studio, to Ant and Dec in their individual flats.

Saturday Night Takeaway The audience demands that Ant and Dec return.

Not even a deadly pandemic could stop Saturday Night Takeaway. The lads were back in 2021, thinking carefully about "close contact groups" and "social distance" and all the stuff that ran our lives in that time. A virtual audience at home would cheer and whoop, and although it was a different show, it was still entertaining. Normality wouldn't resume until Takeaway finished abroad, as it did last year.

Ding dong! That's my doorbell!

Saturday Night Takeaway was a flexible format, one they could sell around the world. All it needed was a decent budget, some willing participants, and excellent hosts. And there was the problem: it turned out that nobody was as good at Takeaway as Ant and Dec. The first German version was cancelled after just one episode; a revival ran for four years. Spanish, Flemish, Portuguese versions ran for just one series. Best Time Ever, the American take, also got cancelled after one series: Neil Patrick Harris is no Ant or Dec. Only in Finland has there been a lasting success from the format.

Saturday Night Takeaway Neil Patrick Harris, wanted to be Ant and Dec.

Although it's difficult to spin off segments from a variety show, Saturday Night Takeaway has managed it. Stephen Mulhern, the chaotic friend we all love to hate, went out on the road and tried to give away £1000 to anyone who could complete a series of stunts. This bit grew into the series In for a Penny, with lots of silly games played for very small cash prizes, and very large smiles. It's daft as a brush, and we absolutely love it.

We've also heard that Ring My Bell is going to be made into a series. It's the bit where the hosts go live to someone's video doorbell, and challenge the neighbours to come round with some sort of household appliance. You've got to recognise the place, and have a toaster (or a pair of slippers, or a clothes horse) to hand, and be the first one there. Very often a chaotic feature. Quite how this will translate into a full series, we don't know. And we're eager to find out.

Saturday Night Takeaway Ant with the catchphrase.

There have been many short-lived segments. Spot the Difference, where we go to the living room of someone in the audience, change a few things, and give them a big prize if they can find it. There have been heartwarming tributes to hardworking teachers, to nurses and caregivers, people who are so often under-appreciated for the hard work they put in.

And, of course, there's The End of the Show Show. The last segment, the big finale – and by gum it's big! Introduced in 2013, it's played host to pop concerts from McBusted and Status Quo, drum corps, The Blue Man Group, dancing with Vincent and Flavia, George Ezra, the cast of Riverdance, Gary Barlow and the vegetables, the cast of Mary Poppins The Musical, an unexpected CHUMS revival, Robbie Williams almost every year, and they turned "Let's get ready to rhumble" into the number one hit it always should have been.

Saturday Night Takeaway Ant and Dec with a cake for their 100th episode.

Can we pick three favourites? "Upside down", Paloma Faith performs as a room spins behind her. The one where Tom Jones sings "Great balls of fire" as Tom and Jerry dance beside him. And the time Alfie Boe and Michael Ball sang "Bring me sunshine", while Ant and Dec showed how they took inspiration from the greatest comedy double act of the last century, Morecambe and Wise.

Eric and Ernie never got to say goodbye on their own terms, death claimed Eric Morecambe after a performance one night. It is a blessing that Ant and Dec have been able to end their series in their own time, and on their own terms – it's not been "axed", no commissioner wanted this tentpole to come down.

It is a testament to their entertainment brilliance that Ant and Dec leave us wanting more Saturday Night Takeaway.

Saturday Night Takeaway Ant and Dec, in their best bib and tucker.

In other news

Paul Fox has died. He was a bigwig at the BBC and at Yorkshire Television. In his time at the companies, he originated sports highlights in Sportsview, invented Sportsview Sports Personality of the Year, edited Panorama, commissioned the talk show Parkinson, Saturday night classic Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game, sketch show The Two Ronnies, and many many many more.

Moving to Yorkshire Television in 1973, Fox emphasised drama and current affairs, ordering documentary strand First Tuesday, drama The Beiderbecke Trilogy, and completely incomprehensible variety show 3-2-1. Fox returned to the Beeb in 1988, as managing director of television, and kept the threads of light entertainment alive while John Birt's bored the pants off the news department. After retiring in 1991, Fox took up positions in horse racing. Paul Fox was 98, and is survived by two sons.

Pointless is getting good value out of Hugh Dennis. The show's current richardosman contributed drawings of flags for a round of countries he's driven in. Great idea – we get a bunch of anecdotes and save on the picture budget. Later in the series, we could get Jessie Cave in to draw some cartoons, Nadiya Hussein to make some cakes, and Ronan Keating to – actually, let's not.

Congratulations to Shane Murray and Marty Campbell, winners of Home of the Year on RTÉ1 this week, for their "rich and bold" renovation of a 1920's Dublin terraced house. We also heard that Wales' Home of the Year will return for a third series, plus a Christmas special.

Other new shows: BGT Reacts will be a web show with various "content" "creators" saying the first thing that comes into their head as they watch Got Talent. Almost inevitably, BGT Reacts will be on the ITV Hub website, six episodes each week.

First episode next week, as ITV's Got Talent kicks off a new series (VM1 and ITV, Sat). We've also got the return of In for a Penny (ITV, Sat), and Joel Dommett has more pictures on In With a Shout (ITV, Sat). Before that, Scotland's Greatest Escape finishes (BBC Scotland, Thu).

Picture credits: Granada, LWT (and various successor companies).

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