Weaver's Week 2003-10-04

Weaver's Week Index

4 October 2003


"Two of the country's smallest colleges do battle" said Jeremy "Thumper" Paxman at the start of this week's University Challenge. He's not wrong, this week's edition broke records.


Just scraping into the definition of game shows, Time Commanders pits a team of four armchair generals against the might of a computer simulation. There are no prizes, other than the satisfaction of a job well done.

The set is like something out of the Industrial Zone of the Crystal Maze. It's a converted warehouse, with a gantry running above the room. The main area itself is split into two levels, one about six feet higher than the other; at the lower end sits two computers, and above those machines, a large video display wall. Laid into the higher level is an illuminated podium, on which a map of the area will appear. The teams also have some coloured blocks to indicate troop patterns, and a poker rake with which to move them.

Eddie Mair is our host. He's a genial Scottish radio announcer, making his first regular appearance on national television. With a swift wit and friendly banter, he sets the contestants at ease, explains the scenario, then lets the team cock it up for themselves.

The game runs a little bit like this. Our team of four command an army, doing battle against Ancient Rome. (It is always Ancient Rome, the producers lost the rights to Athens and Troy to Sky and ITV, and most newer battles are still under copyright.) Eddie Mair talks the team through the terrain, and they place their troops in an initial battlefield formation. Some outriders scout the opposition, giving a glimpse of where the foes might be. The team talks tactics, and battle begins a little under halfway through the hour-long programme.

And it's the battle that makes the show. The game engine from Total War has been tweaked and prodded to provide a decently realistic view of the game. The CGI interface shows real CGI warriors (in blue) battling with real CGI Romans (in red,) and spilling real CGI blood. Well, just falling down on the ground and not moving in long shot is quite sufficient, but this is realistic stuff. There are some pans and swoops around the battlefield, in a way that only created imagery can provide. So far as we can tell, the Total War engine has been set with appropriate parameters and a strategy the Romans might have used, and then left to its own devices.

Back in the real world, two of the team are on the upper level, looking at a view of the battle on the video wall, and pushing around those little blocks of their army on the map. The other two are too close to see the big board, they're concentrating on fighting their own little battles, giving orders to a technician (in black baseball cap, naturally) to tap into the computer. These generals on the field hear orders from their commanders at the top, closely mimicking a real battlefield situation.

Inevitably, the whole thing disintegrates into some sort of farce most weeks, with the strategy falling apart, or the Romans coming up with some very clever wheeze that the team hadn't anticipated, or the field generals misinterpreting the commander's orders. There are no dea ex machina, all the clues to win the game are contained in the introductory half.

After about twenty five minutes of play, one side or another is nearing defeat, and this brings up the one tacky moment on the show: the words "Defeat Imminent" or "Victory Imminent" appear in big bold lettering on the screen, sirens blare, lights start to flash, and the whole show heads downmarket for a little while. There are rumours that the producers' contract actually requires them to do something to make the programme "a bit more accessible" otherwise it'll be a trip to see General Dyke and his henchman Brian Perkins.

Once the battle has been lost (or won, it does happen from time to time), Eddie Mair rejoins the teams to commiserate. Dr Aryeh Nusbacher and Dr Saul David have been watching the show from the gantry, and have made a few quiet comments to camera from time to time. Now, and only now, do they come down, meet the teams, and explain just how the Romans would have done it, and how they might have been beaten in the real battle. This is how they programmed the Total War engine, and this is how to beat it.

The voice-off during the battle and the scene-setting belongs to David McAlister - his sonorous tones add a touch of gravitas to the show, ensuring it doesn't risk getting bogged down in a mixture of cheeriness and bonhomie. This is a war show, having presentation that's too chirpy feels wrong.

At the end of the day, we've learned that war is a bloody business, that the Romans aren't always unbeatable (if they were, they would never have lost their Empire,) that sometimes you'll win by being clever, other times you need to be very, very lucky, so do wrap up.



It's the last first round game.

Noel Turner speaks of the life and works of Dimitry Shostakovitch. He's good on the music, less so on the life. Eight points and four passes.

Steve Clark had Red Dwarf. He knows his sci fi, as he should. Fourteen points and one pass.

Helena Rogers tells of the Life and Times of Florence Nightingale. Five points, three passes, and far more questions on the Time than the Life.

Dyfrig Jones offers the Life and Works of Kingsley Amis. He starts strongly, soon falters, but recovers a little. Nine points and five passes.

Helena Rogers doesn't do much better on general knowledge, securing three more passes and a total of eleven.

Noel Turner falls again into pass hell, finishing with six passes and 14 points.

Dyfrig Jones goes straight to the nth circle of pass, failing to answer twelve (count 'em - this column made eleven first time round) and finishing on 15.

Which means Steve Clark only has to answer two questions to win the game. That task doesn't detain him for more than 20 seconds, and he finishes with two passes and 24 points. He joins the other heat winners and some high-scoring runners-up in the semi-finals, beginning next week.

University Challenge

Round 1, match 3: Royal Northern College of Music -v- Corpus Christi Cambridge

It's the debut for the RNCM, and they would be quietly crucified if they don't do well at the starter asking about Turandot. So they get it.

Perhaps we wouldn't expect the musicians to get "random walk" from its definition, but they did. On a flat space, of course, you're guaranteed to get to your destination eventually, for values of "eventually" that tend to infinity. And this, my friends, is how British Rail always works.

Starter of the week: "Originally said to be used by US cowgirls greeting their returning lovers, though this is disputed, what symbol is popularly used to greet returning soldiers..." Monnier of CCC wins the race to say "Yellow ribbon" - nowhere in that question could any other answer be possible.

The music starter is a bit rubbish, asking for the next four lines from a stage musical once it stops. While this does do away with the home-turf advantage for RNCM, it turns the question into a Fingers On Buzzers round, and they're Humphrey Lyttelton's domain. Even worse, Thumper invites the musicians to sing the last answer, and the whole thing is degenerating into a brainy version of Pop Idle.

"The wrong song in the wrong place" - Dogsby. Indeed.

The CCC students don't recall the computers they used at school, the Archimedes. It's a very low-scoring week, the scores tie at 70-70 some time after the music round. After the picture round, it's 100-80 to the RNCM, and the all-time record low aggregate of 250 is under threat.

Four starters are passed up before Thumper reaches for his Exceptionally Easy Starters pile. One bonus means the teams need to aggregate 55 to merely tie the record low, and there are two minutes to play. Two bonuses, 35 points, one minute. The record's going to go!

RNCM gets its third starter in a row, and just one bonus. And at the gong, the Royal Northern College of Music has chalked up a famous victory. 150-80 is the lowest aggregate total in the ten years UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE (as opposed to this summer's "Professionals" series) has been back on our screens. Well done, everybody!

CCC captain Danielle Monnier chalked up 57.8 of her team's points; Stewart Manifold led the RNCM with 44.6. CCC made 4/18 bonuses, the RNCM 10/30, perhaps the lowest bonus conversion rate ever. Neither side missignalled, the first time that's happened since the start of the 01-02 series.


ITV aired It Shouldn't Happen On A Reality TV show. There was the obligatory "Nasty" Nick Bateman moment, the first time we've seen Survivor on the channel this year, and the first time we've seen Touch The Truck in - well, not quite long enough. We had the inside story of The Celeb 2 Revolt, and footage of Cabin Fever, the show that - quite literally - hit the rocks this summer. A bit too much on ITV's own shows, perhaps.

The BBC confirmed the GENERATION GAME is coming back, at least for a pilot episode. Barely a year after Jim Davidson's reign of tedium came to an end in the face of overwhelming ITV opposition and POP IDLE, the new host will be Paul O'Grady. This column is slightly surprised they're not trying Dale Winton in the show.

Congratulations to Johnny Vaughan, who will succeed Chris Tarrant on Capital Radio's breakfast show. The MILLIONAIRE host will step down next March to spend more time with his fishing rod.

Next week: the grand final of Star Academy 2 begins at the ludicrously early time of 1840. The winner emerges after 2125. ITV has people saying I'M THE ANSWER at 1820 Sunday and weeknights from 1700. UK Gold has some old editions of HIGNFY on Tuesday from 2100, so old that TV's Mr Sex is still presenting them. And this week's Cult Selection Selection: NAME THAT TUNE, 1330 Sunday on Challenge.

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