Weaver's Week 2003-10-11

Amazing Talent Contest Shock

This week, Andrew O'Connor's production company, Objective, produced a hoax show where some goon appeared to shoot himself. Two possible punchlines are included at the end of the column.


The second BBC season of Star Academy concluded last Saturday. A discussion of the vote winner and the other finalists will follow. First, some suggestions to improve the British version of the format - an executive summary of these recommendations: watch the Belgian version and learn.

Start with the on-screen fixtures, the presenters and tutors. After the protracted, unprofessional, and demeaning on-air squabbling this year, there's only one possible solution: ditch both host Patrick Kielty and Richard "Dogsby" Park. This column has never held a high opinion of Dogsby, though there's a growing suggestion that he is playing the character of an obnoxious, annoying, argumentative, scruffy man out of his depth, rather than being any of these things himself. Mr Kielty's regular arguments with Dogsby degenerated into ritualistic abuse about halfway through the series, and completely spoiled the last few weeks. When the most amateurish thing on the show is the presentation, something has to give. Both Mr Kielty and Mr Park need not return. Reformed 80s punk Tom Robinson remains the candidate against which other head teacher candidates will be graded; perhaps the BBC might have a PRESENTER ACADEMY to choose a replacement.

The probation concept - asking the viewing public to vote on three judged the worst - needs to come back. It puts far more power in the public's hands, rather than the mouthpieces for the sponsoring record company.

The slot this year was ludicrous. For the first five weeks, we had a show at 1830 Saturday evening, and another somewhere around 2000 Wednesday. Once we reached the final eight, only the Saturday show remained. There were never any other programmes on terrestrial television; programmers need to remember that half the households in the country still do not receive any form of digital programming. The Wednesday show felt a more natural slot, and it should be possible to fit a full show in 90 minutes to two hours on a midweek evening. That would allow highlights on Friday nights before the venerable music showcase TOP OF THE POPS, and updates into the children's programming on weekend mornings. Another idea to consider: a Star Academy Late, discussing matters that couldn't be raised during family viewing.

Compared with last year's disaster of an opening show, the sing-in was an excellent idea, allowing the contestants to introduce themselves. There should be space for a gala show, featuring all the qualified competitors, before the removal cycle begins.

The performance arena is a tricky problem. The hall at Witanhurst provided an intimacy missing from the huge studios, but it was too small a stage to allow more than five to appear at once. It's not possible to perform in the grounds outside without upsetting the neighbours. Some sort of theatre setting would be welcome, preferably in an existing theatre, but possibly with bought-in seating a la THE PRICE IS RIGHT.

Bringing back probation would allow a far greater emphasis on songwriting amongst the contestants, and a larger stage would allow more than four of them to perform their own songs. Almost every song used this year was a cover version, and many contestants complained that the producers couldn't get rights to broadcast the songs they wanted to use. Play fair by these people, the producers need to work harder to secure clearance for quality tunes, and give contestants more of a say in their performances. In a Radio 5 interview, James Fox revealed that he had just one meeting with a broadcast show producer. He finished fifth. That is not impressive, that smacks of running the show on the cheap, and proved grossly unfair to those contestants who didn't progress as far as Mr Fox.

Star Academy 2 tried to get in some big stars, and it didn't happen. Sting - who lives within a mile of Witanhurst - chose to appear on the French show instead. There were reports that Elton John wanted to appear, but that didn't come off. Robin Gibb's appearance smacked of a contractual stitch-up to boost Universal Records, the sponsoring record company. His labelmate Daniel B'dingfield looked promising on paper, a young, thrusting British talent, but he tried to steal the limelight in the final show, and fan reaction suggests he has damaged his career. If one is going to mess up, say things perhaps best left unsaid, it might be best not to do it live on national television in front of eight million music lovers. Of note: neither David Sneddon, winner of SA1, nor his celebrity counterpart Will Mellor appeared during this run.

Amongst the contestants this year, there were five obvious gems who will surely be signed up, two less obvious stars whose careers will have benefited from their experience in the house, and only one obvious publicity seeker. This compares well with last year's Star Academy, and compares very well with Pop Idle 1. However, this success raises the question: are the talent shows dredging the pool too far? Are there another 20 contestants worthy of consideration for SA3? Might they (gasp!) have to increase the age limit above 34?

Just after 11:15 last Saturday night, Claudia Winkleman summarised the situation in this way. "Alex has just won Star Academy. What does this mean?" At the risk of qualifying for the Obvious Statement of the Week award, it shows that Ms Parks secured more votes during the balloting period than did Mr Alistair Griffin or Ms Carolynne Good. This led to celebration amongst her fans and supporters, but evades the question: what was it that led to such a strong response? Why did Alex capture the vote in a way that Alistair, Carolynne, Peter, Paris, and the others didn't?

Celebrity endorsement will only take one so far. Indeed, when Alex received the backing of all but one of the failed contestants, half a dozen BBC celebrities, "special guest" Daniel B'dingeminhisdreams, and the entire Pap Panel, it could all have been a little counterproductive. Casual voters might have assumed that she had the show in the bag, and refrained from casting their ballot; Alistair's supporters, meanwhile, were riled by the one-sided opinions, and raced to the lines to back their man.

Instead, one must rely on performance, vocal, and raw emotion. On the night, Alistair's performances were technically superior, but many of them felt like exercises in his virtuosity. Only in his self-penned song, "Bring It On," was there more than a flicker of emotion. Alex, meanwhile, chose songs that would show her emotional range and bring out her rich, raw voice, as much as her technical excellence.

As regular readers will know, this column has a pet theory. Television does not influence society, but is a reflection of society. Can we draw any conclusions from Alex's victory?

We can, but perhaps there are fewer conclusions than the die-hard fans would like. Britain might be sending a vote of confidence to the isolated rural areas of the country - Alex comes from coastal Cornwall, at the extreme south west of England; BB4 winner Cameron from the Orkney islands, off the northern edge of Scotland. Might this isolated location have endeared her to city dwellers? Perhaps, though how can one distinguish that from her ability?

It's a fact that Alex never fell into the three least popular candidates; though the full voting figures throughout the series haven't yet been published, it's reasonable to suggest that she never fell below third place. Could this be related to an organised lesbian vote? It's possible: if such a phenomenon exists, then it would have backed the most appealing candidate, and many people identified with Alex's personality. However, suggesting that a lesbian vote exists implies that people are uniquely defined by their sexuality, at the expense of all other considerations. Suggesting that a lesbian vote won the show would suggest that a hard-core, fanatical following was responsible for casting almost a million votes more than Alistair's hard- core, fanatical following. Yet almost 80% of the votes came in the final four hours. Indeed, Mr Kielty claimed at the start of the night that the gap between the top two was less than a thousand, indicating the fan votes cancelled each other out.

Star Academy was always going to be decided on the night. If anything, Alistair came in with the slightly more devoted fan base, but his wasn't the best performance when it mattered. As she had been throughout the contest, Alex was better on the night, and beat Alistair for that reason.

The final conclusion? The Grate British Public accepts its innate diversity, and recognises talent. That is all.

The winner's first single is due out on November 17, a covers album before the end of the year. After that, expect things to go quiet while Alex works on her first album proper, slated for release next summer. There are precedents to this approach: Kelly Clarkson, the winner of the first POP IDLE US, waited seven months to release her album, and has been rewarded with international success. Melanie Martins, winner of Belgium's STAR ACADEMY 2, also took over six months to release her album. Reports of Alistair preparing a song for Europe with Peter were completely invented at press time.



We're up to the first semi-final.

Darren Martin, the man who took Radio Comedy, is now answering about the films of Alfred Hitchcock. He does exceedingly well, exceedingly quickly, scoring fifteen points and two passes. The standard is well and truly set.

Sally Wilson took Grace Kelly last time, this week it's the six wives on Henry VIII. She has some rather long questions, still manages to score 12 points and one pass.

Peter Finan has moved on from The Smiths to the history of video games. He misses the first two questions, on Nintendo and Lemmings, John H reckons Tetris is a Russian game (it's not, it's more Ukrainian than Chicken Kiev, and certainly more Ukrainian than Dinamo Kyiv) and when in doubt, say "Donkey Kong." Six points and one pass, after the buzzer.

Paul Emerson told us about Victorian Britain, now it's the Life of Benjamin Franklin. Again, he struggles rather, but keeps the questions rolling. He scores seven points and one pass.

Peter Finan finishes on 15 points, Paul Emerson on 14.

Sally Wilson struggles rather, passing on three and taking her total to 18.

Darren Martin, then, doesn't have all that much to do to book his place in the final. He gets just one of his first five correct, but then gets on a roll and finishes with 26 points and two more passes.

And after the credits, John appeals for contestants for next year's series.

University Challenge

Round 1, match 4: London Metropolitan -v- St John's Oxford

Met gets off to a great start, getting four of the first five starters, and racing to a 75-0 lead.

Rotten starter: The atmosphere of the planet Venus is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide, while its thick cloud cover is composed of tiny droplets of which acid? (Quite what the atmosphere has to do with the answer is beyond us.)

Even more rotten starter: Not served unless the offender is convicted of another offence punishable with imprisonment... (St John's interrupts, says

"suspended sentence", and loses five) ... what is the current maximum period in the courts of England and Wales of a suspended sentence? (The objection here should be obvious.)

Thumper looks appropriately bemused when he's asking a question about the So Solid Crew. He prompts St John's to translate from Latin into Geordie, but allows them "Goodbye my pet," rather than "Auf Wiedershien, Pet." Not that this is helping much, Met is winning by around 100 points.

St John's stages a good comeback, bringing the gap down to 55 points on a couple of occasions, but can't get close enough to bring the result into serious doubt. London Met wins, 235-175.

Stars: For London Met, Andy Horton scored 96.6 points; for St John's, Ben Fletcher made 89.8. London Met made 22/36 bonuses with one missignal, St John's 20/27 with three missignals.

St John's look in a very good position to come back in the repechage. After four shows, the loser board is:

175 St John's Oxford; 160 Hull; 150 St Hugh's Oxford; 80 Corpus Christi Cambridge.


Thanks to A Demi Grauniad's Medio Mankey for the O'Connor tip.

This week's winner of the Most Obvious Statement Of The Week Award, awarded weekly on a weekly basis, obviously: the new theme song to one of the US's most commercial shows. It goes, in part: "Shop 'Til You Drop...It's a Game Where You Shop." Really? Wow, we would never have guessed that. Thank you so much for telling us.

Bob Taylor, the chief detective in THE MURDER GAME, appeared on Radio Five this week, discussing one party's proposals to eliminate the police force (or something like that.) Interviewer Simon Mayo was far too polite to mention that ten people were killed on Mr Taylor's last investigation, or that Mr Mayo regularly attracted viewers when he had Saturday night game shows. Bob Taylor was last seen buying a choc ice to place under the grill.

Charles Ingram lost his claim against a cheap 'n' cheerful airline, after they used his photo without his permission, under the strapline "No major fraud required." Mr Ingram said the advert was an invasion of his privacy, and was offensive and distressing. The Advertising Standards Authority dismissed this claim, saying that it was "consistent with the general media depiction" of Mr Ingram.

This week: an extra Millionaire on Tuesday night, where Freshers and Professors join forces to get some sort of student grant. It's Ice Warriors on Scrapheap Challenge, and the return of New HIGNFY. C4 shows TEEN BIG BROTHER, a schools' programme at 10pm weeknights. And BBC1 launches the revived SUPERSTARS on Thursday (Wednesday in Scotland.)

Punchline A) Still, that's what happens when you hold a political conference.

Punchline B) Bring back TALKABOUT, all is forgiven!

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