Weaver's Week 2004-01-31


Take a bundle of old questions, throw in one experienced quizmaster, six contestants, and stir well.

DIDN'T THEY DO WELL (BBC1, 1859 Thursday)

Way back in the dim and distant past, someone at the BBC had an idea for a show without a host. "Playback" (a working title) would pit contestants in the studio against actual questions from quizzes shown in the past. Thanks to the way it's funded, the BBC is able to take the time to tinker with a format before putting it to air, and the main tinkering to this format was the addition of a host. Step forward Bruce Forsyth, voted as the Best Game Show Host, Ever by readers of ukgameshows.com. Bruce has recently rejoined the BBC, and this show marks his return to primetime for Auntie.

The mechanics of the show are not difficult. In the opening round, three teams of two take turns to pick a quiz show host (and, by implication, a BBC game show) off a board. They're asked a question by that host, and given points if they get the question correct; one point on the first pass of the board, two on the second. As well as a broad general knowledge, this round rewards a knowledge of BBC game shows: a question asked by Mike Read must come from Pop Quiz and hence be about popular music. One asked by Noel Edmonds will probably be from Telly Addicts, but might be a general knowledge question from Lucky Numbers, while something from Jeremy Paxman will be from University Challenge and be a) very hard, b) extremely difficult, and c) excruciatingly long.

Round two sees each team pick a category, then attempt to name five people in that category from brief film clips. If they get all five right, they qualify for a "which one of these did X" question worth bonus points. The team with the fewest points after this round leaves the competition.

Round three has five clips from the past. In each clip, the presenter is reading out a lengthy introduction (around 30 seconds long), or describing something. The two remaining teams have to work out who or what is being described, and the faster they work out the answer, the more points they score. There's a slight twist: if team A buzzes and gets the answer wrong, then only team B can buzz in next. Team A will only get a second shot if team B guesses and guesses wrongly. The highest total score across all three rounds moves on to the final.

In the final, there are eight quizmasters on tape and 90 seconds on the clock. Each quizmaster reads out a question, and the contestants must give the correct answer. If they're wrong, the same quizmaster reads another question, and the clock only stops when the contestants give the correct answer. Before winning any money, the contestants must answer one final question: they choose one of three categories, and can think and confer during the remaining time. Give the wrong answer, or run out of time, and they go home with nothing. It pays to know the length of questions: the first two shows used questions from DOG EAT DOG, where host Ulrika Jonsson shamelessly stalled and padded for time in a failed effort to raise some sort of tension. Anne Robinson bangs out the questions far faster than Jeremy Paxman, but Paddy Feeny is faster than both.

There are those who consider this show as an exercise in television nostalgia. In that respect, it's a bit of a missed opportunity, imposing a modern view on everything. We do get to see clips of old shows, and some clips of the title sequences, and some unusual choices spark severe nostalgia. (Kenny Everett's BRAINSTORM? Paddy on TOP OF THE FORM? A show called QUIZTIME GENTLEMEN PLEASE?!) As per the BBC production rules, all the clips are cropped into the widescreen format. This leads to the false assumption that everything the BBC's ever made was in widescreen. To take a particularly bad example, cropping University Challenge into the wider format results in the bottom team's name being cut off, and sometimes results in the top team's heads bumping against the ceiling. It looks amateurish, and undermines what is otherwise a superb production. The preferred solution, as employed by BBC Sport and by ITV, is simply to put some sort of digital "curtain" or other effect at the side of the picture, so that the whole of the original tape gets shown.

One other minor niggle: in the third round, the remainder of the interrupted clip isn't shown, and the viewer loses the thread of what the speaker is saying.

If we consider Didn't They Do Well! as a game show, it's a very polished piece of work. Using scratchy old tapes as a source of questions could present problems - can we hear and see the show? - and it's to the technicians' credit that we don't notice the work they've put in to equalise the volume and clean up the video. Even in the first round, there's some careful planning: doubling the points for the second round is an improvement some people suggested for the Britain's Brainiest series on ITV a couple of years ago.

Perhaps the only weak point of the show is the final round. A potential jackpot of £32,000 instantly suggests some sort of doubling mechanism, perhaps five questions from £1000, or eight from £125. Instead, the payment for each question starts at £500, and works its way up to make the final question worth a curious £12,000. While this sort of cumulative jackpot has some appeal, it lacks the clarity of a simple double. Maybe that approach would have been too reminiscent of Millionaire.

The other problem with the game is the forced all-or-nothing gamble at the end. While the first three rounds have been a charming and light-hearted exercise in nostalgia, the final suddenly has teeth, and is quite happy to bite people's legs off given half a chance. While the rest of the show brings to mind the Olympian spirit in which most of the BBC's games have been played, this modern finale confirms that, for the modern corporation, it really is how well you do that counts, not how well you play. It's a modern twist, and simply doesn't sit with the rest of the show's slightly anachronistic feel. DTDW could have appeared on our screens ten years ago, with no more than slight changes to the format. That the final round is so blatantly a 12-Yard ripoff does stick in the craw. David Young's device had its place on Friends Like These, was bad enough on Dog Eat Dog, is out of place on Innit Ter Winnit, and sticks out like a sore thumb here.

One possible improvement: steal half an idea from 19 Keys. The contestants get to build up their pot over the first minute, but after that time's expired, their pot diminishes at the breathtaking rate of £1000 per second. It'll fade away to nothing in a maximum of 20 seconds, so shortening the last round to 80 seconds of playing time.

Finally, we can consider Didn't They Do Well! as a vehicle for Bruce Forsyth. Here, it's a success. In the entire 28 minute game, there are between 20 and 26 questions, giving the host plenty of time to banter with the contestants, use his parade of catchphrases (most slightly modified for the format), and generally entertain as well as he's ever done. Only the prospect of Bruce sending someone home with nothing (and that's never happened before) puts a damper on the proceedings.

Didn't They Do Well! is a technological marvel, a passable archive clip show, and shows a good game. Ahem.


Second Round, Match 4: Reading -v- St John's Oxford

It's the repechage final. Reading lost to last week's winners, Gonville & Caius Cambridge, then overcame St Hugh's Oxford in the second chance saloon. St John's fell to the London Met, but overcame Hull second time out. Both sides are very good, and their low scores don't do them justice.

Have we had that starter question giving the postcodes of John O'Groats and Land's End before? It does seem very familiar from somewhere. St John's offers

"e-to-the-i-theta" for a definition of "sys theta", but somehow doesn't get sneered at by Thumper. They'd be crucified for failing equally tricky arts questions.

Reading takes the lead at the first pictures, and stretches ahead with this starter:

Q: A giant fertility symbol constructed in the shape of the female sexual
organ, a representation of the opening by which the earth mother gave birth to
the plants...
Reading, Fraser: Stonehenge

Thumper is surprised.

It's a bad night for the subtitlers: the band who had a hit with "Eight Miles High" is "The Birds", while Thumper's "poet and artist" somehow becomes "Persian artist." No, we don't know either.

Reading's lead stretches to 45 points, but that turns into a lead of 25 for St John's by the audio round, on guest singers and performers. During this round, Kate Bush (big frocked 80s singer who hasn't recorded anything much in the past ten years) is mistaken for Tatu (not the next Russian President), and Michael Jackson (the singer, not the former Channel 4 controller) is confused with Celine Dion. Now we know which Oxford college attracts all the Eurovision fans.

It's a fast-moving week this one. We pass the 250 point mark with almost eight minutes to play, and the series average of 295 before the second picture round (plumbing tools, including the Hacksaw.) Viewers with sharp ears will have spotted an edit where Thumper re-recorded a tricky Latin pronunciation.

St John's gets the bonuses on Oxford and Cambridge university terms; helpful, because most modern universities (such as, say, Reading) have more prosaic terms such as "Christmas," "Easter," and "Summer."

Two minutes to go, and St John's has a ten point lead. One minute, and Reading has 15 points to make up and a set of bonuses. It's all going down to the final starter, and when St John's gets that starter, their victory is assured. The final score: 215-190.

St John's captain Matthew Nicholls led from the front, scoring 78.3 of the team's score; a 19/34 bonus rate went with no missignals. Scott Tatchell's 87.4 was the top score for Reading, the side making 18/33 bonuses and two missignals. This column claims 290 points, 72% of the sides' aggregate. Twenty weeks in, this is the fifth highest winning score, the highest losing score, and just five points adrift from the series' highest aggregate.

Next week: regression to the mean suggests a more boring show between the RNCM and Queen's Oxford. These two sides won through in the lowest scoring games in the UC revival, and the Pools Panel predicts a no-score draw and a replay at the Irthlingborough Stadium next Tuesday.

And finally, a bomb for the continuity announcer. Do not, under any circumstances, say "down to the wire" when introducing this programme. It tells your viewing audience that they can switch off for the first 22 minutes.


Millionaire is to US primetime after two years away. There's an interesting catch: all the prize money amounts will be multiplied by ten, so the top prize will be worth USD 10 million. After tax and at the prevailing exchange rate, that's around £3.3 million. Should anyone walk away at Question Fourteen, they'll eclipse Keppel, Edwards and Brydges as the Biggest Television Game Show Winners Ever. There will be three new lifelines, and Regis Philbin returns as the host.

We've spoken before about Endemol's monopoly of daytime E4. In Germany, there's only one Endemol show worth watching, and that country's Big Brother V will boast a prize of a million Euro. The winner will be on screen for a full year.

Also on screen for a full year: Alexander Armstrong, who fills the Permanent Guest Host spot on Have I Got News for You.

Early warning: BBC2's next attempt at filling the slot soon to be vacated by The Simpsons is TREASON, in which nine contestants play for £5000. All claim to be telling the truth, but two are lying. That begins on Monday week, February 9; by then, we should be able to spot a difference against (The) Weakest Link.

In this column next week: there may be some ruminations on Celeb Torture & Bickering 3, if we can stay awake long enough to actually watch an episode. Certainly a review of recently finished ITV show Beat The Cyborgs, and of Belgian-Canadian schools quiz Genies En Herbe.

Speaking of TV5, a Lepers can change his slots, as Questions Pour un Champion moves to 1530. The Scrappy Races begin at 1830 on C4 Sunday, with teams looking to leave the annoying puppy in various locations across the country. Gaz Top and Lionel Blair are on Buzzcocks (Mo 2100 BBC2), and Gavin Hewitt asks if members of the public could run the country during a crisis a day later. Given that Lionel chaired the UK jury for last year's Eurovision vote, is he on the correct programme?

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