Weaver's Week 2004-02-07

Weaver's Week Index

7 February 2004

Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.


"What 11 million viewers get instead of the fascinating reality is a succession of fatuous parlour games played out in the equivalent of a conservatory." - Germaine Greer

BEAT THE CYBORGS (Prism for ITV, 1557 Thursday)

In this game, teams of three youngsters gather in a large industrial complex, under the auspices of the Borgmaster (Mark Speight) and his assistant Menzies (Jason Tompkins). The Borgmaster has been travelling the world, and picked out eight people capable of incredible feats of agility, strength, dexterity, and/or cunning. The teams' role is to select which of the Borgs will perform best in each challenge.

This format sounds fiercely complex, but the show airs in children's television, so it's handled with skill and dexterity. Two teams compete each week, and each game begins with a question about one of the Borg's biography or tastes, and the first team to give the correct answer gets first pick of the Borgs, then the opposition picks their Borg. After they've been picked, each Borg enters the arena from a balcony, displaying their prowess and skills. During the game, the teams can shout instructions to their Borg, guiding them through a maze, or pairing off squares on a grid. In one game each week, progress depends on the team correctly answering further questions based on the Borg biogs.

"Wait, haven't we seen superfit people doing strange things on television before?" you might ask. Indeed we have, and there's a clear influence from Gladiators onto Beat The Cyborgs. Both shows are very much larger than life, especially in the spectacular staging of the challenges. Where else could one see people rolling balls down a chute, having them catch fire? Both feature strong presenters, with Mark Speight's character being perhaps the most deliberately over-the-top host since Phileus T Barnum. Mark Speight also does such event commentary as is required, though for many events this is fairly minimal, the noise of the teams barking instructions to their Borgs makes any commentary superfluous.

The crucial difference from Gladiators, though, is exactly who performs these athletic stunts. On the LWT programme, only the superfit could think about taking part on equal terms. While it made for outstanding television, there are only so many superfit people to go round, and your average viewer could only look on in amazement. That problem is neatly avoided here: the superfit people have been found for the contestants, and all they have to do is pick the better one for the task.

Where it's not influenced by Gladiators, Beat The Cyborgs owes something to video games. Each Borg has been turned into an anime-style drawing, and given seemingly arbitrary scores in a multitude of factors. Once they've assimilated this information, the contestants don't have a huge amount to do in the game, and half the time they're reduced to standing on the sidelines and cheering. Some will make the fair point that the Borgs are little more than two- dimensional characters in a glorified video game.

The scoring system for the games is complex. Each of the first three games is centred on collecting a number of "power ups" (points.) In addition, the teams must risk some points on each game: the team collecting the more points in the game doubles their risk, the losers lose theirs, and a draw returns both risks.

The highest score after the first three rounds has a triple advantage in the final round: they get first pick of the Borgs, they can eliminate one Borg from performing for the other team, and they can choose to go second (or first, if they must.) This is a win-or-bust round: the winners progress to the next phase, the losers go home. In many ways, this format makes the previous three rounds pointless. Perhaps giving the leaders choice of Borg and a time advantage would help reduce the dependence on the final round.

In last week's final, Mark Speight promised a second series, and the show fully deserves that return to the television.


Second Round, Match 5: Royal Northern College of Music -v- Queen's Oxford.

These two sides won through in the lowest scoring games in the UC revival: the RNCM beat Corpus Christi Cambridge 150-80 in Singalonga UC at the end of September; Queen's bested Imperial London 140-105 a month later.

"What we want now is a good Challenge," said the continuity announcer before the programme started. It's better than last week's effort, but it isn't going to wash.

It's a bit of a financial special this week, as a series of bonuses on insolvency is followed by a question on the 70 remaining building societies. Bit of a clanger as Thumper allows "Alpha Centauri" as the closest star to the Sun, even though he gives the answer as Alpha's close neighbour, "Proxima Centurai."

Queen's doesn't really need the help, at the picture round the Oxford side leads 75-15. Praise for a snappy starter: "Following the unexpected death of John Smith in 1994, who took over temporary leadership of the Labour party?" Less impressed by what would have been a long starter about quarks, had not the RNCM's David Lewis shut Thumper up by shouting "Charm."

The audio round asks the teams to identify the form of music being played. To no-one's surprise, the RNCM gets the starter, and all the bonuses, and narrows the lead 85-80. That star question is looking valuable, but then RNCM pulls away rather. The 230 Record Low and 250 Record Low Before This Lot are both passed just before the second picture round; after the pictures (table tennis federations) RNCM leads 150-125.

Thumper accepts "The Taverners" for "The Lords' Taverners" as a starter from the RNCM, so he probably owes Queen's a bit of a nod. The chance doesn't arise before the gong, and the RNCM has been a lot more convincing in this 180-150 win.

Yes, we were wrong in predicting a no-score draw; the 330 aggregate is 35 above the series median. Jim Robinson led for Queen's with 48.7, the side made 13/26 bonuses and one late missignal. Stewart Manifold was the star buzzer for RNCM, securing 82.4 points as the side made 14/36 bonuses. That poor bonus conversion rate - 38.1% over the two outings - suggests the side may struggle in the later rounds.

Next: Jesus Cambridge -v- Bangor


The BBC has finally revealed the six people who could go forward and score something at this year's Eurovision Song Contest.

On Sunday, the corp announced the names of the songwriters. We have Gary Barlow, the most successful Take That member, apart from the ones more successful than him. Brian Rawling, responsible for much of the recent recording career of Kylie Minogue. Pam Sheyne, who has worked with stars like Alex Parks. Brian Higgins and Stuart McLennan, best known for writing Cher's worldwide smash "Believe," itself the basis of 2000's winning entry. Andy McClusky and Stuart Kershaw, one half of OMD and the brains behind Atomic Kitten's decent records. And there's one entry (and one only) from the British Songwriters' Association, the outfit that has provided four Worst Performances Ever in the past five years.

The performers (who is singing which song hasn't been revealed) are: Haifa, performing "Me Without You," rejected from Pop Idle 1 in favour of Gagagagareth. Haydon Eshun, performing "With You I Believe," formerly of Ultimate Kaos, then of Lost in the USA. James Fox, performing "Hold On To Our Love," the fifth-placed finisher on Star Academy 2. Enrap-ture, performing "Weekend (Gotta Work)," a female hip-hop trio. Madison Taylor, performing "It Just Gets Better," clearly going for the blonde bombshell vote. Hyrise, performing "Leading Me On," a four-piece bloke band.

Who are these people? Good question: one of Sony's conditions for being involved in the contest was that the singers couldn't be signed to any other label, so no danger of Ali Griffin, George Michael, or The Cheeky Girls appearing, and apparently Michael Jackson's had to call off his proposed involvement owing to a prior commitment.

In the Beeb's press release, Cheryl Baker welcomed the revamp. "Eurovision has to change with the times otherwise people get bored with it," said the former Bucks Fizz member and skydiver. "I'd like to see it move to a format like Pop Idol or Fame Academy," she added, echoing this column's suggestions for the past donkey's years.

Elsewhere, we hear that Tom Morley's Junior Eurovision entry "My Song For The World" will be released in May. The Morley family have had to stump up the cash themselves after major record companies thumbed their nose at the most successful UK entrant in years.


The third series of MINOR CELEBRITY TORTURE, SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION AND LIVE SWEARING ON NATIONAL TELEVISION has helped us draw some conclusions about the show. There have been record levels of self-publicity in the Australian clearing. John Lydon's best-known album "Never Mind The Bullocks" has shown a 20% sales increase, while rival Peter Andre's sales have doubled to two. His former neighbour, Antan Dec, is not responsible for this appreciation of his musical talents, as Antan Dec really does have a greatest hits album, and Peter doesn't. Kerry Katatonia has raised her stock, while Jordan apparently has a (ghostwritten, surely) book coming out soon.

But enough of the torture, what about the bickering? Well, we have to mention Mr Lydon's infamous reaction to being left in the game for one more day on Wednesday morning. Comparing the Grate British Public to cutlery and Brian the Playaway host was expected, but still got slightly more than nine viewers in a million excited enough to moan down the telephone.

Over the three series, this column has slightly revised the show's title each time. It's no longer D-LIST CELEBRITY anything, as the participants have generally been drawn from the G-list, and hence aren't celebrities in any reasonable sense. There is TORTURE, but while the tasks performed for the cameras are bad, they aren't quite torture. That falls to the people who stay in camp all day, every day, starved of stimulation, without any decent conversation or even a change of company from the other vacuous self-promoters. Such a high level of tedium, coupled with a bland diet, leads to boredom, and inexorably to BICKERING.

It's interesting to note that only the 2002 series saw bickering directed primarily between the contestants. Last year, the infamous sausages rebellion was the most memorable moment in a two-week campaign where the contestants lorded it over the producers. This time, Neil Ruddock has mused about pursuing The Silent Treatment advocated here for some time, while John Lydon has followed Danniella Westbrook's lead by walking from the game without being pushed. By forcing the producers to introduce a delay into the proceedings, he's changed the rules to his advantage, and must be able to claim a major victory. Indeed, with ITV now left high, dry, and losing ratings, can there be a serious claim to another series winner?

Germaine Greer has bought a trust looking after the land in the neighbourhood. She wrote in Het Grauniad: "There are dangerous creatures in the rainforest, to be sure, but they are insignificant amid its vast biodiversity, with an enormous variety of birds, thousands of species of invertebrates, mammals and reptiles large and small, not to mention the trees, shrubs, ferns, fungi and epiphytes. To see a bunch of poms squatting in this treasurehouse able to think of nothing but the lack of scones and jam is bloody maddening.

"The floor of the set is covered with dry brown leafage, not something you find where annual rainfall averages 2 metres. In the living forest all kinds of wrens, scrub turkeys and whip birds would be foraging through the leaf-litter, but here there are none. Instead, imported footage of animals is matted on to the segments featuring Antan Dec, old man goannas, cane toads, pet tarantulas and a soundtrack of cicadas, an appliqué menagerie of all the wrong creatures.

"The spiders that featured in Peter Andre's test must have been extraordinarily stressed, much more so than Mr Andre, whose fear of these harmless species is entirely irrational. He could easily have injured or killed some of the spiders; they could do neither to him. The lizards and snakes in the last of his tests must have been practically frantic at being unable to escape from each other. I hope I am not the only viewer who would have liked to know how long they had been immured together in their sweating Perspex box.

"In my innocence, I thought IBES would be different, that the challenges would be something to do with bushcraft, with hunting and gathering, with finding food and preparing it, with building shelter and avoiding injury to self and others, but that's the wrong series. That's Survivor, a game that Johnny Rotten seems to play on his own."

IBES 3 reaches its conclusion on Monday, while BBC4 airs a documentary about Tetris, and a game show column has to mention that one. At 1800 Monday, BBC2 launches TRAITOR, where two of nine are lying to win £5000, and there should be a review here next week.

Advance notice for February 15, when C5 begins Back to Reality, in which twelve situation game veterans are locked in a luxury mansion. Followed on the 16th by ITV's 24 Hour Quiz, in which three quizzers spend the day together. One of them is hosted by someone who used to be on Eastenders, but can you guess which?

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