Weaver's Week 2004-09-18

Weaver's Week Index

18 September 2004

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

Crisis? What crisis - Weaver's Week

Anne Robinson: "On a rowing crew, what is the average size of the cox - large or small?"



Believe it or not, it's ten years next Tuesday since University Challenge returned, with an excellent Aberdeen side defeating the Birmingham side. In the years since, eight institutions have won the title, there have been some very low scores, cries of "It's a leaf", mutterings of rigged draws, some absolutely wonderful games involving the most unlikely teams, complaints that the questions have become preposterous, and growlings that host Jeremy "Thumper" Paxman (as opposed to original host Bamber "Bambi" Gascoigne) doesn't know what he's talking about.

Last year's series came in for particular criticism, not least in this column. The teams in the first round were not allowed to play to their potential, constrained by some very poor questions. We've also raised eyebrows at the over- representation of teams from Oxford, Cambridge, and Scotland, and the under- representation of the new universities. Ever the optimist, we're hoping that some of these matters will be resolved in the new series.

In the first first round match, the University of Leicester takes on Jesus Cambridge. Jesus were amongst us last year, taking easy wins against Oriel Oxford and Bangor before falling to London Met in one of the best editions of UC ever. Leicester's last appearance was six years ago, when they made the quarter finals, beating Selwyn Cambridge along the way. It's the second time Jesus has been in the season opener, the college lost to Edinburgh in the 1998 season opener. Over the years, all ten defeated sides from the opening game have come back in the repechage.

Over the summer (in fact, in time for the Professionals series this column tries to ignore) the studio got re-done in some shades of purple and blue. It's a little better than the gaudy red from the past four years, but we're still using the slow theme, indicating a slow pace of play.

Indeed, the questions are still way too long. The second starter is a 32-second monster comparing two films. We would repeat the question here, only it's so long that we fell asleep during it. Thumper generously gives this starter to Jesus; the host is less charitable when asking the contestants about the author of "Prometheus Unbound"

Katie Birkwood, Jesus: Byron?
Thumper: (muted) No.
Keith Ruffles, Leicester: Seamus Heaney?
Thumper: (spitting) Seamus Heaney?!

If that's the way you're going to treat your contestants, sir, you may as well retire now, because there's thirty more weeks of us being critical about you being critical to come. Manners cost nothing. These are not professional politicians, they are students first, quizzers second, television performers third, and your ego should come fourth.

Two of the first five starters are about motion pictures. This tells us something about students and/or the way Century Quiz sees them. Jesus has a 35- 30 lead after this first picture round, and takes the lead with the next starter.

Ever keen to get a mention in this column, Jesus offers "Byron" as a poet when they don't know one, and that happens twice. There's a fingers on buzzers question for the three biologists on the two teams, and one of them later gets the Interruption Of The Week:

Q: A trademark registered in 1938 on account of its unattractive appearance,
which fruit...
Claudia Fogl, Leicester: Ugli fruit.

The music round is harmonica solos, by which time Jesus is 80-55 ahead. The third quarter progresses without incident, and by the second picture round - on mediaeval weaponry, Leicester has pulled back to 115-100. Leicester picks up the first missignal of the year early in the final quarter - neither side has yet answered a full set of bonuses.

Leicester brings the sides level with four minutes to play. Is it coincidence that Jesus's two students of biological chemistry get questions on biochemistry? Thumper is going at a rate of knots, something like 35 points per minute. Leicester takes a 20 point lead, Jesus cuts it to five, buzzes, is not correct, and Leicester has the win, 150-145. This column's not convinced that Jesus has quite done enough to come back in the repechage, but can't argue with history.

This week's competition came alive in the last few minutes. Claudia Fogl's 68.3 was the top score for Leicester, Katie "Byron" Birkwood was the big hitter for Jesus, on 65.6. Neither side made a full set of bonuses; Leicester took 11/30, Jesus 12/27, with one missignal each. The 295 point total is almost exactly on a par with last season, and about 60 points below the first-round average for the first ten years. Scoring across all questions, this column claims 195 points, 66% of the total, which is about par.

A topic that has generated more correspondence than any other is the individual scoring. This year's is the same formula as last year. Each starter question is worth 10 to the person buzzing in. Bonus questions arising from that subject are worth 2.3 to the original buzzer, and 0.9 points to each of their colleagues on the team, even when it's clear who provided the answer. Deductions for incorrect interruptions (or missignals) are from the player, and all scores are final at the gong - extra time questions do not count. The players' individual scores add up to the team score. The individual score attempts to find players who do well on the buzzer, not on bonus questions, and should be read as such.

Next: York -v- Lancaster.

MASTERMIND - Heat 19/24

Ian Copland is taking the Life and Music of Cole Porter. He goes like greased lightning, but takes passes and finishes on 9 (3).

Helena Rogers offers the Duke of Wellington. She's done her research well, but goes more cautiously, finishing on 9 (0).

Gill Perry has "Babylon 5" series 1 and 2. With forty-odd episodes, and something over 30 hours of television in the canon, this is a larger subject than some we've had this year. Gill is stumped by the questions, finishing on 4 (6).

David Bache tells us about Ansel Adams, a photographer. A pass on his first question rather sets the tone for what's to come, but he recovers well to finish on 8 (3).

Gill finishes on 8 (9). David has a lot of passes in the middle of his round, finishing on 14 (9).

Ian passes his first round score and advances to 19 (6). Helena has her chance, but only takes a series of passes, finishing on 16 (6). Ian Copland, then, advances to the second round.


We weren't quite as impressed with this week's Flood edition. Part of our disappointment came from the way the same seven quandaries appeared in both BBC2 and BBC4 shows, and partly because the two teams came to very similar decisions along the line. The final decision - as last week, the big decision - was almost a no-brainer.

The BBC2 contestants were a solicitor, a think-tank-ite, and a business geek. They made 5/7 correct decisions, and could be liable for a manslaughter charge. The BBC4 contestants were a headteacher, a recruiter, and a web monkey. They made 4/7 correct decisions, and could also be up on a manslaughter charge. Some more statistics:

  • Times contestants were hit by a clue-by-four: 5.
  • Times Amanda Platell was ignored, interrupted, or generally told to shut up: 22.
  • Times Amanda Platell spoke: 35.
  • BBC2 contestants who reckoned they could run the country: 2.
  • BBC4 contestants who reckoned they could run the country: 1.
  • Millions viewing this week's episode on BBC2: 1.0.
  • Percentage rise in viewers from last week: 25.
  • Other primetime programmes to show this size of gain: 0.
  • Number of Crisis Command episodes to air next week: 0.

Here's why. On 6 September, host Gavin Hewitt and three colleagues entered the office of the controller of BBC2, who had been joined by his BBC4 equivalent, to deliver ill tidings. "We have a potential crisis. Some gunmen have committed an atrocious massacre in Russia, and this is very close to the plot of the Crisis Command you're due to show on the 19th. Do you:

- Run the programme as normal;
- Push the edition to the end of the run;
- Air a different programme entirely."

Tim Garden, the emergency services bloke, was first to speak up. "This is the only original Crisis Command left, but you also have the chance to re-show the pilot from February. The BBC1 controller has already ear-marked September 26 for 'Dirty War,' his drama-doc that isn't a game show, and I know he wants you to schedule something trivial opposite."

Tim continued. "If you do want to change the BBC2 schedule, you have the strategic Clarkson reserve for situations like this, and they might bring you more viewers than last week's 800,000 - Jeremy Clarkson is, for some unaccountable reason, more popular than anything else you have. BBC4, I don't know that you have many hour-long shows left in the cupboard, especially now that you've finished repeating Alistair Cooke's series."

Charles Shoebridge, the military man, piped up at this point. "Putting out something different is going to create severe communications difficulties. The provisional schedules have already gone out, and those who have a 14-day view will know about this already. You have (checks watch) just over two days - until teatime on Wednesday - before the Radio Times goes to press, slightly less time before some of the cheaper magazines." While he was speaking, a small mouse ran along the back of the office, trailing a banner containing the three options.

Amanda Platell was having none of this. "If you take Crisis Command off the air, you'll be the laughing stock of the corporation, indeed, of the telly world. Just think what the headlines on Media Guardian will be! 'BBC2 Oxes Flap Documentary Drama Fame Show Programme.' You'll be seen as weak-willed controllers, bowing to a short-lived lack of ratings. Have faith in your programme, you're not commercial controllers, you can afford a small rating. Think of the charter renewal! Think of the public service implication - you're getting people to think about the worst case scenario, and doing it far better than the government's leaflet!"

The controllers deliberated. Then they pondered which programmes to put out. The BBC4 controller wondered if Mind Games would fit into the slot, but concluded that the most recent series needed some re-editing to work properly. "There's always a repeat of University Challenge," offered Amanda. The BBC4 controller shot her a nasty look, and the score for "Amanda Platell told to shut up" ticked over.

"Controllers, do we have a decision?" asked Gavin. "Put out Top Gear," said the BBC2 chief. "Put out - oh, whatever comes to hand. Kirsty Wark in Slovenia will do," said the BBC4 controller. "Controllers, we have a decision, it is unanimous, your decision will be enacted."

Have the controllers made the right decision? You decide.


More excellent publicity for ITV's incredibly tedious THE-Y-IS-ANYONE-STILL-WATCHING FACTOR came in last Saturday's press. As has become standard practice, the last 120 have been compelled to sign one-sided and unbalanced contracts or leave the show. Amongst the clauses are the usual no-competition rules, preventing eliminated contestants from promoting themselves for three months after the show ends in April 2009. More entertainingly, the contestants are bound not to "trash" the homes of the judges, and may not hit Simon Cowell. We've not seen the contract, but have they excluded damaging Cowell's fading career by simply showing him in his true, self-promoting colours? If the man is an object of derision from Busted (a Junior Eurovision interval act) and has had five negative stories on Teletext's TV Plus section to one positive, do the contestants need any help?

From the file marked "Gaah!" Robert Robinson had been the host of every edition of Brain Of Britain since its introduction in 62AD. (We said in July that the show had aired for 1,942 consecutive years; this was incorrect, as the show was banned in 1649 by special edict of Oliver Cromwell, still smarting from his defeat by Walter Dobson in the final five years earlier; editions recommenced in 1663, following the restoration.) Mr Robinson's run of more editions than we care to remember came to a surprise end last week; the experienced host is recovering following a serious operation, and the remaining shows in this series are to be hosted by Russell Davies. His regular job is a show celebrating the art and craft of the popular song on Radio 2, and after some opening show nerves, he's taken to the impossible task of replacing Bob on Bobbage without sounding totally out of place.

Next week: the first of a million kisses (or MILLIONAIRE celeb specials) at 1800. HOUSE SITTERS returns to Sky One at 1245 Monday, the first of a new run of BUZZCOCKS at 2100, and Challenge is having a stuntman day today.

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