Weaver's Week 2004-10-16

Weaver's Week Index

16 October 2004

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

The host of popular radio show X Marks The Spot, Pete McCarthy, died on Wednesday of last week, aged 51. Mr McCarthy was best known for his travel book "McCarthy's Bar," and had also presented the Channel 4 programme "Travelog" in the late 80s. According to a brief statement released last weekend, Mr McCarthy was diagnosed with cancer early this year. He leaves a wife and three children.



(Wall to Wall for BBC, originally aired 2100 on BBC3 over the summer, now 1845 BBC2 each weeknight)

Around twenty-five years ago, William Franklyn hosted a show on Saturday night ITV, in which people played at being spies. His Masterspy owed a lot to the James Bond and Pink Panther films, and rather little to real-life espionage. In the mid-80s, Bill Homewood (who was always going to be better known as Ron Gad on The Adventure Game) hosted Eye Spy, which was more of a detective game and this column remembers two other things: the obstacle course that ended each week's show, and the phone call of which we heard "You don't say! You don't say! You don't say! (Hangs up phone.) He didn't say."

All of which has absolutely nothing to do with this show. As we hear in the first episode, it's got nothing to do with the entertainment industry's view of the spy world. It's real.

Four David Clarks and four Karen Willises, all pharmaceutical executives, have gathered at a hotel in central London. They're training to be spies in the BBC's latest attempt to air something useful and/or half-way intelligent in the 6:45 slot. This is clearly better than some previous attempts (step forward Nobody Likes a Smartass, and do close the door behind you), but is it going to make the grade?

The eight people go through realistic spy training, with the prospect of nothing more than the honour of winning at the end of the two-month course. Monday's opening show saw the eight leave their friends and family, and go down to London under their assumed names. They had to refuse a useful briefcase, have their suitcases examined by their tutors looking for evidence they'd not left their previous lives behind, and to get on a balcony with a glass of water. Very entertainingly, one of the contestants managed to get himself led away by real police officers.

Challenges later in the week included breaking into an office, chatting to a hotel receptionist, targeting their fellow spy's friend and family, trailing people, and mounting a surveillance operation.

The game appeared to operate by its own rules. The contestants were told that they would be ejected if the tutors felt they could not make the grade, but at least one of the two exits we've seen so far seemed to fit a timetable arranged for the producers' convenience, and the other appeared planned to pre-empt a walk-out. The game is arbitrary, but the show demonstrates the logic behind the tutor's choice. Unlike Star Academy, we don't get to see the spies perform in an unmediated environment so that the determined viewer might make up their own mind.

Perhaps the unique selling point for Spy is that the eliminations don't happen at the end of each episode. From Wanted and Big Brother to I'm A Celeb via The Mole, Survivor, even The Murder Game, it's a situation game standard that the elimination is the dramatic climax to the episode. Not here; people are thrown out of the door at a moment's notice. This only adds to the sense of fear, claustrophobia, and perhaps mild paranoia that the contestants suffer. Spy is perhaps the darkest, most menacing programme we've seen since the early weeks of Wanted, when the threat of Richard Littlejohn and former SAS men loomed larger than the light heart buried beneath the show's dark exterior.

We've heard a lot of good things about Spy, it's one of the few shows to gain a glowing review and follow-up feature article from Off The Telly (Caution: article does contain spoilers.) After one episode, it was apparent that the tension and dark drama in the format is rather lost in the teatime slot, and the show deserved a slot that doesn't draw in the children - after Horizon at 2150 Thursday night appeared to be the ticket. Reviewing the official website (caution: contains spoilers) confirms that the first five hour-long episodes on BBC3 had rather been chopped about and dropped into just four forty-five minute episodes on BBC2.

Spy therefore joins Hercules and Time Commanders in the rather unlikely list of game shows that have been squeezed down into a shorter slot after airing in a longer one. Perhaps BBC2 is testing the water to air Spy in late primetime, perhaps at 2320, after Newsnight. We shall see.

Spy continues on BBC2 until Thursday next.


Heat 23/24

Andrew Warmington is offering capital punishment in the UK since 1945. This is a relatively small subject, but not as small as some we've seen during this series. The question setters make one of their increasingly regular mistakes by suggesting that the Isle of Man is part of the UK. He does very well, scoring 13 (1).

Richard Johnston is telling us about the Rugby Union World Cup, of which there have been just five events. The Media Guardian website reports that Mr Johnston is the finance director of Endemol. The ob-dodgy-question describes Huddersfield as a rugby league ground, neglecting that England played at least one qualifying match for the 99 competition there prior to its use in the finals series. His questions seem to be somewhat shorter than usual, and he scores 14 (1).

Andy Kelly has the Life and Films of John Belushi. He has severely long questions, scoring just 8 (2).

Gordon Troughton has a smaller subject, the Birmingham Royal Ballet; the former Savoy ballet moved to the UK's cultural centre (er) in 1990. More long questions here, meaning he finishes on 9 (4).

Andy Kelly gets his ob-dodgy-question in the general knowledge round: Jeremy Paxman (of whom more anon) asked nineteen (not fifteen) times if Michael Howard had threatened to over-rule (not had over-ruled) Derek Lewis in November 1995 (not May 1997). How many mistakes can Century cram into one question? Andy finishes on 17 (5).

Gordon Troughton's ob-dodgy-question is about Poland's second largest city - Wroclaw or Wodz. Thanks to some careful adjudication from John, he finishes on 21 (5)

Andrew Warmington has a good round, in spite of missing the capital of New Zealand, finishing on 25 (3).

Richard Johnston needs twelve to win, but he falls almost directly into Pass Hell, and is only rescued by the old canard about polo's very large pitch. He can still force a tie with the last question, but misses the man who invented smallpox vaccine, so finishes on 24 (3). It's as close as we've come in the revival to a tie and the much-trailed Five Question Play Off.

University Challenge

First round 5/14: Balliol Oxford -v- Downing Cambridge

Downing Cambridge were last with us in the 2002 series, when they took a very hard route to the quarter finals - a losing tie (at 220-all) with Newcastle, past Leeds by ten in the repechage, then Bristol in the second round before falling to eventual champions Somerville Oxford. Balliol looked odds-on to win the 2001 series thanks to the prodigious talents of Ian Bayley, who almost single-handedly racked up 315 against UMIST, and 270 against York. The side's sound defeat at the hands of Hull in the quarters was one of the biggest surprises in UC history.

Two lawyers for Balliol, the only arts student (English) is for Downing. The Cambridge side has a German captain, the Oxonians have a New Jersey member.

Good starter:

Q What is the common name for "ricktus"...

The contestants are allowed to interrupt, if they wish, and can save a long and rather dull question for something more interesting.

That's correctly answered by Balliol's Peter Baker, clearly Balliol's best buzzer will always have a name beginning with "Ba." The first picture round is Name That Cheesy Grin, after which Balliol have pulled to a 45-25 lead. We then fall into a run of three missignals and four dropped starters, which reduces the scores rather, but does show the teams are trying.

The Balliol side got a set of bonuses on physics with a physician on the team; Downing got a starter on German royalty. Them's the breaks. The audio round is Name That Viennese Composer, after which Downing's lead is 65-60. It's a low-scoring week, but we've already had more missignals in this week's match than in the previous four. If we needed any further proof that Thumper Doesn't Know Science:

Q "...that the value of the sample cumulative density function is asymptotically normally distributed"

A"Can you say that again?"
Q"Do I have to?"

Yes, you do. Suffer for once! And learn how to say "asymptotically" before it comes up again, it begins with a short "a" sound. Balliol get two consecutive bonuses in which the answer is "Goat." This clearly tells us something about something, though we're not sure what. The second picture round is Name That Volcano, though not before Thumper completely forgets about it. After what should have been the bonuses, Balliol leads 100-80.

Downing takes the lead shortly afterwards, and the score creeps past 200. Balliol takes the lead with the next starter, then this happens:

Q Played in India, sha - shatu...

Marshall Steinbaum, Balliol Chess

He's the competitor from New Jersey, and wins the fingers on buzzers race to complete the sequence of his country's presidents. Balliol's running away with it at the end, we don't have a single time-check during the show, and Balliol has a win, 170-105.

For Balliol, Marshall Steinbaum was the hot buzzer, making 82.4; Peter Baker faded after his strong start to 56. Johan Telgenbuscher captained Downing to 61.9 points. Balliol made 14/36 bonuses with four missignals, Downing 9/27 with four missignals. The 275 aggregate is the lowest in the series so far, but was mid-table in last year's opening round.

The repechage entries

Univ Oxford 150
Jesus Cambridge 145
York 120
Downing Cambridge 105

Next: Durham -v- Kingston

This Week And Next

The second series hasn't begun yet, but the BBC is already making plans for a third series of Strictly Come Dancing. Provisionally entitled "Strictly Dance Fever," the show will work on the familiar Star Academy format - open auditions will produce a dozen or so couples for the main programme, and they'll be whittled down until the grand final. Graham Norton's been tapped to host, and the programme should come to air early in 2005. It'll be the third Come Dancing format in less than a year, and that has to be overkill in anyone's book.

Antan Dec this week included Peter Andre (from IBES 3), Linda Barker (IBES 2, or was it 3), and an unrehearsed skit involving the dynamic duo playing prepared musical instruments featuring glitter flying out of the rattle. Brucey never had this trouble.

The second Brain of Britain finalist is Alan Bennett, a company director from King's Lynn, who beat Olav Bjortomt by three points. We await the Olympic debut of the great Swedish pastime of bonving, far more entertaining than many others we could mention.

For instance, Simon Cowell -v- Simon Fuller; a preliminary battle between the two Pop Idle chums ended in an out of court settlement this week. They've rather fallen out over the close similarities between The X Factor and ver Idle, and Mr Fuller's action is set to reach court in the early days of next year. The contest could perhaps be decided by the contestants catching boots in buckets.

We also hear that Piers Morgan (who was fired from his job as the editor of a national newspaper in the week one of his reporters faked a game show as a cheap stunt) and Amanda Platell (as in "Shut up, Amanda" from the recent Crisis Command series) will front a Saturday evening politics show from November. We'll leave readers to work out which bit of bonving we'd like to see this pair try.

We started this column with some bad news; here are three small treasures to brighten up future days. 1) Fort Boyard Takes On The World is, as the name suggests, a global compilation of Fort Boyards. Challenge from 7pm Monday. 2) November 1 isn't only the Brain of Britain final (though not the last in the series) but also marks the annual appearance of Gyles Brandreth on Countdown. 3) Not only do BBC2 viewers finally get to see the thoroughly good second series of Raven on October 25, but Raven III will be with us (for values of "us" that encompass all CBBC viewers) from November 22. Hurrah!

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