Weaver's Week 2005-01-16

Weaver's Week Index


16 January 2005

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

One candidate wanted a bank holiday to honour Bruce Forsyth. Vote for him!

Vote for Me

(Mentorn for ITV, 2305 weekdays)

The conflation of Pop Idle and politics has been in the pipeline for many years now; we've reported at least once a year that someone was planning to make a programme about having a vote for someone to vote for. Finally, Trish Kinane's format has emerged from the woodwork, and ITV has committed to a short series exposing the democratic process. The Monkey is not particularly confident about its series, stripping it across a week and placing it in the just-after-prime-time slot. Still, the winner will be face an expert panel accustomed to the dark arts of Westminster, and will have won one public vote before going on to stand for Parliament in the next general election, expected this year.

Before the programme began, ITV insisted it was making a serious attempt to revive interest in politics among apathetic voters, rather than a simple ratings-grabber. MPs begged to differ, with Liberal Democrat culture spokey Don Foster saying it was "cheap and tawdry." His Conservative equivalent, John Whittingdale, said "The danger is that it's either going to be a frivolous gimmick or crashingly dull. The temptation to go downmarket is huge. I've got considerable misgivings."

Under the UK's strict electoral laws, none of the contestants could be identified with a political party. While this opened up the format to accusations of being a vehicle for single-issue candidates, and neglected the importance of the party line in British politics, it also ensured that the contestants would have to think out their own positions on every issue, and couldn't just parrot someone else's prepared line.

The judging panel consisted of Kelvin MacKenzie (former tabloid editor, owner of Talk Sport radio, a notoriously "spiky" and brusque character); Lorraine Kelly (Eurovision spokesperson, appears on a tabloid tv show, and playing the nice cop role); and John Sergeant (former political correspondent for both BBC and ITN, and clearly the moderator in all senses of the word). Jonathan Maitland, himself a former Eurovision contender, was the show's nominal host, though he sensibly took billing below the contestants and the panel.

ITV's decision to strip the show across a week meant that we saw the entire process, from audition to result, unfold in just five days. If it works for the Big Brother format, perhaps it could work for this one.

Monday, therefore, gave us the highlights of the audition weekend; after a written application, fifty interesting people were invited to address the judging panel for one minute. Half of them stayed for the schmoozing test the next day, with just fifteen being quizzed about their policies. Perhaps we've grown a little accustomed to the rituals of the audition show, because we could see the "interesting" candidates, and those who would prove successful, getting more and more of the air time as the show wore on.

Seven progressed to the first of four live programmes on Tuesday. As a spectacle, this was a bit dull, with all seven giving ten-second speeches, being quizzed by the Poll Panel, and taking a trip to Liverpool. The host looked ill-suited to his role reading out the phone numbers, with a lively studio audience in the studio. "We're never going to stick with this for a full week unless something changes" was the prevailing thought, especially as the nightly revelation of who's staying made Patrick Kielty's work on Star Academy look like the height of competence.

By Wednesday, we were getting to know the surviving candidates. The doctor who wants to make his life easier by funding social services more. The single-issue campaigner who wants mobile phone masts reduced in power. The campaigner for local income tax, the one who wanted more power devolved to local communities. The candidate who wanted to encourage people to save for their retirement, but didn't want means-testing. And the almost obligatory anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, probably anti-aunties character.

Perhaps some of them had been picked as much for who they were more as what they stood for - a convicted con-man, (the bloke who bought some cemeteries in Westminster for 15 pence and sold them for thousands, apparently) a Thalidomide victim, and the token non-white. But it's also clear that these people do have the courage of their convictions, and some of them can hold their own under hostile fire - and few were more hostile than Lorraine Kelly, surprisingly. The anti-aunties character was a bit of a swivel-eyed loon, but could play the room better than anyone; the posh nob talked a good talk, but had no memorable policies, and fell off the candidate's list on the first night.

Time was a tremendous limitation in this format. To ensure that everyone got a fair crack of the whip, speeches were limited to twenty seconds, with only a minute of follow-up questioning. Sometimes, this was enough to reveal the cracks in the plan; sometimes it began a discussion that would naturally have lasted for five or ten minutes. For those interested in the matters raised, there's something to be said for a support programme on ITV2, ITV3, or ITV News, but none of these materialised. Instead, the contestants all appeared on Mr MacKenzie's radio station; we didn't hear this hour-long exchange.

Thursday was one of the worst examples of this: we saw the remaining five face members of the press in a fairly easy-going press conference. All we saw was a very quick sound-bite of a question and an answer. The fraudster got involved in a crazy slanging match with all of the poll panel, and it took all of Jonathan Maitland's persuasive powers to shut him up. It's a bit late in the week to be chasing ratings.

The standard of discussion wasn't too high, either. The proponent of local services proposed cutting MPs to fund her entire policy, the panel correctly found the sums didn't add up. Another said he wasn't the finance minister, and made up his policy on the hoof. The mast campaigner claimed that she could save £2 billion, and actually backed up her argument with facts! And statistics! Presenter Maitland - ill-informed as ever - suggested that "those were your beliefs," putting facts on a similar level to creationism.

A chance for proper interaction between the remaining contestants finally popped up on Friday's live final, with a round-table debate. The chance was rather fluffed, as there was more end-of-term joshing between the Poll Panel than serious on-the-spot thought from the candidates. This was the only time in the week when international affairs raised their head.

In the end, it came down to Eileen, the mobile phone mast campaigner; and Rodney, the ex-con-legalise-hard-drugs-and-pull-up-the-drawbridge candidate. And it was the charming rogue, the man who never answered any questions, Rodney Hilton-Potts. It was a controversial choice, presenter Jonathan Maitland drew a comparison with another former jailbird, a Herr Hitler (while Mr Hilton-Potts compared himself with a Mr Mandela), and there was a smattering of booing in the audience.

Never one to miss a trick, the winner popped up on Radio 4's Today programme on Saturday, and probably addressed more people there than he did all week on ITV. He said that he had received very many expressions of support, and might found a new political party, in the same way that Pim Fortuyn did in the Netherlands a few years ago. Mr Fortuyn, one might remember, was assassinated before he could actually face election.

Neither did ITV miss a shot at after-the-fact damage limitation - the summary of the final show concluded:

"Surely you, the people, would not ignore the sentiments of not only Rodney's fellow candidates, but the sage that is Lorraine? Surely you, the people, would not choose a candidate who proposed to cut immigration (and the private parts of various criminals)? Surely you, the people, would not elect a man that promised to legalise class-A drugs?
"In the face of incredible adversity, Rodney triumphed above the wishes of the panel, the boos and jeers of the audience and a small thing called political correctness, and took the title."

Of the pre-show criticism? "Cheap and tawdry" perhaps not - there was a decent programme in there, though it was badly held back by the constraints of the vote-off format. There were elements of all of the other critic's points: "frivolous gimmick, crashingly dull, going downmarket."

At the end of the week, Vote for Me was an exercise in raising the profile of politics as a spectator sport. While the format mitigated against deep discussion, it did serve to flag up some of the more pressing problems of contemporary society. This column has long argued that television reflects society, and VFM is perhaps the best support for that thesis we've seen in a long time. Would we watch another series? Probably not, indicating that ITV was right to get it all done in a week.

And the Brucie holiday? Fell on Monday, along with its sponsor.

University Challenge

Repechage 2: Jesus Cambridge -v- Queen's Belfast

Jesus lost the opening match of the season, 150-145, against Leicester; Queen's were rather buzzed off the park by UEA, and most of their points came from the buzzer of Karl Byrne.

Both teams look stunned to hear the annual Glastonbury mud-bath described as "a place where people enjoy themselves." The long starters are back, with fatalism defined using a tedious example about bullets with names on. The first picture round is Name That Animal From Various International Representations Of Its Sound. All of the first five bonus rounds go for 20 points, and Jesus has an 80-20 lead.

The people of Derby will not be happy to be confused with Milton Keynes, as Jesus managed in one starter. Belfast can't pick up on that; in fact, they pick up on very little, and Jesus leads by 165-20 after the audio round, Name That Eurovision Country. How can they not know the great hits of Luxembourg?

The show turns into a bit of a one-horse race from here, though how Jesus reckon that Gordon Banks is big in the Labour party escapes us. Jesus pass 200 with their musician taking a starter on music. Queen's is still stuck on 20, which would be a record low. Perhaps not - Queen's gets the second picture round - Name That Herb - and advances to 210-40 adrift. The Queen's revival begins here!

And ends here. Jesus's natural scientist gets a starter on natural science (curious, that), then gets a round on Name That Fruit. The final score is the predicted walkover - Jesus 275, Queen's 40. Only Manchester has put up a higher winning score this year, clocking up 315 in defeating St Andrews. Katie Birkwood led for Jesus, clocking up 117.5, as the team made 23/48 bonuses. Sam Tompkins and Karl Byrne both get 16.4 of Queen's total, they made a solid 4/6 bonuses.

Next: Edinburgh -v- Royal Holloway. These two were involved in the lowest-scoring matches in UC history.

This Week And Next

On Masterteam, the Cardiff team have been practising their coughing. Cardiff were asked for the Welsh National Parks, and their opponents from London were asked for the Cardiff telephone code. "What's your number?" asked one.

While not hosting Vote for Me, John Sergeant appeared on X Marks The Spot, in which he carefully let Jennie Bond have the crushed blue Smarties. This week's episode also heard the slightly unusual phrase "This week's treasure is in Widnes."

Those of you wondering what's happened to Big Brother will no doubt be re-assured to learn that this column will be giving appropriate coverage next week.

Also in the coming seven days: a new series of Superstars begins on BBC1 at 1745 tonight, Time Commanders gets a second series on BBC2 at 1915. Not at all a rip-off of The Great Egg Race, Geronimo! appears on BBC2 at 1830 weeknights, while next Saturday sees Scream! If You Want to Get Off battle against a Weakest Link special. Who said that social class was dead? And with the 1992 repeats of The Krypton Factor coming to an end on Wednesday night, which year will appear on Thursday?

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