Weaver's Week 2005-05-08

Weaver's Week Index


People are coming, everyone's trying - 8 May 2005

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

Our best wishes to Jeremy Beadle, who said this week that he was suffering from leukaemia; and to Richard Whiteley, who we hear is also unwell. Speedy recoveries all round, please and thank you.

Going for Gold

(Reg Grundy for Superchannel / BBC, 1987-96; repeats on Challenge)

In the mid-eighties, it looked as if the way ahead for European television was going to be pan-European entertainment channels, distributed by satellite. To help this come about, entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Robert Maxwell formed the Superchannel, hoping that they could sell lots of advertising to companies eager to sell their wares across Europe, from Spain to Germany, from Finland to Italy. (The eastern half of Europe, at this early date, was still nominally under communist control, and hence unable to view the channel, or to purchase the products on offer.) Programming came from such giants as ITN, Yorkshire Television, and the BBC.

There turned out to be a flaw in the Superchannel plan; it required a large and expensive satellite dish to be bolted to one's house. The size and cost of the receiving equipment led to very few people wanting to install it, which led to few viewers, little demand, no economies of scale, and kept the price of the dish high. And, most importantly for the advertisers, few viewers. Why advertise on a channel reaching perhaps 100,000 people across the continent when you could reach 10 million on domestic television channels?

The net result was that Superchannel had very little money to spend on its programming. Cheap formats that could be extended indefinitely were the order of the day, as they allowed lots of programmes to be made for comparatively little money. Someone noticed how game shows were cheap, recorded quickly and transmitted slowly, could be repeated endlessly, and might reflect the channel's marketing position. The result was Going for Gold.

The basic mechanic of the show remained the same throughout its run. Seven European contestants, each representing their country, would wave madly during the opening titles. Four of them would answer a qualifying question correctly, and play on. A round involving questions in categories worth one, two, or three points would follow - the first three to six points went through to the specialist subject round. The daily final involved a series of long questions, to which contestants could only buzz at set times. The daily winner came back for the weekly final, the weekly winners progressed to the semi-finals, and the semi-final winners went through to the grand final for a trip somewhere exotic.

A later French variant, Questions Pour un Champion, didn't have the elimination round, and played to nine points in the first round, without the choice of difficulty. The daily final went up to more points, and was followed by a seriously difficult jackpot question, for a jackpot increasing each day. Going For Gold preferred a logical progression to the series final.

Going For Gold went in for long runs, aiming to get as many episodes shot in as little time as possible. The days of transmission of the first series were four in a row, Monday to Thursday, and it lasted for a mind-boggling 23 weeks, stretching from October 1987 to March 1988, with a short break for Christmas. Though Superchannel broadcast to Western Europe, the contestant pool was limited to the UK (which competed as its constituent nations), Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany, the Benelux, Austria, and Switzerland - areas where many people have a good working knowledge of English.

As the popularity of direct satellite broadcasting spread, other countries came into the competition - France, Spain, and Italy all sent contestants to the third series, now reduced to a mere 21 weeks. By the time this series started, Superchannel was in financial trouble. It was broadcast via the Hotbird satellite, but there was now a second signal in the heavens. The SES/Astra satellite began transmission in early 1989, and required smaller dishes, which could be mass-produced more easily. Crucially, the Astra system also had the backing of media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who had bought out the struggling Sky Channel prior to Astra's launch. His newspapers gave endless promotion to the virtues of satellite television from Astra, ensuring that most of the public thought that satellite television and the Sky offering were identical. Channels not on Astra, such as Superchannel, didn't have a look-in.

The fourth series (1990-91) was the beginning of the end for Going For Gold. The decline of communist Europe enabled the pan-European quiz show to expand eastwards - Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary sent contestants to this series, as did Portugal; a contestant from each of Estonia and Slovenia would appear in later years. The news of the day meant that the BBC viewers never got to see Going For Gold on a consistent schedule; one episode was cancelled when prime minister Margaret Thatcher resigned in November. The BBC didn't play catch up with the schedule until January, ensuring that the last semi-final of the series aired almost three weeks after the first. Then the war in Kuwait knocked the schedules into a complete mess, and the final went out with little fanfare on the Wednesday before Easter. The pool of potential contestants was clearly running dry; Going For Gold had been cut to fifteen weeks for the sixth series, which aired in its entirety during autumn 1992.

After some years wrestling with the banks, Superchannel was finally sold to US media giant NBC in 1993; five years later, after the channel had never threatened to make a profit, it was turned into a continuous financial service. Going For Gold was dropped from the channel's schedules following the take-over, so the foreign contestants in later years had to be sent video cassettes of their appearances to prove they had appeared on television. The eighth series was trimmed to a mere 14 weeks, and didn't go out until the spring of 1994; the following year's series would turn out to be the final hurrah for a pan-European quiz show. A British attempt at the format, with contestants representing counties, rather died in the summer of 1996.

Though a poorly-watched daytime programme, Going For Gold had a clear cultural impact. Henry Kelly hosted all the programmes, and we have to give him credit for tackling a difficult job very well. The show's format as described above is simple, but for someone thinking in a foreign language, it could be nightmarishly complex. In spite of the continued sniping at his accent and pronunciation, Mr Kelly was able to make himself clear to people with a tenuous grasp of English, a task of some difficulty.

No-one is going to claim that the only reason the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 was so that the East Germans could claim their daily prizes of conch shells from the Gold Coast. Instead, Going For Gold reflected the awe-inspiring changes to the map of Europe; literally, as each series had to re-draw the map on the opening titles, and figuratively, as people from hitherto unknown places appeared on the show. The producers consistently referred to contestants in the elimination round by their country, further helping to explain which bit of Europe was which. The show also helped to dismiss the stereotype of Europeans as "not like us," if only by playing to the joke that "they can't understand Henry Kelly either."

Perhaps the best measure of a show's success is the way it contributes catch-phrases and shared imagery to the national psyche. University Challenge has given us the "starter for ten," Fifteen-to-One the phrase "question or nominate", and Treasure Hunt brought new life to the phrase "stop the clock!" Going For Gold gave us no fewer than four verbal catch-phrases, each of which have been shoe-horned into this edition of the Week. Can you find them?

There have been regular suggestions for a game show that's shown across Europe and isn't the Eurovision Song Contest. The language barrier means that the contest would have to be physical (along the lines of Jeux Sans Frontiers or Intervilles), or be something like Big Brother, or take place in someone's foreign language. Questions Pour Un Champion still has annual International Editions, featuring people from across the world, though French speakers have a significant advantage. That language gap was the main problem on Going For Gold - only native speakers of English, or people from countries where they teach English from an early age - would have the speed of thought to win the quiz.

But such an international quiz will have to be sold to each country. British Sky Broadcasting (the successor to the Sky Channel) has, as its name suggests, concentrated exclusively on the UK, MTV has fragmented into a myriad of national variants, and the only English-language general entertainment channel attempting to broadcast to the whole of Europe is the subscription-based BBC Prime. The prospect of television without frontiers flickered briefly, but was snuffed out because Balkanisation is more profitable than having the whole of Europe going "What is this Henry Kelly person saying?"


First round, show 9

Pat Connolly is taking the Life and Music of Andrea Bocelli, a modern Italian opera singer. Mr Connolly speaks very slowly and deliberately, which may not be the best tactic. He does correct himself in time to add information and gain an extra point, but 12 (1) is not the best score.

Henry VIII is the subject on which Sue Harris will play. Or pass. Compared with a singer who has only been recording for a decade, one of the most popular history subjects is a poor choice. Sue's round is more "pass" than "correct," finishing on 5 (4).

Peter Richardson offers the Life and Work of Richard Trevithick, an engineer from Cornwall. He knows his onions, does Peter, and he finishes on 15 (0).

Pauline Beighton will tell us about another traditional Mastermind subject, Emily Bronte. It's not a winning round, finishing on 8 (1).

"There is an awful lot to know about Henry VIII," says our inquisitor-in-chief. Sue finishes on 10 (5).

Pauline also guesses at her general knowledge questions, but is scarcely more successful than Sue, finishing on 14 (3).

Pat's round doesn't exactly inspire, either. Still, anyone who gets to say "Schadenfraude" on national television has earned their reward. 22 (3) will cause a little trouble.

Still, after his sterling first round, proper play will give Peter the victory. But his general knowledge round is error-strewn, and only the correct answer "Heracles" gives him the win, with 23 (2). A pass there would have meant a play-off. We'll get one, one year.

This Week And Next

Week two of the new-look Come And Have A Go, and maybe - just maybe - host Julian Clary is showing signs of improvement. Dressed in the old Countdown set (stripes in shades of purple), Mr Clary was a little sweeter to the contestants, and his jokes were a touch less unfunny. There's some sense of people progressing up from the Punters' Pit to the refrain "They came, they had a go," but not finishing "but they weren't smart enough" for that was last year's title. Our host even looked down the same camera as the director for most of the show. It's live television, there will be occasional slip-ups. What we can't quite forgive is the way he stalled before asking the last question in the Eight In A Row finale - the contestants got it wrong, and that lost time isn't going to be made up. Mr Clary asked just twelve questions in two minutes - Mastermind host John Humphrys regularly works through sixteen.

The death was announced this week of Johnnie Stewart. He invented Top Of The Pops, and later produced the curious mix of foam, inflatables, cuddly Scousers, and popular beat combos that was Cheggers Plays Pop.

The general election took place this week, and Vote for Me winner Rodney Hylton-Potts challenged the opposition Conservative leader in Folkestone. Mr Hylton-Potts scooped 70% of the calls on the ITV show in January, but just 153 on Thursday. He was beaten into seventh place by a Toby Jug of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Series two of The Farm begins on C5 tonight, the University Challenge final arrives tomorrow, and the much-delayed series of Puzzle Panel finally resumes on Wednesday.

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