Weaver's Week 2005-09-11

Weaver's Week Index

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


Greatest Games - 11 September 2005

Back in 1965, Janice Nicholls was best known for her record reviews on ITV's Thank Your Lucky Stars programme. "Oi'll give it foive," she said in her best Black Country accent. Today is the fortieth wedding anniversary for Brian Meacham and one of ITV's most iconic stars, famous only for being herself.

Greatest Games

Over the past two weeks, this column has conducted a whistle-stop tour of ITV's game show history. There were the games with big prizes, life-changing amounts of money. There were the games where the prize was just to be on screen, have your fifteen minutes of fame, and perhaps be spotted by someone who will make you into a star. And there were the games where the star of the show was the game itself, programmes that one watched because they were great television.

Many of these shows came out of the various restrictions in the early 60s. Out had to go huge rollover prizes, and in came programmes that had to entertain on their own merits, rather than offer people huge amounts of money each week. One early example was Spot the Tune (Granada) in which contestants were invited to, er, spot the tune.

A similar naming convention persisted for Granada's next great programming idea. In University Challenge, students at universities were challenged by general knowledge questions. Hence the name. As regular readers will know, UC has run almost every year since 1962, and (in research for this series) appeared to be a permanent fixture of the schedules in the early 1980s, with one series running directly into the next. Nowadays, UC has transferred to the BBC, undergone a change of host, and much as this column criticises the host and questions, we wouldn't miss the student editions for the world.

The basic format for University Challenge had been imported from the US. From Germany came The Golden Shot (ATV), a show so complicated that only one man could hold it together. This column paid tribute to Bob Monkhouse's finest hour a few months ago, and the combination of crossbows, humour, variety acts, and one of the world's greatest game show hosts was unmissable. We'll be interested to see Antan Dec's take on the programme later in the year.

Shot was, well, shot in the mid-70s, on the grounds that it had been on air quite long enough. Bob Monkhouse went on to host Celebrity Squares (ATV / Central), an American show that put celebrities in squares. We'd like to be able to compare and contrast the 70s show against the slightly too-glitzy 90s revival. Another imported format, Spain's Un Dos Tres turned into the hectic 3-2-1 (Yorkshire), where Ted Rogers was regularly upstaged by a robot dustbin, and where gags and variety acts came out of the screen at the viewer. By the time the show ended its run in the late 80s, much of the zip had left the programme, and even those cryptic clues had become suspiciously easy.

Were there any home-grown ideas worth turning into great television? You bet there were. Winner Takes All (Yorkshire), devised and latterly presented by Geoffrey Wheeler, disguised a general knowledge quiz as a gambling game. With the current fashion for betting, it's a surprise no-one has thought to make a new version, though whether Jimmy Tarbuck would host is another matter. The Krypton Factor (Granada) ran from 1977 to 1995, and made a national star out of Gordon Burns. The challenges grew up with the contestants, growing from "which block is behind the block to the left of the block in front of the red block?" to sketches starring Steve Coogan before Alan or Courtney, models of something made from irregularly shaped polyhedra, and trips to land the space shuttle. Oh, and The Assault Course, possibly the toughest quarter of a mile anywhere in Lancashire. Down in London, Tom O'Connor hosted Name That Tune (Thames), in which contestants were asked to, well, name that tune.

One of the biggest leaps forward in terms of game quality came with Ultra Quiz (TVS). Imported from Japan, the show started out with thousands of people, and progressively whittled them down, week by week, until only one remained. The show was also noted for its apparent cruelty, a trait that inspired a regrettably large number of latter-day shows. The format was strong enough to survive a full-length spoof by Angus Deayton and the comedians of Radio Active - their Giganta-Quiz shared one feature with most Radio Active quizzes, but revealing what happens at the end would be an unforgivable spoiler. And we're not that cruel.

While grown-ups were travelling the world in the course of their quiz, teenagers were competing for decent enough prizes on Blockbusters (Central). No-one's going to turn up their nose at a trip to another continent, or even the consolation Blockbusters sweatshirt, dictionary, and personal organiser. For many competitors, the honour of appearing on the same stage as Bob Holness was reward enough.

Where Blockbusters led, other shows would soon follow, and the daily quiz was soon part of the ITV schedule, We'll stop to mention Chain Letters (Tyne-Tees) as a superior example of this genre; for all the faults in the scoring system, the format provided the perfect foil for excellent hosts like Jeremy Beadle and Andrew O'Connor to bounce off. Win, Lose or Draw (Scottish) was another show where the host counted for as much as the game; who can forget Bob Mills' Waistcoat Wednesdays, or Danny Baker at all.

Back in primetime, Roy Walker told contestants to "say what you see" on Catchphrase (TVS / Action Time), a show made all the more entertaining by the bizarre nature of some of the cartoons, though they were all very well done. Chris Tarrant was yet to find the vehicle that would propel him back to the international megastardom of his TISWAS days. Everybody's Equal (Thames) was a jolly good try, based on reducing a hundred players down to one by multiple-choice questions and electronic keypads. Lose a Million (Carlton) had an interesting gimmick, the object of the game here was to get the questions wrong, and convert a seven-figure sum into the grand non-total of nothing. Phillip Schofield and Emma Forbes tried to revive the variety show genre with Talking Telephone Numbers (Celador / Carlton), a programme that fell off the air on its first, live, broadcast; the basic idea behind the format later turned up on the other side as Winning Lines. Latterly hosted by the same Gopherman, curiously.

Of these shows, only Catchphrase really caught the public's imagination. Another late 80s failure was Interceptor (Thames / Chatsworth), a one-series wonder starring Annabel Croft and Sean O'Kane. The failure here wasn't the game, a well-thought out and very carefully planned linear treasure hunt, featuring the latest in television remote controls and backpacks carefully weighted to disguise a £1000 prize. No, the failure was of the ITV companies' collective nerve in failing to recommission a show that made people work for their money, and would surely have become a critical success in a second series.

Though jogging and aerobics had been popular ten years earlier, it wasn't until the early 90s that they made a successful game show. Gladiators (LWT) and Body Heat (Meridian?) showed the benefits of keeping fit, pitting some super-fit people against some who were even fitter.

With the rise and rise of the big jackpot game show in recent years, shows worth watching on their own merits have become few and far between. These days, most of them star Geordie entertainment behemoth Antan Dec. In between endless cross-promotion of other ITV shows, the double-headed fun monster offers such delights as SMTV's Challenge Ant section, through Banged Up With Beadle, and finishing with the one-question moment of Grab The Ads.

The hallmark of shows in the 50s and 60s was the literal nature of their titles. Fashion completed a 180-degree turn last year, when Simply the Best (Channel) turned out to be anything but, 24 Hour Quiz (Endemol) ran for seventeen hours a day, and if I'm the Answer (Endemol again) was the answer, we dread to hear the question. Maybe Lion TV's show about a cab that pays out cash will represent a return to traditional values, not least because it's called Cash Cab.


Graham Allen will discuss the Life and Works of Sir Peter Scott, the well-known ornithologist, but he did a lot more. A number of very swift passes are rather unusual, but a strong finish keeps Graham in contention on 12 (4) - he also got about four wrong.

Vishal Navani talks about National Flags. It's a wide subject, and a young contender, scoring 8 (2).

Keith Stacey has elected to talk about Test Cricket Since 1945, though not including the current, gripping, series. He starts off well, but falls away a little towards the end, making 12 (1).

Mary Willmot will tell us about The Good Life. Now, if BBC-2 is to air a season of programmes about any of this week's topics, it's going to be this one. The contender scores 9 (1).

Mr Navani is the youngest contender of the series, and votes the flag of Nepal as one of the most interesting. His youth shows in this second round of questioning, and he finishes on 15 (4).

Mrs Willmot says that one of the reasons she's picked the topic is precisely because it's been on so often, but also because it poked gentle fun at the middle-class. We're not that impressed with the way everyone talks through the buzzer these days. Mrs Willmot ends on 21 (3).

Mr Allen discusses how Sir Peter Scott devised the panda symbol for the WWF, one of the most well-known icons in the world. His general knowledge round won't be remembered for quite as long, he finishes on 17 (8).

Mr Stacey doesn't take issue with John Humphrys' nonsense that "five days is too long for a sporting contest." Tell that to the people who packed out Old Trafford last month. Back at the contest, Mr Stacey could have forced the much-awaited tie had he got the last question right; he passed, and finished on 20 (4).

So Mrs Mary Willmot is - perhaps slightly luckily - this week's winner. To celebrate, BBC2 will be showing every episode of the series every week from now on.

This Week And Next

The British entry for Junior Eurovision was selected on the 3rd. This column has criticised the BBC for their formulaic national selection programme, and sees no reason to exempt ITV from these standards. At least the BBC makes some effort to publicise their programme, ITV just sticks it on their digital channel ITV2 and hopes no-one is watching. It's worth noting that all eight entries were by solo performers, this probably says more about the sort of youngsters who would be attracted by the contest than anything.

There can be no quibbles with the quality of the entries, many would hold their own in the final eight for the senior show. Unlike the first two editions of the contest, there wasn't an obvious winner during the performances. After a convoluted regional vote, in which the Irish and Welsh wielded far more power than their numbers imply, and SMS voters were almost disenfranchised, Joni Fuller won, with her song "How does it feel?" Like last year's winner, it's a female singer, with a tune about the process of songwriting. Which, when one thinks about it, is one of the oddest possible ways of expressing emotion. Out has gone Cory Spedding's manic hair, replaced by a voice singing in a near-RP accent, and that's very unusual. This column wasn't convinced by the song, but she may well be able to take the bull by the horns and wow Europe on the night.

The bottom line: was it better than Javine? Yes, indeed. We'll find out on 26 November.

An update on the Big Brother baby from last week's column. The Dutch government has laughed at Endemol's request for an exemption from the strict laws regarding children on television. The youngster - yet to be born - may be filmed for just two hours a day, for a maximum of eight days. The remaining time will be spent with a carer, believed to be the contestant's mother, who will be allowed to take the nipper out of the arena.

And an update on Johnny Vaughan's My Kind Of Town on ABC-TV. Last weekend's fourth episode drew just 3.28 million viewers, even fewer than Passport to Paradise drew on BBC1 last year. The American network has quietly shunted the series off air, and replaced it by yet another home makeover show.

It all kicks off this week: Channel 5's search for Britain's Worst Celebrity Driver Live! is followed swiftly by Channel 4's Death Of Celebrity. We're hoping for the latter to be figurative. Des Chiffres et des Lettres returns to TV5, Claudia Winkleman hosts Art School nightly on BBC2. Jade's Salon does exactly what it says on the Living channel's tin. Antan Dec's Game Show Marathon kicks off with The Price is Right (and that's another celebrity run), and Millionaire begins with - yes - more celebrity editions.

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