Weaver's Week 2005-11-20

Weaver's Week Index

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


Channel Four, Daily - 20 November 2005

Last week, we heard about Burke's new book. The people who brought us the guide to the nobility A Study of Old Fossils have now created a guide to Yorkshire's finest. Geoff Boycott, Michael Parkinson, John Prescott, and the Leeds-born Jeremy Paxman are all included. One absence is clear, though.


(ITV (Yorkshire) for Channel 4)

Well, there's a surprise, everything has altered since we saw the programme last. There are new titles, there's a more militaristic theme tune that might being to mind We are the Champions, different-looking letters and numbers tiles, something new for the thinking music, and a completely changed set. In fact, the only things that remain are the cute-as-a-button lexicographer, the numbers whiz who has been with the show since the Stone Age, and the presenter. But enough about Des Chiffres et des Lettres (France 2 / TV5), and on to the UK version.

Three weeks in, and though very little has changed, it's clear that something has altered. The set remains the same, the theme tune and Countdown music haven't altered one iota. Carol and Susie are still there, but there's a new head of the Teatime Trio. Des Lynam is the new man on the right of your screen.

The first episode quite deliberately, and quite rightly, broke with tradition and had Carol greet the viewers. She gave a short and clearly emotional speech, introducing our new host. Since then, it's been a slow return to normality, with viewer feedback beginning to appear, and Des slowly relaxing into the role.

This was always going to be the toughest assignment of Des's long career. Replacing a television institution and certified national treasure is not an easy task, and Des has gone about this in an exemplary manner. There are occasional nods to Richard Whiteley, especially when favourite words like LEOTARDS appear.

Though Des is the consummate professional, and probably knows the rules as well as the producers, he's putting on an act that he's still struggling to come to terms with them. It wouldn't be seemly for the up-and-coming new talent (a phrase probably not applied to Mr Lynam since the 1970s) to upstage his predecessor right from the start. The moment when Susie defined the word TODGERS showed the small but discernable gap between Richard's and Des's styles - the new host can't quite get away with the same bumbling, faux-naif persona. That said, it was a welcome shaft of silliness into an otherwise sombre first week.

Des's style is going to take some getting used to - he doesn't yet babble on to fill time in the same way Richard used to do. At the moment, there's a studious, thoughtful silence at times. Eventually, Des will fill it; it would be awkward and wrong for Carol to think she had to fill the gaps, for she is not the main presenter. This change in atmosphere makes the game more important - Carol's opening message was that the game is the most important thing, and the opening few weeks have brought the contest, rather than the hosts, to the fore.

It's only to be expected that the games themselves have not scaled the exalted heights of the last Finals Week. Helen Mathieson, the returning champion from June, lost the season's first game to Colin Wreford. He made two wins, scoring 228 points (+70 to Par, a measure of good but not outstanding performance) before losing to another two-game champion, Arthur Mactier (263, +30). Maureen Sye took over the reigns, taking three wins (330, +43), then came Stuart Coxhall (2 wins, 232, +40). The current champion, Daniel Peake, has six wins under his belt.

Though there's been no change to the running length, the show seems to move somewhat more quickly than we remember it doing. That could be to allow Dictionary Corner guests - Martin Jarvis, Keith Barron, Paul Zenon - time to fit in their anecdotes. (And while we're at it, could the DC celeb give a second anecdote at the end of part two?)

Lest we forget, it wasn't until the late 80s, perhaps 800 programmes in, that Richard Whiteley shed his dashing newsreader image and became TV's Mr Countdown. Des Lynam's run on Countdown will be a long one - he's contracted there until the end of 2007, an eternity in television terms. He is going to take some time to develop his own style, as he must. It's far too soon to write him off, we might be able to make an informed judgement within the two-year waiting list for audience tickets. Perhaps as soon as the end of the series, next June.

Deal or No Deal

(Endemol for Channel 4, 1615 weekdays, also Saturday afternoons.)

This has been a particularly difficult review to write, as Deal Or No Deal is one of those programmes that squirms about. It's like trying to pin down a glob of goo with nothing more than a table-tennis bat.

Let's start with the easy stuff. The title sequence is computer-generated boxes being pumped full of cash then thrown down delivery chutes. It's naff to the point of being almost respectable. Title music, ditto. Staging, wood and concrete with barely any metal in view, which makes a remarkable difference. So far, so ordinary.

The game itself? Oh, simple to the point of triviality. Twenty-two boxes contain values from one new penny to 250,000 pounds sterling. One of the contestants brings forward their box, and can win the money inside it, unless they sell it to The Banker. The other twenty-one boxes are held by other people whose time as a contestant will come, they open their boxes when asked, and remove the amounts they hold from the possibilities in the player's box. After five boxes have been opened, then after every three boxes, The Banker will offer some money for the player's box, and they are asked the titular question. Deal, or No Deal?

The format's strength is in its simplicity. There are no questions - of specialist knowledge, general knowledge, Dudley knowledge, no questions at all. The only qualities a contestant requires are skill, luck, and judgement.

Those who are interested in the result will quite happily want to tune in after the second commercial break, by which time there will be eight or nine boxes left in the game, and the first significant offer is in prospect. To adopt this approach, though, would be to miss the point of the game. It's all about psychology, about The Banker trying to work out how little money the player will settle for. To know that, to be able to make a call on whether the offer is decent or not, and if the player's likely to take it, viewers really need to be watching from the start.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this programme is the host. This column is of an age to have grown up with Noel Edmonds, from the days when he was the master of Saturday morning television in a way no-one would touch until Phillip Schofield came along. Then came the roller-coaster ride of Late Late Breakfast, the Saturday Roadshow and House Party. With the possible exception of Swap Shop, Noel has always dragged a joke out beyond the point at which it's funny. Late Late Breakfast, for example, had become an unwatchable mess long before it was forced into cancellation. House Party should have come off air in 1995 or 96, when it was still at the peak of its game. The less said about the final series of Telly Addicts the better.

Deal Or No Deal hasn't yet reached that point where we've had enough of it - heck, there have been fewer than 20 episodes aired. It was perhaps ten minutes into the first edition when this column thought that there could be a better presenter than Noel. Why couldn't we have someone who would leap about the set, act as though he was actually interested in the game, pointing things out on the board. This could be the perfect game show for Peter Snow.

Mr Snow, though, has announced his retirement, and Mr Edmonds was merely biding his time. He's relaxed, but not to the point of being uncomfortably laid-back. He's encouraging towards the contestants, but his persona as TV's Mr Hidden Camera acts against him - there's an slight suggestion that he might be acting on behalf of the producers, guiding people towards promising but relatively poor deals. There's also the little matter of Endemol's trustworthiness, remembering the way the company re-wrote history during Big Brother 5.

However, Noel is the absolute master of one prop - the telephone. Swap Shop wouldn't have worked without it, and neither does this show. It can be annoying not to hear from The Banker, but having his words repeated by Noel ramps up the tension wonderfully. The insistent ringing of a telephone is one of the show's trademark sounds, and may set off a Pavlovian reflex to increase tension.

The other sound is meant to be disaster for television - complete silence. While the contestant is considering their offer, the show goes completely quiet. You could cut the tension with a knife. The backing music on Millionaire helps to bring out the tension on that show; the apparent absence of music on Deal Or No Deal tells its own story. (There is, in fact, something playing at a subliminal level, but it took three weeks for us to notice it.)

In interviews to promote this programme, Noel Edmonds said that he had turned down a lot of work in recent years. Celeb Big Brother, I'm A Celeb, Strictly Come Dancing, even HIGNFY. He told the Independent on Sunday last month, "I think reality TV and cruelty TV are over now. The consumer is ready for glitz and glamour and, dare I say it, the odd talented presenter. The usual suspects have groaned about my return. But you should judge me by what you see on the screen. If you don't like Deal or No Deal, then I'm sorry, but it's not the end of my world. If I don't deliver for Channel 4, I'll go back to that darkened room, live off stale digestive biscuits and cold cups of Earl Grey and wear a rather unpleasant pair of furry slippers that a viewer gave me."

That looks unlikely to happen. Instead, a prime-time version is quite possible, possibly as early as next year. This column is not convinced that Deal Or No Deal will last forever, or even as long as Weakest Link; in our table of viewing priorities, it ranks below Jungle Run and Raven but ahead of Shark-Infested Custard. It will have a good run, of that we're certain.

University Challenge

First round, match nine: Edinburgh v Gonville and Caius Cambridge

Edinburgh made the quarter-finals last year, defeating Glasgow and Royal Holloway; this is the seventh successive year the university has made the televised stages, but their only other wins came in 2002, when the side made the semi-finals. Gonville and Caius last turned up in 2004, beating Reading, Strathclyde, St John's Oxford and London Met; though they lost the series final to Magdalen Oxford, this column argues that the side had been more impressive over the series as a whole. Their only previous appearance had been a pair of defeats in 1996.

There's a physicist and a medic for each team; economics and history for Edinburgh, English and engineering for Caius. The second starter is long, but it's a goodie:

Q: "The simplest science there is - throw stuff out one way and it moves the other way," wrote the academic John Gribbin, suggesting "quantum physics" as an alternative to what two-word term regularly used after a negative to suggest something that should be straightforward?

The presence of two physicists makes one early set of bonuses on quantum physics fair, even if it's just words to Thumper. The first visual round is on forms of castle construction, and after winning the starter battle 4-1, Gonville and Caius leads 70-20. Thumper's already running at 27 points per minute, and Scrapheap Challenge's Lisa Rogers would be worried that he's going to blow.

Edinburgh suggest that Canada's easternmost prairie province, Ottawa, borders Maine. G&C don't know who is on the back of a £10 note, which must surely be a Hidden Student Indicator of some sort. The presence of two medics makes this starter fair

Q: Used in the treatment of urinary tract infections, and as a mixer for vodka...
A: Cranberry!

The audio round is on a classical composer. It's a piano, surely it's got to be Chopin. Gonville and Caius has the lead, 130-55.

Edinburgh briefly threatens a comeback, but just can't answer the bonuses correctly. Didn't they have this problem last year? The second visual round is to name the creators of cartoon characters, after which Edinburgh has pulled back to trail 110-170.

One more starter will put Edinburgh in the repechage picture, two more should ensure they're back over Christmas. But it's Gonville and Caius all the way, Edinburgh buzzes in, but every starter goes to the Cambridge side. Thumper is surely overheating, running at almost 40 points per minute during the closing moments. The gong goes just before a starter, and Gonville and Caius has the win, 275-110.

Cruel, cruel luck; the repechage standings remain unchanged, with five weeks remaining:
1) St Hugh's Oxford 190
2) Durham 130
3) Exeter 125
4) Strathclyde 115

Alex Lee was Edinburgh's best buzzer, he made 74 of the team's points, including both of the featured starters; they made 8/24 bonuses. Darren Khodaverdi was the man on the buzzer for G&C, scoring a remarkable 127. The team's 24/48 bonuses masks one salient fact - they never made 3/3 on any set of bonuses. G&C also picked up a missignal.

Delights abound next week, as St John's Oxford meet Trinity Cambridge.


Thanks, and apologies, to Robin Chapman, who actually scored 17 points in the Mastermind final, rather than the sixteen this column inaccurately stated last week.

We note that Pat Gibson took relatively small subjects throughout his Mastermind career - Quentin Tarantino's five films, six novels by Iain M Banks, and the twelve-and-a-half hours of Father Ted. This is a perfectly legal tactic. It does lead us to wonder if taking very small specialist subjects - or different aspects of one subject, as Shaun Wallace did last year - detracts from the enjoyment of Mastermind. Perhaps contestants might be seeded, so that the smallest first-round subjects all take part in "small subject" heats, and the largest play in other "large subject" heats.

The series is already too long for anyone to keep their place, with thirty-one programmes stretching across almost eight months. If we absolutely must have six in the final, then let one of them come through a repechage semi-final. Better could be to have sixteen heats, plus a repechage, and a smaller final.

The other recurring point is returning contestants. As a single defeat will eliminate someone from contention, it's reasonable to allow first-round losers back quite quickly, though maybe not on the next series. Semi-finalists might reasonably have to wait a longer period, perhaps five years; losing finalists could chance their arm again a decade or so later.

This Week And Next

Has the sudoku bubble burst? This week, we heard that the BBC will be bringing a daytime quiz (provisionally entitled Sudoku) to our screens from 5 December. Street Cred Sudoku tried to combine comedy and number-placing, and just about worked. And Wayne Gould, the man who started the whole she-bang barely a year ago, is inviting offers to sell his website sudoku.com.

In Australia, Martin Flood was cleared of any suspicions of cheating on Aussie Millionaire, and managed to scoop the million. Typical. You wait five years for a top prize winner to come along, then two turn up within weeks.

Channel 4 has quietly announced its final throw of the dice. With BBC2 threatening to relegate the fourth channel into 4th place - and that's not happened since the early 90s - something had to be done. "Something" has turned out to be Space Cadets, beginning in the first full week of December. The blurb promises "a brand new live entertainment format follows a group of thrill-seeking contestants in their quest to take part in the challenge of a lifetime." It's actually another spoof series, where our friends at Endemol pretend to take people for astronaut training in Russia, but they're not really going anywhere. How long will this one joke wonder last? Find out from 7 December.

Why start on a Wednesday? They were expecting to be clear of the fifth series of I'm A Celebrity. The jungle malarkey begins tonight, but will continue at least until the 9th of December - possibly the 10th, but the 11th is the Royal Variety Performance, and even Antan Dec won't move that feast. Following the premiere will be Chris Evans' new show, Ofi Sunday. The Fourth Tournament of Raven begins at 4.30 tomorrow afternoon on CBBC, E4 begins Bamboozle (11pm Thursday), and Radio 4 will air a documentary (11am Friday) from the Hands On A Hard Body contest, which inspired our own Touch the Truck. Saturday will be Junior Eurovision night, live on ITV2.

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