Weaver's Week 2006-04-23

Weaver's Week Index

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

A question for the children out there. In fact, a lot of questions.


That'll Test 'Em

Twenty-Twenty Productions for More4, 10pm Tuesday

For the last few years, Channel 4 has run a "sociological experiment". Groups of children are gathered up and subjected to short educational courses, in an effort to see if there are any significant differences between styles of education. The experiment is run on children of 16, in the months after they have sat their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations.

The first series took GCSE high-flyers, and tested them against the academic Ordinary-level papers from the 1960s; then came a series taking less academic pupils and putting them through the vocational Secondary Modern papers from the same era. This year's thesis is that children learn better when separated by gender. Of course, none of these experiments carries great scientific validity. They do make for good television.

Like all constructed reality formats, That'll Teach 'Em is subject to the law of diminishing returns - now that the third series has been reached, the audience knows to expect that some of the pupils will be Characters, some will receive a lot of attention, some will be almost totally ignored. In an effort to keep interest in the formula, we have a spin-off quiz on Channel 4's digital spin-off channel for people with half a brain, More 4.

Jeremy Hardy is our host. He's a comedian with a distinctive west-country twang, and is perhaps best known for his eponymous Speaks To The Nation series on Radio 4. The studio is decorated like a school library, with the chairman in the middle, and wooden desks going down both sides. In front of the contestant is their family name.

This is a very strange decision, because the central conceit of the quiz is to pit child against parent or grandparent. Inevitably, most of the contestants will share the same family name as their progeny. Confusion is only averted by the chairman's use of given names throughout.

The opening round is "Six of the Best", in which contestants must give six answers that fall into a specific category. The first incorrect answer means that the other team has the chance to give all the remaining answers, but their turn ends with the first incorrect answer. Then comes "The Experiment", in which Mr Hardy gives a short lecture on a scientific principle before asking the contestants to predict the result of an experiment. In one episode, this boiled down to: is a jugful of baked beans or spotted dick going to be thicker than one of golden syrup? During the commercial break, the teams must prepare a short speech on a chosen topic. With the speeches limited to twenty seconds, there's no meaningful chance to advance points, and the points appear to be awarded on a whim.

A mathematical problem follows, with one member of each team working things out on a blackboard. Showing one's working is not necessary, and any question suggesting that 12-and-a-quarter people will have a certain quality deserves more derision than it got from the teams. The "Supply Teacher" round brings in one of the teachers from the main show to quiz parents and pupils on their specialism. Finally, "Revision" consists of a few questions from the quiz content, usually including the introduction to the Experiment.

Scores are kept by the school's Matron, and it's clear that Jeremy Hardy is a bit new to this game - his catchphrase is "Matron, the scores please," which isn't going to be remembered in a week's time. "Matron, the scores!" in the same inflection as "Bernie, the bolt!" would.

That'll Test 'Em feels like a late addition to the filming schedule. It's crammed full of familial in-jokes, and lacks the entertaining fun of the BBC's School's Out. The dunces' caps at the end brought to mind the masks from another show that tried to mix physical comedy with quiz, Dick And Dom's Ask The Family. In comparison, Test 'Em lacks the bravery of last year's hidden gem, relying as it does on every comedy stereotype going.

Top of the Form

Top of the Form began life as Transatlantic Quiz on the wartime Forces Programme, pitching two teams of notable entertainers in a live relay via underwater cables. Once the peace was won, the Forces Programme evolved naturally into the Light Programme, with a mandate to entertain. The reliable Transdiffusion website discusses this transformation in greater detail.

While the erudite questioning of Trans-Atlantic Quiz gravitated in the direction of the Home Service's Round Britain Quiz, the technological marvels were not explored by this simple format. That fell to a quiz that could naturally travel round the country, and would benefit from being hosted in two places at once - Top of the Form. Even today, it's a difficult enough job to link together two outside broadcasts, hundreds of miles apart, in real time. It was an even more difficult task in the 1940s, and the fact that the programme isn't remembered for falling off the air every other week is a testament to the skill of the engineers of the time.

By the time a television version began, in the early 1960s, ITV was established nationwide, and the BBC was hunting for something that was both entertaining and educational. To the modern eye, it's slightly surprising that the quiz could run for two fifteen-week series a year. A quizmaster at the first school asked questions of the children in turn, then their opposite number asked questions of the pupils there. Apart from the first round, any errors could be passed across to the opposite number on the other team for bonus points. There were descriptive questions - what is a juke box? There were questions, usually for the older competitors, requiring two-part answers - who wrote Odysseus and where is it set? As the game progressed, there were specialist rounds - literature, music, and the arts, and the pace of the game almost invisibly picked up. Suddenly, just when the audience is beginning to feel a little weary, the two-minute buzzer sounds, and we quickly have a winner.

Budget constraints meant that the two teams were placed in one school by the late 60s, allowing some questions to be on the buzzers. Rounds in which the team could confer, which had been a part of the radio version since it began, also crossed to the television game.

It is worth noting that this week's BBC-4 documentary failed to mention Top of the Form's time on the Light Programme, as evidenced by the 60s schedules on TV and Radio Bits and on Radio 2 OK. This column's research has not confirmed if Form was a Light Service programme from the start, or transferred from Home to Light and back again, or was broadcast on both networks. Certainly, by 1970 Top of the Form had moved to Radio 4 as part of the BBC's "Radio in the Seventies" exercise, which moved all speech broadcasting other than sport and comedy from 2 to 4. In the eyes of the BBC at the time, this was progress.

A certain error came when the commentary referred to the radio programme ending in 1985 - only the captions gave the correct date (1986). It is difficult to know how reliable the rest of the documentary was; certainly, all the archive clips were remorselessly cropped into the modern widescreen framing, and the show as a whole didn't live up to The Fourth Programme's usual sky-high standards.

The radio version continued until 1986, with ideas that never made it to television - the Comprehension round asked contestants to listen to a short piece of writing they heard for the first time at the recording, while the Prepared Passage was a longer text that the teams had been given in advance. But like the television version in the mid-70s, Top of the Form had become a relic from a bygone age.

Since the late sixties, the buzzword in state education had been to include everyone, to reject no-one. Grammar schools, which took only the most academic pupils, were merged into their vocational Secondary Modern neighbours to become Comprehensives. The independent sector flourished from parents aspiring to improve their children, and it was from these schools that Top of the Form drew most of its contestants. This was increasingly uncomfortable for a BBC charged with delivering a service to all, not just to the privileged middle classes, and the last episode aired in autumn 1986.

By this time, television had gained First Class The Video Quiz, a logical successor to Top of the Form, yet one that also drew a significant number of its contestants from the independent sector. Running through the 70s and 80s was televised sports day We are the Champions, which had no problem travelling to comprehensive schools, and many of the production staff from Television Top of the Form went on to Ask the Family. All of these shows were axed over a few years in the mid-80s, seemingly in a drive for the BBC to seem modern and appealing. The same change for change's sake led Channel 4 to discontinue Fifteen-to-One a few years ago.

For almost twenty years, and apart from the 15-1 specials one summer, there has been no regular television quiz for schools, and even local radio seems to be drawing away from the idea. There is a gap for the nation's youngsters to parade their knowledge on national television; all the nation needs is for a genius to concoct a format that will keep young people and their parents watching, and a broadcaster to stick by the idea.

University Challenge

Quarter-final 3: SOAS v Trinity Hall Cambridge

SOAS has beaten Christ's Cambridge by a long chalk, and Churchill Cambridge by a short chalk. Trinity Hall has enjoyed easy wins against a woeful Magdalen Oxford side and a slightly better Birmingham crew; it's not clear how the side will cope against quality opponents.

From the opening exchanges, perhaps not that well. SOAS gets the first two starters quickly, and Trinity Hall is flummoxed by Irish geography. But this starter restores our faith in the team:

Q: "The fantasy unity of Catholicism, Protestantism and romanticism - Hegel with songs" is the...
Smyth, Trinity Hall: The Sound of Music.
Thumper: Brilliant, yes.

The first visual round is on Pucks from film versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream; SOAS has a 40-25 lead. Trinity Hall go on to get Aussie Rules Football purely from the dimensions of the pitch - that's one sport the Australians might win. The Cambridge side has the lead by now, and they remember the winner of a Radio 4 poll to find the nation's favourite philosopher. Next year, expect a question on Radio 3's poll for the nation's favourite post-modernist critic. The audio round would fit on the Third - it's a Name The Composer, after which Trinity Hall's lead is up to 90-50. The subtitler reckons the side passed the final answer, rather than saying, "Bach."

SOAS gets the next starter, but then have to play a round of that well-known social study, Name That Amino Acid. SOAS briefly pulls level with their knowledge of the Rohr scale of chemical hardness, but Trinity Hall pulls ahead on the second visual round, Name That Desert. 115-100 is their lead; a lead that comes down with a missignal on the next question.

That, though, is the last worry for the Cambridge side; three starters puts them ahead by 65 with five minutes to play. It's possible that they'll be overhauled, and SOAS gets off to a good start, with the first complete set of bonuses we've seen tonight. But Trinity Hall gets the next two starters, giving them an 80-point lead with three minutes to go. That's just a stretch too far, especially as Trinity Hall are taking some time to give answers. SOAS's cause isn't helped when they don't know a composer's Handel, and Trinity Hall emerges comfortably ahead, 225-155.

Graham Ruston was the night's best buzzer for SOAS, making 83 points as the side answered 12/30 bonuses with one missignal. Mr Ruston was responsible for 210 of the side's 560 points in its three games. Chris Smyth buzzed on for Trinity Hall, accumulating 94 on the night, and taking his season aggregate to 258. The side made 18/42 bonuses and picked up their first missignal of the contest; Trinity Hall has correctly answered exactly 50% of all the questions it's faced.

Next match: Liverpool v Hertfordshire

This Week And Next

For reasons of space, this week's Mastermind recap will appear next week.

An almost entertaining spat between two men who really should know better. Alan Sugar, the nominal boss on the UK version of The Apprentice, called Donald Trump "loud, garish, and full of himself." Mr Trump, who is the nominal boss on the US version, alleged that Mr Sugar owed all his success to Mr Trump, and that his rights payment was bigger than Mr Sugar's fee anyway. "It's OK, but I've heard it's not exactly the American version," responded the man who shills his show out to the highest bidder every single week. Mr Trump was in the UK last week, and this column rather hopes that both men disappeared into a small room somewhere to sort out their differences. Take as long as you need, gents, we'll get on fine without you.

Not words we can say about the participation of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in the Junior Eurovision, which has come to an unexpected end already. The Scandinavian giants were unable to convince other countries of the need for rules prohibiting child performers from baring their bellies or wearing short skirts and too much makeup. The three countries also hoped to revise the scoring, so only finalists found out their placement and total score.

The three countries will hold their own Scandinavian junior song contest in Stockholm in November. The contest would be based on the ethical guidelines agreed upon by the three countries. "There will be clear rules for clothes and the use of makeup, and we will keep a close eye to make sure that the children, along with their parents, have actually written the songs," said a Dansk Radio spokey.

BARB television ratings for the week to 9 April, and Jet Set spends its second week as the UK's favourite game show, taking 5.9 million viewers. Millionaire had 5.4m, and Dance Fever 4.6m. On the minority channels, The Apprentice had 4.3m, and has overtaken Deal by 200,000, though as many viewers watched the show on More4. Link had 2.7m, UC 2.6m, Buzzcocks 1.8m, and Mastermind merely 1.6m. Countdown recorded its first finish in C4's weekly top 30 this year, with a very credible 1.8m. The digital channel battle was won by Pop Idle US (697,000) ahead of The Apprentice Interview (616,000). That'll Test 'Em recorded 312,000.

Next week, this column returns to the thorny subject of Deal or No Deal.

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