Weaver's Week 2006-12-03

Weaver's Week Index

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


X Marks the Code

A large bald man is shouting, "Nottingham!"


Diverse for Channel 4, 6.40 Sunday

"Yes, my lord?"
"Nottingham, I want you to find five peasants from the village of Worksop, and show them round my castle."
"My liege, shall I ask Gary to prepare the boiling oil?"
"Quiet, Nottingham. I want you to show them my historical artefacts - the waltz pattern from Queen Matilda, the programme from the Battle of Stamford Bridge..."
"The used tissue of invisibility, squire?"
"If you can find it, yes. And I want you to play a game of such skill and devilish cunning that all the losers will walk into the dungeons with a smile on their face, and ready to answer any question from my chief inquisitor Jeremiah Man-of-Peace."
"And if someone should win?"
"I hadn't thought of that, Nottingham. I know, we'll send them on a trip to dig for something interesting in Scunthorpe with Guy of Gisbourne. An all-expenses paid trip. Paid out of your wages, Nottingham!"

Fast forward to the present day, and Tony Robinson is standing in the courtyard of the British Museum. He's not contemplating what a mess we've made of his characters from Maid Marion and Her Merry Men, nor what a mess BBC1 has made with its unfunny version of the same story in Saturday primetime.

No, the man best known as the Sheriff of Nottingham is here to introduce a new game show. Five ordinary people - none of them specialist historians, all of them capable of stringing together more than five words in a sentence - will tour the museum, and potentially win an extraordinary prize.

Codex is going out in the old Scrapheap Challenge slot, and like Robert and Cathy's programme, it effortlessly blends learning and competition, with a large side-order of fun. The learning element comes from Tony Robinson giving a brief history of the period of time we're in. Each week's programme is themed - we've already been to Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome; forthcoming episodes go to China, Egypt, and Old England. We will hear a little about each of these cultures, and see five of the treasures in the British Museum.

The contestants will get to play games based on these treasures. Some of them are trivia quizzes about the era, and there are regular spot-the-detail or spot-the-difference quizzes. Some games are unique to the theme - there was one where contestants placed coins in the Roman Empire from their design. Some use the exhibit, such as a Greek gods quiz that included observational detail.

If the team manages to solve the game, they'll be given two letters of the Codex, of which more anon. After all-but-one of the treasures, one player must leave the team; that's the player who is furthest away from a numerical answer. It would be possible to rate the players by proximity to the right answer, so that someone who was almost spot on for the first three eliminations doesn't necessarily leave for the last, but that would a) be pointlessly complex and b) take away some of the team spirit.

The last player has the opportunity to play for a guided tour somewhere in the world - Egypt, Peru, India, Mexico, though for some reason Scunthorpe is not an option. To win that, they'll have to select the right answer from five possibilities. This is where their eliminated team-mates come in. They are given a simple substitution cypher, with letters replaced by symbols. For each game won, they're given two letters of the code. The four must turn the remaining symbols into real words; those words, if interpreted correctly, will allow the winner to select the correct option, and take their trip of a lifetime. The clues are necessarily brief - five lines, something like fifteen characters to the line - and if it seems that they're in a similar style to those on X Marks the Spot, there's a very good reason.

There are some limitations to Codex - all the games have to be visual-verbal, there cannot be any games involving significant movement, or skill. There's a very simple reason why - they're in the same room as utterly priceless antiques. If someone were to crash into one of the Parthenon Marbles, it wouldn't be possible to nip to Athens and pick up another one down the agora, even if one could ignore the protestations of Mr. Stewart. Similarly, the contestants never get to touch the antiquities, even the winner need only select a covered cube next to their chosen object.

Take that on board, though, and we're left with a game show that tackles all sides of the brain at once. Tony Robinson is an inspired choice as host - he has the verve and acting skills to bring the history to life, and the heart to allow the contestants to shine. Someone has to read out the questions, and somehow it feels more natural for the contestants to do it than for Tony to do all the talking; a disembodied voice would be very wrong. There's some strikingly good camerawork, too - as all the games must take place on laser display boards, the camera can take all sorts of unusual angles.

What's to improve? Part of the prize for all the contestants is to see historic objects close up, without being through glass. It would be nice for everyone to see two artefacts. It would also be good for the programme to move out of the British Museum from time to time - perhaps outdoor museums, such as the Black Country Museum, or the Crich Tramway Museum, could provide some variety to the games.

But let's not beat about the bush. We like Codex. There's some room for improvement - for a first series, there always is - but there's far more right than wrong with this show.

University Challenge

First Round, Match 13: Linacre Oxford v UEA

Contrary to the sound, Linacre is not named after the well-known footballer and crisp fan, but after Thomas, a 16th century surgeon. The college takes postgraduates, usually in sciences, and is making its debut tonight. UEA is a tall ziggurat in the fens of Norwich; it's not clear if they still teach organ-playing.

UEA gets by far the best of the opening exchanges, and is able to name a planet in the outer solar system. Guess how they pronounce "Uranus". Katie Fenn secures a small place in Linacre's history, being the first person from there to answer a question correctly. The college thinks for a very long time on some questions about logarithms, and for about no time for the first picture round, on famous Tits. Such as the Blue Tit, not the other sort. Linacre has taken the lead, 50-45.

Not for long, as UEA moves back ahead with the next starter. Here's a good one:

Q: Extensive colonies of the algae trichodesmium erythraeum have given what familiar name to the waterway known in Arabic as Al-bahr al-ahmar?
Russell Ewings, Linacre: Red Sea.

In one of the bonuses, Thumper specifically asks for the Greek for "pouch". It does seem that Linacre are getting bonuses a smidgeon harder than most teams, but maybe that's just the luck of the draw. The audio round is on Johnny Cash covers, including an unlikely rendition of We'll meet again; after all this, the scores are tied at 85-all.

We don't understand the first thing about the questions Thumper poses on biochemistry, but do appreciate the way he sounds like he's about to burst into the Hokey-Cokey part-way through. When David Brain of the UEA gets his starter, just over 20 minutes into the game, all eight players have answered at least one correctly, always the sign of a good close game. Who said this show was just thrown together; after the first picture round was on Tits, the second visual round is on Balls. Objects used in sport, dear reader, not the other sort. Linacre is still ahead, but not by much, 145-105.

Not that it lasts long; two starters for UEA, two missignals from Linacre, and the scores are level. It's all coming down to a three-minute shoot-out; two starters for either side should be enough. UEA gets the first, and one bonus; Linacre responds with their answer and runs down the clock to get one answer and draw level. UEA gets the next starter, but misses all three bonuses. No-one gets a starter on helmets, but UEA remembers the rulers of Bavaria, the gong goes, and UEA has won a fantastic match, 170-150.

The stats. UEA's 170 included 12/30 bonuses; top scorer was Chris Devine (5 starters, 67 pts), and we care to bet against a side that includes players called Devine and Brain. Linacre's 150 had 13/30 bonuses, but three missignals; best scorer was captain Russell Ewings (7 starters, 93 pts), who has a very good record from his undergraduate days at Merton.

The repechage board:

  • 195 Bristol
  • 160 Pembroke Cambridge
  • 150 Manchester, Reading, Linacre Oxford

But we must turn our attention to the highest-scoring losers. Three sides are on 150 points, with at least one, but no more than two, places available. Both Reading and Manchester scored slightly over 50% on their bonus questions, Linacre did score more solidly through the game than either opponent. In the inevitable crunch for the repechage, this column would, with more than a touch of regret, have to put Linacre last of the three.

Next match - the last first-round match: Somerville Oxford v Trinity Hall Cambridge

This Week And Next

Quondam Strictly Come Dancing competitor Nicholas Owen has decided to leave ITN for the BBC. Here in the Midlands, we're rather hoping that he gets a fill-in job on the Six O'Clock News, purely so that we can have a handover from Nicholas Owen to Nick Owen.

The Irish have picked their performers for Helsinki; traditional Irish act Dervish will send something that may or may not be the new Riverdance to next year's Eurovision Song Contest. The BBC was last seen poking around the dumper outside Sony Europe for people who might want their final ten minutes of fame.

The Royal Television Society has handed out its Craft Awards. Game show winners were:

  • Dancing on Ice (Lighting for Multicamera; Multicamera work) - the judges said, "A slick and very adventurous camera script by the director combined with the high standard of camera operation throughout the series... left the viewers feeling they were spectators, rather than television viewers."
  • The Apprentice (Editing) "This series has established a unique editing style that has already been and will continue to be widely imitated."
  • Strictly Dance Fever (Costume Design) "Coming up week after week with glamorous and innovative costumes which were both tailored to the musical genre and stylised to the individual personalities of the performers."

Major cheering at the Children's BAFTA awards last week-end, as Holly Willoughby won the Presenter award for the Saturday Showdown. Further good news with the Entertainment award, won for the second time in four years by Raven. Hurrah to those shows, and to Nigel Pickard, winner of the Outstanding Contribution award.

Channel 4 has confirmed that future Big Brother finals programmes will not be broadcast live before the 9pm watershed. This year's event was marred by the use of profanities, and toothless regulator OFCOM was "surprised" that the final went out without a delay. They'll have plenty of practice, the channel has signed up the format until 2010.

ITV has found its new chairman. It'll be Michael Grade, who is currently chairman of the BBC. In accepting his new challenge, Mr. Grade said that the greatest challenge was for ITV to make some decent programmes. We rather hope that the channel stops relying on episodes of Heartbeat so old that they were made as documentaries. Some actual programming overnight, instead of this call-and-lose nonsense, would also be appreciated.

Speaking of call-and-lose nonsense, Nick Rust, the managing director of a television betting operation, told the Commons that "These channels are the same as gambling but are not regulated as such and need to be." His ITV counterpart, Jeff Henry, reckons that one call in 85 gets through to the studio, and other shows feature just one call in 200. Readers will be capable of doing the mathematics; the Media Select Committee will issue its report early in 2007.

Still on the nonsense front, a measure of the cultural gap between fans of game shows and fans of self-proclaimed "serious" television can be found on Wikipedia, where a very questionable decision was taken to remove concise episode summaries of all Deal or No Deal episodes. Can we support a project that deletes a fact merely because it doesn't fit into someone's prejudices? More on this broad subject next week.

Brain of Britain has reached the second round stage, and first into the final is quondam Millionaire high-scorer and Grand Slam contestant David Stainer, who won this week's match without breaking sweat.

Marcel Berlins, a panellist on Round Britain Quiz, pays his tribute to Nick Clarke.

Ratings for the week to 19 November saw Strictly Come Dancing (9.65m) take the top slot, ahead of the returning I'm A Celeb (9.35m) and X Factor (9.2m). The Factor's results (8.8m) were comfortably ahead of Dancing's results (7.75m). Family Fortunes (6.7m) just beat One Against One Hundred (6.6m).

Millionaire had 4.25m, just beating Deal (3.95m, Wednesday); again, all six episodes head the Channel 4 list. QI had 3.45m, Link 3.1m (Tuesday), Dancing On Two 2.7m, the Mastermind final 2.5m (not including Scotland), Buzzcocks and Sudo-Q 1.95m (Monday), Ready Steady Cook 1.85m (Tuesday). The final of Make Me a Supermodel had 0.95m.

ITV2's Xtra Factor coverage peaked at 925,000 on Saturday night; the Celebrity stuff had 860,000 on Thursday. QI on BBC4 pulled in 670,000, a Raven repeat 190,000. Sky Onc's Cirque de Celebrité (sic) took 555,000. Deal on More4 peaked at 235,000 on Thursday. Skatooney appears on Cartoon Network's top ten, with 65,000. Challenge's best was Friday night's Fear Factor, 90,000 there.

Next week's highlights include the return of The Personality Test (Radio 4, 6.30 Wednesday) - this week, it'll be hosted by a Tub of Lard. Rob Brydon appears on the acronymic ISIHAC and HIGNFY, and ITV's schedule returns to something approximating normal after the end of I'm A Celebrity. Just for this series, mind.

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