Weaver's Week 2007-01-14

Weaver's Week Index

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


A man who educated us all

Magnus Magnusson, for a quarter of a century the host of Mastermind, died last Sunday.

Born in Reykjavik on 12 October 1929, Magnús Magnússon was the son of Iceland's Consul General to Scotland, and moved to Edinburgh before he was a year old. Magnusson was educated at Edinburgh Academy, an education he would praise when he wrote the school's official history. He then went up to Jesus College, Oxford, and was one of very few ever to study Old Norse.

After spending two years doing post-graduate research, Magnusson began working at the Scottish Daily Express in 1953, rising through the ranks to become associate editor, and was head-hunted to rival paper The Scotsman in 1961. While at this paper, he began to appear on the BBC's late evening current affairs magazine Tonight, a job that led him to an archaeology series called Chronicle. In turn, there were spin-off series BC: The Archaeology Of The Bible Lands (1977) and Vikings! (1980).

He was able to explain one of the more difficult subjects in a style that was both accurate and immensely popular, using his skill and imagination to bring the subject to life. Every house was a home, with a story to tell about the people who lived there. Magnusson also wrote scholarly treatises on a wide range of archaeological subjects, and chaired the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland during the eighties. He would later write the 700-page book, Scotland, the Story of a Nation, which only ran up to the eighteenth century.

Elected Rector of Edinburgh University in 1975, Magnusson was able to smooth troubled waters in an era when students and senior university members were having major disagreements. Magnusson wrote in his election address, "Instead of the politics of confrontation (often, alas, manufactured) which have been such a feature of university government in recent years there could be a new spirit of co-operation and conciliation." A keen bird-watcher, Magnusson was elected president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1985. He was appointed Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University in 2002, a post he held until his death.

It is as the host of Mastermind for twenty-five years that Magnusson will be best remembered. He was not the first choice for the role - the journalist Bernard Levin and swingometer expert Robert MacKenzie had been considered for the role, and current-affairs reporter Alan Watson got so far as a pilot programme. But the job was destined for Magnusson, and he brought a certain persona to the screen - slightly frightening, certainly not a man to cross, but one who would always be scrupulously fair and effusively courteous. He also brought the great advantage of a scholarly mind, one that was uncompromising in support of meaningful scholarly study both as an endeavour of intense and lasting personal value, and in an effort to further human understanding. This contrasted with the journalist's mindset, to value facts out of context, and was the reason Magnusson made the programme his own, and why he was the right choice from a talented field.

The dramatic music, the famous black chair, and some of the most simple and the most stark lighting seen on television all served to ratchet up the tension. Magnusson would launch into a fusillade of questions, delivered in an easily-identifiable accent, and without hesitation or stumble. Though the unfortunate in the chair would often squirm under the interrogation, Magnusson would show neither mercy nor pleasure from the experience. He would test and probe and tease out the last drop of knowledge from the contender's memory and intellect; by his actions, he showed his preferences for the deep specialist, for the student of a narrow and well-defined subject. Though he may not have been able to match the depth of knowledge acquired by the contenders, one always felt that Magnusson saw them as outstanding in their fields, and more than worthy of his respect. But he did not show that respect by means of a cosy chat; he had an image to project, a role to act, and he performed it wonderfully. Only after the recording would Magnusson break from this character, retire with the contestants to the bar, and quickly reveal - in the words of Fred Housego - "what an absolutely delightful human being he was."


CBBC, 20 November - 15 December 2006

This was the fifth series of the only children's game show with production values higher than sixpence. After a disappointing series in 2005, we were rather hoping for the barrier to be raised a little this year.

The tenor of the show was set in the opening moments, where the neophyte warriors have to earn their emblems. This provides a fitting opening to the week's programmes, it's a great psychological scene-setting device. The game itself - constructing and using a winch - is trivial in the extreme, but it's far more easily comprehensible than the one previous attempt to begin with a challenge, the confusing Hunt For The Standard in the opening series. It provides Raven - still played with great aplomb by James Mackenzie - with a welcome opportunity to introduce the contestants, and wish them well.

That game, Warrior's Gate, is one of just six new challenges introduced this year. The early leaders will compete in the Torture Chamber, where they're asked to retrieve rings and a key by using hooks and claws as extensions to their arms and fingers. It's not clear if this is an attempt to peg back the leaders, or to introduce a supremely difficult challenge. Dwarf Mine - which returns from last year - was also made more difficult, and had an equal success rate.

The gap left by Troll Trap from two years back has finally been filled by Battering Ram, where the object is to use wooden rollers to move a heavy wooden construction along a field, and break through a gate. It's loud, fun to watch, and requires more than a little bit of strategy. Nevar's Eye is a development of the Eyeless Demons game; rather than blindfold the guardians, ensure that the warriors cannot see, and make them use poles to tap out the safe path over the grass.

The last day of the week remains a little disappointing, but it's certainly getting more interesting. Gone is the completely unfair Demons' Causeway; in its place comes Battle of the Boats (paddle from one side of the loch to the other). High Rope is an almost-direct replacement for High Walk, with the last three warriors walking along a rope rather than a piece of wood; it's a lot more difficult now. We're not convinced that it belongs on the same day as Stepping Stones (cross from one side of the loch to the other over some unstable steps), as these challenges test the same skill twice. Indeed, this duplication of skills may well have affected the result of one of the weeks, and in turn altered the composition of the final.

Aside from the proper introduction to the warriors, the best development of the year is a return to the original location for Leap of Faith. The event is now visible again, it's not a succession of blobs moving about the screen. Also improved is the Water Demon game, where contestants must untie a boat before returning to shore.

There have been other changes - we're rather sad to see that Pole Climb no longer features rings to grab along the way. The Riddle Bridge game has been made a little easier, as the number of letters is now indicated, one per row. Blasted Mountain has replaced the familiar totems with shields; we still think that this should be a timed game.

Perhaps the most significant change to the gameplay is that there are no winner-stays-on games. All the mock combat matches - whether on the balance beam, or on the water - now simply find a winner and a loser amongst pairs of warriors. There's also been a change to The Last Stand, the weekly finale. The obstacle course from last year remains, but there's now a significant mental element (completing a five-piece jigsaw, which proved fatal to one contestant) and a greater skill contest (dragging a key along a twisted path).

Taken individually, this year's changes were small, but they all added up to restore our faith in the format, and do so by a clear margin. Raven has always done far more right than it's done wrong, and it's far more obvious this year than it was last.

University Challenge

Repechage final: Manchester v Reading

These teams are feeling like old friends; it's the third time we've seen Reading in two months, and Manchester are hardly less regular visitors. Put your feet up and make a nice hot cup of tea; that'll be the first starter, ensuring Reading get off to a good start. Thumper's a bit quick on the sneer when Reading guesses "Northumbria" for "Duke of Cumberland." We'll take So Last Year Starter of the Week:

Q: What links the plural of a noun denoting a facetious person with an acronym given to a coterie of women whose presence in Baden-Baden in summer 2006...
Manchester, Tim Hawken: Wags.

The first visual round is Name That Road Warning Sign, aka Beware of the Duck-Billed Platypus. Manchester has had a better start, and leads 60-20. A fair number of dropped starters in the next stanza, including the one we'll take as Argument of the Week.

Q: What planet is principally made of iron..?
Manchester, Ciaran Lavin: Earth.
(No, lose five points)
Q: ...but shares its name with that of a different metal?
Reading, Warren Read: Pluto.
Thumper: No! (laughs)
Read: Plutonium (waves hands). It does share its name with a different metal, you can't argue with that! (laughter)
Thumper: Well, I suppose it does, if you want to treat it that liberally, but I'm not going to accept that at all. It's Mercury, of course.

See you on the next documentary, Mr Read! In spite of that missignal, Manchester is still having the better of a torrid section. The audio round is Name That Opera, which goes to Manchester, and they've got a rather compelling lead, 125-10. Thumper is, once again, quick on the sneer when Reading offers "cafetiere" when he's looking for "barista". The side gets its second starter, almost 20 minutes after its first, only to lose a fifth of its points through a missignal. The second visual round is on the self-portraits of British artists. It goes to Manchester, who now has a lead of 175-20.

Reading gets the first starter of the final stanza, and a set of bonuses on jerseys in the Tour de France takes the side to 40; a further starter ensures they won't appear in the list of sides who failed to top 50 points. Just. Manchester gets a lot of starters, but Reading gets a starter on that well-known painter Herr Hitler, to take their score up to 60. Manchester has 210, and Thumper is right to say that Reading underperformed.

For Manchester, Ciaran Lavin took five starters and one missignal, and a personal score of 69; the side made 18/39 bonuses and two premature buzzes. The argumentative Warren Read had four starters, two missignals, and 38 points; the side had 5/14 bonuses and three missignals.

Next match: Brighton v York

This Week And Next

Though the BBC did transmit the programme as scheduled, the recaps for Junior Mastermind will begin with a double-header in next week's Week.

The £250,000 regular top prize on Deal or No Deal was won on last Sunday's edition. Following a string of ludicrously low offers, including £45,000 on a quart-million-or-£3000 final pair, Laura Pearce won the big money. We're far from convinced that this was a victory for courage, as host Noel Edmonds implied, so much as a win for the producer's ambition to produce a big winner no matter how bad the game play had to be.

Ratings for the week to 24 December were topped by the Strictly Come Dancing finale; without opposition from the commercial channel, 12.1m tuned in to find out the winner, and 10.65 for the earlier programme. In It to Win It had 7.1m, and beat Family Fortunes (5.65m) by a long chalk. Celeb Millionaire had 4.85m, and 4.2m people wondered Whatever Happened to Gareth Gates?

3.95m viewers for Wednesday's Deal, comfortably ahead of Weakest Link - 3.5m for its 1000th daytime programme, with 2.5m seeing the goofs-and-blunders special after Friday's show, and 2.2m sticking around on Monday for the documentary. QI bowed out with 2.85m, UC had 2.8m, Dancing on Two had 2.75m, and Buzzcocks 2.3m. The Lynam era came to an end with 2.1m tuning in to the Countdown final, and 1.15m saw the UK's Strongest Man on C5.

The Xtra Factor Winner's Story took 615,000 for ITV2 on Sunday night. Deal on More 4 peaked at just 195,000 for the archive Sunday repeat, behind QI on G2 (225,000). Challenge's highest viewership was 85,000 for Takeshi on Friday teatime.

The week to 31 December saw BARB record an average of 30 hours' television viewing per person. Most viewed - and by quite some distance - was the Strictly Come Dancing Winners' Special, which pulled 7.85 million on Christmas evening. Saturday's In It to Win It had 7.1m, and that night's Mastermind Special took 6.3m. ITV's top show was Millionaire (4.65m on Boxing Night), but Challenge Anneka trailed in on 3.35m and we must wonder if they'll commission a full series on that figure. There's no top 30 place for Viewer Of The Year, a show where the highlight was Jason Donovan performing a hit single from when he was famous.

Channel 4's Deal or No Deal peaked with 4.25m on Friday, one of its highest scores of the old year. C4's Big Fat Quiz of the Year took 3.05m on Wednesday, and a further 1.25m on Saturday night - this latter broadcast was less-watched than the night's news bulletin.

The Bearded One also headed BBC2's list, It Started With Swap Shop took 4m on Thursday night. It was a close-run thing, though; Friday's Weakest Link, a repeat of the 1000th programme, had 3.9m. Ready Steady Cook took 2.9m on Thursday, the repeat of the UC documentary 2.05m on Friday night, and the Buzzcocks repeat 1.75m on Friday. Channel 5 had a game show in its top 10 for the first time all year, World's Strongest Man placed ninth with 1.35m on Sunday. Marcus du Sautoy's Christmas Lectures took 0.85m.

Not a huge amount to note on digital channels - 205,000 for Deal on More4, peaking with the archive classic on Sunday night, though the Sunday brunch edition had 120,000 viewers, a remarkable figure for 11.35am. 155,000 on CBBC for Best of Friends, 125,000 on Challenge for Take It or Leave It, and 45,000 saw Eurosport's Strongest Man coverage.

The highlights of next week come on Saturday, with the start of a new series of Dancing on Ice, and the start of a new series of The Con Test.

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