Weaver's Week 2008-02-10

Weaver's Week Index

One wrong, you're gone


ITV's Weekends

Image:Square Duel.jpg

Duel – Gallowgate (a French Television format) (from 19 January)

Thank God You're Here – Talkback (from 12 January)

Both air on ITV Saturday evenings

By tradition, Saturday night television is the most conservative night of the week. Every successful new show is an incremental, almost imperceptible, change from previous formats. Gladiators? It's a Knockout for big, beefy types. Saturday Night Takeaway? Noel's House Party, and other Noel Edmonds productions in a lineage stretching back to the early 1980s. Casualty? Emergency Ward 10 and Angels.

And, for every successful new show, there are many more failures. For instance, Saturday Night Takeaway was first aired as Slap Bang, an evening version of Antan Dec's morning programme SMTV, and one that really did feel like the same show aired for six weeks running. Noel's House Party ultimately derives from The Late Late Breakfast Show; we remember how the show ended in tragic circumstances, but it's often forgotten how the early shows were so interminably dull as to make Punchlines look like good entertainment.

ITV's Saturday night schedule is littered with failures: Bruce Forsyth's Big Night famously didn't have glitter coming out of the set, Ice Warriors, Celebrity Wrestling, and Simply the Best were painfully poor copies of Gladiators, and even the contestants might have difficulty remembering Scream! If You Want to Get Off. To their number we may be able to add a couple more from the current ITV Saturday schedule: Thank God You're Here and Duel.

Thank God You're Here is an improvisational comedy game, where actors and presenters are confronted with a sketch they've not seen in rehearsals, and must entertain the nation for a few minutes. Or, as it feels to some of the contestants, a year or three. It's the sort of thing they did on Whose Line is it Anyway? about twenty years ago, only made with a far larger budget, big enough to afford proper sets. The show builds on a previous success, and is competently done, though some of the TGYH actors feel like they could have passed the audition for the Radio Active Rep.

The show does leave us asking one question: why is it going out in the middle of Saturday night? This sort of improvisational comedy is the right thing for ITV to do, but is too edgy for the oh-so-conservative mainstream Saturday audience. The show would fit better on a Thursday or Friday night, or at the very end of the Saturday night schedules. Sticking it out at 9pm is a significant error of judgement; the 10pm slot from 16 February is the earliest it should be airing.

Which brings us to ITV's new big-money quiz, Duel. Since the astounding success of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? almost a decade ago, ITV hasn't had much success with prime-time quizzes. The People Versus suffered from a failure at the production stage, while Shafted suffered from having a racist bigot as its host. And from being poorly executed. And from being a bit rubbish to begin with.

Image:Square Nick Hancock.jpg

How many of these criticisms are true for Duel? Approximately none. The host is Nick Hancock; he may have briefly retired to become an estate agent, but he's a solid and trustworthy host. The production values are high, for reasons we'll get to shortly. (Honest.) And the basic format is brilliant.

Here's how it works. Contestants are given a question, and four possible answers. To stay in the game, they must get the question right: anyone who gives a wrong answer is instantly out of the show. The contestant is given ten lives, represented by chips, and is allowed to play more than one chip on a question. An example question and options should help to clarify things:

Q: What is Lesley Garrett's singing voice?
A – Baritone
B – Soprano
C – Mezzo
D – Basso profundo

If the contestant had no clue about singing, they could cover all four options. It would cost them three lives, but ensure that they stayed in the game. Someone who knew about singing, but was unfamiliar with Miss Garrett, would recognise that A and D are male voices, B and C are female voices, that Miss Garrett is female, and cover those two options. And someone who knew all about her work would know the answer to be B.

Here's the twist: contestants aren't playing alone. Instead, two of them are playing opposite each other, and the person who survives when his or her opponent errs is the winner. Win two duels and the player can take home some money; win all four and they'll secure the entire jackpot.

Duel's staging is impressive. The central table is in a sunken arena. It's similar to the arena pioneered on Millionaire and replicated on every programme from The People Versus to Get 100, and some less brilliant shows. But the stage is also slightly raised, beneath it is a long, thin display of LED lights. Most of the time, this shows the current jackpot amount, and we often have panning shots as the display ticks up. Raised bridges link the centre table to the outside world, allowing contestants to arrive and depart.

The star of the show, surely, is the table. Two seats, four sausage-shaped spaces to place chips, some buttons for the players to use, more switches for the host, and a dividing screen that raises and lowers between each question. When the player puts down their chip on one of those sausage-shaped spaces, it lights up in their colour. It's a very simple trick – the underside of each chip contains a metallic disk, which completes an electric circuit and lights up the bulbs – but it's an impressive effect.

The contestant can place and retract chips as they wish. When they're happy with their decision, they press the lock-down button, after which the answer cannot be changed, and wait for their opponent to do the same. After locking in their response, the contestant may wish to play an Accelerator; this forces their opponent to lock in an answer within seven seconds, or the response on the table will be automatically locked in. Each player has two Accelerators to use per duel.

As we mentioned, the winner of each duel gets to stay on for the next. They also get to choose their next opponent from three contenders – we get to know their name, age, and occupation. After winning two duels, the contestant can, instead, retire with some money. Two duels wins £10,000 or 10% of the jackpot, chosen at random. Three duels offers £20,000 or 20% of the jackpot, and four duels scoops the entire jackpot. Money won is not deducted from the jackpot, and a retiring player – or a duel that ends with both players giving an incorrect answer – sees the two longest-waiting players take their turn.

Why is Duel so good? Part of it is the pacing: each episode lasts for an ITV hour (so about 45 minutes of actual action) and contains 15 or so actual questions, with a couple of stops for decisions. It's the right pace: not so slow as to be obvious padding (the downfall of The People Versus 1.0), but not so quick as to be all quiz and no personality. There's banter between the host and contestants, and some interplay between the contestants, ensuring that the hour is one to savour. Well, 45 minutes are, the rest can be fast-forwarded through to no loss.

The staging is first-class – as well as the display on the bottom of the stage, there are the usual lights around the set. The end of a game is marked with an uncomfortable green-and-red split, but the predominant colours are blue and yellow – a restful and respectful combination, and one that used to be ITV's house colours.

Rather unusually for the twenty-first century, Duel is a very tactile game. The chips are real physical chips, and when they're placed on wrong answer, they really disappear into the table. The button to confirm an answer is a big button, the largest we've seen since the heyday of Going for Gold. To use an Accelerator, it's another button, and this one stays down. Nick Hancock has plenty of switches and sliders on his bit of the desk. It's a very hands-on game, and we find that a refreshing change.

Are there any downsides? A couple spring to mind. The questions are perhaps a little too easy – we know that playing at home is not the same as playing in the studio, but only once in the first few weeks would we have had difficulty beating any other contestant in the duels played. And contestants seem a little too eager to take the money and run. In fairness, £10,000 is not to be sniffed at, and a 10% share of a jackpot that starts at £100,000 and grows by about £50,000 per show can only look better. We understand that the prize structure will be revised later in the series, a welcome improvement.

The closing credits confirm that Gallowgate has picked some of the finest names in game shows to make its show. Music is by Paul Farrer, eking out his royalties from BBC1's The Weakest Link. We've spotted some familiar names from the Millionaire production side, and direction is by Richard Van't Riet, who has steered One Against One Hundred to success on the BBC.

With so much talent at its disposal, and a show where we have to grobble around to find anything that isn't very good already, why have viewing figures been so disappointing? Because ITV scheduling is still stuck in the dark ages. Saturday night audiences are conservative, and they won't try new shows when old ones are available. The correct idea, we feel, would have been to run Duel on Tuesday nights, leaving Millionaire to prop up Saturdays. The first show attracted barely three million viewers, the second was even less popular, and it's a waste of a great show.

If there's one mercy, it's the Gallowgate name attached to the end credits. That's the production company owned by ITV's double-headed Saturday night monster Antan Dec. Surely, surely, ITV wouldn't want to upset their last remaining ratings banker by cancelling one of the shows they make part-way through? It's also worth noting that their Saturday Night Takeaway returns next week. Hmm. Anyone wonder what game they'll be playing at the start of the series? But is the show's near-absence (there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it glimpse of Nick Hancock about half-way through) from ITV's Weekends In February trailer telling? We will see.


Heat 44,137/44,137

Yes, after ten million zillion kajillion years, we've finally reached the final heat.

Duncan Mitchell will take Punch magazine 1841-1992. We'd better not let on that, when this series began, not only had the magazine yet to close, but it was still some years in the future. All the good stuff is there, "Dropping the Pilot", Thelwell, though no mention for Alan Coren or Miles Kington. The round ends on 15 (0).

Melanie Martyn will take the Life and Music of Kurt Cobain. You'll remember him from such quotes as, "Seems like some people have to die young. Like it fits them or something." Mr. Cobain's band Nirvana managed to outlive Punch, just; our contender ends on 17 (1).

Roy Humphrey has the Life and Novels of Thomas Love Peacock, and he's bought a stuffed toy with him to the chair. He was a novelist of the early 19th century, though we don't get to find out much about his work. The score is 10 (2).

The last of a million contenders this series is Derek Moody, taking the Survivors television series. This was Terry Nation's show about a post-plague world, and is not to be confused with ITV's million-pound flop. 16 (1).

Mr. Humphrey tells us about his animal: it's a wombat, and Mr. Humphrey is his mascot. He also tells us about Peacock, who sends up all and sundry. Though he confuses Mr. Major and Mr. Douglas-Home, it's a fine round, ending on 20 (3).

Mr. Mitchell reminds us that Punch's strength was its cartoons, and that they really defined the Victorian era far better than any piece of prose writing. His round keeps the points ticking over, finishing on 27 (3).

Mr. Moody compares Survivors to Lord of the Flies, but there were many deliberate comparisons drawn with society. The contender manages to confuse Rolf Harris's digeridou with the wobble-board, quite a difficult feat in the cold light of day. That's just about the only error, and 31 (1) is a high target.

Can Melanie Martyn beat it? She discusses the manner of Mr. Cobain's death, how he was getting disillusioned about his own musical future. Apparently, he's now passed Elvis Presley to become the highest-grossing dead musician, though we can't see Vernon Kay hosting a Nirvana look-alike contest on ITV any time soon. The contender correctly names the Victorian plant as the aspidistra, and has the good fortune to get a question about Blur. She has just one error too many, finishing on 29 (6).

University Challenge

Third Quarter-Final: Magdalen Oxford v St Andrews

There are reasons why this column is hoping for a no-score draw this week. Magdalen was the repechage winner, sneaking past Birmingham on one of those infamous "where do you live" questions, after topping Liverpool and losing to SOAS. St Andrews beat Birmingham in the first round, and York in the second. There's a change on the St Andrews side, Kelsey Jackson-Williams, the side's best buzzer in the earlier rounds, appears to have returned to Oklahoma, and is replaced by Duncan MacKenzie.

No point in reciting the rules, you can say "bank" at any time and the money you've won is safe, but you'll start a new chain from scratch. Mr. MacKenzie picks up where Mr. Jackson-Williams left off, getting the night's first starter. Magdalen gets the next two starters, but has clearly been taking tips from the 2004 side in how to suck the life out of the competition. The first visual round is on presidential standards of South America – that's the personal flags of the leader of the country – and the stanza ends at 30-all.

This starter we had to look up:

Q: Doe, Dory, Bull and Hancock become an unidentified...
St Andrews, Alice Larter: John

It's the forename for various Everyman figures: John Doe, John Dory, John Bull, John Hancock. Right. St Andrews has it, and begins to pick up the pace from its previously slow pace; they're still only getting one starter per set, but at least they're not taking all night over it. Thumper is having a bad night, having to read extracts in German and French. St Andrews is taking off, shouting "Belgium!" at such a volume as to attract intakes of breath, though that could be for daring to mention the most offensive word in the known universe. The audio round is on British classical music, after which St Andrews' lead is 80-75.

Magdalen gets the physicists' joke: that an area of 10-28 metres-squared should be called a "barn" because anyone should be able to hit it, takes the lead, and promptly drops all three bonuses. Can we have another episode of Mastermind instead of this? St Andrews gets a starter, re-taking the lead, but takes all night to drop three bonuses. Magdalen takes the lead with the next starter, and scores two in a row. The second visual round is on inventors in paintings, and Magdalen has pulled ahead by 125-90.

At this speed, it feels as though 160 will be a winning score, and it wasn't even a losing score last week. Magdalen – again – gets the rub of the green with a very tardy answer to a starter. The next starter lifts Magdalen up to the 160 we identified, it's 70 ahead with four minutes to play, and on tonight's form, that's more than enough. Magdalen continues to get the starters right to rather run up the score, but this game died as a spectacle many questions ago.

For the record, Magdalen's winning score was 180-115. Jon Wright was Magdalen's best buzzer, answering seven starters; the side made a lamentable 13/36 bonuses with one missignal. Doug Cochran led for St Andrews, five starters. The side had a very poor 7/24 on bonuses.

Next match: Exeter v Sheffield

News From Down Under

We join Shane Lane, who is relaxing by the pool after another hard day.

Blimey, Sheila, pull another one off the barbie and look at this in the paper! "Soap opera Strewth Street is to leave BBC1 for wild uncharted wastes". What? No, Sheila, we're not going into the outback, it's worse than that. "The show, an Aussie street viewers have walked down on their feet for two decades, will now go out on Channel 5". What's that, Sheila? What's Channel Five? Search me, bonzer. Bet they've got some top-draw replacement lined up, all babes in bikinis and blokes chugging back another tinnie. "BBC1's replacement will be... oh no!"

"That's right. It's me, Anne Robinson. You thought you got rid of me years ago. You though my ex-husband was dead. Well, let me tell you, it's not so. Jim wasn't dead, he was just acting. Badly. He'd go on to become vice-president of the United States, alongside David Palmer. He needed to act there, too. Badly."

But... but... but...

"Whose autocue is broken again? Which soap opera is now scum around the rim of the schedules? Whose pantomime villainary is so bad as to be hilarious? Where are the plots even thinner than these paper walls? Who should have taken acting lessons off of Wolf from the Gladiators? Strewth Street, you are the weakest link, goodbye."

Chuck us another tinnie, Sheila.

This Week And Next

It's not just Duel that's failing to pull in the viewers: every show found it difficult. In the week to 27 January, the most-seen game show was Dancing on Ice, with 8.85m viewers. Next most popular was The One and Only, a mere 4.85m, with the Saturday ice-dancing spin-off, Make Me a Star, seen by 4.75m. Tuesday's Millionaire episode had just 3.95m, making Duel's slightly less than 3m look decent. It's still beaten by University Challenge (3.35m) and Masterchef (3.25m), and may have fallen behind Deal's 2.9m. Mastermind returned with 2m, a better score than it was registering for much of last year.

On the cable channels, Pop Idle US reached a new peak of 950,000, advancing past Come Dine With Me's 775,000. BB Celebrity Hijack's last weekend tied with QI repeats on Dave, both attracting 645,000 viewers. Dave's repeats of Mock the Week were seen by 555,000. Challenge's top show was a Thursday episode of Small Talk, seen by 87,000.

As well as Annie occupying the moral high ground on BBC1, next week sees the return of Antan Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway (ITV, 7.45pm). We're intrigued by CBBC's Stake Out (Wednesday 5.15), it appears to be somewhere near Oblivious or Beadle's About. ITV has a tribute to Jeremy Beadle next Saturday afternoon (3.15.)

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