Weaver's Week 2008-04-06

Weaver's Week Index

"It's about as obscure as one of those games on 3-2-1."

Two radio shows from earlier in the year are reviewed this week.


The Garden Quiz

Unique for Radio 4, 1.30 Monday, 7 January – 17 March

Image:Square BBC Radio 4.jpg

Radio 4 has a slight problem with its Monday afternoon quizzes: they run for awkward lengths through the year. In the early part of this decade, Peter Snow's Masterteam and Ned Sherrin's Counterpoint each ran for 13 weeks, Nick Clarke with Round Britain Quiz lasted 12 weeks, and Robert Robinson's venerable Brain of Britain ran for 17 episodes – a week longer in some years. Add all of those up and the Radio 4 controller had a "year" lasting at least 55 weeks. Radio 4 may be the most powerful radio network on the planet, but even it cannot win an argument with the calendar, which insists that there shall be 52 Mondays in a year, and only occasionally, grudgingly, grants an additional day. But just the one.

All of the shows above have undergone a change of host – Counterpoint is now helmsed by Paul Gambaccini, and we'll have more to say about that next week. Round Britain Quiz has returned under the chairmanship of Tom Sutcliffe, and Peter Snow has taken his smartometer to Brain of Britain. Masterteam last took to the air in early 2006, and appears to have been quietly cancelled.

In its place, completing the annual quartet of brain-strainers, is The Garden Quiz, chaired by Anna Ford. The format is simple: eight heats, from which the winner and only the winner progresses to the semi-finals. The top two in each semi make the final, where the winner is determined. Thirty-two contestants to one in eleven programmes: other quizzes, please note.

The first thing that strikes us: by golly, a quiz where the majority of contestants – indeed, the majority of finalists – are women. Other than sexist shows like Sabotage, does this happen in any other field?

We begin with a round of general knowledge questions on gardening and gardens, all on the buzzer. One point for a correct answer, half a mark for a response that has some merit but isn't entirely right. Then there's a musical connections round: three clues to a flower, tree, or other plant, with one of them coming as music. In one of the editions, the clues included a single by Ickle Billie Piper, cross-promoting CBBC's fourteenth-best show, Basil's Game Show. Sorry, Doctor Who. One question for each contestant, nothing's passed across.

The first third of the show, therefore, is as much general knowledge as gardening. We finally get our fingers dirty in round three, a short round of horticulture questions on the buzzer. Almost before it's begun, this round has ended, and assigned questions on Gardening in Entertainment are taking over. Round five is more assigned questions, four each on a subject that the competitors have chosen for themselves. Then comes a rather bizarre team round, in which the contestants are arbitrarily split into Team A and Team B, and given questions for double points. The game concludes with more buzzer quizzing.

This column would never claim any expertise in the field of gardening – indeed, our limit is taking a pair of scissors to the postage stamp that passes for a lawn at the back of Chateau Weaver and hoping that next door's cat hasn't left us a present. From our point of view, it's a passable entertainment – though it's a specialist quiz, it's not so specialist as to be inaccessible. The horticulture round is just a few questions long, far shorter than the pop culture rounds that surround it, and that feels like short change.

There are a couple of problems with the show. In the early episodes, Anna Ford seemed very ill-at-ease with the quizmistress's role. There's a certain confidence, almost a swagger, in the voice and pitch of presenters who are on top of their format, and Miss Ford didn't quite have that in the opening shows. To be fair, both Russell Davies and Edward Seckerson visibly (well, audibly) grew in confidence during their first few shows, and it took Peter Snow until the semi-finals to relax into the host's seat of Brain. And so it was with Anna Ford: when we picked up the thread in the final, she was filling the void, making the silences pregnant with expectation rather than pauses that might have been better edited out.

The main problem we have with The Garden Quiz is that, as a quiz, it's in need of help. When the contestant gives an answer, give them a point, move on. When the contestant is wrong, give the answer, move on. When the contestant is partially right, do give a half-mark, but always give the whole answer so that the audience might understand why some credit has been withheld.

But this pales into insignificance against some of the questions in the specialist subject round. "What is the difference between the Thisplant and the Thatplant?" asks our host. "The Thisplant smells of eggs and the Thatplant of bacon," replies the contestant, confidently. "That might be true, but it's not what we're looking for," states Anna Ford. "Er, is it that Thisplant has yellow flowers that bloom in May, and Thatplant has orange flowers in August?" asks the contestant. "No, it's that Thisplant is pollinated by bees, and Thatplant is pollinated by wasps."

Once again, we're into the ever-so-dangerous area of Guess What The Question-Writers Are Thinking About. Rather than go for precise questions, they've written a load of vagueries and expect the contestants to stab about, blindly, until they hit on the correct answer, or offer something that's clearly wrong. The effect may appear similar to the random leaps of Round Britain Quiz, but there's a crucial difference: the clues in RBQ are very carefully constructed so that every word, sometimes every comma, contains a meaning. On The Garden Quiz, the construction is less careful. In the hands of a seasoned entertainment professional, this could yet pass for acceptable radio. But with Miss Ford still coming to terms with her role, the effect is like a dripping tap: ever-so-slightly annoying to begin with, but rising to become a major irritant after half-an-hour.

This is a shame, because The Garden Quiz is a serviceable little show. It's not got the intellectual rigour of BoB and RBQ, and it's right to be a lighter programme. Truth to tell, it's the sort of thing that ought to go out on Radio 2, except that they've abandoned listeners over 50, and entertaining speech radio in general. As we mentioned, Miss Ford has become increasingly adept at the demands of radio, and if the producers could resolve the problem of unclear questions, the show could yet go far.

The remaining problem is for the Radio 4 controller. 11 weeks of The Garden Quiz, 12 of RBQ, 13 of Counterpoint, 17 of BoB. That makes for an annual cycle of 53 weeks. Time to re-invent the year, perhaps.

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

BBC Manchester for BBC7, Friday 8-29 February

Image:Square BBC Radio 7.jpg

Critical notices for The Garden Quiz have been harsh, and we think that's rather unfair, because there is a decent little show lurking amongst the shrubbery. We're far from convinced that we could say the same about this show, buried deep in the undergrowth of BBC7.

For the uninitiated, BBC7 is one of those digital stations that the Beeb's been promoting for the past few years. Since its launch in late 2002, the channel's been the home of archive speech and specially-created children's programmes. To its fans, BBC7 is a great place to hear vintage drama and classic comedy; to its detractors, the station is a dumping ground of unfunny shows long past their chuckle-by date, and has far too much Nigel Rees and Martin Jarvis for its own good. BBC7's played out many old panel games, but only seems to have rights dating back to the mid-90s, a particular problem in the station's early days.

BBC7 has a very small commissioning budget, and No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition is the channel's first attempt at a comedy game show. It's hosted by Ian McMillan, a poet from Barnsley and the host of Radio 3's programme The Verb. In the recordings from Manchester's Comedy Store, he's joined by two pairs of stand-up comedians. Sad to say, we don't recognise many of the panellists, but that's probably our loss. The programme's title is taken from a Monty Python sketch, and the billing suggests that it's a quiz about radio and television comedy. This is not strictly accurate.

Round one is "What's That Noise?" A bizarre sound effect from the depths of the BBC archive is played, and the teams must guess what the noise is, and its significance to the show. We're already wondering along these lines: this is a quiz about vintage comedy, yet you're asking us to identify Drama Department sound effects that are as gross as they are funny. And "What's That Noise?" is a round that one might use as filler in a show that's running short of ideas; it isn't the most imaginative of starts. The second round, and stop us if you've heard this idea before, is "Musical Connections". Three pieces of music are played, and the teams are to derive the link between performers, writers, titles, even the video clip. One of the pieces featured in this round was Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus, a song that is many things, but it's not remotely funny.

Round three, "Call My Plot Bluff", is an homage to the television classic. A film title is given, and three plot summaries – one from the host, two from the opposition – are read out, with the team asked to guess or work out which is the truth and which is made-up. The round tends to drag badly, particularly as the host asks the team to read out their summaries in the style of someone else. Hearing a comedian we barely know from Adam reading the plot of a movie we've not seen is dull; hearing him do it in someone else's voice crosses the line into tedium.

Round four is another game that's familiar from a lot of somewhere elses, "Sing the Sig". Each contestant is given a comedy signature tune to orchestrate, hum, or otherwise communicate without words. Their team-mate gets first dibs on an answer. The final round is perhaps the best of them all, "Rhetorical Questions". Who put the bomp in the bomp-a-lomp-a-bomp? What was the name of the forgotten Marx brother? When is the first train to Morrow? All, some, or fewer of these questions are answered, for it's not the accuracy of the answers that counts, but the quality of the contributions. Finally, Ian McMillan tots up the scores, decrees a winner, and bids us adieu.

Truth be told, we're rather unimpressed by this show – it's as if the producers spent so long thinking up a killer title (and it is good, we'll give them as much) that they forgot to provide a game for the panel. We can't help but be reminded of Danny Baker's Sitcom Showdown from a couple of years ago. The two shows tread broadly similar ground, in that they're both based on classic comedy. But while Baker's show was bizarre and surreal and inventive, if a bit of an acquired taste, this particular programme fails to go anywhere until the last minutes. In part, this is because it's straying much too far from its original brief. Spanish Inquisition isn't really a show about classic comedy, but a comedy panel game of the sort we've seen and heard a zillion times before, and using rounds that ISIHAC would reject as being duller than Quote... Unquote. It's without merit, it's a perfectly serviceable listen, but it does nothing to excite us in any way, and feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Countdown Update

High time we caught up with goings on in Leeds' favourite parlour game. When we last looked in February, Tim Reypert looked set to become the third octochamp of the still-young series. He did become the third octochamp of the still-young series, scoring 773 points, and ending his run with 113. Brian Morley (1 win, 117), Barbara Fletcher (2 wins, 220), and Nick Chamberlain (2 wins, 209) all left the studio with a Des pot, then Barry Smith came along. He won seven games, including one century, but never really looked that comfortable, and crumbled in his octochamp match. He scored 648 points in total.

Bob O'Keefe (2 wins, 202) took the win over Barry, and thanks to the Cheltenham festival, played his three games in three transmission weeks – one on Friday, one the next Monday, then a whole week before his loss to Joe Denniss (1 win, 148). These players, along with Andrew Swale (1 win, 186) and Tony Durrant (3 wins, 379) provided a string of top-quality matches over Easter, with Tony winning only after solving two conundrums in a row – one to force the tie, one to break it. He lost on Easter Monday to Richard Priest, who looked odds-on for octochampdom. He lost after 6 wins (697), in a game that hinged on disallowed words – Richard offered three, Nigel Davies just one. Nigel (3 wins, 341) lost Friday's game to Matthew Coates.

The seedings at this stage are:

  1. David O'Donnell – 8 wins – 878 pts
  2. Michael MacDonald-Cooper – 8 wins – 780 pts
  3. Tim Reypert – 8 wins – 773 pts
  4. Barry Smith – 7 wins – 648 pts
  5. Richard Priest – 6 wins – 697 pts
  6. Jason Cullen – 4 wins – 421 pts
  7. Tony Durrant – 3 wins – 379 pts
  8. Nigel Davies – 3 wins – 341 pts

We expect to return to Countdown on 18 May.

This Week And Next

A failed Hollywood star is trying to get press coverage by criticising the BBC's commitment to theatre. Kevin Spacey, artistic director at the Old Vic, said that I'd Do Anything and its predecessors amounted to acres of free publicity for Andrew Lloyd Webber's productions. "These are interesting ideas, but they're not sexy so maybe they don't want to put them on air," said Mr. Spacey while promoting his latest film.

We're not going to give gavel-to-gavel coverage of University Challenge The Professionals. We do have time for Answer of the Week (Evans, Comedians, recognising that p and q are mirror-images of each other in a sans-serif font), and How Was Anyone Supposed To Know That of the Week (the Ministry of Justice being asked to recognise the one solo hit from Stephen Gatley. Even Mr. Gatley would have difficulty remembering his hit at this distance.) Speaking of great distances, the University Challenge Boat Race took place last Saturday; tough questions were asked of both sides, they were neck-and-neck through the first half of the game, but Oxford pulled away just after the music round to take a clear lead and win the game by 70 points.

Ratings for the week to 23 March, Easter week, were led by the series final of Antan Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, with 7.4m seeing Dec win the series-long challenge. BBC1's I'd do Anything recorded 5.75m, and Millionaire finished third, with 4.05m; Duel had 3.8m. Deal had 2.75m, Eggheads also topped 2m. The holiday Friday was good for BBC2's cookery shows, with Recipe for Success recording 1.7m. That's bad news for Mastermind, pushed down to 1.65m viewers and BBC2's 28th most popular show. Over on Channel 5, Breaking Into Tesco was seen by 1.2m. Pop Idle US led the digital channels on 660,000, with Come Dine With Me on 610,000, and America's Next Top Model seen by 480,000.

A rating that Endemol won't be so happy with: three episodes of Deal or No Deal were in Channel 4's ten most complained-about programmes last month. The episodes on 19 and 20 March were, according to one viewer, "ruined by [Glenn] and Noel", while the 26 March episode "should have been cancelled" when it was found a box had forgotten to bring its value. More from Channel 4

Coming up next week: Come Dine with Me moves into prime-time with a celebrity round (C4, 8pm Thursday), and it's all change on Saturday night. The Kids are Alright pits adults against children against John Barrowman (BBC1 6.05); All-Star Mr & Mrs is Siôn A Siîn jazzed up with Phillip Gopherman (ITV 6.45); and Britain's Got Talent is back for a second series, hosted by Antan Dec (ITV, 7.45). Clearly, if you want to be on Saturday night television at the moment, you've got to have worked on Saturday morning kids TV.

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