Weaver's Week 2008-07-13

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Anthony Gruner, British agent for the American game-show giants, Goodson-Todman, said in 1986, "A good game show is like a three-act play. A quiz might be considered a one-act play constantly repeated. The studio audience is the Greek chorus; and, obviously, the game must have its end, that dramatic moment."


How Television Changed Britain: Intelligence

Silver River for Channel 4, 8pm, 5 July

Is it possible to demonstrate, solely using game shows, how attitudes have changed in the UK over the past half century? Well, it might be possible, but Silver River only managed to scratch the surface of the idea. Indeed, a 42-minute clip show is always going to be too short to cover the subject in any depth. This column prefers deep treatment of a few ideas to a wide-ranging treatment without any depth; the latter was all the show could have, and didn't set us in the best of moods.

Also acting to our prejudice was the fact that we hadn't been impressed with many of the previous programmes in this series. The "Police" episode had taken an obvious theory, and cherry-picked clips to support it while ignoring evidence that contradicted the idea. The "Reality" and "Property" episodes had degenerated into little more than promotions for Channel 4's currently-fashionable shows. Only the "Women" episode contained any particular insight, suggesting that gains in equality made since the 1950s were in danger of being reversed.

It was with a considerable degree of trepidation that we approached this programme, which began with the bold and completely unrelated statements, "Television quizzes have shaped our attitude to money and intelligence. Has TV dumbed Britain down?" We begin with clips of that well known question-and-answer show Golden Balls, and light entertainment producer John Lloyd of Europe saying that quiz shows are about the drama, or the chance of winning lots of money, not the information.

Scooting back to the start of history, we find footage of Wilfred Pickles hosting the radio show Have a Go, surely more a talent programme than anything we would recognise as quiz. ITV arrives, and on its second night gives away cash on Take Your Pick. The programme, we're told, endorsed the pursuit of money, rather than thrift, and the show's resident talking head said that this was all derived from the USA. Yet many of these formats had already been popular for many years on the commercial station Radio Luxembourg. This salient fact suggests the pursuit of money is a Luxembourgeois phenomenon, pulling the ground from under the thesis advocated by the programme.

Double Your Money is present and correct, but we don't hear how big-money game shows made up half of the top ten in ITV homes. By 1958, Dotto, Twenty-One, Spot the Tune, Take Your Pick, and Double Your Money were all regulars in the chart, alongside Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Wagon Train, and Murder Bag. Source In part, this omission can be excused by the lack of available archive material, and the producers were right to point out that these really were life-changing amounts of money – the largest prizes of £5000 were enough to buy a suburban house, and £1000 was an average year's wage. Peter Bazalgette points out that people had to have amazing amounts of knowledge to win the prizes – naming all the provinces of Canada was worth just £32, five steps away from the top prize of £1000.

We're less impressed with the way the programme completely omitted any reference to the reason why big-money quiz shows came off the air. It wasn't because of a change in fashion, but because of the regulator flexing its muscles. In an incident we're quite clearly going to have to research for future publication, a contestant on Twenty-One said he had been given "definite leads" to questions before he appeared. Granada's investigation was conducted by a former Attorney-General, and he eventually found that the allegations were "true in substance", and that the briefings of contestants was "highly imprudent". Source The producer, Mr. Bob Kesten, said that in order to make the game more interesting, he had given an indication of how the subjects were to be limited, but there had been no disclosure of specific questions.

Tabloid newspapers reported in bold type on their front pages that competitors were told the questions before recording. A month later, tabloid newspapers apologised in court for conveying an entirely false impression, and published an apology, but much of the damage was done. Across the Atlantic, quiz shows (including their versions of Dotto and Twenty-One) had been taken off air following substantiated allegations of cheating. Though there was nothing more than a seed of doubt here, it was sufficient for the ITA to step in. In this era, it wasn't good enough for television to be clean, it had to be seen to be clean. The rules included a limit of three big prize shows a week, with a top prize limit of £1000. Of these rules the modern-day viewers heard nothing, yet it is impossible to form a fair view of the history of the game show without considering them.

There's a similar problem resonating throughout the show: the role of the regulator has been entirely ignored. Commentators such as Carmody have portrayed the history of ITV as a battle between the commercially-minded owners particularly Delfont and Grade against the left- and right-wing establishments of the 1950s, both opposed to individualism for their own reasons. Source That's a complex argument, and while we might disagree with some of Carmody's specific points, he presents his case in a cogent and clear manner.

By comparison, the documentary doesn't have such a clear thesis. True, it proposes that television acted as a spearhead for greater consumerism, but doesn't investigate the reasons why this took place, nor does it offer evidence for or against its claim. This column's long-held theory is that game shows reflect changes in wider society, and don't act as a leader of thought.

Back at the documentary, we find the big-money prizes have gone (for reasons never explained), and replaced by the likes of University Challenge, Ask the Family, and Mastermind. It's always good to hear Bamber Gascoigne, the wonderfully jaunty theme music, but the original host isn't allowed to expound on his thesis (expressed in 2002) that the show proved that students were human. Did it encourage mass attendance at university? Perhaps, but both parties had already outlined plans to set up a dozen new universities, and Mr. Wilson's government set up the Open University. Still unbeaten on UC after so many years. All three shows are charged with turning swots into stars, acquiring knowledge for its own sake. It's left to John Humphrys to defend the concept that television could actually serve the middle class, and (implicitly) to suggest that that is still a valid aim.

Almost inevitably for Channel 4 clip shows, the questioning is interspersed with comedy clips – The Young Ones taking off University Challenge, The Two Ronnies on Mastermind, and a sketch on Ask the Family by Not the Nine O'Clock News. We don't get a chance to enjoy Dick and Dom's Ask the Family, a revival that would have worked if only they'd had one more running joke.

"In the seventies, easy-prize quizzes were back in fashion," claims the narration. No, they were always allowed, and Take Your Pick and Double Your Money had survived until Associated-Rediffusion came off the air in 1968. That allowed other parts of the ITV network to make its own shows from the quota of three a week – The Golden Shot is ignored, perhaps because it was a sport, Celebrity Squares doesn't feature because it doesn't fit with the show's thesis that quizzes have been the vanguard of the consumer society. Family Fortunes does get a look-in, but more because its contestants had to be as average as possible, and adds weight to the theory that general knowledge fell out of fashion.

Into the 80s, and into The Price is Right. "Greed is good", is the show's interpretation of Crowther and chums. There's no mention of TPIR having to stop gloating over the value of its prizes, just as Sale of the Century had been ticked off a few years before. One of the talking heads says "there's no intellectual element at all", clearly forgetting the Showcase Showdown game based on some tricky inflation questions.

Inevitably, there's a promotion of Channel 4's venerable show Countdown. It's part of a false claim that "game shows retreated to the daytime". That's news to the contestants on Play Your Cards Right, Family Fortunes and – as we showed just a few weeks back – Wipeout, all prime-time regulars. Indeed, ITV thought that the best weapon against Eastenders was an edition of Talking Telephone Numbers.

The nineties began in 1998, with Who Wants to be a Millionaire, described as "the New Labour of shows: something entirely different from what had gone before." We will certainly agree that Millionaire had many new elements, and they're correctly brought out – seeing the answers before answering, people gambling on their own ability to answer the questions, and genuinely life-changing amounts of money. There's merit in the description, Millionaire *is* the New Labour of quizzes, but not in a positive way: it's obsessed with huge amounts of money and treating the common person's wage as something trivial, to be overlooked in the pursuit of massive gain.

There are two glaring omissions around this point in the chronology: the revival after short absences of University Challenge and Mastermind. They were both taken off air for about five years, reinvented on new channels and with new hosts, and still run to great effect. What does this tell us about society? According to the producers, nothing. And there's no mention of the reality shows – Big Brother and its ilk – for they were promoted in an earlier show. We do turn to the "demeaning" shows, The Weakest Link and its many imitators. Anne Robinson is described as "a playground bully", and Peter Bazalgette says that it's a ritualised outlet for stereotypes and discrimination.

So, have quiz shows dumbed down Britain? Of course not. We don't believe a word of Colin Cooper's implicit claim that better performance on IQ tests means that people are becoming more clever, nor that increased university attendance means that people are clever – it's more that the populace is better at doing IQ tests, and government policy over many years has been to expand university admissions.

The narrator says, without any evidence, that quizzes are now testing something called "emotional intelligence". Are Golden Balls and Deal or No Deal games based on strategy? Game theory? Manipulation? Cunning? Has society changed to reward the hustler, or have they just become the fashion of the moment, perhaps inspired by the "winning is all that matters, never mind whose toes you tread on" mentality that some have associated with the Labour government? At this point, we must mention 0898gate, the call-and-lose quiz channels, and the other scandals that have rocked the television applecart over the past eighteen months. It's more than the documentary does.

And we should also mention other shows involving this "emotional intelligence" lark. State Your Case and Money Unlimited: The Touch (both 1956). Play Your Hunch (1962). Cuckoo in the Nest (1973). Tell the Truth and Call My Bluff (both seemingly as old as television itself). True, it's only in the past few years that prizes for the general public have rocketed, but that's to do with relaxations in the regulation. In turn, there are those who argue that there's now too little regulation, and we can be sure that the broadcasting environment will eventually reflect whatever paradigm gains a consensus amongst the political classes.

Orr argued in The Independent this week that 90% of people believe they are brighter than the average. Source Clearly, this is not possible. She says that not being the cream of the intellectual crop should not stop people from having a happy or productive life. Could this have already happened in quizzes? Though Mastermind and UC survive, straightforward rewards for accumulated trivial knowledge have certainly diminished, replaced by tests of more emotional skills (or just plain luck).

Did this documentary fulfil its titular premise, demonstrating how television changed intelligence? Not at all. Did it fulfil the aims it set out in the opening moments, explaining how television quizzes shaped the country's attitude to money and intelligence? Not really; Carmody's explanation remains far more compelling.

Back in 2004, Channel 4 showed Our Survey Said, a set of criteria that would make the greatest game show of all time. The winner, Bullseye, was conspicuous by its absence from this show. So was anything that Bruce Forsyth has ever done. Instead, the show that most closely encapsulates Britain in the twenty-first century? That's Numberwang!

The question we asked in the Game Show Times was – What links: the ultimate ancestor of Dimbleby Minor, the Boss Man, the 13th box, a tribute to Commissioner Korer, and A B or C? Answer later.

University Challenge

Granada for BBC-2, 8.02pm Monday

Heat 1: Hull v City

Here we go again, the fifteenth series of the BBC revival. No changes to the titles, no change to the set, no change (sadly) to the music. And no change to the host, though Jeremy "Thumper" Paxman seems to have gone almost as grey as Phillip Gopherman.

No changes to the rules: starters for ten are on the buzzer, to be answered individually without conferring. Correct answers to buzzer questions entitle the team to three bonus questions, worth a total of 15 points, on which they can and should confer. There's a five-point penalty for an incorrect interruption (or "missignal") to a starter question, but only for the side buzzing first.

Kaya Burgess of City University has the honour of getting the first starter of the series, expanding the term "EDM" in its parliamentary context [1]. City is based in Islington, and has recently acquired the Inns of Court; alumni include two Indian and four British prime ministers. Hull get the second starter, the university has been named as the "most friendly" by a website that needs no publicity from us (but is owned by ITV, as is Granada). Hull's most famous librarian was the poet Philip Larkin.

Both sides get two starters correct before the first visual starter, on Japanese number puzzles: have they never played Bridges or Lights Up? Evidently not, and the match is tied at 50-all. Readers may play the games online, or download small programs, from Simon Tatham. We knew that University Challenge had been around for a long time, but perhaps not so long to be borrowing questions from Cognoscenti Britannici:

Q: In Roman numerals, what is D minus L?
[much thinking]

City begins to pick up speed, taking three starters without answer, but Hull finally troubles its buzzers just before the audio round. It's a piece of Motown brilliance, eventually emerging as a round of Holland / Dozier / Holland classics. Almost a shame to interrupt them with the correct answer, but needs must, and City's lead is 115-65.

City goes from strength to strength in the next few questions, correctly remembering that ERNIE drew the fastest premium bonds in the west and spotting that Essex is uniquely north of the Thames and west of the sea. Hull gets a set of questions about Shakespeare's histories, and on large objects on the edge of the solar system, such as Mr. Mouse's dog and Gabrielle's travelling companion. The second visual round is Name That Israeli Prime Minister, but it's Mr. Peres, and it's a panel-beater, City leads by 160-100.

We never knew that Golda Meir looked so much like Dennis Healey. Anyway, City get a couple of starters, and though they don't get many bonuses, the clock has run down enough for them to be have victory within their grasp. The phrase, "Your bonuses are on sub-atomic particles" do not help. City get to suggest that the painting "Norwegian Wood" was by Yoko Ono; this inaccurate bird has certainly flown. Hull tickles the scoreboard with a couple of starters, and a generous knowledge of the Latin names for parts of the body.

A question is left hanging: the Latin-derived name for a busybody is a "quidnunc". At the gong, City has won comfortably, 230-140. Hull's losing score wouldn't quite have been enough to bring them back in the repechage for high-scoring losers last year, but both sides in the opening match in every previous season have returned one way or another.

Next match: Corpus Christi Oxford v Durham

This Week And Next

A low week for the ratings – Thursday's Eastenders-themed edition of The Weakest Link topped the bill, with just 5.1m viewers. One Versus One Hundred had 4.65m, and Big Brother 4.15m. The debut of ITV's hopeful Who Dares Sings! (which we'll be reviewing next week) had 3.9m. Spare a thought for Saturday's special edition of Link, shunted across to BBC2 after a Brit actually did well at Wimbledon, and seen by just 1.9m. America's Got Talent (ITV2, 675,000) led the digital channels, with QI (DAVE, 440,000) and BB Big Mouth (E4, 405,000) filling the top three. Data for More4 have not been published.

The question gave elements from the first game shows to be broadcast on each of the terrestrial television channels. The first show on BBC-tv was, of course, Spelling Bee; Freddie Grisewood would later go on to radio's Any Questions, currently helmsed by Jonathan Dimbleby. The first on BBC-2 was the long-forgotten improvisation game Impromptu (which had a character called "Boss Man"); ITV had Take Your Pick (Box 13); Channel 4 began with Countdown (with CECIL named after the commissioning editor Cecil Korer); and Channel 5's first foray into game shows was multiple-choice quiz 100%.

After the flurry of new shows last week, there's not much new to pick over this week. Perhaps the highlight falls on Thursday morning, when Mathieu Dousset is scheduled to make his 75th appearance on Tout Le Monde Veut Prendre Sa Place (10.10am, TV5). If he gets there, M. Dousset will tie with Ken Jennings and Ian Lygo by appearing for 75 daily episodes; if he should win that show and two more, he'll break Mr. Lygo's record of 75 victories – M. Dousset suffered his allowed loss after about 40 editions.

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