Weaver's Week 2008-09-07

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Last Thursday marked the tenth anniversary of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. ITV has let the landmark go without any particular celebration, having made quite the song-and-dance about the fifth birthday.


Wogan's Perfect Recall

RDF Media for Channel 4, 5pm weekdays

Richard and Judy have gone from Channel 4. They have left the station, taking their chatter-and-chitter to the forthcoming cable channel UKTV DULL. What have they replaced this jabbering with? Er, more jabbering. This time, instead of getting in the Crown Prince and Princess of Daytime Chat, the slot is hosted by the Lord O'Breakfast Whimsey.

Terry Wogan has been presenting the breakfast show on Radio 2 since the days when it went out on 1500 metres long wave, apart from a short-lived experiment with an early evening chatshow on BBC1. He's also done some game show work – he hosted Blankety Blank, did Come Dancing in the days before it became strict, and ethics show Do the Right Thing. But he's best known in these parts for his commentaries on that annual festival of national pride, the Eurovision Song Contest, about which we'll say no more here.

The show here begins with some large block letters bouncing into each other over a jolly theme tune, suggesting that it's going to be an entirely fun half-hour. But then we see the set. It's sparse, with four podia in a line in front of a great screen. Our host comes on, greets the contestants, and blathers with them for a brief moment. What about that huge expanse on the right of the screen? Please say that you'll be doing something with the right-hand side of the screen. You won't? Oh.

Anyway, after a reasonably short introduction that leaves our toes mercifully uncurled, the game proper gets under way. Twenty questions are to be asked on the buzzer. These aren't the most taxing questions in history. "A clumsy person is a what in a china shop?"

If the first contestant to give an answer gets it wrong, it's opened to the other three. If they get it wrong, the question dies where it stands. It's a rule that brings to mind another great European cultural exchange, Going for Gold. Indeed, there are other similarities: banal questions, a "genial" Irishman hosting, six points being sufficient to pass the first round.

Six points? Yes, each correct answer is worth one point. As there are twenty questions, and the lowest score at the end of the round will leave the show, there's no point in answering more than six questions correctly. Not that anyone realises this, or if they do, they don't act on it.

Why is the show called Perfect Recall? Ah, there's the rub. As each question is answered, correctly or otherwise, the right answer is slotted into a grid behind the contestants. They can't actually turn round and look at the answers, for reasons that will become clear.

As we mentioned, the lowest score at the end of round one leaves the show. Round two follows, with – again – 20 questions on the buzzers. The answers to these questions are the twenty answers displayed on the board. In other words, the answers to the questions in round 2 are the same as those from round 1. According to the producers, the questions in this round are harder than in the first, because the answers are known. We tend to disagree about the level of difficulty. This isn't a new gimmick – Perseverance asked the same questions back in 2005, expecting to hear the same answers within minutes. In the endlessly recycled world of Wogan, that's old enough to be new again.

Again, it's one point per correct answer, and the person with lowest score – and the two podia on the edges – won't come out for round three. It's the same 20 answers, again with different questions. Again, it's a bunch of buzzer questions, and again it's one point per correct answer.

How could this part of the show be improved? Well, we'll start with the scoring system. Rather than resetting the scores to zero each time, they could double the scores each time. One point in the first round, two points in the second, four in the third, lowest cumulative score after each round must leave. As we mentioned, there's no reason for anyone to give more than six correct answers in the first round, or seven in the second. Nor is there any advantage in securing a huge number of correct answers in the opening round – scores are discarded like so many faded and peeling TOGs car stickers.

We're not particular fans of Wogan's conversational style. It's difficult to know when his burble has finished and the question has begun, or what's the exact answer: is it "Halley" or "Halley's". We're not particularly impressed with the show's conceit, replacing general knowledge (facts accumulated over a lifetime) with short-term memory (facts accumulated in less than the half-life of Wogan's audience.)

But the biggest error is in forcing the audience to see the answers. Really, there is a big screen behind the players, showing all the answers they might be choosing from. That'll explain why there's nothing on the right-hand half of the stage, it has to be clear to allow a camera to capture a ginormous video display wall behind the players. Haven't they heard of picture-in-picture displays? Split screens like University Challenge was using half a century ago? For all of Perseverance's faults – and goodness knows there were enough faults – it got one thing absolutely right: let the audience play on a level field with the competitors. Ask the question, but don't give the audience more information than the contestants get. For Perfect Recall, this simply isn't possible. It's not a participation programme, it assumes its viewers are content to soak up the programme, like so many cabbages.

All of this brings us to the final round, where the winner could win some cash. The answers are familiar, they've been heard three times before. Now, the contestant must give as many correct answers as they can in 60 seconds to earn money. The first ten correct answers win nothing, and the prize ramp starts off as a slope. Eleven correct answers are worth £1000, slowly rising so that fifteen are worth £3000. Then it takes off: seventeen correct answers will pay £10,000, and getting all twenty pays the top prize of £100,000.

Before the minute begins, the winner must decide how many questions they're going to get correct. If they meet their bid, they'll be paid the corresponding money. If a contestant bids fourteen and answers fourteen, they'll earn £2500. If they exceed their bid, they'll still only receive money for their bid: if the same contestant answers eighteen correctly, they'll earn £2500 and not the £25,000 listed. If they fail to meet their bid, they leave with nothing. Even if someone bids twenty and makes nineteen, they'll go with no cash prize, only the consolation prize of a silver pig. What, it's an elephant? If you say so, dearie.

Back in 2006, we saw Blackout, a show that tested memory in an interesting and entertaining manner. Over the course of a quiz, put up 24 answers, highlight the first letter. Display only the initial letters on a high-tech internet-linked cybernetic-powered laser-display Wonderwall. Ask the contestants to give the answers from the first letter. That was a good test of memory, and a show that made sense when seen in the original Flemish. This isn't a good test of memory, and doesn't make sense when seen in the original Dutch.

It still doesn't make sense if we see it again an hour later on C4+1.

University Challenge

Match 9: St John's Cambridge v Lincoln Oxford

Colour of the week is Red, and it allows Lincoln Oxford – the best college you've never heard of – to take the first starter. It was founded in 1427 by the Bishop of Lincoln, and alumni include John le Carre. St John's Cambridge don't leave it any longer to get going themselves, answering the second starter. The college was named after John Fischer, the Bishop of Rochester, and played host to Wordsworth, Palmerston, and Douglas Adams. This year's team is almost the second Irish side, as three of the four players are from the emerald isle. Does anyone recall the official name of Sr. Berlusconi's party? It's not called The Tax Dodger's Alliance? You surprise us. The visual round is a curious one, text from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it's the language we're interested in. St John's has a large lead, 70-35.

Thumper has clearly been practising the name of the Indian physicist Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman. And the hard work shows – we had to copy and paste his name, but Thumper read it out as though he were John Smith. St John's lead may have been large, but it's little more than two starters. Two starters later, Lincoln briefly has a lead, but it lasts only until the next starter. Maybe the St John's and Ireland team wasn't the greatest to discuss preserved British railways. The audio round is on music adapted for "A Clockwork Orange", and Lincoln's lead is up to 115-75. Thumper says he told the producer this was too easy.

Lincoln storms through in the third stanza, remembering that well-known banker Paul Wolfowitz, and the man who sunk SocGen. "To sleep, perchance to dream" wakes St John's, and by the second visual round, Lincoln's lead is down to 155-140. The repechage board will be ticking over, whoever wins.

Every member of the St John's side has answered at least one starter question correctly, but they're unable to identify Harold McMillan from his most famous quote. Lincoln shows its expertise on Parma products and other hors d'oeuvres, clearly gunning for the Saturday Night Armistice hors d'oeuvres tree. Just when St John's comes within a starter, the last member of the Lincoln side answers a starter correctly, and the 50-point lead should be enough. Though St John's start to spell "knowledgeable", the gong goes half-way through the answer, and Lincoln winds up winning, 220-185.

The repechage board:

  • St John's Cambridge 185
  • Surrey 170
  • Pembroke Oxford 150
  • Hull 140

Andrew Mendelblat was the dark horse for Lincoln, getting eight starters. His team was correct on 21/36 starters, and there was one missignal. For St John's, Martin O'Leary had five starters, the side 18/30 starters, and one missignal.

Next match: Murray Edwards Cambridge v Sheffield

This Week And Next

The week to 24 August included the start of a long weekend. Not that it hurt The X Factor much, the second audition show pulled in 10.1 million viewers. Ten million viewers over a bank holiday weekend! That's a result. Millionaire inherited 5.6m, and Last Choir Standing was reduced to 4.85m on the results show. Big Brother had 4.1m for the Friday eviction, and Dragons' Den led BBC2 with 3.85m viewers. Three shows recorded their best figures of the year: Mock the Week (3.25m), Maestro (1.85m), and Battle of the Brains (1.6m). Go on, renew it. The X Factor continues its domination of the digital channels, with Saturday's Xtra Factor seen by 1.2m, and the Sunday repeat by 795,000. Come Dine With Me had 635,000 on More4. It's a great week for Take It or Leave It, Tuesday's episode was seen by 145,000 people, and that's Challenge's highest audience for any show this year.

Coming up next week, the live final of Maestro (BBC2, 8.30 Tuesday) and the winner performs on Saturday night. As that show ends, another begins: The Restaurant (BBC2, 9pm Wednesday) hopes to find a couple who will last more than five months in their restaurant. There's a new run of Celebrity Ding Dong (C4, 11.40 Thursday) and Challenge gains a cookery hour at 1pm including Can't Cook, Won't Cook, which we haven't seen in years. Probably for a good reason. Saturday the 13th is a bright day for fans of the Brucie Bonus, as Strictly Come Dancing resumes (BBC1, 6.30), and the winner will play in Europe next season. After that comes Who Dares Wins (7.30) while ITV retaliates with All-Star Family Fortunes (8.30).

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