Weaver's Week 2008-10-12

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In the beginning, there was Saturday morning. It had Phillip and Sarah, Neil and Sandi, Zoe and Jamie, Ant and Dec. This is the week to cover Saturday morning television.


Hot Rods

Endemol Scotland for CBBC, shown on BBC2 Saturday mornings

Somewhere in the side of a mountain is Zoe Salmon. The quondam Blue Peter presenter has her hair tied back in a fierce ponytail, and we suspect she's channelling the spirit of Anna Galvin in her signature role as Android in Scavengers. We quickly meet the teams, and spend somewhat longer discussing the large number of prizes they could win. We know that the BBC has always said that the main feature of children's shows should be the experience, not the prizes, but with this and Get 100, we wonder if the reward is the main thing.

Image:Hot rods zoe orb.jpg Special difficulties: value of rods not known until extraction

We begin with a number of challenges. These are faintly familiar from somewhere else. One challenge we've seen involved the child standing on a circular thingummy, using their weight to guide a ball through a maze to the exit. Another challenge involved using long sticks to move nuclear rods into the required spaces. Hmm. It's almost as if the host should be wearing something to make her look bald.

Each of these challenges is played by both sides. After each challenge, both sides will pull a rod out of the large orb we saw crashing into the mountain during the opening titles. If the side passed their challenge, the points they scored will be credited to their score; if they failed their challenge, the points will be credited to the opposition. Of course, if only one side passed, they'll score from both rods. The value of their score is determined by the rods, which are hidden in the depths of the orb. Let's be brutal, this bit of the show is a guessing game. Nothing more, nothing less.

Image:Hot rods plutonium rods.jpg Plutonium Rods: put the teacup in the teapot. Or something.

It's a fact that children really, really liked The Crystal Maze. It's also a fact that children seem to be watching Deal or No Deal in their droves. The first fact is true because it was a brilliant series, and everyone agreed that the kiddies were better at the games than the grown-ups. The second fact may only be true because there's not much else to see on the television in the afternoon any more. Based on that, we reckon that the show should really be making most of the challenges. Instead, it talks a lot about the possibilities of the rod-pulling, and talks a lot about the prizes that the teams could win. We reckon this is a bit of a miss, because all this jabbery is entirely boring.

The show has something that might pass as a catchphrase: "It's never over until the last rod is pulled." Even if one side has accumulated a huge lead, there is a Tie the Leader clause: one of the thirty or so rods in the orb is The Dark Rod. If this comes out of the orb, the scores are reset to zero. It's an event we've not seen happen, but it is there, and Zoe continues to go on about it at every opportunity.

Image:Hot rods prize line.jpg Success or failure moves the pointer along the line

We do like the presentation of the scores. It would be possible to show them by adding points to the appropriate side's score, and working out the difference, but the choice is to work only with the differences, and attach prizes to those differences. It sounds complex, but it is very clearly explained.

This is an Endemol production, and what Endemol production would be complete without an all-or-nothing gamble at the end? The winning team is allowed to gamble: the prizes to 10,000 points, the prizes to 20,000, all the prizes to 30,000, and then all nine prizes nominated by their opponents. Four regular rods, and the one dark rod, are inserted into the orb. If the team pulls a regular rod, they advance to the next level; if they pull the dark rod, they leave with nothing. The team doesn't have to play at any stage, and Zoe makes no attempt to influence the team one way or the other. There is a bit of a catch on this: if the team has won by more than 10,000 points, one of the good rods is removed, ensuring that the final gamble will still be a 50-50 shot. That strikes us as a little unfair on those sides that have done really well.

There are a lot of good things about this show: the music by Marc Sylvan and Richard Jaques is of a high standard. The set design – particularly the Orb – is solid, and the whole show has an air of purpose and confidence. But it's let down by the protracted monologues about the possibilities available to the teams when they're pulling their rods. We don't need Zoe to tell us the blatantly obvious. Let the teams tell us what they're after: a big number to extend a lead, a small number if they're giving points away. Cut the chatter, perhaps tweak the endgame, squeeze a bit more competition in.

Scene Stealers

Alchemy Reality for BBC Switch, shown on BBC2 12.30 Saturday

The basic concept is simplicity itself: two young adults are given a weekend to learn enough that they can pass themselves off as belonging to a particular youth subculture. If this sounds like Channel 4's long-lived Faking It, it probably should. And if readers liked Faking It, or would have liked it if they'd been allowed up to see it, they'll probably like Scene Stealers.

The youngsters already believe that they belong to a particular sub-section of teenage society. Now, to the people who cower behind their picket fences, the only sort of teenager is the aggressive teenager, who will whip a knife from out of their hoodie and use it on anyone who dares to look at their mobile telephone blasting out the first-class hits of MC Yoogene and DJ Paper Boiz. However, to the people who are still young, there are many different subcultures. Even to some of the participants, there's a huge overlap: we're never clear on the distinction between goths and emos, or between the chav and the rude. Pass the pipe and slippers, Mildred.

Image:Scene stealers imposter.jpg Who is the imposter in this line-up? Our money's on the bloke in the middle.

But we digress. The plot, such as it is, involves young gentleman from group A, and young lady from group B, travelling to a gentleman and a lady mentor. The mentors deem themselves to be part of group C. There's a brief two-handed discussion, there's a shopping and visual makeover trip, there's some sort of activity (usually involving a trip to a nightclub). There's a date, in which the two contestants meet up without realising they're actually in competition with each other. Finally, there's the denouement, in which the two are grilled by three self-proclaimed experts in the scene, in a venue known on the show as the High Court of This Week's Scene. The rest of the world knows it as the hyper-exotic Croydon Ballroom. The panel passes judgement, a winner is declared, and that's it.

Views on this format tend to be mixed. Some people have called this the worst idea since the invention of private equity, saying that it's sacrilege to encourage true Fooers to dabble in the dark arts of Barrite. This says more about the commentator than the show, as they're clearly so insecure in themselves that they cling to their scene just as Linus holds on to his safety blanket.

Our view is that Scene Stealers is a very subtle piece of propaganda against this defensive view. By showing how easy it is for someone to move from one group to another, and how people can be convincing after less than 48 hours of exposure, the show demonstrates the shallow nature of these scenes. See this posh kid? Two days from now, she'll be a more than credible hippie, and rightly gutted when the well-dressed bloke convinced the judges a little more. More generally, the youngsters are taken away from their security blanket, away from their usual hangouts, and given permission to experiment with other cultures. We approve of people trying to find out more about themselves.

Image:Scene stealers big hair.jpg Not your average polo player

We can't give the series unqualified praise. It relies on stereotypes of cultural subgroups – that all boy racers will talk about cars, that all WAG-wannabes will be blonde and ditzy, that all goths will mope around Camden. (Indeed, the whole show seems to demonstrate a distinct pro-London bias.) And we found the idea that there had to be competition between the contestants a little false: would it be possible for the judges to determine that both (or neither) were impostors?

We're a little uneasy about the number of lies told on the show: the contestants are told they're meeting another person in that week's scene, without being told that the other has also been at it for 36 hours. That's a sin of omission. That the judges are told that one of the people before them is a real, and the other an impostor, is a bare-faced fib.

Scene Stealers moves at a decent enough pace, carefully intercutting between the two candidates. Jeff Leach's narration is subtle, doesn't sneer, and avoids the trap of stating the blindingly obvious. And the whole show does leave us wanting some more, perhaps a follow-up show at the end of the series, meeting some or all of the contestants and mentors again, and seeing if there's been any lasting effect from those mad week-ends.

University Challenge

Match 14: Exeter Oxford v St Andrews

This week's first starter is on the Spanish Civil War, and it goes to St Andrews. During term time, one out of three people in the city is a student. The side is famed for its scarlet robes, though only one of the side is wearing hers tonight. St Andrews has had a spotty performance in recent years – champions in 1982, semi-finalists in 2004, but twice exiting with very low scores.

Exeter Oxford is the 28th and final side to enter the televised stages this year. It's another long-established college, most recently famed as the model for Jordan College in His Dark Materials, and the location of the death of Endeavour Morse. Thumper says that the side is the youngest in this year's competition, and as if to prove it, their first starter is on that entirely grown-up subject, The Cbeebies Channel. We can tell that the sides are getting younger: it takes forever for them to add up the red, yellow, green, and blue snooker balls. Back in the 1980s, when the sport was all over the television, everyone knew the answer was 11. The first visual round is on countries that are members of various international organisations, and Exeter Oxford has a substantial lead, 60-15.

The fightback starts here, with St Andrews' History PhD candidate taking a starter on, er, history. The Scottish side have two historians and two astrophysicists (both of those PhD candidates); the Oxford side is more mixed, with students of Chemistry and English amongst their number. The English student gets a starter on, er, English literature. They also get a question on Hamiltonian mechanics, something that most people tend to find inferior to Celtic mechanics and Rangers mechanics. We've reached the audio round, on works featured in feature films. St Andrews has pegged back some way, but Exeter still leads, 95-75.

What? You mean that when the Italians sing about donning Skippy's helmet, they're singing about the man who beat Hannibal and not the squirrel nephew of Slappy? Oh de schone! St Andrews knew that, pull within five, but they pick up a missignal, Exeter takes the starter, and pulls away once more. St Andrews aren't to be kept down, and close the gap to ten. We're really impressed that Katie McGettigan can deduce "reluctant" as the prefix to three book titles, we didn't get any of them. Visual round two is on great French intellectuals of the twentieth century, and Exeter Oxford has pulled away a little, 125-95.

Suddenly, St Andrews has come from nowhere to take the lead, but a set of bonuses on Greek literature don't help them much. Getting the starters right is at least half the battle, it runs down the clock and prevents their opponents from scoring. Knowledge that the French president lives at the Elysee Palace pushes St Andrews past 150 points, and assured of a return match – so long as they don't missignal it away. The inventors of the floppy disk just about wrap up the game for them, but Exeter needs only two starters and one good set of bonuses to push Pembroke out of the repechage. They get the first starter, and one bonus, but that's as far as Exeter Oxford can go. St Andrews has come from behind to win the match, 190-135.

The repechage board is finished:

  • St John's Cambridge 185
  • King's Cambridge 180
  • Surrey 170
  • Pembroke Oxford 150

An unfortunate exit for Exeter, led from the front by Katie McGettigan with five starters. The side made 10/27 bonuses with one missignal. Everyone on the St Andrews side answered at least one starter correctly; Daniel Thomas had five, and the team were correct in 16/35 bonuses, with two missignals.

Next match: St John's Cambridge v Pembroke Oxford


Episode 6

"Like the hundreds who have gone before them..." begins our host tonight. Yep, that'll be the hundreds who have competed in the million episodes so far this series. We do go on about the way this show goes on, but note that University Challenge has already introduced its winner, and it's only just warming up. Mastermind feels like it's been on for months, and we're still only a quarter of the way through the heats.

John Benyon begins with Grigory Rasputin. He was born in Siberia, survived efforts at assassination by poisoning, shooting, and being interviewed by Mark Lawson, and is best known for being a cat that really was gone. The contender gives a near-perfect round, ending on 15 (0).

Next is Jeremy Pick, taking West Coast Underground Comics 1964-75. This isn't a round about the drawings found in tunnels on train lines out of Euston, but a series of independently-published comics from the Pacific coast. The releases may have been full of fire, but the contender finishes on 11 (2).

The first female contender for some weeks is Kathryn Price, with the Gospels of the New Testament. These are... oh, just the most widely-read writings in the English language. There are questions about prejudice against people from Nazareth, and the contender knows her bible like a preacher, finishing on 14 (0).

And finally, Olav Bjortomt will take West Indies Test Cricket 1976-91. He is a Famous Name in the world of quiz, sometimes described as a quiz machine in The People's Quiz 2007. He's a Fifteen-to-One finalist, sets questions for Only Connect, and – er – is not doing too well with these questions. Indeed, he only finishes on 8 (0), which is a bit of a surprise.

Mr. Bjortomt confirms that 76-91 was The Glory Era for West Indies cricket; they were big and strong, beat everyone (except New Zealand, who they only played once), and inspiring Rory Bremner to make a comedy record. Almost inevitably, he goes through the general knowledge questions at a rate of knots, but it's still almost a full minute before he moves ahead of Mr. Benyon. He ends on 22 (0), and that's probably not going to win the day.

Mr. Pick talks about his work for a well-known motorcycle manufacturer, and discusses their Hog Rallies. Apparently, it's got nothing to do with bacon, but he promises to save Mr. Humphrys a place at the rally. Wonder if they'll be talking about good interview techniques, such as listening to the answer before formulating a question. Anyway, Mr. Pick starts with Dickens's famous Yuletide-sceptic, passes through men of higher standing, finishes with Elle MacPherson, and a 20 (2) score.

Kathryn Price is asked which gospel to believe. Well, three different interviewers could talk to the finance minister this week, and leave their audience with three completely different impressions; which one do we believe? She knows the gospel like a preacher because she is a preacher, which has a certain logic. She doesn't remember Jonathan Aiken, the not-as-well-known-as-we-thought liar, and ends on 21 (3).

So, eight for Mr. Benyon to win, seven to force a tie-break. Mr. Humphrys goes long about Mr. Rasputin's humble beginnings, and his way with the ladies. The Tsarina believed he could heal her son, which was not correct. Mr. Benyon's answers are mostly correct, ending on 29 (0).

Oh, those clever people.

This Week And Next

Quickly through the ratings to 28 September: 9.45m for X Factor, 9m for Strictly, 5m for Who Dares Wins. SCD Takes Two begins with 2.15m. On the digital tier, Xtra Factor takes 1.05m, X Factor repeats 965,000, and we say hello to BBC4's Only Connect, recording an audience of 255,000 for its second transmission. We smell a major hit.

Channel 4 has a spoof of talent shows tonight, Britain's Got the Pop Factor and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice (from 8pm; Friday on S4C). Channel 5's revival of Going for Gold takes to the air on Monday (12.45 and 2.50), and there are new series of Last Man Standing (BBC3, 9pm Tuesday) and Have I Got News for You (BBC1, 9pm Friday except NI). Children get a chance to rule the world in Election (BBC1, 4.35 Thursday).

Next Saturday has another The X Factor marathon, running from 7.25 to 11.40, and performing songs made famous by the King of pop, Cliff Richard. By contrast, the CBC's coverage of Tuesday's election results in Canada will run from 9pm to 1am. They'll be electing 308 MPs in less time than it takes Britain to decide the eleventh least-hopeless contestant on a talent show. Still, at least the Canadians won't have to do it all again next week... they hope.

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