Weaver's Week 2008-10-19

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Natural Born Sellers

Silver River for ITV, 9pm Thursdays. Er, 10.40pm Thursdays.

Readers with very long memories will recall a time when naked greed was widely applauded in society. The acquisition of wealth for the sake of acquiring wealth was A Good Thing, because it ensured that the economy would grow, that a microscopically small fraction of these gains would trickle down to the people who actually did productive work, thus making them comparatively more affluent, and they could aspire to acquire more of the things that were advertised to them. In these more enlightened times, of course, no-one believes a word of this fairy story, just as no-one seriously believes that the earth is flat, or that ITV has kicked its habit of booting underperforming shows to the extremes of the schedule. But we're getting ahead of ourselves

For Natural Born Sellers, let us go back into the mists of time, to an era far, far away. All the way back to 2007, a time when "credit crunch" was mostly used by people complaining about the microscopic typeface used by the BBC for the end of their programmes. Eight salespeople are gathered up, and told to flog their guts out. Well, not literally, the market for used intestines with one careful owner is rather small, and it's not exactly the path to a long-lasting career. No, they're set targets – either as a group, or as individuals. If the team meets their target, they'll be rewarded with a large bonus for the jackpot. All of the commission they are paid on their sales is also added to the jackpot. Only the ultimate winner can take this cash home.

Like The Weakest Link, round by round the players will diminish in number. It's fairly obvious that the traditional vote wouldn't work here, it would ensure that one of the best players would always go. Instead, the strongest link — er, best seller — in the last round chooses to eliminate one of the two worst performers. The weekly winner also gets the use of a flashy car. Apparently, this counts as a status symbol amongst this strange cult. It's also a symbol to the rest of society.

Now, let's get one thing straight. Natural Born Sellers is a decent programme. We had a lot of difficulty with the show's basic concept, believing that salespeople tend to be a pox on the rest of society. Setting that aside, we found ourselves appreciating the way the show was put together. For instance, the double-glazing episode included a sequence about a telephone that might ring from the front desk, and the tactics employed by the various salespeople to get their hands on the potential customer. There was footage of the phone ringing, and one particular contestant consistently failing to pick it up. In the course of a day, this would be frustrating; when cut and spliced into one minute of screen time, it's entertaining.

Eight contestants was enough to ensure that we wouldn't be bored by following a few people around, but not so many that we'd get confused by all the various people. Nor does the viewer have to linger on extended footage of any individual sale – we're intercutting between the people, sometimes seeing them secure a deal, other times trying to set up appointments or reacting to failures. Though it doesn't come across as a particularly fast-moving programme, Natural Born Sellers covers a lot of ground in very little time. Peter Egan's voice-over is sparse, letting the pictures tell themselves.

While we've no complaint with the show as a piece of television, we do have remaining difficulties with the world it portrays. Returning to the double-glazing episode, one of the sellers found himself with more appointments than he could possibly handle, and asked some of his colleagues to take them over. We heard details of salespeople using hard-sell tactics – pretending to call back to the office to lower the price – even though this sort of thing had been explicitly outlawed by the boss they were working for. We saw evidence of someone parking their car in a disabled bay when they didn't need it. And we saw evidence that some people can't measure up – quite literally, saying that a front window was 144 square metres in size. That's almost a quarter of a football field!

In an attempt to pretend that this show is a competitor to The Apprentice, the producers have enlisted John Caudwell, the boss of a mobile phone company. Mr. Caudwell is the sort of big-hearted entrepreneur who does a lot of work for charity, but doesn't like to talk about it, except for the phrase "John Caudwell's fee has been donated to charity" in the closing credits. He has no objection to people who believe front windows are the size of a volleyball court. He's absolutely fine with people who skip training and go against everything they should have learned there, or park where they'll inconvenience people who need it. But salespeople working as a team? That's an unforgiveable sin, for reasons that were never explained. Clearly, we must have missed the bit of training where ethics went out of the window for salespeople.

It'll be interesting to see if OFCOM receives any complaints about the product placement in this show. The companies supplying the facilities for the salespeople are generally kept hidden, but a certain hotel chain seems to appear a little too often, and a certain make of car is named throughout the show as a status symbol.

Overall, we can see why ITV commissioned this show. It's not particularly bad; the worst part of the show is Mr. Caudwell, who adds nothing to the proceedings and imposes his own morality on other people. What we don't understand is why it bears a 2007 copyright date, showing that it's been sat on the shelf at ITV headquarters for something over a year now. What were they waiting for, the one month of the decade when it was anti-social to be in any way acquisitive? Moving the programme from 9pm to 10.40 is an admission of failure, though keeping it on the flagship ITV channel is also an indication that the show has quality.

University Challenge

Repechage match 1: St John's Cambridge v Pembroke Oxford

We said it a few weeks ago, but it does bear repeating: in the fifteen years of the BBC revival, this series is the first when the losers of the first match haven't come back through the repechage. Hull's 140 was the fifth-best losing score. The best was St John's Cambridge, who lost by 220-185 to Lincoln Oxford at the start of September. Their opponents are Pembroke Oxford, who lost 195-150 to Exeter in mid-August.

Hang on, if Exeter Oxford (last week) were the youngest side in the tournament, how come their local rivals from Pembroke are younger now? Ah, there's been a substitution, the net result of which is to give Roger Tilling a bit of work to do. No longer can he call the captain "Reid", for Chloe has been joined by David Reed, and the two names sound identical when spoken. The solution, of course, is to call them Mr. Reed and Miss Reid, and gain many approving nods from the Robert Robinson fan club.

Word of the week is "Theatre", identified by Pembroke, and it begins a closely-fought series of opening skirmishes. St John's respond with the Hidden Katimski Indicator of the Week, on the redness of coral. The Cambridge side is also superb on events of the 1950s, but Pembroke responds with tales of fictional dogs and their owners. The visual round is on old video consoles, and it's sparked a little quiz on the BBC website. After the pictures, St John's leads by 70-50.

We're mildly disheartened to learn that Pembroke Oxford doesn't know about the rivers in Aberystwyth, still less that it's the site of the national library. St John's get this week's Will Shortz Memorial Puzzle, inserting the letters "GH" into words to form new ones. One starter asks for rhymes that can only be Pontefract, or a fracture. The audio round is on the works of French composers, and St John's is slightly running away with it, slowly extending its lead to 145-80.

Is it really 22 years since Casualty started to bore the pants off the British public? Feels a lot longer. It's only half-way through, but every member of the St John's side has already answered two starters correctly. Even after they're given a definition, the sides show reluctance to answer "Reluctance". The second visual round is on ships in art, and though it ensures everyone on the Oxford side has also answered one starter correctly, St John's has a lead of 210-110.

The Cambridge side are helped by a good guess that the centre of the galaxy lies in the general direction of Sagittarius (and do watch out for a contraflow on the hyper-space bypass if you're heading that way over the next few weeks). Pembroke needs a couple of starters to reach the repechage... no they don't, this is the repechage, and it's strictly knockout from here until the final. We've had questions along the lines of "in the imaginary number a+ib, what does i denote?" a zillion times before, but it's all grist to the St John's mill. They run out the winners by a very comfortable margin, 325-110.

It was a tale of two captains this week; for St John's, Martin O'Leary was right for six starters, and helped the team to a stonking bonus conversion rate: 31/49 is superb work. Pembroke were blown off the floor by the superior buzzer work of the opposition. Chloe Reid had three starters, the team made 9/21 bonuses and picked up one missignal.

Next match: King's Cambridge v Surrey


Episode 7

Here we go, another week, another round of esoteric questions, and it'll be another six months or so until we see the winner again.

Martin Brown is first into the chair, and he's taking Stax Records 1960-72. We'll just list some of the names mentioned in this round: Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, the Finsbury Park Astoria, Isaac Hayes, "Soul limbo". It's a who's who of great sixties soul, and we suggest that there's no better variety of soul. The correct answers stack up, and he finishes on 16 (0).

Gillian Taylor tells us about the "Romney Marsh" novels of Monica Edwards. From what we can gather, these are novels set on the Sussex coast, in the inter-war years. They're aimed at children, and seem to have fallen out of fashion in recent years. Giving correct answers never falls out of fashion, and the contender finishes with a perfect 18 (0).

Ray Driscoll has been researching on The Bismark. That's the German warship, constructed in 1936 in Hamburg, participant in the Battle of Denmark, and sunk in 1941 with the loss of all but five of her crew. The contender benefits from a question that started after the buzzer, and finishes on 13 (0).

Kathryn Powell is the last contestant, she'll take the Welsh Castles of Edward I. From Conwy to Flint, Carnaerfon to Beaumaris, this construction project was primarily a show of strength by a new leader who wanted to show his strength on his conquered kingdom. The round goes a bit too deeply into the politics of the construction, rather than the designs themselves, and ends on 5 (1).

In her chat before the general knowledge round, Kathryn Powell tells us that Edward's plan succeeded, as there were no further rebellions by the Welsh for over two hundred years. It's a very short conversation, but she goes through the general knowledge section at a fair clip, and finishes on 16 (4).

Mr. Driscoll reminds us how Britain depended on the transatlantic shipping trade to remain alive, something the Bismark was threatening. It's another quick chat, which can only mean one thing. He gets the question about the plant imported from China to New Zealand, then re-exported as a fruit so that it attracted a lower tax rate. His final score is 27 (1).

Mr. Brown tells us about the Iron Man triathlon that he's completed. We're exhausted just thinking about the elements. Christmas Creep Watch: a mention of that great October classic "White Christmas", which reminds us that there are only seven more quizzing Fridays until Boxing Day! His final score is 27 (0).

Gillian Taylor, we find, writes cowboy novels. And why not? They are, we're told, still morality tales with baddies, goodies, and overgrown kittens. Given the brevity of the chats, and the scores, it's clear what's going to happen; an appearance by Gyles Brandreth (has he done Celebrity Mastermind yet?) and getting a question right on the buzzer to finish 27 (0).

We have a tie! If we remember correctly, it's only the third tie in the senior edition since the 2003 revival, though the second we've seen this year (see the Week of 23 March). Neither player can locate Hoy, or name the Britten opera, or recall a reflex angle. Both remember who was the Sun King. The difference comes with the Witchetty Grub, a small creepy-crawlie much beloved of Antan Dec's Australian shows. Gillian Taylor knows it, Martin Brown doesn't, and the 2-1 victory takes Gillian Taylor into the next round.

This Week And Next

Ratings for the week to 5 October, and The X Factor (10.85m) beat Strictly Come Dancing (9.65m). Who Dares Wins (5.35m) was more popular than Family Fortunes (4.65m), with UC (2.9m) beating The Restaurant (2.6m) and Buzzcocks (2.35m). On the digital channels, Xtra Factor recorded 1.325m, beating Come Dine With Me and Hell's Kitchen USA. Only Connect improved to 285,000, and UK Gold's final appearance on the list is from Ballroom With the B-List, 150,000 viewers on Friday night. The show transferred to UKTV Watch from the following week.

A lot of big debuts last week, which we'll be reviewing in the coming editions. This coming week sees BBC2 launch Are You an Egghead? (4.30 weekdays), and the final of Britain's Best Dish (ITV, 5pm).

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