Weaver's Week 2008-11-02

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With no University Challenge this week, we've got a little more space than usual We'll use that space to review recent shows from Northern Ireland.


Panic Attack

Lucky Monday for BBC1 Northern Ireland, 11 April – 23 May

Readers from outside Northern Ireland probably won't know Stephen Nolan. True, he does the weekend evening show on Radio 5, but no-one listens to Radio 2 at that time of the week, let alone Radio 5. Nolan's other jobs are hosting a 90-minute daily phone-in show on BBC Radio Ulster, and a weekly hour-long debate show on the television. He's won more Radio Academy awards than any other individual person, and seems to be one of the few people who everyone in Ulsterland has heard of, even if they don't hear him regularly. After watching a sample episode of Panic Attack, we reckon that the rest of the country could be seeing some more of young Nolan.

Just as in French fancy Tout le Monde Veut Prendre Sa Place, the star of the show is a big red chair. For reasons that are never explored, this chair is formed from three plastic blobs, linked together by a flat bit. It seems to be entirely uncomfortable.

Stephen Nolan introduces the game by saying that seven contestants will play, but we can only see six of them to start with. They're in two rows of three, running up to a giant video screen. Stretching from the chair to the screen is a catwalk of lights. The studio also seems to have a job lot of those swivelling spotlights that we really don't like. The seventh contestant will take their position in the seat, and be first to play the opening round.

Round one is familiar from Family Fortunes. Millward Brown has surveyed 100 people from around Northern Ireland, and collated their top six responses. The person in the Big Red Chair is invited to name those top six in 30 seconds. Incorrect answers won't be penalised, correct answers will be displayed.

If the contestant can give all those right answers, then everyone will be very impressed indeed, because this is far more difficult than it sounds. Most times, the player in Big Red will miss one or more of the right answers. As soon as time expires, a second countdown begins. And by Jove, if it's not the ten-second countdown discarded when The Con.Test was quietly axed!

During these ten seconds, any of the contestants on the sides can buzz in and attempt to supply one of the missing answers. If they buzz in and are right, they take over ownership of Big Red, and the previous occupant is unceremoniously booted out. If someone buzzes in but their answer is not on the board, they're out of the game. Should no-one want to chance their arm, or if the original player completes the category, then whoever's in the Big Red Chair gets to eliminate one of the people on the wings.

After each of these rounds, one person is eliminated. We'll repeat this until the original seven have become two, a process that occupies something like 17 minutes on screen, slightly more than half the show. We're impressed with the way Stephen Nolan is able to make sure the elimination bits are tense, but not threatening; and with the way he's able to laugh at and laugh with the contestants at the same time.

Anyway, rinse and repeat until two people remain. Round two is a general knowledge section. Though the furniture has been retired for now, the person who would have been sitting in the Big Red Chair sees a question and three possible options. This person has 30 seconds to decide what they'll be doing. They can play one of the three options, or they can press a Big Red Plunger and throw the question to their opponent.

Only if the player chooses to pass the question does their opponent see the potential answers, and they're only allowed ten seconds to make up their mind. "Will you play or panic?" asks Nolan; we reckon that it's more of a panic for the opponent than for the person in control. Sometimes, Nolan will tell us how many of the surveyed people got it right, sometimes he won't. A point for the player who gives a correct answer; a point to the opponent if an incorrect answer is given, or no answer is on the table when time runs out. Whoever picks up a point on one question is in control for the next, and the first to three points wins.

The winner progresses to the final round, where they're invited to match answers to a question with one of six people introduced on a video wall. There's a limit of 20 seconds to answer, plus 10 seconds for each correct answer given. Each correct answer is worth £500, and completing the set of six ups the prize to £5000.

There's also a bail-out button that the contestant has to push before the clock reaches zero to claim their winnings, but this is nullified by the fact that the amount of time left is displayed on the screen, and the crowd starts to get anxious. We reckon that this button could go without affecting the play whatsoever – just let them win what's on the screen when time reaches zero.

We're assuming that the video wall answers have been selected because they're relatively mainstream selections, but it still feels a very difficult jackpot to win. Difficult, but – like The Surely Impossible Way of the Warrior – not impossible.

Our colleagues in the main review reckon that this show could easily play nationally. They're right, and we'll say exactly where it should go on the network schedule: the Lottery slot. Play round one, reducing from seven to two, and perhaps bring in spot prizes along the way for getting selected answers. Then insert the first Lottery Corp. commercial break before the five-question play-off. Another commercial break follows before the grand final, played for £10,000 per correct answer. And we'll keep Stephen Nolan as host, he's got the patter down to a tee.

We've Also Watched...

The Blame Game has been confusing us for some years. The basic format is of a host, two resident panellists, and two guests. In a nod to the BBC's venerable travelling show Question Time, members of the public ask, "Who does the panel blame for..." whatever the concern of the week is. Who does the panel blame for Alistair Darling's Eyebrows? The poor performance of the sport team? Rubbish left on people's answering machines? It's an excuse for the panellists to tell some cracking jokes, some of them making no sense outside the island of Ireland, some of them working well in Great Britain. There are five or six such questions, getting quicker as the show goes on, and the programme ends with a quick round of "Complete the headlines".

As topical comedy programmes go, it's a good format; perhaps a little derivative of Radio 1's Loose Talk (1991), but seeing as how the only people who remember that are us and Mark Steel, we'll let that pass. The conceit of always asking who the panel blames for something is a decent satire at all the other shows, which implicitly ask who the panel blames. And, given where we are, the correct answer would usually be "Patrick Kielty", "Geraldine McQueen", "Derek Mooney", or "Dustin the Turkey". But it is a title that's misled us since day one, for there are no points, just contributions. That, sadly, means the show isn't a game show within our regular definition. It's still got more pace than many editions of Have I Got News for You, mind.

By comparison, Gaisce Gnó is a newcomer, it's only been confusing viewers for six weeks. The show invites the Bright Sparks (a team of youngsters) and the Big Shots (a team of adults) to create a new product to be bought by young people. It's hosted by an attractive brunette, and ends with the target audience choosing between prototypes of the two products. If this sounds like a direct photocopy of Beat the Boss, that's because it is a direct photocopy of Beat the Boss. The difference is that Gaisce Gnó is produced entirely in Irish (but does carry in-vision subtitles for those of us who only understand English). We don't make a habit of watching the original, and found the language barrier sufficient to ensure that one episode was enough.

And, just for completeness, we've been watching Petrolheads on the billing that it's a sort of Scrapheap Challenge with Irish accents. This was an error. While there are people trying to improve their vehicle by using bits of old cars, this is just a short insert into a motoring magazine. We find Top Gear completely insufferable, and the regional programme had us reaching for our remotes within minutes.


Episode 9

A quick word on last week's match. Andy Watson points out that Mel Kinsey has been on Mastermind before – indeed, he was the runner-up in the 1995 grand final. Bart Smith captained the British Library to University Challenge: The Professionals in 2004. Why didn't we notice this at the time? Because the BBC's database of all contributors ever was withdrawn in December last year, and the promised replacement still hasn't arrived. Come on, Auntie, we've got facts to research here.

Nicholas Flindall begins this week's show, he's taking the Harry Palmer novels of Len Deighton. Names like "The Ipcress Files" float into view, as does the Berlin airlift, and Facts For Freedom. The round ends on 15 (1).

John Dickinson will discuss the Life and Music of Tom Paxton. We know that he was (or is) a musician active from the mid-50s, who worked with the Beatles. But there's an awful lot of trivia, and the subject isn't well explained to the casual viewer, which is surely half the fun of Mastermind. 12 (2).

Katherine Jelfs has The Athenian Empire, 479-404BC. It's the era when women protested against unpopular wars by refusing to share beds with their husbands, rather than standing outside the forum shouting. The contender posts another very good score, 14 (2).

There's little room for error as Ashley Allen begins his Life and Work of Richard Feynman, a physicist who worked on the atomic bomb, solved the crash of the Challenger, and won the Nobel prize in 1965. His round doesn't have many errors, but the length of the questions means it ends on 11 (0).

Mr. Allen is challenged to explain what a theoretical physicist does in 30 seconds. Understanding how the universe works, atom by atom, though if someone thinks they understand quantum mechanics, they don't understand quantum mechanics. It's a joke, and probably better than anything on Radio 2. Anyway, the round ends on 22 (1).

According to Mr. Dickinson, Tom Paxton is (and the present tense is correct) as good as Bob Dylan. Knowing approximately nothing about the subject, we'll certainly take his word for it. Questions range from Will Carling to the catchphrase "I don't believe it!", and the final score is 16 (8).

Mrs. Jelfs is accused of taking a Large Subject; it's certainly one about which much has been written, and may be the earliest era from which written records survive. She discusses ostracism, a process by which people were asked to leave the city for ten years; these days, we call it Big Brother. Though the round starts well, it also falls into a run of passes, and ends on 20 (12).

Mr. Flindall was an accountant for NATO during the Cold War, which is something John "Smallhead" Humphrys finds absolutely fascinating. It reflects in his choice of specialist subject, to which Mr. Flindall eventually steers the conversation. He only needs eight to win, and the combination of Colin Montgomerie and Jeremy Thorpe pushes him past the post, ending on 23 (5).

This Week And Next

Image:Square National Television Awards.jpg

The ITV Television Awards, voted by viewers of ITV, were dished out this week. Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1) won the Most Popular Talent Show award, and Antan Dec (0898) won Most Popular Entertainment Presenters. We didn't notice if this award was decided by a premium-rate phone-in. Simon Scowell (ITV) would have left the building empty-handed, except that the judges handed him the Special Recognition Prize. It's the high trousers that gave it away. Best Children's Programme went to Doctor Who (CBBC), a result so wrong it's 100 away from winning back a life.

The nominees for the BAFTA Children's Awards have been announced. They're almost devoid of game show content; only Escape from Scorpion Island is nominated, in the Popular Vote: Television section, and it's up against the double-whammy of Blue Peter and The Sarah Jane Adventures. And the inevitable winners, Chucklevision. Never mind, we reckon the second series of Scorpion Island knocks spots off the first series – it's finally become a coherent show.

Viewing figures for the week to 19 October gave The X Factor a win, 10.2m compared to Strictly's 9.3m. HIGNFY returned with a year's best 6.15m on Friday, and 2.2m on Saturday; Family Fortunes was seen by 5.8m, Millionaire by 4.45m. University Challenge (2.85m) continued to nose ahead of Heroes, with old episodes of QI (2.6m) beating new shows of The Restaurant and Buzzcocks (both 2.55m). Dancing on Two was scarcely behind on 2.5m. On the digital tier, Xtra Factor had 1.065m discussing the ejection of The Bad Singers, and 840,000 saw the Sunday repeat. Hell's Kitchen USA reached 690,000.

Coming up next week, we've the debut of Kerwhizz (BBC1, 3.05 Monday), the first quiz show aimed at people under five since the heyday of The Shiny Show. At the other end of the spectrum, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue makes a welcome return in repeat form (BBC7, 12.30 and 7.30 Thursday), and Natural Born Sellers reaches its grand final (ITV, 10.40 Thursday). And, just to annoy us, TV5 will air the 20th anniversary championship of QUESTIONS POUR UN CHAMPION this week, and not (as they said last week) last night.

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