Weaver's Week 2008-11-30

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Diverse for CBBC on BBC1, 4.35 Thursdays

Readers with very long memories, and very high pain thresholds, may remember Vote for Me. Something like three years in development, ITV's attempt to merge Pop Idle with politics was thrown out over one week in January 2005, and ended with the ITV post-pub crowd naming one of their number as champion. He was promptly returned by the voters of Folkestone with a flea in his ear. Fast forward to the present day, where the basic idea has been re-heated and served to the youngsters. All the details have been changed, but the basic principle – that this is a test of leadership – survives.

The opening show was perhaps the weakest of the series, showing the last sixteen candidates at Election Boot Camp, being put through their paces in a series of physical challenges. Jumping from a high tower, or leaping to punch balloons, all in the hope of winning gold rings and being crowned supreme champion. No! That's next week! These would-be leaders weren't being test on their physical prowess, but on their leadership qualities. Could they inspire by example? Could they persuade people to overcome their fears? Could they negotiate the challenge to something achievable? Intercut between the footage were profiles of some of the contenders. By a remarkable coincidence, the ten profiled turned out to be the ten who were selected to play in the main game.

The remaining shows fell into a routine. There's a theme to each week – making an impression, recruiting people, public speaking, diplomacy, debating, campaigning, publicity stunts, and inspiration. After introducing the week's concept, the players are divided into two teams. There's a Test of Skills, where the teams are invited to (for instance) sell fruit on a market, or be interviewed without saying "yes" or "no". The better side at this challenge gains an advantage for the second phase.

The second phase? Oh, yes, the test of skills was just a warm-up. There's a main challenge, and the winning team is given a treat, and is safe from elimination. It's in these main challenges that Election shows its quality. Inviting office workers to give up part of their lunch hour to learn the haka or the hula is clearly bonkers, but clearly the right sort of bonkers. Talking to boatloads of tourists on the Thames is almost a prize in itself. Appearing on Newsnight, or working an Ambassador's Reception, the sort of It people would have been asking Jim'll to Fix for them some years ago.

Watching these main challenges is the show's main judge, Jonathan Dimbleby. He used to present a top-rated national Sunday lunchtime politics show on ITV, back in the distant era of 2006 when ITV still made national politics shows. He still presents Radio 4's Any Questions programme, interrupting public speakers for over twenty years now. During the challenge, his role is to watch and observe, not to offer help to any candidate.

The main challenge is judged by the participants – the people on the tour boat, the ambassadors at the reception, the crew of Newsnight. After this result, Mr. Dimbleby meets with the losing team, and discusses where it went wrong. For a tough guy, he's actually really good at this: he's able to deliver honest and frank criticism, but he's got enough humanity to give praise for the elements that were well done, and commiserate along with the side. Eventually, though, he will narrow the field down to two candidates, and he will tell one of them the show's near-catchphrase, "Your campaign's over."

The show's host is Angellica Bell, an experienced CBBC presenter. Her role is to explain the week's topic, introduce the guests, explain the challenge, and have a quick interview with the defeated candidates after they leave. Rather annoyingly, extended interviews are only available on the CBBC website, they're not put on the red button immediately afterwards. This could be because they're typically only two minutes long. There are further bonuses for CBBC website patrons, as each episode will be put online after it's aired and will remain available until the end of the series.

The winner is promised a meeting with the Prime Minister, where they can explain the campaign they outlined in their piece-to-camera in the opening programme. Readers may also recall that there was some uncertainty over whether Dr. Brown would still be prime minister when the series ended in late December; for this reason, he's not named as the prime minister on the broadcast. The candidates don't advocate their policies in each show, they're entirely focused on the task at hand. Only in the final will they attempt to convince their peers that they should put their idea into action.

Image:Election ken livingstone.jpg The caption writes itself.

It's clear that Election has done well with its relatively limited budget. Though all but two of the episodes were filmed in and around London, this is almost inevitable given the UK's centralised political system. There have been guests from all the major political parties – Anne Widdecombe (Conservative), Ken Livingstone (Labour), Vince Cable (Liberal Democrats), Peter Tatchell (Greens). There have also been media people – Emily Maitliss (The National Lottery Come and Have a Go If You Think You're Smart Enough), Michelle Dewberry (The Apprentice), John Loughton (Big Brother Celebrity Hijack).

If we're to be honest, Election isn't so much a re-tread of Vote For Me as a junior version of The Apprentice. Each show has a minor challenge, a major challenge, a winner, and someone being told they're leaving. Sometimes there's a bit of dissent between judge and candidate – to be frank, we're yet to see any time we'd make a different decision from Mr. Dimbleby's. This could be from the show's editing, showing us evidence to back up the conclusion while ignoring anything that contradicts it. We don't think this is the case, but we have no evidence to support or refute our position.

Back in 2005, ITV claimed that it was making a serious attempt to revive interest amongst politicians. The error ITV made was concentrating mainly on the policies of their selected candidates, and not explaining why leaders needed to convince, persuade, or speak. CBBC has no fear of explaining the process that develops a leader, and from this stems the ability to argue their case. It's a far better show than its ITV counterpart. We also reckon that it's far better than The Apprentice, but then we really can't stand Alan Sugar's self-advertisement at all.

University Challenge

Repechage final: St John's Cambridge v King's Cambridge

St John's got here by overpowering Pembroke Oxford 325-110, and King's defeated Surrey 225-150. The sides earlier lost to Lincoln Oxford and St George's London, but that's in the past now, and both can reach the quarter-finals in the next half hour.

Word of the week is "lot", not "allot", and we like it. King's benefits from guessing a writer who might have written about Dorchester; there's Hardy, and, er... We did not know that "snob" was originally a synonym for "cobbler". The sides are taking it in turns to answer starters, then St John's pulls away to lead at the first visual round. The questions are on flags of Yugoslavia and its former constituent bits, and St John's leads 80-35.

We're showing our age by identifying the town from mention of the dogs Mitzi, Daphne, and Lulu. The King's team is far too young to remember Trumpton. Meanwhile, St John's continues to press ahead, picking up the twist on the old chestnut to define VOIP (and not a MODEM). We'll take Thirty Centimetres of the Week:

Q: A gastropod; Paula Radcliffe; a yard; Antan Dec (when viewed as a single entity); a classical typist's chair; Canova's sculpture of the Graces; and a heptamater. These form a series in which each term has, when compared to the previous term, one more what?
St John's, Matthew Dolan: Foot.

The side opens up a three-digit lead before we reach the audio round, on singers who died at the age of 27. The precise figure: St John's leads 195-50.

All eight players manage to answer at least one starter correctly in the game; for King's, no-one has yet answered two correctly. St John's continues to run away with the match, and we find our mind wandering a little. Is there a way to prevent sides from running up the score? Is it unsporting to continue buzzing as hard as one can when 150 points up with a quarter of the game to go? After all, it's possible for sides to recover 30 points in a minute, and teams don't get to pick their opponents. All of this musing takes us to the second visual round, on works recently shown at the Royal Exhibition. St John's has a lead, and it's surely unassailable, 270-100.

Or is it: King's buzzes in quickly on the next starter, and there's just a faint chance that they might pull off the most unlikely win since Gary Jules beat off The Darkness some years ago. Then King's misses all their bonuses, St John's gets a starter on rum, and we write "game over" in our recap.

Two sides have already passed 300 points in this series: Corpus Christi Oxford notched up 330 in their first round match, and St John's had 325 in their previous match. We have a new highest-score of the series, St John's reaches 335 with 90 seconds to spare. Two starters are dropped, King's gets the next starter, and St John's has time for just one starter before the gong. The final score: 345-125.

It's recently been said that the phrase "St John's wins" is a contradiction in terms. We disagree; it's usually the winner of Largest City in Newfoundland, and oftentimes the Windiest Place in North America. This week, Matthew Dolan secured seven starters, as the side answered 35/48 questions correctly. For King's, all four members – Thomas Hooper, James Archer, Petunia Gold, and Matthew Wallen – answered two starters correctly, and the side was correct in 9/24 bonuses.

Countdown Update

Image:Countdown deso and carol square.jpg

We regret to report the death of Michael Wylie, for many years part of the production team on Countdown. Mr. Wylie was the runner-up in the very first series, and amazed the production staff by getting maximum points in the numbers rounds – at this time, most contestants were letters experts. Mr. Wylie left his job as a bookmakers' assistant to join the Countdown production staff. He wrote the various Countdown puzzle books from the mid-90s, and co-authored "Spreading the Word" with Damian Eadie in 2002. Mr. Wylie was last seen filling in at very short notice when Susie Dent was taken ill last year.

Returning to the nation's favourite parlour game, and there are now just ten more episodes of the Des and Carol show left to air. Normally, at this point, we would be able to tell you precisely who will be in the seven-day Finals Week, who will play who, and who we tip to win. This time, things are less clear-cut. There have been just 99 qualifying matches for this series, the fewest since six-month tournaments were introduced a decade ago. And there have been more winners than usual – at the time of writing, 39 people have collected teapots, more than any six-month tournament except the one last spring. The net result is that three good wins will be sufficient to qualify contestants for the knockout phase, a far cry from the all-octochamps finals some years ago.

To briefly introduce the remaining winners: Martin Bishop completed his set of 8 wins, accumulating 809 points. On difficult selections, he did very well. After that came Peter Oliver (1 win, 144 pts), Mark Redhead (2 wins, 209), John Matthews (3 wins, 321), Hilary Bachelor (1 win, 151), and Steve Elcock (2 wins, 227). Denis Kaye is in the champion's chair at the moment, with two wins under his belt. If he loses on Wednesday, or possibly on Tuesday, he will go into this season's finals, but if he wins the three remaining heats, he'll attempt to complete his octochamp run from 2 February next year.

The matches we're currently expecting are:

1) Charlie Reams v 8) Lee Simmonds, the internet wonder against a young man who is a little lucky to be here.

2) Martin Bishop v 7) Alex Horne, two quality players.

These two matches are certain:

3) Junaid Mubeen v 6) Neil MacKenzie, the season's first octochamp against the professional footballer.

4) Kai Laddiman v 5) Debbi Flack, the young prodigy against another entertaining and popular character.

Who will win? It's been a difficult series to predict, and we reckon there's at least one more surprise up its sleeve.


Episode 13

Would we credit it? Half-way through the heats already, only a million more episodes until we reach the next round. Just two more episodes until the Christmas break, when Mastermind gets knocked on the head for competitive gardening (!)

First up is Stuart MacDonald, and he's taking Genghis Khan. Mr. Khan was a notorious warload who moved from his base in Mongolia to conquer most of Asia in the 13th century. He's best known as the subject of the German entry to the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest, a fact that is remarkably absent. It's the only thing missing from this round, which ends on 14 (0).

Geoffrey Lim will tell us about Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries. Gothic architecture isn't about people sitting at their drawing boards dressed in black and moping a lot, it's a style of building with soaring towers and extravagant detail. The score here is 10 (2).

Martin Nichols has the "Rama" novels of Arthur C. Clarke. These are a long series of science-fiction stories, during which we're quite sure something fascinating happens, it's just that this interest isn't really exposed by the questions. Too much on microscopic plot detail, not enough on the plot, and the contender scores 4 (3).

Karl Byrne will discuss Rare Farm Breeds of the British Isles. There's less need for exposition in this round – everyone knows what a farm animal is, everyone knows what rare means, so we can understand the questions, even if we can't answer them. 12 (4) is where the round ends.

Mr. Nichols talks about his family firm, which makes greetings cards for the corner shops and Post Offices, and such knick-knacks as mouse-mats. The question-setters get in a crack against General de Gaulle, and later ask about edible frogs. They don't just throw these questions together, you know! The round ends on 15 (5).

Mr. Lim has travelled the world a bit, and has honourably served his two years in the Singapore army. He compares the soaring Gothic architecture to the current obsession with skyscrapers, two generations trying to reach for the stars. His round includes mention of Mark Anthony and the source of the Thames, and concludes on 16 (4).

Mr. Byrne confronts the dilemma of conserving farm animals: if we want to keep them, we've got to eat them. His father was involved in the conservation arena, and he's done his share of mucking out over the years. He's unfortunate enough to guess "Greenpeace" when the answer's "Friends of the Earth", and is unable to recall the new Russian president. Ivan Maiorovitch, wasn't it? 19 (9).

Dr. MacDonald (a doctor of medicine) runs a one-man practice, and discusses the intricate details of the NHS funding settlement. Mercifully, we move off the subject before we start pining for the gardening shows. Six points are required to win, and those answers are knocked off in relatively short order. Again, he's a little unlucky with the guesses, offering "green paper" when the colour is white, but he does get the gardening question about annuals. His final score is 26 (2).

This Week And Next

Such is ITV's commitment to public service broadcasting that it didn't bother to mention last week-end's Junior Eurovision Song Contest, let alone broadcast the event. GPB of Georgia won, with the song "Bzz..." performed by Bzikebi. We'll reproduce a brief sample of the lyrics, which might explain a few things.

zabzabzbzaro zabzabzbzaro

That's probably helped Mr. Lloyd Webber, who now knows he can enter Cicero and the Placeholders performing that great first-placeholder "Lorem ipsum". They won't be scoring any points from Austria, sadly, as ÖRF is skint, and can't even send two moths, never mind the next Alf Poier or Garry Lux.

Ben Shephard has been confirmed as the new host of ITV's The Krypton Factor. The show is due to return in the new year, promising a logo straight out of 1977.

Theatre news, and Any Dream Will Do winner Lee Mead is to step down from the lead role in the West End production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat". His replacement is to be someone from another casting show, Gareth Gates. Mr. Gates rose to fame in the first run of Pop Idle back in 2001, and descended from fame about two years later.

Just for a change, let's start the viewing figures (week to 16 November) with the digital channels. 1.1m saw ITV2's Xtra Factor, 1.04m I'm a Celeb on 2. Come Dine With Me had a magnificent 990,000 viewers on Sunday night, putting the magic million within reach. Hell's Kitchen USA recorded 815,000 for ITV2. A game show finally cracked BBC3's top ten programmes, the first time that's been done all year – Last Man Standing had 525,000 viewers. BBC4's programme about cryptic crosswords left 410,000 scratching their heads, and there were year's best figures for Scary Sleepover on CITV (200,000) and Skatoony on Cartoon Network (105,000).

No major surprises on the analogue channels: The X Factor had 11.3m on ITV, Strictly had 10m on BBC1, I'm a Celebrity debuted with 9.4m. Hole in the Wall broke into BBC1's top 30 with 4.85m, and QI's one new episode of the year, the Children in Need of Assistance special, was seen by 4.6m. Come Dine with Me on C4 took 3.5m viewers, and Dancing on Two glided to 3.05m, both bests for the year.

Finals are the main attraction this week – Are You an Egghead? concludes on Tuesday, Raven on Thursday, and I'm a Celeb on Friday. Bargain Hunt Famous Finds comes to BBC2 daytimes (5.15), and UKTV Watch has the Strictly Come Dancing Story (Friday 9pm).

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