Weaver's Week 2009-02-08

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Total Wipeout

BBC1, Saturday evenings about 6pm

Goodness, that Richard Hammond gets everywhere, doesn't he. It only feels like a few minutes since we were last watching him blow up some prizes while quietly educating the nation's children (see our review of Blast Lab two weeks ago). Now, he's on BBC1's Saturday evenings, in the slot vacated by Hole in the Wall. Dale and his movable block was a surprise hit last autumn, and the new show had a lot to live up to. The format has been sold around the world, including episodes in a language close to English.

Other elements may change, but the large red spheres always remain.

The basic premise is that 20 contestants have been flown to Argentina, where the world's most difficult obstacle course is situated. Or, to be exact, what we're told is the world' most difficult obstacle course. The claim will get some hackles up; in Japan, there are the unforgiving courses of Viking and Ninja Warrior, and closer to home is Raven's Surely Impossible Way of the Warrior. There's a massive difference between Total Wipeout's course and the others: failing an element in Argentina doesn't mean instant elimination. To win the other courses, contenders must complete every element correctly, and sometimes within a strict time limit. The others are a test of skill and athleticism; Total Wipeout is as much an athletic test as it is one of perseverance and the ability to make a fool of oneself on network television.

Round one takes all twenty contenders, and gets them to go round the same course. Not all twenty have their runs shown in full, but we get to see enough of them. In fact, we get to see more than enough, as the huge red spheres, or the swing across to the finishing platform, but mostly swimming around the obstacles / through the mud. Anyway, this all become more than a little tedious. Mr. Hammond gives a slightly sarcastic commentary, Amanda Byram (who? Exactly) has a quick word with some of the contenders before they start their challenge, and that's about it. Half-an-hour of this has us checking our watches, or to be exact checking Ceefax and then our pools coupons. And we don't even play the pools!

The last two contenders ask to bring on the arm.

Eventually, the first round has ended, and eight people have proven good enough at falling in the water and not finishing the course to be sent home. The remaining twelve are put on small pedestals in the middle of a lake, and invited to jump over a rotating arm. The arm, we're assured, gets higher and spins faster. The first six people to be knocked off their perches and into the water are out of the game, the remaining six continue for the sheer desire of filling a bit of time. Mr. Hammond gives some slow-motion replays to explain what happened; in the confusing first rotation, this is worthwhile, but there are only so many variations on "...and he just didn't get his leg over."

Round three involves six people, they're spun round for 40 seconds, then asked to make their way across a lake. Depending on the round, they either use some tilting tables (sheets of wood that tip from left to right) or some movable planks, or some such construction. Either way, the last person across each time is out, and the whole thing repeats until three remain, or the producers remember that they've left the gas on and bring the round to a premature conclusion.

The final course is lit by fireworks if completed.

The final is perhaps closer to the Japanese courses: there's a string of elements – jumping over rolling barrels, walking along a waterfall, jumping to trampolines – and the remaining contenders must complete every element correctly to progress. They don't have to complete every element in an unbroken succession, if they fall off half-way round they can and should go back and do it again. Fastest time round the course wins £10,000 and gets to hold up a trophy.

And, er, that's it. To be honest, we're entirely perplexed by many elements here. First, and most obviously, the timing. The show is just under an hour long, and it's at least twenty minutes too long. The padding is quite obvious, and the slow pace does the show no favours. The commentary also lacks a certain something: Mr. Hammond could use someone to bounce off, and we're not bothered whether that's a sports commentator or another entertaining commentator. The show's final problem is that it's the same every week. Once you've seen one show, you've seen them all.

Many of these problems are familiar. Escape from Scorpion Island, for instance, has at least ten minutes of recap and filler in each hour-long show. They get around the commentator problem by having JK and Joel be subtly entertaining in their pieces, and the cries of familiarity are side-stepped by keeping the same cast, but mixing the challenges and the participants up each time.

The lack of variety will make or break the programme. We would have thought that Hole in the Wall exhausted all its variations within about one episode, but it seemed to maintain its popularity through the autumn. If seeing something broadly similar each week is really what the Grate British Public wants (and, remember, ten million of them still watch Coronation Street) then Total Wipeout will be a hit.


Heat 15, 30 January

If we're going to cover something, we'll cover it properly, and after the excesses of Countdown and Eurovision last week, we couldn't give a fair write-up of last week's Mastermind until we'd had a good rest. A bit like the show: this is the first regular episode for eight weeks. It's almost as if they've been saving us up for something completely improbable.

Next year: Sid Snot answers questions on pressing flowers.

Rev. Duncan Swan begins, with British Punk of the Late 1970s. A vicar telling us about punk music. As one does. It wasn't the biggest subject area, but nor was it small enough for any performer to appear more than once. There's a mention of "The Lord's Prayer" as performed by Siouxsie, but the host decorously refers to "The Sex Pistols' first album". The round ends with 13 correct answers (2 passes).

John Rigby continues with The Ashes series of 1902. This was the series made famous when Australia was bowled out for just 36 runs, and one of the English batsmen scored a century before lunch. The round doesn't clearly give the score: England lost 1-2, and Mr. Rigby finished on 12 (0)

Edward Pearce is taking the Life and Work of A E Housman, the poet and classical scholar, best known for his work "A Shropshire Lad". This is a very strong round, ending on 16 (0).

Robert Collard will take us through the Trans-Siberian Railway and its History. "To the Atlantic!" was the inscription at the Moscow end, then through the Urals and passing China to end in Vladivostok. The trains take slightly longer than two minutes. The round concludes on 13 (3).

Mr. Rigby tells us how one of the players, Fry, was later offered the throne of Albania as a practical joke against his high self-opinion. His general knowledge round features a couple of near misses, and ends on 21 (3).

Rev. Swan tells us that he came across punk as a spotty teenager, and appreciated the ethic that anyone can have a go. There's almost a sermon in that thought. His general knowledge round includes a snippet from the lyric of Bowie's "Life on Mars", and that's one of many correct answers. He finishes on 26 (2).

Mr. Collard was a teacher of English as a foreign language in Japan, but had very little Japanese when he was there. His return from Japan was overland, via Hong Kong and Peking, and tells us how proud the Russians are of their service. Readers who may wish to follow in Mr. Collard's footsteps may wish to consult The Man in Seat 61. So long have we waffled that we've missed the round, just time to give the final score of 18 (5)

Mr. Pearce is a political journalist, who writes for The Guardian, and was a regular on Radio 4's The Moral Maze in the 1990s. He could be the second print journalist to make the semi-finals, following Sally Jones (The Times) from September. One might expect a journalist to have a great general knowledge, but it's surprising how many facts go in one eye, out the pen, and fail to stick. Not so for Mr. Pearce, who ends on 27 (4).

More Mastermind shortly.

University Challenge

Quarter-final, match 4: St John's Cambridge v City

Image:Square Jeremy Paxman.jpg

While some universities seem to turn up on every season of University Challenge, others are more rarely seen. All of the competing sides have achieved something to make the televised stages, their general knowledge and on-screen personae will have proven sufficient to pass an audition. It is not for the likes of this column to belittle their work, and nor do we wish to dwell unduly on their failures. Three million people will have seen the broadcast, and this column does not wish to make the suffering any greater.

We could go, "Ha ha, Ponsonby of Footlights doesn't know that the answer is 'Butterscotch', he costs his team five points and the game, the chump." No, we don't abuse the contestants if we can possibly avoid it. We can't really offer constructive criticism to individuals, especially in a team game, so we think it best that we do not criticise.

This series of University Challenge, in particular, has sorted out the great from the greater. See, for instance, the last quarter-final, between St John's Cambridge and City. SJC join us from the repechage, losing a close match to Lincoln Oxford; Pembroke Oxford and Kings' Cambridge fell by over 200 points. City has made quiet progress so far, beating Hull in the season opener and passing Brighton in the match before Christmas.

The first set of bonuses is on Getting Things Wrong, and City manage to, er, only get one wrong. St John's draws level with a set on graphic novels, then takes the lead on names in Arthurian legend. St John's extends its lead when their particle physicist gets a starter on subatomic particles. City responds with one out of three on board games. City get to name their local Catholic cathedral at the start of the first visual round, and that closes the gap, but St John's still leads 60-50.

City has been closing, and takes the lead with the following set of bonuses. It only lasts until the next correct starter, by which time everyone on St John's has answered a starter correctly. The Cambridge side gets the wordplay bonuses: homophones beginning with the letter "L". Such as, "Steam", and Thumper leads the quite audible rolling of eyes. No-one remembers former US president John Adams; not top historian Sarah Vowell, and not the City side. The audio round is a contemporary interpretation of a piece of classical music, St John's recognise that it's J S Bach on the Moog synthesiser, and leads 115-85.

Would they have accepted "The 'Hamlet' music" for that last bonus? Probably not. St John's does remember The Intolerable Acts of the 1770s that so upset the colonials in Massechussets, and City have a set of bonuses on that old dictionary compiler's joke, the International Pronunciation Alphabet, a bunch of symbols that are alleged to help people say words. If they can remember the meaning of ten million different symbols. Old age pensions are fruitful for St John's, Burgundy and the moon for City. The second visual round is surrealist art, and St John's are perhaps beginning to pull away, leading 165-110.

And now, Mathematical Expansion of the Week:

Q: What is the coefficient of x-squared in the expansion (x+1) to the 5?
St John's, Martin O'Leary: 10

We could explain it here, but it would take far longer than for Mr. O'Leary to buzz. Mathsforum has an explanation. St John's extends its lead, and it briefly moves above 100 points, and City's knowledge of stellated polyhedra is flimsy. "You don't know this stuff at all!" exclaims the host, Mr. Kettle. Renewable power plants are slightly rewarding for St John's, but it's becoming clear that the game is theirs. Neil O'Leary of City wins the race to the buzzer for Switzerland's forgotten national language.

At the gong, St John's has won, 265-135. Henry Ellis was the best buzzer for City, with four starters as the side answered 10/27 bonuses with one missignal. St John's scored 23/44 bonuses as Matthew Dolan and Martin O'Leary both got five starters right. We also note that St John's won the game while getting full marks on just one set of bonuses.

After the high excitement and even higher scores from the past fortnight, this match was always going to be a more subdued affair. It had to be, and St John's continued to make good progress into the last four. The tournament has had a wonderful quality of play this year, and we find it very hard to pick a winner even in a four-horse race.

Next match: Manchester v Lincoln Oxford


Heat 16, 6 February

Image:Square Mastermind.jpg

Welcome back, and it's Chris Stuchfield kicking us off tonight, with two minutes on The Peninsula War. This was a conflict on the Iberian peninsula of Spain and Portugal, and it took place in the early 19th century between the hosts and visiting teams from Britain (under Wellington) and France (led by Napoleon). If they'd had their wits about them, they would have invited Stuart Hall to come along and help settle their differences. Mr. Stuchfield ends on 11 (1).

Angela Rutledge is next, she takes the Life and Solo Career of Morrissey. He was the lead singer of indie rock band The Smiths before beginning a solo career in the late 80s. It appears that the contender is stronger on the Solo Career than the Life part of the topic, but she does well, ending on 14 (2).

Benjamin Skipp has taken the History of Chichester Cathedral. He's the only contender to turn up in a suit and tie, looks smarter than the host, and (er) is a student. Wouldn't catch Thumper's friends dressing so smartly, the ties interfere with the buzzers. The round starts confidently, slows a little in the middle, but ends on 14 (1) for a very narrow lead.

Last up tonight comes Gareth Kingston, who will tell us about the Great Fire of London. This was a fire in September 1666 in the City of London. It's exactly the right subject for this programme, and the contender has clearly done his homework, finishing on a perfect 16 (0).

Rather than discuss Mr. Stuchfield's specialist subject, the host prefers to discuss his domestic arrangements. Anyone would think that house-husbands were unusual – we remember seeing them on Fifteen-to-One in the 1980s. He takes an awfully long time to remember the current host of BBC1's Question Muck, but remembers the rider of Trigger just like that. The final score is 19 (5).

Angela Rutledge is next, she spent her dotcom earnings putting together a website documenting Mozza's 1999 tour of North America. She's right to point out that the lyrics deal in angst, not anger. Highlights include a gratuitous mention of The Louvre's pyramids, and the round ends on 20 (5).

Mr. Skipp sung in Chichester Cathedral, where he feels in touch with the past and experiences grand echoes. He confesses that a music degree doesn't take a huge amount of time. Buckets of effort are required, though. It's often suggested that young contenders are at a disadvantage because they're yet to have the life experience of others – another contender, for instance, is asked the BBC theme to Italia '90, when we suspect Mr. Skipp was still too young to care. The round ends on 19 (3).

Five for Mr. Kingston to win, which is somewhat fewer than the official death toll in the Great Fire. Eight is that number, though a paraphrase of Mr. Kingston's argument is that many bodies would have been cremated in the ashes, and others died of the effects of inhaling smoke. Anyway, four answers in a row draws him level, a fifth shortly afterwards takes him across the line, and the rest of the round falls into a hole of indifference. 24 (0) is the score.

This Week And Next

The Krypton Factor continues, and we have a question. How come there's only ever one female contender, and how come she's always in seat three? Answers on the back of a sealed-down postcard to the usual address, marked "Seat Three is Yellow Anyway".

Image:Square 037.jpg

Carol Vorderman has agreed to investigate the teaching of mathematics for the Conservative party. Ms Vorderman made all sorts of claims about this topic, none of which we've bothered to research because they have approximately nothing to do with game shows. Reports that her fellow Countdown host Des O'Connor will spearhead an inquiry into the British music scene were completely invented at press time.

Channel 4 has let it be rumoured that this summer's edition of Big Brother could be the last. Of course, C4 can't actually come out and say that it's thinking of cancelling the schedule-eater and sometime cash cow. No, instead it's given a nod and a wink to one of the few tabloids that still bothers to cover the transmission. A cancellation would not be before time, the general public has been finding other ways to spend its summer since the middle of the decade, and 2007's racism row looks to have been the moment the programme really started to lose popularity.

No particular surprise in the viewing figures to 25 January – Dancing on Ice had 8.6m frozen to their seats, In It to Win It 7m, and Total Wipeout just over 5m. Masterchef's weekly final proved more popular than the Celebrity Big Brother final, 3.95m to 3.65m, and CBB was also beaten by two cookery shows on Channel 4. Cooking was also the top dog on the digital channels, 950,000 saw Come Dine with Me on More4, Pop Idle US picked up 700,000, and Dave's endless QI cycles had 550,000 tuning in. Big Brother's Big Mouth bowed out with 410,000, barely half the viewership of E4's most popular show.

Dave prepares for a new series of Argumental with a highlights show (9pm Sunday). Smart-alec quiz Battle of the Brains is back for its second series (BBC2, 6pm weeknights), and BBC4 declaims We Need Answers (10pm Thursday) in a show we're really not sure about. Still, those kings of fleecing their viewers are back next Saturday with a new series of Antan Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway Your Money (ITV, 7.45).

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