Weaver's Week 2009-07-12

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The Chase


The Chase

ITV (England, Wales, Northern Ireland), 5pm weekdays

At the moment, ITV is trying out a number of ideas to fill that awkward spot at 5pm. They've gone back to some of the better ideas, such as a nice difficult quiz where one player tries to take on a larger team and win. That's Blockbusters!

Except it's not. The Chase is more of a Davids versus Goliath battle, in which four plucky contestants come to the studio to do battle with one of the people who the UK's quizzing community has come to fear. Their name is spoken in awe and reverence, because of their many amazing feats; or is shouted from the rooftops so that the easily-scared can head to the hills before he arrives.

Bradley Walsh isn't actually going to be answering any questions, he'll be asking them. He'll mostly be asking them of the four contestants, the team who hope to come away with money. In turn, each of them will step forward and answer one minute of rapid-fire questions from Mr. Walsh. He'll pay them a thousand pounds per correct answer, so a decent contestant can easily rack up six or seven grand. And then the stage is graced by the star of the show, The Chaser.

Shaun Wallace looking mean 'n' moody.

Or, to be exact, one of two different Chasers. There's Mark Labbett, runner-up on the most recent series of People's Quiz, who will use his powerful attack to almost visibly tear the opponent limb from limb. And there's Shaun Wallace, Mastermind champion in 2004; behind his bookish demeanour lies a razor-sharp mind, ever probing, probing, probing the opponent's weakness, whatever it might be, wherever he might find it.

Oh, who are we kidding? This isn't Inter Retiarii versus Olympic Lions at the Stadio Olympico, this is a small-budget ITV quiz show for late daytime.

So, small ITV studio, Bradley Walsh the grinning host, and four members of the public behind the counter. One by one, they'll come out, and Bradley will ask them questions for a minute, with £1000 per correct answer. Then The Chaser enters to his platform. It's physically raised above the main play area by perhaps three metres, and is a small pod at the top of a sloping display screen.

Shaun takes his seat at the top of the slope.

It's this screen that will represent the chase. The contestant places their money on the board, and for every correct answer the contestant gives, they'll descend a step. The Chaser plays the same questions at the same time – they're multiple choice questions – and for every correct answer he gets right, his red tide will drip a space down the board. If the red catches up with the cash, then he's won it, and the contestant is out of the game. However, if the contestant can bring their money home before The Chaser has caught up, they put the money into the team kitty and will remain for the end game.

Each of the four team members plays this bit of the game. There is some spice: The Chaser will quote three figures. If the player wants to start three spaces ahead of The Chaser, they'll be playing for the amount of money they won earlier. However, if they want to gamble and start a space nearer The Chaser, he'll up the stakes by two, three, four times as much. On the other hand, if the contestant wants to start a space nearer home, the prize will be slashed to a couple of thousand, maybe even less.

This contestant got eight right, but has other options.

As we said, each of the team members plays this game. As good as Bradley Walsh is – and there's nothing wrong with the job he does – there's only so much tension in each of these games. Bradley refrains from over-egging the pudding, he doesn't try to make out that these are life or death situations, it is only a game show, where every third question is that little bit more difficult than the rest.

Eventually, we do reach the final round, and it's only played by those people who won their solo game. They're playing for the money they won between them, and they have two minutes to answer as many questions correctly as possible. The contestants have individual buzzers, and wrong answers aren't passed over to fellow players. The total number of correct answers from any member of the team is their score, and they're also given one correct answer for each player participating in this round.

Another contestant's well on the way: the red marks The Chaser's progress.

Once the contestants' time is up, the chase is on. The Chaser has two minutes to give as many correct answers as the contestants did. However, if and when The Chaser makes an error, the two minute clock stops, and the question is thrown to the contestants. If they can answer it correctly, they'll be credited with another correct answer, thus making The Chaser's job that little bit more difficult.

On screen, these are represented in a slightly different way: the bonuses for the team are added in before the questions, and correct answers are represented by stones on a computer-generated board at the bottom of the screen. When later questions are thrown from Chaser to contestants, a correct answer moves The Chaser back a space, rather than extending the board. It's all the same, really, and the format never fails to give an exciting finish. It's the middle bit that's lacking: the same round four times does tend to become very samey.

The Chase is a straightforward quiz show, with very little room for tactical play by either side. It gets through the questions at a fair clip: we can expect about 18 to be used for each individual round, and anything up to 50 in the final game. We're wondering when the last new, successful, straight quiz without much tactical spin was: has there been one since the demise of Fifteen-to-One?

Shaun has three of the twenty answers he needs.

If there's one weakness, we think that the physical aspect of the game has been underplayed. If ITV had the budget, it could lock the contestants up in a jail cell, and put the key on the end of a piece of rope attached to a quizzing machine in their cell. A correct answer will pull the rope in a bit, an incorrect answer will allow The Warder to chop a bit off the end of the rope. Get too many answers wrong, the key's chopped off and the player is staying in jail. Could the final be played using a tug-of-war on these rope-winding machines? It's a sketchy idea, we've certainly not thought it through, but we do reckon that some sort of physical representation would be desirable.

If there's one thing the producers have got right, it's casting. The Chasers need to be a larger-than-life character, a pantomime villain who the audience can ritually boo. Both Chasers bring something to the table: Mr. Labbett is a physically-imposing figure, Mr. Wallace has a sharp line in repartee. It helps that both are perfect sports, taking defeat with very good grace. Eggheads only worked because it had a resident team, always the same every day, always difficult to beat, always beatable. Messers. Wallace and Labbett have interchanged, they're always difficult to beat, but both have come off second best to quality teams. We understand that a female quiz champion was sought for this pilot series, but one could not be found; whoever she is, she's got a hard act to follow.

For a quiz in the 5pm spot, three questions. Is it better than Golden Balls? Yes, anything is better. Is it better than The Weakest Link? We reckon so: the best quiz team will almost always win, and it's very rare for Link to be won by the trivia whiz. Does it have the cult potential of Blockbusters? Here, we're going to stick our neck out and answer in the affirmative.

Mark Labbett does the mean 'n' moody, too.

University Challenge

Yorkshire for BBC2, 8pm Mondays

Heat 1: Christ's College Cambridge v Warwick

After the ludicrous end to the last series, University Challenge has some new rules for this tournament, and will have some different new rules from next year. This year, competitors' eligibility will be checked against the university's official registry of students in both the 2008/9 and 2009/10 academic years, as the programmes will be filmed across two academic years. A revised shooting schedule will apply for the tournament after that, it'll be filmed entirely in the 2009/10 academic year for transmission the following year.

The producers issued a press statement saying, "Each contestant will now be individually responsible for the accuracy of their submission. Prior to each recording participants will be asked to re-affirm their eligibility to take part and this will be verified by the registrar of their respective universities."

But enough of this, let's get on with the new series. Jeremy, Jeremy, look sharp, you're back. We'll kick off with Word of the Week, Jaffa. It goes to Warwick, the winners in 2007 (that's three series ago now), and a university often criticised for having too many links to commerce and industry. Are we the only commentator who found the university fine, but the administration to have more red tape than Whitehall? Anyway, the side polishes their expertise on Polish life and culture, and on pies made out of human flesh, and races away on the buzzers.

The Warwick team (l-r) Christopher Christmas, Ty Hayes, Robyn Stevens, Matthew Smalley.

Christ's get going on the fourth starter, and prove that they have the ability to talk about mimicking animals. Christ's College Cambridge was originally founded as God's House, has alumni including John Milton and Charles Darwin, and is – according to the host – the youngest in the competition at eighteen years and six months. Last year, readers will recall that there were about four different youngest teams at various stages in the first round. Christ's get the first visual round – on emblems of North American basketball teams, and has recovered from a dodgy start – a missignal on the first question – to trail by 60-30.

Christ's get a set of questions on Abolished Counties of the British Isles, and we need to check our calendar: these contenders were still in short trousers when Berkshire and Clwyd were abolished in the mid-1990s. Knowledge of the date when Cleopatra's Needle sailed up the Thames draws the Cambridge side level, and deduction that "Martin Amis" when said includes all three present singular conjugations of "to be".

The audio round falls over in a bit of a heap when one of the Warwick side dallies forever on a film title, giving the answer when the host's passed it across. Thumper's right to kill the question there, but wrong to ask Christ's to give an answer before one of the bonus music pieces have faded. That may have been a cut from what happened in the studio, but slapped wrists for misleading the viewer if that's what the producers did. Christ's has certainly come back, leading 85-55 at this point.

Christ's College Cambridge (l-r) John Anderson, Will Critchlow, Charles Blackham, Ibana Ramanathan.

Warwick draws a blank on questions about English literature, Christ's does only slightly better on a set about liquid physics, but do remember the Ten Ball Test cricket fans suffered in February, and can tell their Lithuanian from their Latvian. It builds up their lead well, but Warwick pull back on knowledge of terms in Italian poetry, and inhabitants of the Sonoran desert. Warwick also knows something about the year 1989, and suddenly a handy lead for Cambridge has become a worrying deficit, 155-125.

No-one can recognise a picture of Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, and the Warwick side goes on to confuse John Betjeman with the male companion of W H Auden. Just when Warwick think they've got the match won, they're tripped up by the question-writer's precision: "quadratic equation" is not sufficient when they're after "a-x-squared plus b-x plus c equals 0". Christ's picks up fifteen points in as many seconds on gases of the ethane family, and shortly afterwards their last player gets a starter correct: Warwick achieved that just before the half-way mark. The gong goes just as Warwick are hitting their next bonuses, and they've won by 200-170.

The most famous inhabitants of the Sonoran desert.

It was a game of three parts: Warwick racing to their early lead, then Christ's pulling ahead, only for Warwick to overcome their lead and defend their position well. The impressively laid-back Will Critchlow was Christ's best buzzer, getting five starters; his side was correct on 15/30 bonuses, and made one missignal – that's where a contestant interrupts a starter with an incorrect answer, incurring a five-point penalty. For Warwick, Christopher Christmas buzzed better than anyone else, also picking up five starters. The side was right in 20/33 bonuses, and had two missignals.

Next match: Royal Veterinary College v Manchester

The repechage board:

  • Christ's Camb 170

This Week And Next

Yes, it must be summer. Celebrity Masterchef topped the ratings in the week to 28 June, with 4.35m seeing famous faces trying to burn down their kitchen. All-Star Mr and Mrs came second, with 4.2m viewers, and Totally Saturday captured the attention of 3.85m people. There are reports that the BBC won't be renewing this show, which would be a shame. 8 Out of 10 Cats (2.2m) was biggest on the minor channels, ahead of Big Brother (2.1m). Coach Trip picked up well, 1.7m is the highest rating for the series so far – there's another week's figures still to come. As ever, the digital channels were headed by Come Dine With Me (980,000), Britain's Got Talent Us (605,000), and QI (420,000). Da Dick and Dom Dairies cracked CBBC's top ten, pulling 155,000 muckers.

Coming up next week, ITV has another daytime show for us to review, The Fuse (5pm weekdays). The Beeb's big offerings are As Seen On TV (BBC1, 8.30 Friday) and Dragons' Den (9pm Wednesday). The intelligent channels are bemused by this populism; Radio 4 remembers Kit Williams' "Masquerade" (Tuesday 11.30am) and BBC4 strikes out with a second series of Only Connect (Monday 8.30). We would like to tell you about Anonymous (ITV, 6.30 Saturday) but they've put the billing under embargo till Tuesday, and this column respects embargoes and confidentiality notices no matter how ludicrous, so we can't. Quite why ITV doesn't want publicity (or, presumably, any viewers) for its shows entirely mystifies us, but there must be a very good reason.

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