Weaver's Week 2009-11-29

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"Very good, young warrior."

Weaver's Decade: Part 1: But we don't want to give you that! | Part 2: Who should be voted off the team? | Part 3: Big Brother House, this is Davina | Part 4: Singing for Survival | Part 5: the rest of the best | Part 6: failures and interactivity

In the last couple of months, we've looked at some of the overarching themes running through the decade's game shows. The accumulation of large piles of money, the dynamics of working within and without teams, the constructed reality shows, and performance programmes. But not every show fits into these pigeon holes – straightforward quiz programmes evade all of these categorisations. For this fifth part, we look at some excellent shows that could have been made at any time, and happened to have been made in the 2000s.

The title for this part comes from Raven (CBBC and BBC1, 2002 – present). Over its span – now twelve broadcast series, with another waiting for transmission – Raven has challenged and inspired a generation of children to push themselves a little bit further, to do a little bit more. The contestants are taken away from their regular lives, transformed (by the magic of television) into warriors, and given license to transcend the limits imposed by their usual life. It's a chance for children to test themselves, it's a chance for children to change themselves. Both of the finalists in the most recent series said that merely appearing on Raven had been their ambition from a very young age, proof that Raven has inspired its own generation of viewers.

There have been other chances for children to move away from their everyday life have been few and far between – Starfinder (ITV, 2003-4) took youngsters into space, and Hard Spell Abbey (BBC1, 2004) had primary-school children learning about spelling in a real abbey, with a real spelling guru, and a real Trevor out of Trevor and Simon for the parents. More recently, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (BBC1 and BBC2, 2007 – present) has tried very hard not to be mistaken for a H***y P****r rip-off, Election (BBC1, 2008) sought an inspirational leader amongst the young, and Escape from Scorpion Island (BBC1 and BBC2, 2007 – present) asked children to perform demanding physical trials while many thousands of miles away from home, and while in the company of JK and Joel.


James MacKenzie, the titular star of Raven.
By comparison, there have been fewer chances for adults to shed their regular persona and become someone completely different. The Games (Channel 4, 2003-6) allowed us to see its various competitors in a new light – who would have thought that Harvey from So Solid Crew would give Usain Bolt training tips, or that Bobby Davro could empty a swimming pool just by looking at it? Other celebs made it onto School's Out (BBC1, 2006-7) where they could regress to their younger selves. Members of the public were given silly things to do in the British Museum on Codex (Channel 4, 2006-7), and invited to show their physical prowess on Fort Boyard (Channel 5, 1998-2001; Challenge 2003).

Some people don't need to step so far out of their lives to reinvent themselves, they only need to go as far as the kitchen. Competitive cookery shows burst onto television in the mid-90s, and have retained their popularity ever since. Ready Steady Cook (1994 – present) has continued in production. Masterchef (1990-2001) was reborn in a "Goes Large" format (2005 – present), whatever that meant, and has gained spin-off series for professional cooks and for celebrities, though not yet for celebrity professional cooks. It was almost inevitable that the eating would become competitive, and Come Dine with Me (2005 – present) looked at all aspects of a dinner party – the food, the ambience, the company. It's proven a substantial hit, enough to inspire copycat shows on ITV (House Guest, 2008) and Living (Four Weddings, 2009). Neither is a patch on the original.

Earlier in the decade, the BBC made a few evenings out of play-along-at-home tests, where the viewer could match their wits against experts, or find out something about themselves, or preferably both. There was very little on Test the Nation (BBC1, 2002-7) that hadn't been done on So You Think...? (BBC1, 1965-84), apart from Phillip Schofield's ability to find meaning in the random noise of responses. People could play along on SMS widgets, by using internet flash doohickerys, by paging the oracle on Super Ceefax, or using a pen and a piece of paper. Everyone could play along, gently cajoled by Anne Robinson and her studio full of guests, and it made for a fun evening's viewing and participating. Again, ITV had a copycat show, The Great British Test (2004-5), which added Pop Idol's Dr. "Neil" Fox and lost both an opportunity to gently educate and any fun there might have been in the format.

Test the Nation

Anne and Phillip warm up for another quiz.
Gentle education was always in the remit of Countdown (C4, 1982 – present), a show that has had a roller-coaster decade. The Whiteley and Vorderman daily experience had rightly been a fixture of Channel 4's schedule since forever, but a series of dubious editorial decisions left it floundering. An extension from 30 to 45 minutes took a couple of years to bed in, like a good friend slightly overstaying their welcome. In 2003, the friend pitched up an hour earlier, robbing Countdown of its audience of schoolchildren pretending to do their homework. Even if slightly inconsiderate, Countdown was a friendly family, with Carol Vorderman and Susie Dent making sure that their bumbling uncle didn't get up to any mischief. It was a point firmly proven when the national treasure Richard Whiteley was taken ill and died in June 2005. The outpouring of grief and loss was humbling to behold.

Should Countdown continue? Within weeks, it was clear that it should, and it would. Months of speculation ended when television's smoothie Des Lynam came to Leeds, but he never quite settled into the chairman's role, and left after fourteen months. Another round of speculation produced singer Des O'Connor, and just when he was getting into the swing of his job, budget cuts meant that he could no longer agree a fee, and he quietly exited after two years. The same budget cuts meant that Carol Vorderman was unable to agree a fee for her services, and she did her best to ensure the show could not survive without her.

But this is Countdown, the show is bigger than any one person. Another search for a new presenter was combined with a hunt for a new numbers wizard, the latter was open for any Tom, Dick, or Sally to apply. In the event, television newcomer Rachael Riley took the numbers job, and the host's role went to sports reporter Jeff Stelling. They only started at the beginning of this year; by Easter, it was hard to remember that there had ever been any other presenters. Even the guest celebrities have changed – Simon Hoggart and Ingrid Tarrant were both booked in 2002, but it was Phil Hammond, Paul Zenon, John Inverdale, and Tim Vine who now feel most at home in the Countdown club. We're sure they'll be back for more.


Richard Whiteley, created OBE in 2004.
One of the changes introduced into Countdown during the decade was a daily piece by Susie Dent, explaining the origins of words, or discussing some matter of a linguistic bent. High-profile literary quizzes remained at a premium, with The Book Quiz (BBC4, 2007 – present) morphing from a gentle book club discussion hosted by the affable David Baddiel into a high-octane quiz hosted by the feisty Kirsty Wark.

There were many more attempts at making serious quizzes during the 2000s. Some of them worked, some were one-season wonders. 19 Keys (C5, 2003) was a very simple general knowledge quiz, with the first person to give eighteen correct answers winning, and the amount of their win increased the closer to 15 minutes they completed the test. For whatever reason, and in spite of Richard Bacon explaining the rules every time, the show confused the viewers, and wasn't renewed. The same fate befell Grand Slam (C4, 2003), a head-to-head contest on broad subjects with a chess-clock motif. It appealed to this column, but Channel 4 found better uses for the time.

More recently, Get 100 (BBC2 and BBC1, 2007-8) combined a quiz with education so subtle that the audience could easily have missed it. Battle of the Brains (BBC2, 2008 – present) overtly prizes trivia for trivia's sake, and The Chase (ITV, 2009 – present) challenges teams of strangers to pit their wits against a well-known quiz champion.

Get 100

Reggie Yates prepares to Get 100.
Where would ITV find these quiz champions? Most usually, on television's toughest quizzes. This column reckons that Only Connect (BBC4, 2008 – present) is the current holder of that title, as teams are asked to think in a particular direction, and to think at speed. The concept is simple: find the link between four disparate concepts, then work out the sequence and see what comes next. Then unscramble a spaghetti-plate filled with four sets of four clues, and finish by identifying connected items from some of their letters. Both sets of contenders have their destiny in their own hands, the knowledge of the opposition is only there to break ties, and Victoria Coren hosts with wit, verve, and deep wisdom. Especially on "King Lear".

Mastermind looked like it wouldn't claim this title after disappearing from television screens in 1997. That was to ignore the format's utter simplicity – four contestants, two minutes of questions on a specialist subject, two minutes on general knowledge, highest score wins. Anyone could understand it, even Radio 4 controller James Boyle. He made many errors in his reform of Radio 4's schedule in 1998, but keeping Mastermind alive wasn't one of them. In this decade, Mastermind has been everywhere: Radio 4 1998-2001, a series on the Discovery channel 2001-2, regular series on BBC2 since 2003, celebrity and junior editions on BBC1 since 2003, and versions in Welsh on S4C since 2007. There's no escape from Mastermind, there's an edition on some channel almost every week.

On Radio 4, Monday lunchtime has become the intelligent quiz zone. Mastermind begat Masterteam (2001-5), a competition that almost won its place in the network's history, but has been relegated to a footnote. A similar fate befell X Marks the Spot (1998-2006) and Puzzle Panel (1998-2005); both could have had longer runs, but were eventually replaced by Quote... Unquote. Brain of Britain (AD 47 – present) continues to entertain and confound, as a handful of bad questions can cause a very good quizzer to fall to the foot of the table, but the winners are always worthy. Robert Robinson's deft touch has been missing for a quarter of the decade, with Russell Davies settling into the great man's chair with almost as much ease as Jeff Stelling. Counterpoint (1986 – present) also lost its host, Ned Sherrin was replaced by Paul Gambaccini, another obvious fit.

Peter Snow

Peter Snow hosted Mastermind, Masterteam, and Brain of Britain, but he's not remembered for that.
But let us return to the television. The Krypton Factor was revived in 2009, and slightly muffed its own catchphrase by describing itself as "the toughest quiz on television". Are You an Egghead? (BBC2, 2008 – present) could well be described as the toughest individual head-to-head quiz: this week's final pitted David Edwards against Pat Gibson. Both had won Brain of Britain, both had won Mastermind, both had won the jackpot on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Mr. Gibson added the Egghead to his cabinet, Mr. Edwards already had a Masterteam title.

And then there's University Challenge (BBC2, 1994 – present), another show that's had its ups and downs. There has always been something to say about this programme, whether it be the perpetual claim that the questions are easier than before (not true, they're different) or that students these days are lazy (not true, it never was). There has been suspicion that some universities are discouraged from applying, and that others receive suspiciously easy draws allowing them to make progress beyond their abilities. The nadir was reached in the 2003-4 series, when almost every question contained a wild and unpredictable swerve, deliberately designed to mislead and penalise the players. University Challenge became tedious and dull and almost unwatchable.

And then it got better again. Manchester and UMIST merged, and the new institution could almost be seeded into the quarter-finals without leaving second gear. Sides began to show something of themselves on screen. Did the questions become easier? No, they became more honest: swerve questions were kept few and far between. Even the transmission schedule helped: start the contest after Wimbledon, bury the first-round matches in the summer, so that every game counts in the new year. And then came Gail Trimble, who answered fifteen starters correctly in one match this year, rescued her team from a heavy deficit in the final, and then found that the BBC wouldn't recognise her achievement for some off-screen transgression. Not that this has stopped us from watching the programme, because something interesting happens every week. Here's an example...

University Challenge

Jeremy "Thumper" Paxman is pained by another wrong answer.

University Challenge

Repechage final: University College London v Emmanuel Cambridge

How did the sides get here? UCL lost to Loughborough, beat Clare Cambridge, and took the train from Euston. Emmanuel Cambridge fell to Regent's Park Oxford, but beat Christ's Cambridge handsomely, and came up the A14 and M6. Well, we assume that's how they arrived, we have no idea really.

The opening question asks after those kings of England who are not part of the generally-accepted canon of Billy Shakespeare. It's almost a week since we had a question about him on this show. Emmanuel get going with the next starter, but are already given the benefit of the doubt on a very late answer. Let this be the last time, Mr. Thumper. We should note that Jack Grahl of UCL is wearing a very hatty hat, and the team do very well on this week's wordplay: pairs of words that differ by the addition of "w".

UCL also do well on radioactive elements, particularly those discovered by M. and Mme. Curie. The first visual round is on fictional characters from film: Emmanuel get the round, and it asks for characters, work, and author, all three elements for just five points. UCL has a lead, 60-35. It's a fragile lead, vulnerable to one or two good answers from Emmanuel. They pull to five with knowledge of creationism, but UCL increases their lead with knowledge of French phrasal verbs. Emmanuel responds with Babylonian history, and that's enough to put them ahead by a nose, but only for a moment.

It's a nip-and-tuck game this week, UCL prove to know something about asteroids, more about harmonic series in music, and good at guessing a German torturer was a Daimler. The audio round is on marches, beginning with Sousa's "Theme from Monty Python", and it suffices to put UCL up by 120-80. On their bonuses, UCL seem to be taking as long as they can – Thumper is calling "Let's have it" quite often. We reckon that deliberate delaying isn't the best tactic, if it is a tactic. In a question about bedding plants, Emmanuel offer "hardy annual", when the answer is "half-hardy annual". The question specifically discusses plants that can't survive frost, and Thumper is right to disallow the answer, no matter how many groans come from the crowd.

Word of the week emerges this late in the game, it's "hack". Really throws us when this isn't at the start of the show! The second visual round is on paintings of the Palace of Westminster, and Thumper again tells Emmanuel to answer when they buzz. That's at least the fourth warning they've had in three games: will he ever mark them wrong for this? UCL's lead is 155-125, and it extends through knowledge of New York's professional sports sides, including the Knickerbockers, most recent winners of The World's series in baseball. The answer also ensures everyone from UCL has at least one starter.

But not that many bonuses: UCL's conversion rate is languishing at about 50%, Emmanuel's is little better. The Cambridge side also has a starter each, and takes the lead with knowledge of acrostic poems, and rotations of Greek letters. The force is with them, and they've pulled away from well behind to fifty ahead in no time at all. Emmanuel get another starter on chemistry, which almost wraps up the game. UCL get the night's second Shakespeare question, and inadvertently offer the correct answer to a question on a literary prize. Even the errors count! Mr. Tilling on the voice-over is about to blow, but we have our winners as Emmanuel work out that a sesquicentenary celebrates 150 years. At the gong, Emmanuel has rather run away with it, winning 260-185.

We told you something interesting happens every week! UCL were a good side, Thumper's absolutely right there. Olivia Woolley led from the front with four starters, the team's bonus conversion rate was 17/33 with two missignals. Alex Guttenplan is again Emmanuel's leading buzzer, with eight starters; the side made 25/41 bonuses, and that's what wins games. The overall conversion rate was 67/102.

Next match: Imperial London v St Hugh's Oxford

"Ooh, he done fell in the water"

Even John Reith recognised that education and information wasn't sufficient for a broadcasting service, it had to entertain the viewer as well. Some shows have been structured to inspire as well as entertain – The Cube (ITV, 2009 – present) gave people interesting challenges to be done in the set of 19 Keys. The Murder Game (BBC1, 2003) tried to educate the viewer in how a real detective would investigate a killing, but proved neither educational nor entertaining.

We've touched in the past on the culture of celebrity, and there's been a slew of entertainments predicated on minor celebs taking a fall. In the case of Russian Roulette (ITV, 2002-3) and Drop the Celebrity (ITV, 2003), it was literally a minor celeb taking a fall, from a greater or lesser height. Beat the Star With Vernon Kay (ITV, 2008-9) challenged sportspeople to take on other members of the public at entertaining little tasks. Channel 4 presented the topical Chris Moyles' Quiz Night (2009 – present) and the television criticism show You Have Been Watching (2009 – present), and the BBC's recent contribution to the genre is Hole in the Wall (BBC1, 2008 – present), in which celebs are asked to pass through a titular hole in a titular wall, while wearing wetsuits covered in silver. Ooh look, they fell in the water.

A Question of Sport (BBC1, 1970 – present) posed questions about sport to sportspeople, and extended its tentacles into A Question of Pop (BBC1, 2000-1), and A Question of EastEnders (BBC1, 2000). We must also mention Radio 4's very long-running panel games Just a Minute (1554 – present), I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (1972 – present), and The News Quiz (1977 – present). Just a Minute has gently evolved into a different show, with Paul Merton as the driving force, Graham Norton or Kit Hesketh-Harvey following in the footsteps of Kenneth Williams, and the likes of Charles Collingwood and Sue Perkins giving the casual listener a reason to tune in. ISIHAC lost its perpetual chairman Humphrey Lyttelton in 2008, and took a little while to find its feet. Sandi Toksvig took over in The News Quiz's chair, and the show has evolved from a straight quiz into an opportunity to crack moderately topical jokes. Have I Got News for You (BBC2 and BBC1, 1990 – present) has also evolved, turning the drama of Angus Deayton's forced resignation into an opportunity for all sorts of comedians and politicians and celebrities to host the programme. Boris Johnson built his career on the show, and look what happened to him.

Hole in the Wall

Bring on the wall!
Regular members of the public had their chance to shine. Cash Cab (ITV, 2005-6) toured the country asking questions for cash, and remains Glenn Hugill's best work as a director. Sudo-Q (BBC1 and BBC2, 2005-7) merged the sweet lilt of a mildly taxing quiz with the harsh rasp of a sudoku, with Eamonn Holmes making sure everyone stayed in check, or out of X-wings, or whatever it is these sudokae do. At the other end of the scale, X-Fire (C4, 2001-2) was a paintball tournament played primarily for laughs, with the under-rated Ed Hall giving the viewer enough nods and winks to know that it was all a bit of fun. John McEnroe joined the unlikely list of game show hosts on The Chair (BBC1, 2002), but the combination of a quiz and a heart-rate monitor failed to entertain the public.

Athletic pursuits remain popular, though most of the attention seems to go to people playing various codes of football. Still, members of the public do get a chance to show their proficiency, most notably on Total Wipeout (BBC1, 2009 – present). Here, people are asked to complete a demanding assault course, where failure means they'll fall into a pool of water. These courses are so difficult that almost no-one completes any element correctly, so you're never more than 20 seconds away from someone falling into the water. Does the one joke wear a bit thin? We think it does, but the public disagrees. International King of Sports (C5, 2002-4) made up its own events, in a spirit that simultaneously laughed with and laughed at the professional sportspeople. Banzai (E4, 2001-4) pretended to be a betting show, but it was really a welcome excuse to show silly things. See also: Takeshi's Castle (Challenge, 2002-present).

No review of the decade could be complete without Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow (CBBC, BBC1, BBC2, 2002-6), a slice of anarchy, bogies, and entertainment for entertainment's sake, served with lashings of creamy muck-muck. But that's only the surface appeal: beneath it was a team that clearly cared to make outstanding television every single week, constantly re-inventing itself, running jokes that sailed miles over the heads of the target audience (re-enacting The Crystal Maze, a show that hadn't been on terrestrial telly for a decade, on a show aimed at eight-year-olds), and perhaps only flagged with the bizarre decision to allow celebrities (and Rachel Stevens) into the house for its final series. There's already been a clip show of the best of the Bungalow, and surely more will follow.

Total Wipeout

Bring on the balls!

The final part of this column's review of the decade ponders shows that perhaps shouldn't have gone out, and something we thought would be ubiquitous, but wasn't.

This Week And Next

Ratings for the week to 15 November show Simon Cowell Annoys hitting new heights, 15 million people tuning in to see the Sunday night results show, and 13.45m for the Saturday performance – that's the highest score of any Saturday live show. Strictly didn't do so badly, recording its first eight-figure audience of the year, 10.1m. It's relegated to third place, as the opening of I'm a Celeb attracted 10.5m viewers. University Challenge led the minor channels with 3.3m, and Mastermind's storming progress continued with 2.75m seeing a part-networked transmission on Friday – those in Wales got to see live rugby at the time.

More Annoyance on ITV2 suffered from being scheduled opposite I'm a Celeb, and plunged to 1.225m, barely beating Come Dine With Me's 1.085m. Mock the Week had 495,000 on UKTV Dave, where QI XL recorded 450,000, plus another quarter-million on the timeshift channel. CBBC's hit show Bamzooki returned this week, with 295,000 viewers marvelling over the superb pictures. Which brings us to BBC-HD, where 265,000 enjoyed Strictly, and 90,000 The Restaurant. Amongst the small fish, Art Race concluded on Artsworld, playing to 50,000 viewers; Fferm Ffactor on S4C recorded 34,000.

Pickings for the coming week are sparse. BBC4 has the only new series of note: a second run for semi-spoof quiz We Need Answers (10pm Tuesday) and a memory of Kit Williams' Masquerade (9pm Wednesday). The Saturday talent shows: Strictly 6.40-8.10 and 9.40-10.10; Simon Cowell Annoys 8-9.30.

Highlights for the Christmas period are beginning to sneak out. BBC4 kicks off the season with Games Britannia, a show (or shows, it's not clear) about great board games of our time. The ultra-final Championship of Champions edition of Only Connect looks set to go out at 7pm on Christmas night. There will be the regular Strictly Come Christmas special on the 25th. Total Wipeout has two celebrity specials, with Tim Vine, Carrie Grant, Sam and Mark, Sally Gunnell, and Kevin Adams all falling in the water. Celebrity Mastermind is slotted in from 27 December, with ten episodes promised. We don't yet have schedules for ITV and Channel 4, though the Monkey's press release promises Antan Dec's Christmas Special, TV Burp's Review of the Year, and celebrity editions of Family Fortunes and Mr and Mrs. Or regular editions, as they seem to be. Channel 5 will have a fixed schedule, Justin Lee Collins's guessing game Heads or Tails will go out every night at 8. We'll be preparing a full guide to the festive season, popping through your email box and adorning the website on 17 December.

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