Weaver's Week 2011-02-20

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This week, one team must leave University Challenge, we're finding the queen of Mastermind, and the new Brain of Britain. But first, has Nigel untied that banner yet?

A Farmer's Life for Me


A Farmer's Life for Me

BBC2, 8pm Tuesday

Britain ... no. England has a strange relationship with the countryside. The English love the idea, but they don't so much like the practices. They'll cheer for the concept of little fluffy lambs gambolling on verdant hillsides, but don't much care for any of the animal's by-products. They say that they love the patchwork fields and varied crops, but turn their nose up against the fertiliser. They claim to want to support the local farmer, but then go out to the supermarket and bleat because the milk's so expensive, even though it's still sold below cost price.

Unto these people is given a show that will acknowledge and address their stereotypes. What it's not going to do is didactically tell the viewer whether their pre-conceived opinion is right or wrong. It's far more subtle than that.

Such subtlety begins with the basic structure of the programme. Take nine couples – mostly husband-and-wife pairings – and put them up in cottages on a farm in deepest darkest Suffolk. Celebrity farmer Jimmy Doherty (and his hench-turkey Paul Kelly) gives them farmy things to do. In format terms, it's The Restaurant before the cooking, it's Tycoon with a different reason for smelling of manure, it's The Eggs Factor.

A Farmer's Life for Me The tranquility of the countryside.

On the surface, A Farmer's Life for Me is a sweet pastoral programme. It follows in the remarkably successful steps of Countryfile, an hour-long programme about rural matters, going out in the heart of BBC1's Sunday evening schedule. Predecessor programmes include River Cottage Kitchen and Monty Don Gets Close To The Soil, showing how food gets from chewing the cud to being chewed. And it's a logical follow-up to all the property shows like Scarper to the Shires, where urbanites think they can come to their rural idyll and not change it at all. The most obvious ancestor is Jimmy's Farm, in which celebrity farmer Jimmy Doherty (yep, him again) makes television about life on his farm.

But the beauty of A Farmer's Life for Me is only skin deep. For every lush shot of a flock of sheep, or a combine harvester going through a field, we're given much footage of the actual hard graft. The harvest is the culmination of a year's hard ploughing and sowing and weeding and tilling. The sheep have a mind of their own, and generally head off in exactly the wrong direction at exactly the wrong moment. Even the property shows tell lies – traditional village life is dying, strangled by the motor car and the supermarket. An incomer will only displace a local person from the village, making it less like itself and more like Anywhereville. Rural workers are left to sleep where they can, sometimes in caravans on their own land. The contestants here? They sleep in caravans on their own land.

A Farmer's Life for Me The sleeping arrangements were spartan.

For the contestants in the opening episode, all of this lay ahead of them. The contestants were pairs of people, who had applied together – most were husband-and-wife couples, and these pairs would not be rearranged for the producers' convenience. Each pair was given a plot of land, and they began by explaining what they wanted to get out of their smallholding. One would hire out their land as allotment strips, another wanted to dye wool and make clothes. Inevitably, the team that had no idea what they wanted to do was at a disadvantage, and didn't last long.

By this week's third episode, the format of the programme had become more settled. There would be two challenges, success in the first would determine who would be exempt from the second challenge, where failure would mean elimination as surely as turnips follows wheat. Well, it does in the Norfolk crop rotation.

A Farmer's Life for Me Contestants Dennis and Marjorie met in east London.

So we saw footage of the pairs learning how to shear a sheep, and how to herd sheep into a pen with the help of sheepdog. They're even shown how to construct a pen from those bits of fencing. It's easiest when up against a fence, because the sheep don't have so many angles to scatter. That'll be why the pens in One Man and His Dog are always half-a-mile from the nearest obstruction. We also get to see the teams prepare for the preliminary challenge. Putting together an advertising campaign. A what? An advertising campaign, the excuse for which was given in a brief voiceover line that "farms have to do this".

We confess to not quite watching the programme with our full attention up to this point, but this development had us putting down our simile like a loaded gun. Had we tuned into a rural episode of The Apprentice by accident? One in which the plate-glass walls and shiny suits have been tossed away, replaced by some fresh air and wellington boots? Apparently, we had. Only the worst two competitors at the advert would be assessed on actual animal handling skills. It's like Baron Andrew Spice asking his contestants to lead sheep to market, and only challenging the last to arrive to go on and sell their beasts.

Our suspicion that this is The Apprentice Goes Rural wasn't dispelled by the presentation aspects of the show. The editing showed teams figuring out that they had difficulties to overcome, and then moved on to something completely different, only resolving those cliff-hangers later on. The voiceover script was absolutely typical of the musical chairs genre of game show, where absolutely everything is an existential threat to the competitors' continued pursuit of the prize. Where is this going to end? "Charlie has stubbed her toe when getting out of bed. The dull throbbing could imperceptibly alter her concentration, risking her place in Britain's Most Mundane Life."

A Farmer's Life for Me Jimmy Doherty. A farmer's life for him, then.

Anyway. The various strands are wound up, the programme draws to a conclusion and – after the sheep use their collective brain and head off in exactly the wrong direction at exactly the wrong time – the decision of who's leaving is a complete anti-climax. By then, we're a little tired and jaded. Because there were so many little points of tension throughout the show, we have difficulty recognising the big points when we reach them. Sometimes, they're only obvious in retrospect, and this isn't really a show we would care to watch twice.

This column has to assess A Farmer's Life for Me as a game show, and we find the approach has been painfully stale and derivative. Surely the best way to assess farming competence would be to keep the same contestants through a season, assessing each on their strengths and weaknesses. That does away with the weekly elimination, but we're not convinced that would be a tremendous loss. We must also report where the show succeeds: by trying to present the reality behind the rural idyll, A Farmer's Life for Me is attempting to be honest, and it's certainly more honest than many other programmes.

University Challenge

Deci-final 6: Christ's Cambridge v Magdalen Oxford

Last week, Sheffield left the deci-final stage after securing their two wins. Another side will leave the contest this week, after losing their second match. Christ's College Cambridge fell to Oxford Brookes, Magdalen Oxford were beaten by Sheffield. Another gust of wind, either of these sides could have won. Christ's are emboldened by the appearance of a large summer hat, Magdalen by a very stripy polo shirt.

First blood goes to Magdalen, they have to hear the entirety of a biography of Gandhi; they're note-perfect on European Union history. They're also spot-on when discussing pairs of words that differ by a vowel-stress, and it's not until the eleventh question of the night that one evades them. When Magdalen get off to a bang – as we saw in their first two matches – they really get going. By the first visual round – it's on maps of parks – Magdalen have heard every single question, and their lead is already up to 130-0.

Is it too early to write "game over" in our book? Hmm, we just did, though not until after Magdalen got their latest starter. And writing "game over" in our book tends to put the kybosh on teams – Magdalen misses all three bonuses in that set, and Christ's get off the mark with the next starter. But Magdalen pick up where they left off, their score rising as effortlessly and serenely as people in a paternoster. Christ's get named winds, and the audio round is on classical works used in the films of Martin Scorsese. Magdalen's lead is 175-25.

University Challenge Christ's Cambridge (left) and Magdalen Oxford prepare to do battle.

Term of the week is "corpuscles", and Joe Walmswell gets it very quickly. Maybe the Christ's player remembers the answer from Brain of Britain earlier, or Mastermind last Friday. Does the Christ's fightback start here? Just maybe: they get "Fantastic Mr Fox" straight afterwards, and Magdalen incur the night's first missignal on the subsequent starter. But then they pick up a starter, and achieve perfection on questions about Russia's land borders, and on British prime ministers. The second visual round is upon us, depictions of various rulers from history. Magdalen's lead has reached 250-50.

Ivan the Terrible comes from somewhere cold? Glad we got that sorted out. Bad luck on Magdalen's Kyle Haddad-Fonda, who interrupts with the answer "Philadelphia", only to find the question's swerving and asking for the state. In a closer game, we'd be annoyed, this column detests swerve questions with a passion, but the game was long since won. Magdalen fall into the slightly strange trap that Spain isn't a member of the G20 in her own right – she's only in as part of the EU. We reach the point where every competitor has at least one starter, and that's always good to see. Magdalen knock back questions about plants that give their name to social situations, and reach 300 points when discussing a triptych of Charles I.

Even the guesses count, Magdalen pick up "turpentine" from a question about pine resin, and Christ's pass the century with questions on literature characters known by their surname. Thumper ends the show with an interminable question about dartboards and letters, but who cares. The game is over, and Magdalen has stomped home. 330-120.

It really was game over after the first quarter. Will Cudmore got seven starters for the Oxford side, who were right in 34/51 bonuses – they incurred two missignals. Christ's College had 8/24 bonuses, with Joe Walmswell and Alexander Greaves both getting two starters. The overall accuracy rate was 67/103.

Next match: Peterhouse Cambridge v Queen's Cambridge


Heat 23

Philip Evans' 28 (1) is the target for tonight's runner-up to qualify automatically.

Warren Tang starts us off tonight, and he's taking Queen (est. 1970). Created by Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, Queen's commercial breakthrough came with "Bohemian rhapsody" (1975), and after that they were everywhere. Their game show contributions include the highest ever score on a themed edition of 100%, giving the title to Under Pressure, and contributing "Another one bites the dust" to the Gladiators soundtrack. The contender already has something to follow, as Rhys Thomas enlivened a recent edition of Celebrity Mastermind by taking this subject, and dressing up in a black-and-white catsuit. Mr. Tang doesn't have such a flamboyant costume, or the memorable score, some pauses and errors puts him on 10 (0).

Harriet Earle has been reading Dante’s Commedia (c.1307). Known in English translation as "The Divine Comedy", this poem sees Dante travel through hell, purgatory, and heaven, meeting various mythical and real people along the way. It's generally seen as a guide to the Christian theology of the era. We know somewhat less about this topic, but it's clear the contender has done her homework. Again, thought is evident, and 8 (3) the final score.

Karl Taylor is up next, with RAF Bomber Command 1939-1945. This one is all about the people who planned and organised destructive raids on German territory in the Second World War. We learn that the Command wasn't just about destruction, they dropped things like propaganda leaflets, and that only one-third of all bombers made it within five miles of their target. The contender is amongst them, answering all questions with something sensible, and ending on 13 (0).

Last up is Thomas Perry, discussing Fresh Water Fish of the British Isles. These are – well, fish, found in rivers and streams of the UK and surrounding islands. There's discussion of the tench, some carp, and by the time the barbel is totted up, the contender's scored a perfect 17 (0).

Harriet Earle is back into the chair, and begins with the owners of swans on the Thames. There's the waxing of the moon, the Orange revolution of Ukraine, and depictions of Beatrix Potter. Methods of finding prime numbers top up her score, the final is 17 (6). Warren Tang recaps the plot of ET The Extra-Terrestrial, goes to the highest point of north Wales, but then the round slows down a little. Not even the flag of Libya can help him – it's being shown on the news as this show airs, and it's entirely green. The final score is 18 (7).

Karl Taylor is asked after the talking scarecrow played by Jon P'twee. Wasn't that Dr Who? (ducks.) Barbara Hepworth puts him into the lead, but he's got to set a good target, and is right to guess at a Brazilian dance – there aren't that many of them. Indeed, he's right to guess at every question, because few passes will prove to his advantage. Le Mans and the death of an albatross and the previous career of Dr. Fox helps him to progress, and the history of the postal order brings his score to 27 (0).

Game on! 27 and no passes is enough to put Mr. Taylor into the repechage board, in the very last position. But that requires Mr. Perry to overcome his score, and he gets off to a good start with the Bay of Bengal and backgammon and other answers that don't begin with "B". There are types of oil ships, the Fosse Way, and then there's a pass. That might prove crucial. Except it doesn't; two more correct answers mean that this contender cannot lose, and progresses to a very respectable score of 33 (2).

So Thomas Perry and Philip Evans progress to the semi-finals after tonight's show. Karl Taylor will join them unless next week's runner-up equals or betters his score of 27 (0).

This Week And Next

The Brain of Britain final went out on Radio 4 this week. The show began with John Benyon and Mark Kerr picking up four points apiece. Mr. Kerr moved ahead 8-5 in round two, after Mr. Benyon received a tricky starter, but the roles were reversed in the next round, levelling the scores at 8-8. Neither of the leaders scored in round four, but Iwan Thomas did. He'd been quietly picking up a point or two in each round, and now stormed through with five of his own, a bonus point for that feat, and another bonus from a question missed by another contestant. He had 12 points to the opposition's 8.

Neither Mr. Benyon nor Mr. Kerr got their openers in round five, allowing Dr. Thomas to pull one point further away. The gaps closed slightly in round six, but 13-9-9 with one round to go looks like a win. Mr. Beynon made good work with three of his own questions, Mr. Kerr failed to score, but Dr. Thomas picked up a bonus and the win was his. He had 14 points, John Benyon closed on 12, Mark Kerr had 9, and Andy Tucker – who had a particularly tricky run of questions throughout the show – scored 6.

BARB ratings for the week to 6 February are in. Dancing on Ice remains top of the pile, 8.15m saw the performances; In It to Win It bowed out with 6.55m viewers, and Total Wipeout scored 5.6m, both year's best performances. University Challenge was top for the second-tier channels, with 3.2m seeing the game; The Million Pound Drop followed with 2.8m, a smidgeon ahead of the Antiques Road Trip final. A Farmer's Life for Me debuted with 2.2m, and Michel Roux's Service bowed out on 1.95m.

Something approaching normal service on the digital channels – Got to Dance continued to impress 1.28m people, Come Dine With Me rose to second on 760,000, and Dancing on HD Ice had 715,000 tuning in. Would the appearance of Challenge on digital terrestrial television boost its ratings? Er, no – the week's top shows scored 120,000, only slightly above the ratings achieved on cable and satellite.

In the coming week, there's a new series of House Gift (ITV, 2pm weekdays) and if Masterchef Goes Large Australia UK (continuing on BBC1) isn't enough, Watch has Junior Masterchef Australia (7pm weekdays). New on the radio is The 3rd Degree (Radio 4, 1.30 Monday). Next Saturday's talent shows: Let's Dance for Comic Relief (BBC1, 7pm) has Lulu, Noel Fielding, Penny Smith, Andi Osho, Jarred Christmas. Push the Button goes out at the earlier time of 7.30, and viewers in Ireland will wish to note that Winning Streak moves to RTE2 (8.50).

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