Weaver's Week 2013-11-03

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Trains in south London were delayed on Wednesday morning. A dog's lead was clipped to a cafe table at Coulsdon South station. While the owner was fetching their cup of tea, the dog moved, and heard the table squeak behind it. Scared, the dog moved away from the noise, only for it to drag behind. Within moments, the dog had dragged the table off the platform and onto the tracks. Trains were delayed, passengers were inconvenienced, and no dogs were harmed.


Release the Hounds

ITV2, 28 October

In this pilot programme, three friends join Reggie Yates in some woodland. They'll be set nerve-mangling tasks, they'll be scared out of their wits, and they'll be invited to outrun some mutts.

Release the Hounds Contenders, ready!

But that lies in the future. After a fairly long introduction, perhaps an indication that the show had had to be padded a little to meet its timeslot, Reggie invites the three young people to step over the fence. There's some convoluted backstory, about a landowner who set traps for the local youth and leaves money lying about his place, but this backstory is scarcely mentioned again on screen, it's confined to the social media. On the telly, we're more concerned that one of the players is worried about jumping from seven feet up onto soft grass.

Once the game properly begins, things become clear. This is a stylised programme. It has a concept of things that are in horror movies, and it's not going to be budged from that class of tropes. Scarecrows in a field, they're seen as scary. Scarecrows in a field of long grasses, they're more scary. Scarecrows in a field of grass over your head, and shot in a menacing manner, with discordant strings playing in the background, that's a proper horror film trope.

Release the Hounds If you're a crow, be scared.

For the first challenge, the contestants are in a field with some scarecrows stuck on pedestals. To get up to the scarecrow, they'll need to construct a makeshift ladder by banging bits of wood into holes on the pedestals. And then they clamber up, and they're filmed by a camera in the scarecrow's mouth.

Here, we see another common theme running through the programme. It's really well directed. The makers have put thought into every shot: looking at the players from inside the scarecrow's mouth is very classy. Anyone can put the shot from behind, or film from the side of the dummy, but a full-face reaction shot is visual gold. And the camerafolk know what the contestants are likely to do. Now they're on a par with the scarecrow, they'll need to reach for its backpack, to find the next set of steps.

But the scarecrows will move. Very slightly, very softly, very subtly. Possibly not enough to be perceived by the viewer, possibly just enough to be noticed by the contestants. And when these contestants notice something, they talk about it. Release the Hounds didn't waste effort on grand gestures, not when it could achieve the same effect by marginal little movements. We regularly see shows where they haven't thrown the kitchen sink at it; rarely do we see a programme where they've deliberately gone for this minimalist approach.

Release the Hounds Bless you.

And then the final scarecrow sneezes blood all over the contestant's face. Oh, go on, a little slapstick isn't going to hurt. In fact, it'll raise the scare factor for the rest of the game. As a moment of fear, it's here and then it's gone. But the tension leading up to this moment has been palpable: contestants and audience knew that *something* was going to happen, they (and we) didn't quite know what that something was. And it leads to more scares later in the show: the producers have shown their hand early on. If this happens in part one, what waits in part four?

(Spoiler: nothing so physical. Release the Hounds has been shot on a small budget, and the show's lofty ambitions keep on bumping against this low ceiling. Oh.)

Release the Hounds It's time to play Grab A Grand (Or Thirteen)

These challenges are designed to provide a scare, to make television, but above all to be won. Because without the key, no-one is going to unlock the chest containing the money. No-one will get to stuff the dosh into their backpack. No-one will get to storm down a course, hoping to cover 120 metres in less time than it takes six trained pursuit dogs to cover 150m.

That was the titular challenge, and we found it to be a bit samey. Here's the nominated person opening the chest. Stuffing the money in their backpack. Standing at the start gate. Waiting as the dogs are brought into position. And then the run takes place in real time.

Release the Hounds For £3110, the chase is on!

There are arty shots of the dogs and human retreating into the distance, or going at full tilt into the camera. The head-on chase shot was heavily foreshortened, the from-behind shot a fast-retreating blur of fur heading straight to the vanishing point. We might see the players' hands on top of the fence, hopefully followed by the rest of their body. Or we might see the dogs doing what they've been trained to do: bring down the human by stopping them from running.

Three of those pursuits was about enough: any more would certainly have lessened the appeal. If the show's coming back, we'd really love to see some sort of variety in this segment. Another way we could tell that the programme was being stretched was by the way all of these chases had really long introductions, with voiceovers from host Reggie Yates.

Release the Hounds Reggie cannot believe his eyes. Neither can we.

For long periods of the show, Reggie didn't have a lot to do. The players were left on their own in the key challenges, Reggie only spoke to them once they'd secured the key. He narrated through the build-up to the chases, and gave brief interviews and/or his own reaction pieces afterwards. And, as it's Reggie, we got some of his trademark facial expressions, perfected in the studio of Get 100 and backstage at BBC The Voice of Holland of UK.

Some have criticised the decision to have Reggie talk to the contestants, as it took them out of the game, breaking character. We do see some merit in this, but it's benefit for the viewer, who might have tuned in partway through and needed some gentle orientation. (News at Ten got boring again? Switch to ITV2.) Similarly, the familiar voice of Reggie Yates might have indicated that this was an entertainment, not a serious fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Release the Hounds A detailed setting.

In this column's experiences, the best scares (as opposed to frights) are ones that the participant plays on themselves. We'll never forget theatre group Punchdrunk's installations "Masque of the Red Death" (2007) and "It Felt Like a Kiss" (2009), not just for the content, but for the way they created an atmosphere of fear and oppression, such that grown-ups were scared to open a desk drawer or pick up a telephone lest something horrible happen – and not necessarily to them.

We were reminded of those experiences in the later challenges. The remaining players entered a haunted house, previously inhabited by a butcher, and followed clues to locate and retrieve the key. It was sewn into a piece of offal. This challenge was literally claustrophobic and revolting, it was designed to be claustrophobic and revolting. We don't think that it was sufficiently well explained to the viewer, we were often unsure what was going on. But by golly was it spooky. There's a malice, a menace, we keep expecting something to jump out, but nothing ever does.

The final challenge invoked more horror tropes, drawing from the haunted nursery. By now, there was just one contestant left, and he had an interesting method of dealing with the tension. It was applied to every inanimate prop: a mirror, a doll, a chair, a cot. Whatever the object, he would dismiss it from his presence with an invitation to spontaneously reproduce.

Release the Hounds Number nine: storytime!

The contestant would – literally – read the story of his night. The final commercial break fell during this challenge, and there was an interesting decision for the producers. Do they cut to the break immediately after the contestant says, "then he turned the page", or do they have a very brief shot of what is going to happen when he does turn the page? Are the viewers to be treated as contestants-by-proxy, or are they granted a wider view?

The producers chose the latter action. Throughout the programme, we'd been given additional tips: a particular choice of shot, a certain camera angle. The shot from the scarecrow's mouth allowed us to see contestant reactions that their fellow competitors couldn't see. Having established the viewer's privileged position, it was not unreasonable to continue it into the break. Equally, it would not have been unreasonable to say "what *is* behind him? Let's leave it hanging over the break".

As a coda to the main action, we had a quick debrief chat with the contestants, those who had and had not managed to leave with the money. This stopped ITV2 viewers from asking, "did they really have that man eated by dogs?", because we could see that, no, he really is in one piece. And it successfully wound down the tension, reminding us all that this was an entertainment, nothing more. It's only a game show.

Release the Hounds Neither dog nor contestant was harmed.

In conclusion, then, we have a game show that was certainly worth watching. It needs tweaking, a little more content and a little less recap, and we saw just enough of the game mechanic to dampen enjoyment. That said, Release the Hounds had bagfuls of attitude, and a clear sense of purpose. It knew what it was doing, it knew where it wanted to go, and it made every effort to get there.

ITV2 was a strange place for this programme, which was all about getting in people's heads. Other shows on that channel are fly-on-the-wall fluff (The Only Way is Essex, Freshers), or light-hearted fun (Celebrity Juice, Top Dog Model). We'd have associated this sort of dark and scary show more with ITV4, but then we remember that ITV4's non-sport programme budget is approximately six pizzas and a crate of beer, delivered to R. Bacon. With that budget, it wouldn't have been so much Release the Hounds as Release the Hamster.

This wasn't an ITV2 programme. It's the sort of thing Channel 4 would traditionally do – edgy, dangerous, dark (in at least two senses of the word). But Channel 4's commitment to edgy programmes came to an end in 2010, all that's left is cosy panel shows and derivative fly-on-the-wall docs, and the scariest they get is the wardrobe choice of Noel Edmonds. Channel 4, getting outdone by ITV2. What a horror story.

Only Connect

Series 8, Match S: Press Gang v Science Editors

Last week, Victoria Coren Mitchell said that it was time for a Celebrity Squares revival. This week, we learned that there is actually a Celebrity Squares revival recording in That 'London'. Spooky! Next week, Noel Edmonds asks Victoria how she actually gets this cosmic ordering thing to work. Frightening!

Walls 368 and 369 on the website. And *honestly*, continuity announcer, these sides aren't going for a place in the semis. Not yet. The Press Gang have been translating a book on cannibalism, the Science Editors think they chose the wrong hieroglyphics last time out. We think they were right.

So, pick the right hieroglyph, Editors. It's the music question! Something rappy, Jennifer Lopez, Craig David, Sam Brown, and an answer of "famous singers featuring in someone else's song." No. Dickens characters? Well, there is an Artful Dodger in music, but more on that story later. For now, it's the titles that are of interest: pause, play, rewind, stop. Buttons on a media player, graphics on The Chart Show, take your pick. For the Press Gang, it's frozen mashed potato, omelette pans, vegetable bouillon powder, cranberries. Nothing from the Gang, the Editors say they were all invented in Canada. Cranberries? Invented? Things subject to the Delia Effect, after being used by Ms Smith on the telly. 0-0

Pictures for the Editors: sausages in a pan, a lawnmower operator, a monkey on a bed, one green bottle. They're all parts of a counting song: "One man went to mow", a fraction of Victoria's rider, et cetera. A point. For the Press Gang, years and quotes – 1992 Merry Christmas; 1897 Are you ready; 1844 What hath God wrought; 2006 just setting up my twttr. It's first communications – the inaugral SMS, overseas wireless, telegram. 1-1.

For the Science Editors, the Blankety Blank revival. P---HER, CRO---ILE, WILDE---ST, and they think it's animals swallowed by other animals. Ant, Cod, Bee, two points. Lovely question. For the Press Gang, it's Winona Ryder, Dame Nellie Melba, Flo Rida, Florence Nightingale. Oh, giveaway, people named after where they were born. Apparently, Ms Ryder was born in Ryder, Missouri; Aunt Rida in Florida. 3-2 to the Science Editors.

Going into the Sequences, the Editors have 4th Chris Chataway, 3rd László Tábori, 2nd John Landy. People to achieve some feat, but what feat? They're going to have to guess. Richard Burton? No, Roger Bannister, being the first to run a mile in four minutes. A bonus to the Press Gang, who have pictures: Monica Lewinski, Erica Roe, and some woman we don't recognise. "Fourth please", says the captain. "No, it's a sequence", chips in the team. "Christine Keeler", being a bit of scandal? No: picture 3 was Rita Hayworth, so it's Monica and Erica and Rita and Tina, being the names in Lou Bega's version of "Mambo Number 5". "Moving heavy loads" is the comparative answer in Bob The Builder's version; more on that story shortly. 3-3.

And while we're in the vicinity, readers will be pleased to hear that Lou Bega is alive and well, and that reports of his death this week were from editors confusing him with Lou Reed. An easy mistake.

Back to the game! The Editors pick up two points on a question about spoon sizes; the Press Gang get a question about presidential pets but can they remember Mr. Obama's pet's name? No, they cannot. Scoop? Block? Dizzy? Roly? No. Nor Sasha, who is Mr. Obama's daughter. It's Bo Obama, named after his favourite contestant on BBC The Voice of UK. 5-3 to the Editors.

4th: A Feast for Crows, and the team want to confirm which way the series is going. It's going down, so 1st: Game of Thrones, being the first book in the "Song of Ice and Fire" series of seven books, which we don't believe is finished yet. Three points. For the Press Gang: Galactic Centre, Sun, Earth. Not "you and me", not "Earth's core", but something orbiting the Earth, like the Moon. It's 8-3 to the Editors.

To the walls! The Press Gang go first, and emerge with four types of cricket, leaving First class. Then they go for horses, including Champion, a clue on Round Britain Quiz just today. The remaining groups come out fairly easily: Anne Hathaway films, and "blimey, that's good" epithets. A copacetic performance. Ten points! Boffo!!

"Feathers McGraw", that was a baddie in Wallace and Grommit, the first thought of the Science Editors. But then they get themselves distracted by sprinters. There are a lot of sprinters on the board, at least six that we know. Then inspiration hits: dead ___ things. Peggy Guggenheim looks like a museum, and we think the team have the links, but they can't unscramble the two groups in time. 100m world record holders the final link. Six points!

The Science Editors have their lead trimmed, 14-13, going into Missing Vowels. Cleaning products is 3-1 to the Editors; sight impairments is a 1-1 draw. US sitcoms and their settings proves the undoing of the Editors: two incorrect buzzes allows the Gang to win by 2-(-1). End of the round, it's 17-17.

We have a tie! The captains' clue is "slow and steady wins the race", and it means the Science Editors win by the narrowest margin possible.

Only Connect (2) Out of print: Emily Phillips, Robin Seavill, Richard Colfer.

This Week And Next

Repèchage season concluded on University Challenge, with Southampton taking on Loughborough. They lost to SOAS and Clare Cambridge in August; all four high-scoring losers came from consecutive programmes. Southampton got off to the better start, getting lots of starters, but comparatively few bonuses. When Loughborough did get starters, they polished off the bonuses without difficulty. Southampton incurred some missignals, and the game remained tight, and low-scoring. The scores weren't helped by the first visual round, identifying United Stations elections by the provinces of two leading candidates for president and vice-president. Completely impenetrable to anyone except a specialist in the subject.

At least the audio round was mildly diverting: Name That Fagin invited the teams to identify performers in Oliver! It's probably the only time we'll hear Laurence Olivier and Russ Abbot in proximity. There were also Failed Transmission Indicators of the Week, questions about bread and baked goods, and another depicting September. Southampton's better buzzers proved the key, the side winning by 185-80.

We might have spotted this from a good buzz on the first question, and this piece of brilliance:

Q: Alexander the Great's was called Bucephalus, Napoleon's was...
Southampton, Bob de Caux: Horses


Lucy Spraggan came to town last Sunday, performing at the Digbeth Institute. She's got a wonderful way with words, songs are witty and wry. According to our concert companion, Spraggan's improved her act in the last year: clearly going undefeated on The X Factor has helped. The set perhaps wasn't the most varied, being a gobby girl and a guitar singing songs about love and life that veered dangerously close to twee, but we were completely ear-wormed for the rest of the week. Support came from Andreas Moe (Swedish bloke with guitar, singing songs he'll be offering to One Direction tribute acts), and from Shannon Saunders (teenage girl with guitar, clearly aimed at the tweenage voters to The X Factor). Apparently, Saunders won My Camp Rock on the Disney channel, a programme that had completely passed us by.

We hear that Ant and Dec are going on tour in the new year! Yes! Having missed their campaign for The Cult of Ant and Dec in 1997, we've been waiting seventeen years to see the lads on stage again. But wait, they're touring Saturday Night Takeaway the television programme? And not a song of the lyrical quality of "We're on the ball"? Oh well. We'll still be putting in for tickets.

Nominations for the BAFTA Scotland awards have been published. There's a Best Childrens' Programme category, with nominees including the final of Comic Relief Does Glee Club. Limmy's Show is up for Best Comedy and Entertainment Programme, it's the one with Adventure Call, the late-night call-and-lose D&D skit. Winners will be announced on 17 November.

No Mastermind this week, taken off for the Springwatch series, or whatever they're calling it this week. We deliberately misunderstood something in this week's Creamguide, suggesting that one of next week's specialist subjects will be ITV2 In The Days When It Had About Three Viewers. Cor, 10pm repeats of Millionaire. And Bedrock, an incomprehensible programme for tweenagers. And a collection of pop videos presented by Shovell From M People.

BARB ratings in the week to 20 October, when Strictly Come Dancing had an average of 10.85 million viewers in its performance show. And that's almost two hours long! The X Factor results was seen by 8.1m, and the Saturday performance by 7.5m. BBC2's The Great British Bake Off still trails, with 7.4m. HIGNFY had 5.25m, Pointless Celebs 4.45m, and The Chase with Celebrities (3m) is behind The Chase With Civilians (3.15m) and University Challenge (3.15m). Celebrity Juice attracted 1.74m to ITV2, 8 Out of 10 Cats brought 1.6m to Channel 4, and Only Connect had 905,000 tuning in to BBC4. Masterchef Australia on UK Watch had a year's best 330,000 viewers.

New daytime shows this week: Pressure Pad (BBC1, 3pm), Antiques Road Trip (BBC1, 4.30; celebrity editions BBC2, 7pm). And a new run of Masterchef The Professionals (BBC2, from 8.30 Mon). Challenge daytime has six hour blocks of the same programme, it's the grand final of The Great Irish Bake Off, and beware of a new series of The News Quiz (Radio 4, 6.30 Fri). Pointless Celebrities returns for a pop special, including Keren and Sara Bananarama, and Ritchie and Scott 5ive. The Chase With Celebrities offers Shane Lynch from The Race (1). It's Bruce's Scheduled Week Off on Strictly, and big band night on X.

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