Weaver's Week 2015-05-10

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By calling its schedule "Super Saturday", ITV has set a rod for its own back. The shows aren't just worth watching, they're landmark television, amongst the best in the land. We sat down last Saturday and watched the big three.

Ninja Warrior UK


Ninja Warrior UK

Potato for ITV, from 11 April

First up, at 7pm, is the big physical game. Something big and brash for all the family to enjoy. Ninja Warrior UK is the latest in a long line of brash, physical shows, stretching back to Gladiators. The trail contains many false endings and flop shows: Ice Warriors, Under Pressure, Simply the Best all failed to get a second series, and some failed to see out their first. For every TV Burp there's a Don't Scare the Hare. Even the successful shows have their limits: Hole in the Wall and Total Wipeout came to their end before the joke wore too stale.

As the name suggests, Ninja Warrior UK is the British version of an international format. Here, it's Sasuke, a legend in Japan. The show has already reached screens here, the Japanese original was edited down, re-voiced by Stuart Hall, and became a regular fixture on the Challenge channel. They'd done the same with Takeshi's Castle and Craig Charles.

Ninja Warrior UK It's Saracen from Gladiators! He'll get nowhere.

Ninja Warrior UK is an obstacle course. The aim is for each player to get from the start to the finish in as short a time as possible, and without touching the water beneath each obstacle. Why is there water beneath each obstacle? Ask the Japanese.

The first obstacle is always the same, five steep platforms about a metre apart, and positioned invitingly over a pool of water. Fail to complete any of the leaps and the player is in the drink and swimming to the side with egg on their face. Start and finish, all within ten seconds. The Bit of a Wasted Journey Pointer is active, and it's pointing at this failed contender.

The next obstacle changes from week to week: in last week's episode, it was a guest appearance by the sliding door from The Apprentice. Some other weeks, it's a pole. Jump on the door, it begins to travel along a track, and comes to a sudden halt. The halt introduces a swing, and the player is meant to use that swing to jump to safety on the platform. Let go of the door, or mistime the jump, or be thrown off by the force of the stop, and it's bathtime.

Ninja Warrior UK Bring on the door!

Obstacle number three is another fixture: the stepping mushrooms. These are thin sticks with large domes on top, and the domes tilt when someone steps on them. For no obvious reason, there's a rule that players aren't allowed to touch the mushrooms with their hands. For no obvious reason, this segment is done over gym matting, not over water. We find this to be a weak segment of the course.

A cargo net is at the end of the next obstacle, accessed by a rope, or by a swing, or by a rope swing. There's multiple jeopardy here: fall off the rope and it's an early bath. Mistime the jump onto the cargo net, and it's not quite such an early bath. Fall off the net, or touch the water while climbing beneath it, and the player is again out.

Ninja Warrior UK A dragon tries to make the mushrooms interesting.

Next up comes a test of upper-body strength. This week, it's a ring hang. Move rings from peg to peg, and travel from one side to the other. Drop a ring, or lose strength, and it's curtains. Other weeks, it's curtains for everyone: three drapes span a pool, and the object is to leap from curtain to curtain, climbing high enough to not fall in.

The final test is another fixture: the Warped Wall. This starts flat, rapidly becomes very steep, and finishes by curving back on itself. Players are challenged to scale this bizarre construction, rising up the steep slope and leaping to grab the ledge on top. All it takes is a decent fingerhold, and the player can haul themselves up and push the button to stop the clock. For no obvious reason, players are only allowed three attempts to ascend the wall.

Ninja Warrior UK A contender leaps for the cargo net.

Fifty players compete in each episode: the best ten from each show progress to the next round, along with twenty close losers. We reckon that almost everyone who completes the course will be invited back, plus a few people who get a bit lucky.

With fifty players taking part, and most of them spending about two minutes on the course, it's not possible to show everyone's run in full. Some are shown in very edited highlights, a fast-cut montage of splash after splash after splash after splash, in a way we didn't get from Splash!. Others get introduction films, a sure sign that we'll see the player through to their finish. There are groups of people who share a bond – we might cut between three teachers, or see one brother try to succeed where the other has failed.

Ninja Warrior UK Two players, hanging by a ring.

The show is jointly hosted by Ben Shepherd from Tipping Point, Rochelle Humes from The Saturdays, and Chris Kamara from Countdown. Kamara and Shepherd share the bulk of the commentary, and it's of very varied quality – statements of the patently obvious are mixed with sharp dissections of good and bad technique. Humes is tasked with pre-match and post-match interviews, it's rare that these contain any insight.

Ninja Warrior UK works. It's a pacy hour, there is always something to watch. The bad performances are edited out, the good ones shown to reasonable length. When someone tears up the course in 70 seconds, we'll see it in full: when someone takes 700 seconds, we excuse editing. From time to time, we think the editors don't give justice to a winning performance, but (unlike The Voice) we do see something of every winning performance.

Ninja Warrior UK Bring on the warped wall!

The show is helped by its internal narrative. All the contenders are shown, and the result is accurate, but we can be sure they're not shown in real competition order. Rather, they're edited to make a better programme: in the first part, no-one will finish, so we can see the early obstacles. In parts two and three, people finish, setting up competition for places in the top ten. In the final part, it's a battle both to complete the course and to finish in a fast enough time. With careful editing, this can be made into compelling television.

Changing some – but not all – of the obstacles each week allows the programme to appear fresh. The changes are cosmetic, the replacements test the same skills in the same order, only the appearance is different. The show's become a decent hit, audiences of 4 million in spring are broadly similar to 5 million in winter. It'll be interesting to see how the show fares in its later weeks, when the competition heats up.

Britain's Got Talent

Britain's Got Talent David, Alesha, Simon, and the other one.

Britain's Got Talent follows at 8pm. The end-of-the-pier show is now in its ninth series. In the heats it's still 30% jaw-dropping rubbish, 50% filler that might bulk out the live shows, and one or two candidates for the final.

Last year, they introduced the "golden buzzer", each judge (and host Antan Dec) is allowed to send one act straight through to the live semi-finals. Never mind the final sifting round where 200 talents fight for 40 spots, these folk sail right through.

Britain's Got Talent remains in the Big Five of talent contests (alongside The X Factor, The Voice, Strictly Come Dancing, and the Eurovision Song Contest). ITV is committed to it for another year, and the format will run for as long as ITV wants it to run. We don't have much to say about it.

Play to the Whistle

Play to the Whistle

Hungry Bear Media for ITV, from 11 April

Which brings us to the new panel game with a sports twist. Play to the Whistle takes, as its gimmick, Holly Willoughby blowing a whistle to end each round.

Team captains Frank Lampard and Bradley Walsh are joined by various ITV celebrities – Dermot O'Leary and Christine Bleakley – and by other people. Romnesh Ranganathan is better at cricket than the entire England team, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has a name too long to fit on the captions.

In last week's show, round one was "The Exciteables". Here is some video footage of people getting excited about something they're watching on television. What were they watching? CSKA Moscow winning the Superbowl? North Korea beating the England cricket team? This programme? There's literally far too much discussion, while we're waiting for a correct answer or something funny to happen.

Play to the Whistle Exciting? We've seen more gripping canal trips on BBC4.

Mr and Mrs Lampard comes next, because Christine Bleakley is dating Frank Lampard. So, how much do they know about each other? Let's lock Frank away and ask questions about him to Christine. There's lots of discussion while we're waiting for a correct answer or something funny to happen, or someone to say the safe word, name the regular host and bring this round to an end.

Little League is a filmed insert, in which Seann Walsh and Jimmy Bullard manage a team of under 10s playing football, and they manage to drag this out for almost ten minutes. Gooooooooooooal! has two of the guests trying to extend the word "goal" for as long as they can without drawing breath. Mr. Oxlade-Chamberlain managed to stretch his celebration out to a full 37 seconds, almost as long as the England cricket team go without losing a wicket.

Play to the Whistle This could only be more Alan Partridge with a groin strain.

The final round is Squeaky Buzzer Time, a round of questions on the buzzer, and the buzzer squeaks. Holly awards points for logical reasons, the winner is declared, and no-one remembers who won by the start of the next show. That's how we know it's a panel game.

To be a comedy panel game, a programme needs to be funny, entertaining, raise more chuckles than questions. We have lots of questions. How come, in the first four programmes, precisely one women has been booked for her sporting ability? Both Holly Willoughby and Christine Bleakley appear to have made the programme because of their menfolk – Mrs. Willoughby is married to executive producer Dan Baldwin.

And wasn't this meant to be an entertainment programme? In forty-five minutes, we had about two moments to distracts us from creeping boredom: Mr. Oxlade-Chamberlain's breath control and Mr. Lampard "getting stuck" in the isolation booth. Mr. Walsh sits on a high chair at the side of the studio; even though the show is going out after the watershed, that feels very wrong. Schofield!

We're sure that there's an audience for Play to the Whistle. We're sure that we're not in that audience.

This Week and Next

Not sweet: The Taste on ABC (Disney). Viewers over there have cooled on the spoon-based show, and it won't be renewed for a new series. They will get to see a show with a snappy title: "Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris". Doesn't quite roll off the tongue like Saturday Night Takeaway Your Money.

Worth reading: The AV Club talks to a player on the American show Wheel of Fortune.

James Bourne, formerly of this parish, has serious discussions on the art of the game show at Game Show Gallery.

BARB ratings in the week to 26 April.

  1. Britain's Got Talent remains on top with 9.1m viewers.
  2. Masterchef reached its final, a series-best 6.95m saw it. HIGNFY and Victoria Coren-Mitchell had 5.4m viewers, and Pointless Celebrities 4.35m.
  3. Ninja Warrior was seen by 3.95m, up over a million on last week. Play to the Whistle pulled in 2.05m, still below its launch levels.
  4. 1.45m for Britain's Got More Talent, 1.1m for Eggheads, and 990,000 for Celebrity Juice.
  5. Channel 4's leaders Coach Trip (daytime) and Three in a Bed (primetime) were seen by 710,000, behind reruns of Britain's Got Talent on ITV2 (825,000).

Lots of new shows this week. Beat the Brain and The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge are on BBC2, and there's a new run of Big Brother (C5 and TV3). There's another chance to see Come on Down! The Game Show Story (ITV, Wed). British Film on Pointless Celebrities (BBC1, Sat) and Ninja Warrior UK moves into its second round (ITV, Sat).

Photo credits: Potato, ITV Studios, Hungry Bear Media.

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