Weaver's Week 2023-07-09

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How fickle showbusiness is.

"Radio's most popular music quiz is on your television!"

Ey up, our Vern, Ten to t'Top is on t'telly!



Popmaster TV

12 Yard for More4, 26 June – 3 July

Four months ago, this column gave a detailed profile of Ken Bruce. And we noted that – although he'd done a lot of radio quizzes and game shows and entertainments – he'd rarely made it to the television screen. We also devoted a lot of space to Popmaster, which was the most popular feature on radio at the time.

Popmaster This is Popmaster!

Combine the two, and we get Popmaster TV, a television show loosely based on the concept of Popmaster. But the original feature runs for about 17 minutes, with plenty of chat to contestants and a record in the middle. How will it translate to television? How can Popmaster fill an hour?

"With questions about pop music" is the unsurprising answer. Five contestants take part in each episode; they get a very brisk chat with Our Ken, and then into their assigned questions in the round they call "Links". Each question is connected with the previous answer or the previous question. Here's an actual set of four:

  1. Identify the American {1} rock band who released this song in 1987? (Clip of "Alone" by Heart)
  2. "All of my heart" is a song from ABC's debut studio album, released in 1982. What is the album called? ("Lexicon of Love")
  3. "Love yourself" by Justin Bieber replaced which of his other hits at the top of the UK charts in 2015? ("Sorry")
  4. "Who's sorry now?" spent six weeks at number one in 1958; it was released by which artist {2}? (Connie Francis)

Popmaster Five contestants stand behind a long desk, Ken sits in a circular desk, and the set looks a bit like a record library.

Three points per correct answer, unlike on the radio version there's no credit for mostly-right answers. It's very much the luck of the draw whether you get a set of questions majoring on the 1980s, or on the present day, or deep past – and some sets have very much been weighted to one era over all others.

Repeat this for all five contestants. And then we're into "Intros, Middles, and Ends". Ken will play the start, finish, or middle bit from some well-known songs. Five points if you can get the song in the first couple of seconds, draining away a bit more slowly to nothing at the end of the 20-second clip.

Popmaster A closer look at tonight's contenders.

The contestants aren't coming into the questions completely cold: Ken gives a brief biography of the song, "a number one in 1965 for an act who became known for their album sales". Already, the alert contestant can narrow down the field: could be the Kinks, probably isn't Sonny and Cher. Just one answer per person per clip.

Whoever's bottom of the pile at the end of this round is out of the show. This gives us a little trouble: a good player gets a set of questions off their knowledge, constantly gets beaten to the buzzer by other players, and leaves with no points. Comes across as a bit of a wasted journey, and a trifle unfair on the defeated player. Two possible ideas: one is to cut the show down to four players and don't lose anyone at this point.

Or they could insist that players can only buzz in a few times during the round: you get three answers, right or wrong. There is heritage to this unusual idea: Run the Risk allowed just one buzz per team per round, one of William G Stewart's quizzes limited the number of questions one answered in a round. But it's messy and every second Ken's reading rules is a second he's not quizzing, and absolutely nobody watches quiz shows for boring rules. So just don't have an elimination yet.

Popmaster Oh, life. Does anyone remember "Losing my religion" by R.E.M.?

After the break, we're into "Video Gaga". Stills from a pop video are shown, with a clue to the song or performer or both. Five points if you can get it after the first, utterly obscure, clue; down to 1 point after all five hints.

For most of the series, this was played as assigned questions, one per person; a couple of heats had this as another buzzer round. We preferred it as assigned questions, give everyone another moment in the sun. And we'd love them to show the clip of the video containing all the stills, not just some (or – regrettably often – just one) of them. It's a great round for the television show, because they just couldn't attempt this on the radio.

Not actually Ten to the Top, but close enough

"Top Ten" comes next. Ken counts down the top ten with all the style and authority of Adrian John on Top of the Pops. Where are we this week, Ken? We're in February 2015, when this column reviewed Shipping Wars, got confused, and slogged through Tara Gilesbie's My Immortal – a work much more fun than Shipping Wars, and almost as coherent.

Let's go for a deep dive on these questions.

10 – Which female singer and songwriter composed "Thinking out loud" with Ed [Sheeran]? Good, if tricky, question, Popmaster rarely asks about songwriters and producers and videos, and Amy Wadge is famous enough to be known. Not that the contestants did.

9 – The original version of "Doing it" by Charli [XCX] alone was included on her second album, what was its title? One for the fans, there: by 2015, many pop stars were no longer recording albums, but went from track to track. There is an artistic discipline in channelling ones thoughts into a coherent set of statements, as Miss XCX did on Sucker.

8 – about "The nights" by Avicii. They played a clip from Avicii's 2011 debut hit "Levels", and asked for its follow-up "Silhouettes". Valid, but perhaps they could get a closer match to the hit song from 2015. They could have asked about the vocalist on "The nights", but Nicholas Furlong wasn't credited at the time. Or they could have asked about the vocalist on previous single "The days", everyone will have heard of Robbie Williams.

7 – Which 2012 single by Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa reached the top of the singles charts? – because "Sugar" was in the top ten. More difficult that you might think, Maroon 5 have had more hits than we care to remember, "Payphone" just one of them.

Popmaster Questions are written out for the viewers.

6 – "Gravity" by Rudimental featuring Ella Eyre. This links to Ella's work with Rudimental on an earlier hit, which they played. What was it called? "Waiting all night" the answer; they could have mentioned that it won the BRIT award for Most Popular Single. And how come the assembled panel don't know a song that won the BRIT award for Most Popular Single? What does that tell us about the panel – or the BRIT awards?

5 – A hit single featuring Paul McCartney leads to What was the title of Paul McCartney's first solo top 10 hit? And that's how to squeeze a 1970s question into a round about the 2010s, "Another day".

4 – "Earned it" [by The Weeknd] featured on the soundtrack of which successful 2015 movie? A traditional question-writer's staple, and no less effective for it. "Fifty Shades of Grey" the answer, apparently.

3 – From "Uptown Funk" they could ask about vocalist Bruno Mars. Or about producer Mark Ronson. Or ask which X Factor contestant performed it. No, they go with Name the duo who achieved their only hit and number 1 in 1978 with "Uptown top ranking"? They had fewer hits than Fleur East, they're Althia and Donna.

Fleur East Fleur East, could've been an answer.

2 – In which country was Hozier born? A question that is related to the performer, and is significantly less than either the song or the quiz potential. The song was Spotify's biggest hit of 2014. A smart and talented fan wrote out the lyric of "Take me to church" from the titles of fan fictions on ao3.org. And you ask us that Hozier was born in Ireland?

1 – What was the title of Ellie Goulding's 2023 number 1 hit on which she collaborated with Calvin Harris? The best-selling single was also from "Fifty Sheds of Grey", so they had to look elsewhere.

Somehow, for a round set in 2015, the majority of the questions came from other years. The contestants are all of a certain age, and haven't listened to Radio 1 since Adrian John last ran down the top ten, so they struggled on this round – just four of the ten were answered correctly, that didn't include "Miracle" at the end.

Lowest score leaves us, with a gentle moan that "there wasn't enough 80s for me". By the end of the show, there will have been.

Popmaster For you, it is lights out.

After the break, "Pop Years" is another individual round. Three tracks from the same year, name that year. Five points if you get it on one clue, down to three after three. But there's just one guess to be had – this isn't like Richard Osman's "Highbrow Lowbrow" game where you can change your answer.

There's a clip for the first tune, which is quite often as obscure as "Landslide of love" by Transvision Vamp, which gets about 30 plays a week on all the radio stations in the world. Big Fun somehow made the top ten, and get about 300 plays a week worldwide; Technotronic's "Pump up the jam" gets over 3000 spins a week.

But we don't watch for the relative obscurity of the tracks they picked, we're here for the One Year Out! animation. Like the rest of the show, the graphics are based on a vinyl record, with a crisp sans-serif font on top. Behind Ken, there's a big graphic of a record slowly sliding in and out of its sleeve, which can be a trifle irritating. {3}

Popmaster Ooh, nasty.

"It's only words" is the final qualifying round. Ken reads out part of the lyric from a big hit, the contestants try to identify the song and one of its performers. Whoever buzzes in will see three more titles, and get points for naming the performer associated with them. These are bonus questions, the other players can't pilfer points.

The two surviving players continue to "Original Popmaster", which is exactly like it was on the wireless. Pick a bonus topic, there's an inevitable question about a year, the "Five! Four! Etc!" countdown to distract, and the questions are as good as they ever were. Or weren't.

The loser gets to re-enact a moment from Peter Kay's Got the Pop Factor (And Possibly A Brand New Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Gladiators Awooga Strictly ... On Ice!). The loser gets commiserations, and just stands on their mark while things come to an end.

Popmaster Thanks, R. Wayne.

The winner is awarded an ultra-rare Popmaster Silver Disc. They have the opportunity to upgrade it to a common-or-garden Popmaster Gold Disc, if they complete Three in Ten. Name three top 75 hit singles for Iron Maiden. Easy: the one with the Shakespeare quote, the one with the Lord of the Rings allegory, the one with flying lessons, the one that's a bit of pantomime, the one from fencing practice.

All five daily winners come back for the final, which is played in exactly the same way. Buzzers are sharper, some of the contestants have heard enough Popmaster that they can predict a question just from the clip. And the winner can upgrade their prize to a one-of-a-kind Popmaster Platinum Disc. It's a bit like Going for Gold, really, with the small daily prize building up to a big final prize. What's the modern equivalent of tickets to the Olympics: VIP passes to Taylor Swift?

"Sir, this is my emotional support radio quiz hellsite!"

Yes, we have criticised Popmaster quite a bit. That's because we've watched a short pilot series, and they've got the vast majority of things right. The relatively small number of errors are a) fixable and b) really stick out.

For the telly show, they've gone right back to the original concept, as defined in 1997: Popmaster as the University Challenge of pop music, complete with a host born in the early 1950s. The questions are tough, demanding, difficult. As they should be.

But they have made concessions to the viewer. By having everything written down, we at home can read some of the more complex questions and attempt to translate them into standard English. We also get a few seconds' head start on the contestants, and might even answer before they buzz in. Aren't we smart?

Popmaster has a lot of questions – somewhere between 90 and 100 in each episode, depending on just how many "Intros, Endings, and Middle Bits" and "It's Only Words" sets they need to play. They're running at 50% of the pace from Channel 5's quiz-me-quick show 100%, which is a pleasantly brisk speed. There's barely a wasted moment in the whole programme, everything is about the quiz.

Popmaster One on the spot, and one hangs around.

Back in the 1980s, Pop Quiz covered the canon of pop music from rock 'n' roll to the present day, a quarter-decade and a bit more. Popmaster goes a little further – anything from the establishment of the charts by the New Musical Express (Incorporating Accordion Times) in 1952 to the present day. On this sample show, questions ran from second-ever number one hitmaker Kay Starr to current top five hit "Miracle".

Contestants are expected to be experts on seven decades of popular music knowledge – with a speciality on the 70s and 80s. Just for comparison, Elizabeth I's favourite pastime Tudor History Master would ask contestants to study everything from Henry VII to Bloody Mary, with a specialism on Katherine of Aragon's time as queen.

All of the contestants knew their musical onions. Some of them had the opportunity to show it, others had a bit of a wasted journey. Perhaps, for the next series, they might consider asking the contestant for some of their favourite singers or bands, and start with a few questions about them. Gets everyone off the ol' 0 points, gives everyone a chance to show their brilliance, and ensures there are lots of right answers at the beginning.

In terms of More4, the ratings were excellent – 700,000 for the first episode, 500,000 for the final. OK, they had saturation coverage in all the listings magazines and much of the press, and Ken promoting Popmaster before every edition of Countdown. When you've got a good show, it's right to shout about it.

Another series? Almost certainly. On the main Channel 4? Why not. Being bold and daring, we'd pop it in the 8pm Tuesday slot often used by Bake Off, take advantage of how the culture knows about Popmaster and broadly likes it.

But wherever it goes, we're sure there will be another series of Popmaster to entertain and confound. Best new quiz of the year so far? Very possibly, Best new show of the year? At the halfway mark, it's this or The Piano.

Popmaster Today's winner gets the gold disc.

{1} "Aren't Heart a Canadian band?", we pondered. Well, yes and no: yes in the sense that they got their breakthrough when living and recording in Vancouver and profited from the Canadian content laws; no in the sense that they were mostly born in places like California to the south of Vancouver and "Alone" did not pass as Cancon at the time.

{2} Popmaster continues to use "artist" as a catch-all term for singers, groups, duos, choirs, assemblages, featured performers, and Bon Jovi. It is not always apparent how these people make art.

{3} There are, apparently, technical reasons for this. Some digital encoders have difficulty coping with static pictures, so everything we see on screen for more than a moment has to move in the foreground or background. Still pictures are slid about, charts tilt and rotate, the gold discs containing scores slowly spin, and Ken Bruce has a sliding record behind him.


Series 87 finals

Countdown Who will lift the trophy?

It's been a curious series. Just two octochamps, but they were players of high quality. Ronan Higginson became only the fifth player to score 1000 points in their heats; Cillian McMulkin tied the one-show record of 154 points. They made light work of Andrew Barrett and Dave Cappleman in the quarter-finals.

The other matches saw seven-game winner Peter Burke account for six-match winner Greg Pearce. Adam Dexter got revenge on Graham Moonie-Dalton – they'd met in the heats, Graham ended Adam's winning run and went on a long stretch himself. Adam won the rematch with a very strong performance.

Adam was strong in the semi-final, but blobbed when offering the invalid "wolfman" in the first round. Ronan took the advantage, and never let go. Never looked like letting go, scored in every round, scored the maximum legal word in every round, and quietly ran up a Perfect Game – nobody could have scored more points. Cillian let some points drop against Peter, "Episterna" the best of many winners.

The two young players made the final a show to watch – even if both called it "Ignorable" in the first round. Ronan made his move early, "Mapwise" in round two, and "add them all up" a simple way to win the numbers. Cillian had to speculate to close the gap, but only Ronan could see "Pecoraite" late in the game.

The title was won by Ronan Higginson, 150-83; he'd missed the maximum in just two rounds of the final. Host Colin Murray has really brought out the spirit of Countdown – it's a simple challenge, played by contestants of any ability, and Countdown welcomes you.

Countdown Ronan Higginson, that's who

In other news

Wheel of Fortune and/or Fame Graham Norton is to revive Wheel of Fortune for the ITV network. Eight episodes in hour-long slots. Quite how they can fill a whole hour with Wheel of Fortune is beyond us, but Letterbox managed 30 minutes on air, and they can probably get a bit out of the wheel thing. Anyway, Whisper North are to make the programme, and not STV who supplied spinning fun through the 90s and beyond.

Double or Quits Another announcement from Channel 4, where Sue Perkins will host daytime prog Double The Money. Pairs of contestants are given a few quid, and ordered to double the cash within the next few hours, else they're out. And no repeating an idea you've seen before. Later rounds are for bigger targets and played over longer times, and the winning team get a cash prize. How much of this prize will be made by the losing contestants? South Shore's comments are remarkably silent.

Lingo Sock it to 'em.

Lingoes on and on and on A fourth series of Lingo from ITV, with an "exciting" new feature. Daily winners will come back for the next show, potentially racking up literally thousands of pounds and maybe becoming as familiar and popular as host Jan Versteegh (sub: please check). Confusingly, this point won't feature in some third series episodes which are still sitting on an ITV shelf, presumably waiting for their Wordle to turn up.

Where is Malmö? Go to Copenhagen and turn right. That's the directions for next year's Senior Eurovision Song Contest, which will be held in the southern city on 7, 9, and 11 May. If there's any more news on Hacker T Dog presenting the programme, we'll be sure to let you know.

Great news for all Howards, the end of the wait is near and Only Connect returns on 17 July. University Challenge is back on the same evening. Both shows return to their normal schedule this year, as there's not a massive block of sport to fit in (or a choreographed announcement of UC and its new presenter).

A new run of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (Radio 4, Mon). Imported shows include The Traitors Australia (BBC3, from Sun) and Next Level Chef (Fox) (ITV2, from Mon). And the human star of Going Live, Dame Sarah Greene, is on Pointless Celebrities (BBC1, Sat).

Pictures: 12 Yard, Granada / Mitre Productions, Yorkshire TV, Talpa.

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