The Cram



Matthew Bannister


Questioner: Mishal Husain


BBC Two, 7 to 18 June 2004 (10 episodes in 1 series)


Ten years ago, Matthew Bannister made his name as the man who turned Radio 1 from the Smashie and Nicey station into the Emma Freud and Nicky Campbell station, and then single-handedly launched Britpop. He's since spent a few years as the BBC's director of radio, and now presents a late-night show on the corporation's news station Radio Five. While Matthew talks to the contestants, Mishal Husain is the real star of the show. Her grilling of the contestants rivals Magnus Magnusson's for difficulty.

The format is very simple. Four contestants are given unlimited access to newspapers, the internet, radio, and television for a day, and are told to bone up on the day's news. We reckon the question-setting stops at around 4pm, three hours before the show takes to the air. One by one, they walk into the next room, and take a quick-fire set of eighteen questions from Mishal. Five seconds to answer, each correct answer is worth a point.

The questions are tough, sometimes to the point of abtruseness. There are no softball questions like "Which former US president died today?" but require detailed knowledge: "In which building is Ronald Reagan's body lying in state?" (The Reagan National Library.) Sometimes, the questions require more detail than even William G. Stewart would have taken: the contestant who answered "Michelle" to a question about Big Brother was marked incorrect, the producers wanted her full name, Michelle Bass, even though that's never been spoken on screen.

After each individual round, the four contestants go back in to the interrogation room, for a quickfire finale. Questions are on the buzzers, two points for a correct answer, one away for an error or a pass. Highest score at the end of the game wins £1000 and a place as returning champ on the next show.

The set is rather familiar: a reference library, split by a glass partition from a green brick room. A quiet piece of music drones on through the questioning, gradually rising in pitch, while the show's logo - spokes in a wheel, like a clockface - is surprisingly reminiscent of the iris from the Big Brother 4 logo, albeit without the colour.

There's nothing much wrong with the show, but then neither is there much right with it. The novelty of a news-based quiz quickly wears off, and if it wasn't for the one contestant winning all five shows this week, we'd probably have left the show early. Neither are we convinced by the aloof Matthew Bannister: perhaps the more earthy Julian Worricker, or the catty Fi Glover could front the series. Heck, it could - just - replace the 7 on BBC3, allowing Eddie Mair to host another game show.

Two main problems stand out with The Cram. Firstly, there's just too little interaction between the contestants; it would be nice for one round to direct questions at each contestant in turn, then offer for a bonus. The main gripe: it's too intense viewing for an everyday show at this time. Watching one episode made us rather exhausted, watching every day for a week is a recipe for burnout for anyone but a news junkie. It would be far better for the format were the show weekly.


On the opening episode, one contestant jumped out of her seat when her buzzer turned out to be a loud honk.

Described by one TV reviewer as "televised revision" which, in a way, it was.

Contestant Ian Sharp writes: Question setting stopped around 2.30/3pm on the show, with the recordings taking place from around 4/4.30pm onwards, taking around about an hour to record the programme (with all the edits).

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