Watching the Detectives



Nicholas Owen


Ludus for ITV Day, 2005


Boring daytime filler based around TV detective shows. Veteran ITN newscaster Nicholas Owen quizzes three contestants on their knowledge of TV detectives, we get to see some clips of stuff from the Granada archives, and there's a ridiculously drawn-out final round "identity parade" in which the winning contestant is shown a clip and then has to pick out the lowly Equity member who appeared in it (think of Never Mind the Buzzcocks' identity parade, minus the jokes).

This is a show that does just about everything wrong. It was trailed as coming from the creator of The Krypton Factor, and yet for a show with so much experience behind it, it does come across more like a sixth-form media project. The setting - Arley Hall, a dead swanky mansion in Cheshire formerly used as Cluedo's Arlington Grange - is promising, and looks good in the pre-title sequences, but is used so poorly they might as well have made it in a studio set. (Actually, now I come to think of it, is there any on-screen evidence that they didn't?)

Next problem: the host. So many newsreaders have turned their hands to quiz chairing, and made a decent fist of it, that it's easy to assume any TV journo is somehow automatically equipped to handle a game show. That theory comes somewhat unstuck when you're presented with Nicholas Owen, who really isn't very good at all. His manner is that of a rather staid and condescending BBC children's presenter of the 1950s, and he has no rapport with the contestants - indeed, were host and contestants not occasionally shown in the same shot, you'd think he was recording his bits separately. It doesn't help that he has to go through the rigmarole of introducing the contestants, and ask them whether they've had any run-ins with the law. Please understand that we've got nothing against contestants sharing amusing anecdotes; it's just that hardly anyone on this show has one, and hearing that someone once got pulled over for having a broken indicator just doesn't excite us. (If anyone ever responds to Nicholas Owen's query with an answer along the lines of "Actually no, I've never had a run-in with the law, which is ironic because I still have Shergar's head in the freezer compartment at home" then we might concede that the exercise is worthwhile.)

And so to the quiz. There's a basic on-the-buzzers round about TV whodunnits, a Swapheads-lite round in which contestants are given a TV show to bone up on, an observation round, and another on-the-buzzers round alternating questions about TV detectives with questions about real-life crime and police work. Some questions during the show are illustrated with clips from the Granada archives, which is nice, except that they never seem to show any of the good bits. After all, there's a lot of good stuff in those archives. Shame it's mostly stuff that can't be shown before the watershed.

There's obviously a bias toward ITV programmes, but then it would be naive to expect anything different. The real trouble is that with subject matter like this, it's hard to pitch questions at the right level. Doing it as a quiz for casual fans of the genre, there's one rather huge snag: there just aren't enough reasonably well-known (and interesting) facts to sustain a show like this. You can have the "who played x" and "where was y set" questions, but there's hardly anywhere else to go without demanding arcane specialist knowledge. If they really wanted to find an all-round expert on TV detective shows, then they could ramp up the difficulty accordingly and make a proper contest of it. Instead we have a quiz which veers erratically between ridiculously easy and ridiculously obscure, with precious little middle ground.

The endgame achieves the strange double whammy of being both bizarre and tedious: the winner is shown a clip of some crime-related drama and has to pick out the unknown Equity member who appears, from a selection of six. They do this by eliminating them one by one. The prize money increases for each one they correctly eliminate, until there are only two left, whereupon it suddenly becomes double-or-quits for no apparent reason. Eliminate the wrong person on the second, third, or fourth go, and your prize money is safe. Eliminate them fifth and you lose the lot. Yes, the contestant has the option to quit rather than risk losing it, but it still doesn't feel fair. And if the contestant does quit, then it's a big anti-climax. Normally we'd complain about ITV's intrusive "NEXT" graphic popping up while a quiz is still in full swing, but in this case we welcome it. At least its pretty colours give us something interesting to look at.

It's hard to think of another game show in which just about every single element of the production falls flat. To the problems already mentioned, we'll add the hopelessly unrealistic use of "audience applause" sound effects, a curious scoring system that we couldn't really fathom, but which appears to based on a conversion rate of six points per question (OK, it's hardly a crime - ho ho - but SIX points? Why?), the fact that the commercial break comes in the middle of a round, the ubiquitous premium-rate viewers' question (which, touch-tone phones being considered terribly passe these days, you can only enter by SMS text messaging), and even the fact that the title is just so hackneyed. None disastrous on their own, but together they just compound the will-this-do feel of the whole enterprise. We'll throw a bit of credit in the direction of the researchers responsible for locating five actors who look sufficiently like a sixth, but it's a shame their efforts are squandered on such a boring endgame.

And all this from people who have done truly wonderful things in the past? If we didn't already know, we would never have guessed.


"Fingerprints on your buzzers..."


Format by Stephen Leahy, Trish Kinane and Mike Adams.

See also

A more positive Weaver's Week review


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