Weaver's Week 2003-06-14

Weaver's Week Index

14th June 2003

Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.

We have brains

When we come to write the history of 2003, it'll be the year when game shows remembered that they have a brain. Already, this column has remarked on the intelligence shown on WITHOUT PREJUDICE?, and on the subtle arts and crafts travelling quiz of HOUSE SITTERS. And there's more brain food out there yet.

WHAT? BIG BROTHER?! (C4, E4, all week)

BIG BROTHER is now one-third completed, and we can name the Most Interesting Housemate. In the first year, this was Nick and his devious shenanigans. In BB2, the camp-as-anything eventual winner Brian. Last year, Britain couldn't get enough of model Alex. This year, the housemate who has charmed the public is Jon. He's not become popular for complaining about people piddling in the shower, nor for his camp charm, nor for any strangeness in his gameplan. Instead, Jon has become popular for being intelligent, and not being afraid to hide it.

In the first week, Jon overcame short odds to beat Anouska out of the house - her assets were as plain as the smile on her face, and only slightly less shallow. In week two, Jon was simply seen as more entertaining than Justine. All through his time in Chateau BB, Jon has not been afraid to hide his intellect under a bush. He's opined on sci-fi movies and books, he's come up with one useful innovation - putting binbags over the pool to heat it up, forgetting that the pool was already heated - and the much-repeated time-delay toaster. Jon's bought the complete works of Shakespeare into the house, and reworked the opening to Romeo and Juliet into an observation on the situation he's in.

It's not just Jon who has brains: most of this year's BB contestants have more intellect than is required to run a bath, and the selected twelve could well make a decent fist of running something larger.

After three weeks, the tabloids would like to be reporting on how contestant A and contestant B would like to cop off, and judging the likelihood of inserting slot C into tab D for various {A, B, C, D} matrices. One tabloid offered a five-figure reward if its perusers agreed that an entry into this matrix constituted "sex" (terms and conditions apply, full details on request from Nosey International.)

This year, not only has no one inserted any slot into any tab, there's been no serious chance of that happening. This has rather thrown Earth Mother Davina, whose repertoire in the post-march interviews seems limited to asking a series of rote questions that centre on "romance" and "crushes" (in other words, sex) at the expense of not only the intellectual side of the experience, but other emotions the contestants may have.

Some elements of the media have been hacked off by this lack of sex. These outlets hyped this year's BB as "the raunchiest yet" and "the dirty dozen" before any of the contestants had entered the house, and these outlets have well and truly had their fingers burned by the complete lack of "action".

This obsession with the frivolous and trivial reached its nadir when one daily tabloid devoted pages and pages to reprinting Usenet posts from Jon's time in university. The commentary attempted to show the contestant as dull and boring; the piece merely revealed how completely anal and geeky that publication was being, and how it evidently never needed to look up the word "chutzpah." Nor the words "copyright" and "infringement," but that's one for the lawyers.

Back in the BB house, Jon explains to Sissy the serial choice system by means of analogy: if you're want to pick the best thing from a conveyor belt, and you can't go back once you've rejected something, then let the first third go past, then pick the first one that's better than all you've seen so far. It won't always give you the best outcome, but it's the optimal strategy.

(Pedantry watch: the best result requires 1/e of the group to pass; setting the mark at 1/3 is around 95% optimal.)

All this intelligence from the Big Brother compound is annoying the arts intelligentsia as much as it annoys the popular press. Ever since it began, cultural imperialists have decried Big Brother as "exploitative," "trashy," "downmarket," and (horror of horrors) "populist." Such attacks have been noticeable by their absence this year. Has the British public suddenly discovered that it does actually like people with a bit of a brain? Or has the nation always held some affection for people who can hold a sensible conversation, but hasn't had a chance to voice that respect before?

There are those who argue that Jon's motive in the house isn't to gain instant fame, but to engage Endemol/C4 in a titanic mental struggle. This column has a suspicion that the producers may have met their match.

Big Brother IV has brains. BBIV is not afraid to show it has brains.

The regular coverage: Justine left last week on a 57-43 vote, with just over 640,000 ballots cast. In keeping with the intellectual bent this year, the second reward challenge was a game of pass the parcel, but with contestants having to answer general knowledge questions when unwrapping to win the reward.

Anouska (second week dividend £14.73) and Jon (£2.54) were voted out of Celebdaq by gruntled stockholders. Tania (£4.06) and Nush (£3.20) also did well, Federico and Justine were both around £2.45, Sissy netted £1.19, Scott 97.2p, Steph 95p, Cameron 87p, Ray (who?) 35.4p, and Gos a rip-roaring 5.3 new pence. Of former contestants: Jade earned 72p, Kate 19.5p, and Alex Sibley the grand non-total of nothing. The house totalled £33.77, less than 46% of the cost of a Mr David Beckham (who plays association football, apparently.)

Jon (6 nominations) was up for the vote, along with Federico (4) and Sissy (4). Tactics from the Jon camp include sending out an email along these lines: "In the census of 2001, a young data strategy manager from Norwich listed his religion as Jedi," went the promotional message, showing his desire to stick up a few fingers at a very stupid question. "That man was ex-BLOCKBUSTERS contestant Jon Tickle, and right now he needs your help to bring harmony to a troubled galaxy." Recipients are urged to use their "geek votes" - one suggested way: "subverting the NEWSROUND poll."

This week's task was somewhere between ludicrous and impossible. Big Brother asked the metric dozen to play a tune on some handbells. The ten weren't allowed to actually hear the bells, just the rhythm and order in which to play them. When they got clappers in the bells, they were forbidden from rehearsing the tune, so it's no wonder the task ended in an ignominious failure. The team did manage to spot the tune they weren't playing, and got a Chinese takeaway and "refreshments" that night. Nush correctly pointed out: "this makes for really boring television." With no money for alcohol, there haven't been any big bust-ups. Yet.

Shoppers in Redditch have vowed to stay away from the town centre after the shopping centre erected a ten metre high banner, backing contestant Stephanie. Not because they're all Anouska fans in Redditch, but because the quality of shopping in the Worcestershire town is rubbish.

Betting during the week:

Scott 3
Ray 11/2
Nush 7
Jon 7

Gos 9
Cameron 14
Tania 14
Steph 18
Federico 20.

Fed's price should fall as he's not been evicted. Note that the two favourites are the two contestants this column couldn't recognise from Adam.

The voting confirmed that this year's BB works slightly in favour of brains, but doesn't work against sexists. Hyper-intelligent Jon finished dead last in the voting. Sissy, who's clearly unhappy and isolated, and might have used some words with the psychologist more than most, finished ahead of Federico in the eviction vote. The Glaswegian waiter launched into an amazing sexist diatribe against ladies from Newcastle Upon Tyne during the week, confirming that he won't be appearing on the new series of Antan Dec Take Over The Planet.

Channel 4 has decided not to make a third Celebrity Big Brother series, as it would be too hard to make the show interesting and different. When will the regular series run out of ideas?

GRAND SLAM (Monkey for C4, 2000 Friday)

Latest of the brain game shows to air is this offering. Sixteen contestants, each putting up £1000, the winner takes that £16,000 and a top up to £50,000. The show bills itself as "television's toughest quiz," a mantle previously claimed by THE KRYPTON FACTOR and FIFTEEN TO ONE.

Grand Slam takes itself very seriously. Carol Vorderman is the host, with "colour commentary" from James Richardson. He's previously hosted C4's Italian football coverage, and is very earnest. Perhaps too earnest: analysis from a well-known quizzer who isn't involved with the series (say, MILLIONAIRE winners Judith Keppel or Robert Brydges, or winner of everything else Daphne Fowler) would better reflect the contestants' strong and weak points.

In the rounds, the contestants stand at the centre of a diamond, about an arms length apart. The contestant answering questions is spotlit, with a red light playing on the rest of the set. Behind each contestant is their picture, back projected in a similar way to the opening round of THE VAULT. There's an arena audience there, limited to clapping and cheering between each round.

In each round except the last, both contestants have one minute. The clock ticks while their questions are asked and answered. The clock is accurate to a hundredth of a second, which is surely more accurate than can be correctly measured. The round ends when one contestant runs out of time, with the other contestant adding such time as remained to 30 seconds in the final round. The winner of that final round wins the contest.

Interrupting questions is not allowed: they are displayed on a screen (in very small type) but Quizmaster Nicholas Rowe has a delivery that is rapid-fire and completely accurate. No stumbles, no fluffs, no hesitation. It wouldn't surprise this correspondent to find that the questions were pre-recorded and played in from hard disk; if it's all done live, then even more credit to Mr Rowe.

Each player has three switches to last the whole game; using one will transfer a question to the opponent. A switched question can be switched straight back, rendering the mechanic rather pointless.

To summarise: the round-by-round game from PLAYING FOR TIME, the winning of four rounds establishes a big but not insurmountable lead from FRIENDS LIKE THESE, and the commentary of any Eurosport broadcast.

This week's contestants: Dee Voce, won big on Countdown in 1999, also a winner on Fifteen To One and Brainteaser.

Geoff Owen, debuted on Bob's Full House in 1984, won big on The People Versus in 2000, appeared on The Weakest Link the same day.

Dee Voce wins the opening general knowledge round; Carol points up one she got right, and James dwells on some of Geoff Owen's errors. Dee Voce carries forward 26 seconds.

Geoff Owen takes the second round, on mental arithmetic, taking 35 seconds. James is surprised that anyone can work out 50% of 2700 so quickly, even though that's a mind-numbingly simple question to anyone with a good grasp of number. After the break there's a replay (!) of Geoff Owen answering one particular question. There's also a half-time interview in front of the show logo.

Round three is contemporary knowledge, and James is surprised when Dee Voce waltzes through, winning this round by 26 seconds. This round demonstrates how the clock doesn't stop until the word "correct" is heard.

Carol promotes the SMS game (£1.50 per entry - ouch!) Round four is words and letters, and Dee Voce takes 47 seconds into the final. Questions here are of very mixed difficulty - ranging from "how many blanks are there in a Scrabble set" [1] to "which word goes in the middle to make two words: MOOR ---- MINE" [2]. The TV chef found in MANY DOGS ROAR was left hanging on the show. [3]

With an advantage of over a minute, Dee Voce is always going to win the final round, and does so by almost 1:45. Geoff Owen goes to pieces, suggesting Oswestry is not a Welsh border town, but a country. Carol rushes on set, and Geoff Owen announces his retirement.

The game is less complex than it looks: in effect, both contestants start with 4:30 on their clock, but how far it runs down depends as much on their opponent's strength and weakness as on their own. Cutting the clock to 1/100th of a second is precision for precision's sake, but to 1/10th of a second is a defensible position.

On the upside, it's the first time UK television has tried to combine the glitz and glamour of an indoor sport with the intellectual rigor of a difficult quiz. Perhaps it doesn't quite work, perhaps we need some running statistics down the side of the screen; it's certainly very good that they've tried and made a good fist of it.

A one hour format, giving perhaps 13 minutes each player, would be appropriate for the final, or future programs. In scheduling terms, this format will make for great Event Television, wheeled out for something like Chris Tarrant -v- Anne Robinson, or Jon Tickle -v- [insert another moderately intelligent BB contestant here, perhaps Anna Nolan.]

Finally, those seeking longer matches later in the series may wish to note that the first round of matches looks set to end on the same night as Big Brother.

Future editions of this column will contain a brief catchup eight days after original transmission. So for the result last night's match, between David Edwards and Olav Bjortomt, join us next week, or read Mr Bjortomt's article in the Guardian yesterday.

Answers: [1] Two [2] LAND [3] Gordon Ramsay


Listeners to Radio 4's TODAY programme on Monday will have heard the Professional Challenge results some twelve hours before the show was transmitted. In the game, a team of scribes for Ye Times defeated a team of MPs by over 200 points. The MPs scored an embarrassingly small number of points.

Millionaire's reruns added an annoying SMS game this week, inviting people to send in their answers before Chris Tarrant reveals them. The whole process relies on swift processing from the mobile phone networks - processing too swift for most technologies.

BOYS AND GIRLS will not be returning to C4. The antithesis of intelligent game shows, B&G moved from a primetime slot in March to an off-primetime slot in May, and would have been competing against Countdown repeats for the coveted 5 in the morning slot had the series not run out of episodes.

F.L.Y., the Latvian entry in this year's Eurovision Song Contest, are to perform on a show for three year olds. Over in Russia, where such fare is surely cult viewing for their contestants, Channel One has still to make further rumblings about their protestations of a fix.

Next week: HOTEL GETAWAY puts three couples in Fawlty Towers, and host Matthew Kelly is invited to "get away" (or something along those lines). Midnight Monday/Tuesday ITV. Apparently, this has been sitting on the ITV shelf since 1999. Presumably they'll be bunging out the Julian Clary episodes of MR AND MRS in this slot soon, and the remaining sixteen SHAFTEDs before the decade's out.

BBC7 adopts a different show every night for its noon and 7pm repeats: ISIHAC on Monday, News Quiz on Tuesday, Quote Unquote, JAM, and My Word round out the week.

It's the final of COUNTERPOINT at 1330 Monday on Radio 4.

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