Weaver's Week 2005-06-25

Weaver's Week Index


It's for yoo-hoo - 26 June 2005

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

Television history was made last night, when Andy Murray's extended match at Wimbledon forced the Lottery draw onto BBC2. We think this is the first time the Saturday night shenanigans has ever been relegated to the minority channel.

Over on ITV, they'll have breathed a small sigh of relief on Thursday when the results from Wimbledon came in. No chance of this week's main show being killed by Henman going to penalties.

The Big Call

(Mast Media / Granada for ITV, 2026 Saturday)

This show seems to have been in development for a large chunk of ITV's fifty-year history. It must be two years since we first caught wind of a show that threatened to give away a prize even larger than Millionaire, and we have to ask: was the elongated development worth it?

Let's start with the obvious visual, the set. It looks a bit like In It to Win It, with a white border having coloured holes in, a circle in the middle, and people sat at the edges. The six contestants are sat way up at the top of a huge, three-dimensional slice of cake, which slopes down and narrows to point at the central circle. It's a feat of engineering, and looks absolutely massive. Our host, Doctor "Neil" Fox, will eventually take his place in a small eyrie on the other side of the studio. It looks as if he's standing on one mountain-top, shouting out questions to people on another mountain-top. This is not a show for people who suffer from vertigo.

Before Dr Fox makes his climb, he has to get rid of five people blocking his path. They're billed as celebrities, and range from B-listers (Jon Culshaw and Anne Charleston), to D-listers (Tony Blackburn), and people we've never heard of and don't particularly know from Adam or Eve (Jenny Falconer, Ben Price). The opening show also featured a celebrity quizzer (Judith Keppel). Just to build up a modicum of suspense, one of the celebrities is not introduced in the opening montage, which features a melty-faces bit rather like Michael Jackson's Black or White video.

The opening round is to pick the teams - the contestants answer a general knowledge question, a correct answer gives them a choice of a partner, an incorrect answer means they're wallied out of the next question. Picking teams in this way is nothing new, it happened on Bruce Forsyth's early 90s show Takeover Bid. As each celeb goes up - and up, and up some more, this really is a tall set - to meet their contestant, there's a musical sting, and the sound of some crowd - through the entire programme, we didn't see one single audience shot, and it's not clear if the crowd is real or canned.

After all the contestants have gone up, Dr Fox plugs the viewers' phone-in competition, where the viewer must both answer a simple question, and pick one of the six famous faces to help. Then the contest proper begins. In the opening round, the six celebrities - hopefully acclimatised to the oxygen-free atmosphere at twenty thousand feet - are alone on the buzzers. An incorrect answer, as it does for most of the show, wallies them out of the next question. At no stage can a question be passed across to someone else. Two correct answers will ensure they, and their member of the public, will progress to the next round, and (er) move on down the really rather large set. They have to bring the oxygen cylinders with them. Inevitably, one celeb will fail to make two correct answers, and they will abseil down (or come down the stairs, if they prefer) return to the "sub's bench," while the member of the public must leave over the top of the set. With nothing, not even a shot of them coming down the four-mile long air-filled slide erected at the back of the set.

Thereafter, it's all a tad samey - in the round of five, the public contestants will answer, and two correct answers progress. Celebs are back on the buzzers in the round of four, with three correct answers required, and the public in the round of three, four right answers progress. According to the show's website rules, the two players are allowed to confer over their answers in the rounds of four and three, but Dr Fox did not allow this. At each stage, the defeated celebrity returns to the "sub's bench," while the member of the public leaves. With nothing. Not even some rather rubbish consolation prize, such as a Big Call mobile phone holder. Nope, no expense spent on this show, as we can see from the subtle lights indicating correct answers - they're set into the desk, in a manner similar to Fifteen-to-One's set, but far less easy for the eye to spot.

By the time we're down to two pairs, they've made it as far down as the studio floor. They then face something that works remarkably like a penalty shoot-out - Dr Fox will ask five questions of each team, and whoever has the most correct answers will win. "If it's a tie, we'll go to sudden death," says the irrepressible host. This really does seem like a vaguely familiar mechanic, it's a little like the final to The Weakest Link, or almost every 12-Yard production ever.

Before we reach the final, a few further words about the host, Neil Fox. "Not that bad" would be three that spring easily to mind. He's not yet got the natural fluency that Chris Tarrant's acquired through hard work, or that Bob Monkhouse seems to have been born with. Yet there are far worse hosts out there, and this column was rather impressed when, as the show seemed to be heading for complete farce-dom, Foxy was able to defuse the tension with a quick giggle, then simply pressing on. His catch-phrase, an ironic "So, no pressure on you at all," isn't one of the best, though.

Slightly less impressive is Will Slater's music - it's a low electric hum, without the annoying bleeps and sonar pings that have marred some shows in the past, but the sound falls into the trap of trying to define, rather than reflect, the visuals.

Now then, the grand finale, and what should be the highlight of the show. First, the studio winner has to make the titular "big call" - will they take £20,000 cash, or 100,000 tickets for that night's lottery main draw? Their choice in informed by Prof. Geoffrey Grimmett, of Cambridge University, explaining how he's selected this week's tickets (will he cluster all the tickets around one number, giving huge profits if that number comes up; will he pick them at random; will he use wheeling theory to guarantee around 600 match-three wins?)

After the contestant has spent ten seconds looking down the camera, pretending to decide what they'll do, someone at home gets a call. They're asked a general knowledge question, and get to discuss this question with their chosen celebrity. Whoever has the guaranteed £20,000 cash walks off the stage (or leaves the telephone line), and Dr Fox then reveals the winnings from the lottery prize.

This week's lottery winner was the studio player. He won 1760 of 577,869 match-3 prizes £10 each), 115 of 27950 match-4 prizes £80 each), but none of the 429 match-5 £2,389), or the 7 match-5-and-bonus £234,310) prizes. His winnings, £26,800, were better than the safe cash prize.

If the numbers are always picked at random, the chance of no match-5 wins is roughly 16.5%, of a single match-5 win is 29.7%, of two is 26.8%, of three is 16%, and of four or or more is 11%. The chance of a match-5-and-bonus win during the series is roughly one in four.

The show suffers from the first four rounds being, effectively, exactly the same. Much like Winning Lines, there's very little incentive to tune in before about half-way through proceedings. Unlike the best Lottery show, the questions come thick and fast - the format requires a minimum of 47 questions to be asked, and with wrong answers, we're likely to see somewhere over 60 questions on screen, roughly one every 45 seconds of screen time. By comparison, shows like University Challenge and Sale of the Century typically rattle through four questions per minute, but Millionaire averages about two minutes per question.

Somewhere during its three years in development, it seems that some of the life has been squeezed out of the format. Contributors to the UKGS group have suggested a number of possible improvements. Some workable ideas include:

  • having each member of the public and the celeb answer a question in each round
  • allowing the celebrities to be swapped from the subs' bench
  • building up teams of two celebs for the final round.

As a spectacle, The Big Call is almost, but not quite, there. Perhaps a little less development, and a little more time on screen, would have been the best approach.


First round, edition eleven

Last time we met, Mastermind was still being filmed in black-and-white, and host John Humphrys has a wonderful head of black hair. Some things change.

Tom Farley begins the run with The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871. This was current affairs when the run began, surely. He gets the first question correct, and picks up some speed before the end. He finishes on 8 points (with 6 passes).

Chris Gonet offers the Plays of Noel Coward. He takes things very slowly indeed, and ends up with 8 (0).

Paul Thompson is taking the World Snooker Championships from 1977. He goes at a reasonable lick, but still finishes on 8 (0).

Mary Frankland has something to tilt at already, she's taking the Life and Novels of JRR Tolkein. And she takes her chances, finishing on 13 (3).

Dr Farley spends a rather long time considering the derivation of chemical element Es, and puts up a final score of 16 (11).

Mr Gonet clearly reckons the pressure is off, races to 18 (0), and is just in contention for the win.

Mr Thompson makes some good guesses, but never quite manages to hit his stride, ending on 14 (4).

Mrs Frankland requires six to complete the win, and it's fair to say that she rather stumbles across the line. Her score of 19 (7) was secured with the penultimate question of a nervy two minutes.

Big Brother 6

Andy Duncan, the chairman of Channel 4, claimed this week that Big Brother was "a parable for our times," and a series that promoted "honesty, integrity, constancy, and kindness." Mr Duncan had a valid point for most of the first few series, but last year's run was marked by untruths, deceit, treachery, and undisguised evil-heartedness - and that's just from the producers. This column understands that these underhand tactics have continued in the current series.

14) Doctor 380.89 (nc)

13) Mary 1013.10 (-1)
12) Lesley 1188.33 (-6)
11) Vanessa 3022.82 (+2)
10) Derek 3913.30 (-1)
9) Craig 5091.78 (+2)
8) Science 5439.44 (+2)

7) Roberto 5713.83 (-3)
6) Makosi 6826.97 (-1)
5) Kemal 8050.97 (+3)
4) Sam 8169.31 (-2)
3) Anthony 8228.57 (+4)
2) Saskia 8300.10 (+1)

1) Maxwell 9365.08 (+2)

It's become a lot tighter at the top, with Maxwell's early pace giving them the edge over everyone else - more dividends early in the game means there's more capital to accumulate.

This Week And Next

One of the Big Call replacements that the UKGS mailing list cheekily proposed was "Elementary Probability With Carol Vorderman." Britain's best-known mathematician (she loves the subject so much, she once changed her name to it) would discuss some of the uncertainties in modern life. Why do buses always come in threes? What is the probability of winning a decent prize on the lottery with 100,000 tickets? How can one cut a cake fairly? And why, when there's someone available to discuss these problems in an informative and entertaining manner, does la Vord get wasted on such nonsense as Vorderman's Sudoku Live (Friday on Sky 1)?

Two entertaining Countdown games already, and the best of Finals Week, it seems, is yet to come. We're also looking forward to the review of ITV's history, beginning tonight, and perhaps to Richard Branson's search for the next bearded wonder (Friday on ITV2.)

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