Weaver's Week 2006-01-15

Weaver's Week Index

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


Do we have to spell it out?

15 January 2006

Last week, we suggested that Oona King might have forsaken Celebrity Fit Club for another reality television show. No, she's far more sense than that. The former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow is on a beach in Sri Lanka.

Hard Spell and National Spelling Bee

(Hard Spell: BBC1, 26 - 31 December; National Spelling Bee: Challenge, 25 December, 1 and 2 January)

When this column reviewed the first series of Hard Spell in 2004, there was one main problem. The daily shows were too heavily focussed on elimination. The producers have been hard at work since, and they have put the problem right, albeit by reducing the number of contestants.

Each daily show still features two regions of the UK. Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland enter, along with the NW, NE, Midlands, East Anglia, London, SE, and SW of England. Wales and Northern Ireland still get more places than their population deserve, and London somewhat fewer, but this is a far more equitable distribution than the national Eurovision contests generate.

Three youngsters come from each region, and pronouncer Mishal Husein asks them to spell as many words as they can in 45 seconds. The two with the most correct answers progress to the next round. In the event of a tie, the fewest mistakes progresses. Some have argued that this is unfair, as someone making more mistakes would have worked more quickly. This column begs to differ; the object of the round is to assess spelling that is accurate first, and speed is a second criterion. Repeat this for the other region.

Then comes the dreaded Spelling Tennis. The winner of the first group plays the runner-up in the second, and vice versa. The pair is given a word, and asked to spell it, taking alternate letters. Back in October's Star Spell, we suggested that this was a confusing way of doing things, and some sort of on-screen display would be very useful. We get no on-screen display. The two who gave an error then face off again, the last error goes out. Three remain, they're reduced to two and one by the "first error loses" round.

The final was almost the same as the daily game, but inserted the Word Ladder (now extended to a possible 15 letters), with aggregate score from the two rounds providing the first eliminated candidate. The remaining fifteen minutes was filled with short inserts about the contestants, and their schools, and their home lives. There was, perhaps, a little too much filler.

Two of the more inventive rounds from Star Spell were not repeated in the children's original. The "A in Canada" round - where contestants were challenged to name the number of letters in a word or phrase - was missing. So was the "Bid-a-letter" finale, which gave the illusion of some control for the spellers. Perhaps the "E in ecclesiastical" round could be played instead of the tennis, taking aggregate scores with the initial speed spelling.

Another smart idea from Star Spell - the Red Button Definition - was also missing. It's reasonable to suspect that the Definition was only available because Star Spell was part of the BBC's Reading and Writing initiative, and that it was never planned for the main programme. It's an unfortunate loss, though.

In the final, Niall from Northern Ireland triumphed over all his opponents, and wins a family holiday and equipment for his school.

Over on Challenge, someone had the bright idea of buying in coverage of the 2004 Spelling Bee from across the Atlantic. The original contest is covered live on a sports channel, taking up a Saturday afternoon, and most of Sunday daytime. In the unscreened Saturday morning session, written papers whittle down about 200 contestants to something nearer 60.

Thereafter, each round consists of the young spellers stepping up to the microphone and spelling a word. That's word, singular. Just the one. And they're given anything up to three-and-a-half minutes to spell it. Those who mis-spell will leave, those who are correct continue. Rinse, repeat, until a winner emerges late on Sunday afternoon after perhaps 20 rounds.

Why the much slower pace? Spelling Bee is a test of deduction. The words are chosen for their difficulty, and graded to become slightly more difficult from round to round. They're not provided to the contestants beforehand; all the contestants know is the source dictionary. However, they are allowed many lines of enquiry.

The pronouncer will give all possible ways of saying the word. The speller can ask for a definition, the part of speech, the language of origin, an example of its use in a sentence, and about the word's roots from non-English languages. The speller is also equipped with a pencil, and can scribble on the back of their name bib. All of these tactics ensure that the competition naturally explains the word. It's a more rewarding experience for the inquisitive viewer, we learn along with the players. We appreciate a French ending, or a Latin start, for they suggest the word will follow a regular rule; and learn to dread "Based on a person's name", for that provides no help at all.

This difference reflects in the two pronouncers. Jacques Bailey, the US pronouncer, is in the orchestra pit beneath the spellers, and he's able to look them in the eye when talking. He's human, he interacts with the contestants, and one can almost feel him willing them on. Mishal Husain appears as a disembodied face behind the contestants, and seems to adopt a slightly hectoring tone. We understand she is utterly charming in person, but the screen presence makes her look much less friendly, like the head of Anne Robinson, or a computer-generated monster from Dr Who.

Ultimately, the difference lies in the aims of the programme. Hard Spell is, first and foremost, a television programme. It provides a Lexicon for its competitors, a slim volume of around 3000 words that will take a competitor most of the way to the title. Spelling Bee uses a complete dictionary as its resource, and is more a test of wordsmithery. It also has an indefinite length, the BBC would have to clear a whole week-end for a direct equivalent, and even the greatest defenders of spelling would balk at that prospect.

And one final difference? The prize for the State-side winner is a USD 1000 bond, and some reference books. By our calculations, the prize on Hard Spell is more valuable.

University Challenge

Repechage 1: St John's Oxford v St Hugh's Oxford

Now, this should be good. St Hugh's lost the season opener to Manchester, St John's lost to Trinity Cambridge. Trinity won with fewer points than St Hugh's scored, but St John's had a higher percentage of the points in their match.

Honours are even early on, though St John's miss the chance to shout at Thumper, "Groat!" This question beat the panel, somehow:

Q: Of which five-word slogan did GK Chesterton say in 1901, "It is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying, except in a desperate case - it is like saying, 'my mother, drunk or sober'"?

The first visual round is Name That Great Lake And The City Upon It, and St Hugh's have a 55-25 lead, though that'll be small consolation when they travel up the Lakes, and get lost. St John's recover quickly, and are back on terms within a few starters. St Hugh's pull back slightly, and trail 75-70 at the audio round, on the music of the second world war.

St John's deserve their five points there. They're a bit luckier to get a question on Patna, which isn't a million miles from where one of their team comes from. A lucky guess (or good deduction) on the second visual round - casinos - gives St John's a good lead, 135-70.

St Hugh's ride their luck on some questions about English literature, but St John's increase their lead past 50 points, and time is down to three minutes. Knowledge of the difference between an irrational and a transcendental number puts the game beyond doubt, and St John's run up the score to win 190-125.

Once again, St John's have come out of the repechage. Sash Mukherjee was the best buzzer for the winners, making 74 points; Nicholas Webb was the best buzzer for the St Hugh's team, on 39. St John's made 17/33 bonuses with one missignal; St Hugh's had 12/27 and three missignals.

This Week And Next

Those of you who don't subscribe to the Yahoo group will have missed a discussion about "Delia Smith's Apprentice". The general conclusion: it's a made-up show.

You'll also be interested in the poll we're currently running to find out the Greatest Game Show of All Time, Ever. We're also looking for the Greatest Game Show Host of All Time, Ever; and the Greatest and Worst New Shows of 2005. Details of how to enter, and how to win some rather tasty cash prizes, are here.

Thinking caps on, voting closes on 27 January.

In one of this week's editions of Deal Or No Deal, be-jumpered host Noel Edmonds suggested that this was television's hottest seat. Wonder if he'd care to discuss that with John Humphrys. The ratings for the last two weeks of 2005 are out, and they show Deal shot up from 3.1m in the 4.15 slot (40,000 below the best score for The Weakest Link) to 4.1m when it came on an hour later. On the three days when Deal went up against Link, the Jumper beat Annie by a comfortable margin. Exact ratings for Hard Spell are not available, indicating it scored fewer than 4.5 million viewers; it's perfectly reasonable to presume that Noel had more viewers than Eamonn.

9 million saw the Come Dancing intercontinental special, 6.2m watched Antan Dec, and 6 million saw the three celebrity episodes of Millionaire. Four episodes of Celeb Mastermind took around 5 million viewers each. Generation Fame secured 4.5 million viewers. Countdown finished the year on a very creditable 1.8 million, and achieved a similar figure for the Richard Whiteley tribute. The Big Fat Quiz of the Year took 2.5 million, and Channel 5's coverage of the World's Strongest Man Final had 1.5 million.

Some great entertainment on last week's Masterteam; after a disaster in their first match, the Leighton Buzzard team may not be on course to win, but they're providing excellent value for money. Also worth their fee: Stephen Fry on Just a Minute.

The answer to the University Challenge poser: "My country, right or wrong."

Next week's Week will feature a review of Finders Keepers. Before then, Kate Robbins makes her debut in JAM this week, and Ken Bruce is back on Countdown. Celeb BB continues all week on C4, E4, and BBC Parliament, and aren't we due an intervention from Peter Luff around now? Friday sees the return of Mock the Week, on BBC2, and Hugh Dennis becomes an official team captain. We've also got the return of ITV2's ratings banker, Pop Idle US 5, which will also be airing on the terrestrial ITV next Sunday.

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