Weaver's Week 2008-10-05

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Silhouette of passage: Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter.


Hole in the Wall

Talkback for BBC1, about 5.30 Saturday evenings

In the beginning, there was Saturday morning. It had Phillip and Sarah, Neil and Sandi, Zoe and Jamie, Ant and Dec. But this is not the week to cover Saturday morning television.

Slightly later on came Saturday evening. It had pantomime characters, Who and Wolf, Cilla and Brucie, Blobby and Beadle, Ant and Dec. This is the week to cover Saturday evening television. To be precise, the week to cover the BBC's fantastic new Saturday programme, Hole in the Wall.

The basic premise of this show is simple, and to properly explain it, we need to return to that great standby of television, the animated cartoon. To be precise, that moment in the cartoon where the hero finds himself in a moment of great peril.

Trapped in a corner, there seems to be no way that Daffy Duck can escape the pellets of Elmer Fudd, or that Road Runner can avoid the pot of Wile E. Coyote. But wait! There is a way out! Our hero can run through the physical object that prevents their escape. The laws of physics are not so much bent as broken entirely, the wall has a very neat hole carved out by Mr. Duck, and the rock is sliced where Mr. Coyote has fallen through.

A genius ponders the hole in his steel plate

Turning back to the modern television schedule, we find Dale Winton is the show's host. Over the years, Winton has made a speciality from hosting shows that are inoffensive and fun for all ages. He's appearing with half-a-dozen minor BBC celebrities – the likes of Zoe Salmon and Vic Reeves, and with resident captains Anton du Beke and Darren Gough.

All of the contestants are dressed up in wetsuits, for reasons that will become clear very shortly. Over these wetsuits are a thin layer of shiny silver material. There is no particular reason why the costumes should be disguised in this manner, other than because it looks good.

In turn, each person is challenged to step onto a small strip of red fabric, marked "Play area". Behind them, a swimming pool. In front of them, a block of compressed polystyrene with a shape cut into it. This block of polystyrene advances towards the person in the play area. The combination of the polystyrene and the speed with which it's advancing ensure that it is enough to sweep someone off their feet and into the swimming pool, but is flimsy enough to allow this without injury. Seeing Andi Peters crushed to his death by a flying piece of plastic packaging is ordinarily held to make bad television.

In short, the celebrity is challenged to pass through a hole, and that hole is in a wall. Er, that's it.

Well, that's almost it. Almost inevitably, each attempt is analysed to death by the dulcet tones of Jonathan Pearce, some puns, and the soft refrains of a modern popular beat combo. There are variations on the theme – some challenges are for two or three people, others involve some guests, while others invite the participant to solve a simple general knowledge question and choose a hole covered by paper. If they succeed, they'll make a Minor BBC Celebrity-shaped hole.

The scoring system is quixotic: ten points per person if they passed through the wall, Winton gives a seemingly-arbitrary score for effort and style if they do not succeed. Successes are noted by a caption saying "Clear", and failures by a caption saying "Fail". There's a running motif involving animations that are apparently meant to be minor BBC celebrities in silver suits, but the less said about this the better. Ditto the show's catchphrase, "Bring on the wall!", ejaculated by Winton every blimmin' time.

Image:Hole in the wall fail.jpg Has Zoe Salmon passed the wall?

After about twenty-five minutes of this nonsense, proceedings begin to draw to a close. The team in the lead is able to take the Final Wall themselves, or donate it to the other team. Success in the Final Wall – the only time all three members play – will net them £10,000 for charities of their choice. Failure will donate it to the other team.

Critical reaction to this show has been entirely negative. So negative that we think they're being a little unfair. The Independent, for instance, described Hole in the Wall as "memorably atrocious", one of a very few "programmes so cheesy and bereft of virtue that they will return through the ages as a regurgitated belch of 'what were they thinking?'"

We do actually think that there's a place for this kind of programme on television, perhaps on primetime BBC1. The place we're thinking about is around 28 December, when the entire country is bored out of its skull and will lap up all sorts of rubbish in preference to yet another game of Monopoly with Aunt Maude. We can even see a short series popping up during July and August. But, if we're honest, this is a format that belonged as one challenge amongst many on an episode of It's a Knockout, complete with the chucklesome Stuart Hall commentary.

But this is the wrong slot for a marginal show. The rest of the BBC's evening line-up is of high quality. Strictly Come Dancing is huge, and rightly so. Merlin is promising, The Rich List is great but overshadowed by ITV's X Fools, and Casualty is something people either love or hate.

At the start of this sequence, though, comes a show that isn't of the same high quality. It's mindless entertainment, so mindless that it wears its inanity as a badge of honour. It's as though Winton and his co-stars have been cornered by the Forces of Intelligence, Intellect, and The Parliament Channel, and their only escape is by making a Dale-shaped hole in the wall.

University Challenge

Match 13: Bristol v Manchester

Hidden Samuel Johnson indicator of the Week: both sides have a member from Lichfield. This local knowledge will not come into play.

We begin with Unintentional Transmission Indicator of the Week, "Main Street". At the time of transmission, the news was filled with contrasts between this mythical place and "Wall Street", where demons lived. The correct answer is given by Manchester, established as Owen's College in 1851 just outside the Granada studios. Alumni include Earnest Rutherford and Bernard Lovell, and the side has regularly featured in the final four of this show. There's a round of bonuses on hetronyms, words that are spelt the same but pronounced differently, such as "unionised" (as in, not in a trades union) and "un-ionised" (not part of an electrical ion). Manchester also picks up some questions about Dark Matter, and knows how to page the ORACLE at Delphi, but not PVC. The first visual round is on flags of British cities, but no-one notes the rather large number of bells, and the St Patrick's cross, on the flag of Belfast. Manchester's lead is 70-0.

And now we'll take Bad Starter of the Week.

Q: 24 Sussex Drive in Canada, The Lodge in Australia, and Premier House in New Zealand...
Manchester, Reuben Roy: Prime ministers' official residences
Q: ...are their country's equivalents of which address in Britain?
Bristol, Harriet Robinson: 10 Downing Street

Bristol was founded in 1909, after receiving support from the Fry family (chocolate) and the Wills family (cigarettes). With this background in life's good things, it's no surprise to find the university is oversubscribed. Former students include Paul Dirac, Sue Lawley, and Ewan Blair. It's the only starter they get before the audio round, a rather dodgy cover of "Cupid". More very dubious covers follow, and Manchester's lead is 135-15.

It's already clear that Bristol won't be troubling the repechage board, which will be good news for Surrey. The question is whether they can get the three starters they need to pass 50 points and avoid us posting the list of lowest scores. The second turns up with names of the countries in South America, but their knowledge of European club football is minimal. Manchester have the second set of visual bonuses, on members of the 1979 cabinet, and lead by 195-25.

We can see one of the members of the Bristol side quietly drumming their fingers on the desk. Oh dear. Even the guesses count – Manchester guess "peregrine falcon" as one of the world's fastest birds, and are surprised to be correct. We're pleased to hear Bristol get the old chestnut about -40°F being the same as -40°C, but not when they suggest that Handel was around in the era of Edward II. Only out by about 500 years, there. A fourth starter follows, and we'll call off the low score chart. Manchester, meanwhile, has quietly amassed a very good score – it's not just that they've got a lot of starters, including one on famous Belgians – but they're getting about half their bonuses correct.

As expected, Surrey return for the repechage:

  • St John's Cambridge 185
  • King's Cambridge 180
  • Surrey 170
  • Pembroke Oxford 150

The final score is a clear win for Manchester, 285-70. Carry on at this rate and we'll see them in the semis. Henry Pertinez was best on the buzzer, getting eleven starters as the team made 26/45 bonuses with one missignal. Eric Pollitt had three starters for Bristol, the side made 4/15 bonuses. But no missignals.

Next match (last in the first round): Exeter Oxford v St Andrews


Episode 5

Another week, another gentleman will book his place in the second round.

Ara Varatharaj will discuss the Challenger novels of Arthur Conan Doyle. These are about a doctor who tries to go off and explore hitherto-undiscovered worlds. We've watched one or two episodes of the television version on a minor cable channel, and we're sure that the books have to be more entertaining. The round certainly is, the contender makes the occasional error, and ends on 16 (0).

Edwin Hird has the Life and Works of Hector Berlioz, a French composer from the 19th century, best known for his Symphonie Fantastique. Though the contender starts with a correct answer, he has the misfortune to pass on many questions, and never really gets into his stride. We absolutely refuse to ridicule anyone who volunteers to appear on this show; every contender has knowledge, some get the questions they're expecting in a manner they can answer. 6 (8) the score.

Dr Roger Luther will discuss The Thatcher Governments. She was the British prime minister from 1979-90, and the round begins with the prayer that BBC television didn't show, when she took office. All the usual suspects are present – Anthony Meyer, Willie Whitelaw, Cecil Parkinson, Tell Sid – and a very long question about the introduction of Cruise missiles. Indeed, there are a lot of very long questions, and the contender's near-perfect round scores 14 (0).

Jack Robson tells us about the Life and Plays of Berthold Brecht. He was a German playwright for much of the 20th century, winning a stage prize in 1922, censored in the DDR in 1951, and eventually emigrating to Austria. The contender knows a lot about his subject, but it does feel as though the questions have fallen most unfortunately for him; a lot of close guesses means he finishes on 9 (3).

Mr. Hird agrees that Berlioz was ahead of his time, taking one theme through various movements of a piece, which was revolutionary in its era. John Smallhead asks him to explain about "upside-down" chords, and give an example. Not without a symphony orchestra to hand, and seeing as how Sue Perkins isn't in the room, we'll move on. Though there's a slight stumble in the middle, he finishes on 15 (11).

Mr. Robson is an actor-turned-stage manager, making the decision that the technical side is far more interesting than pretending to be someone else. He might be right, and tells us about the advance of technology, computerised sound effects and all that. He gets the occasional question about "Let them eat cake", making up for a rather poor start. His final score is 19 (4).

Dr Luther (a doctor of mathematics, but we'll go by what's displayed on screen) tells us that Mrs. Thatcher still evokes considerable controversy, almost two decades after she left office. The era of managed decline seemed inevitable in 1979, as perhaps it might do in more modern times. He zigs for Naples on a question asking after Turin, and has the misfortune to obtain a string of passes during his round. It ends on 22 (4).

Seven points are required for Mr. Varatharaj to win. He's a medical student, with two more years before he completes his training. A string of close misses (suggesting 2π as a factor, rather than π) doesn't help his cause, but there are eventually enough correct answers to take him across the finishing line with the final answer, 23 (1).

This Week And Next

A couple of press releases caught our eye. Channel 5 are desperately seeking publicity for their new old show, a revival of One to Win. It won't star Robin Houston, more's the pity, and it won't go out in the 5.30 slot. More on this over the coming weeks. Over at Granada Towers, they're muttering about giving in to fifteen years of pressure, and bringing back The Krypton Factor. It's not the first time the show's been revived, of course, a series in 1995 had the same name, assault course, and presenter, but was otherwise unconnected with the original show. We're not expecting to see anything on screen for the best part of a year, and it won't be in the canonical Monday 7pm slot anyway.

Television ratings for the week to 21 September saw The X Factor retain its most-seen status. 10m saw the latest round of no-hopers, compared to 8.6m seeing the results of Strictly Come Dancing. Family Fortunes (5.3m) beat Who Dares Wins (4.9m). Mock the Week led on the minority channels, 3.3m just betters Come Dine With Me's year-best of 3.25m. We note that Wogan's Perfect Recall managed 1.55m in its final week. On the digital channels, Xtra Factor had 1.185m, the The X Factor repeat 740,000, and Come Dine With Me 620,000.

There's a slew of new programmes on minor channels this week. Challenge has Unbeatable Banzuke (from 6pm Monday), another of those obstacle courses from Japan. Someone will tell us how this is different from Viking and Ninja Warrior. On Radio Scotland, Gail Porter hosts Step Back in Time (Friday 11.30am), a show with a title so obvious it needs no further discussion. Fans of Imogen from Big Brother 2006 can follow her new career in Salon Imogen (S4C, 9pm Thursday) and there are new series of Ready Steady Cook (BBC2, 4.30 weekdays) and Celebrity Ding Dong (C4, 10pm Friday). The X Factor begins its live performances next week, and committed viewers can see four-and-a-quarter hours of programming on ITV and ITV2 from 7.15.

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