Weaver's Week 2009-06-14

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Scotland has its own vibrant television and radio industry. Such is the parochial nature of the English broadcasters that they don't think anything interesting can possibly come from north of Hadrian's Wall. Here are three examples to prove them wrong.


Postcode Challenge

STV, 8pm Mondays, autumn 2007 – spring 2009

Postcode Challenge was originally developed as an entertainment show for 8pm on Monday evenings. That's one of the most staid slots anywhere on television: BBC1 has its long-running soap Eastenders, BBC2 puts out University Challenge, and Channel 4 is busy with an earnest topical documentary. It's a dour line-up, and anything half-way entertaining would surely be welcomed as the best thing on television.

Enter, stage left, smiley smiley Carol Smillie, the best advertisement for tooth-whitening substances since the invention of polish. She's invited twenty-four people to the studio, split into four teams of six. There's one captain, and five other players, and all the team live in a particular postcode. Anyone would think they'd designed this in order to run the contestant call line "Get your road on the show". Ahem.

As is the way on television, all twenty-four players have to be introduced to the viewers. Never mind the fact that fifteen of them will just be figures lurking in the background, everyone must have a moment in the sun. Though the producers try to make this bright and breezy, the introductions still occupy the first quarter of the show. Don't just bore us, get to the quizzing.

The set designer took inspiration from wicker baskets.

The opening round is rather interesting. The five supporters are asked a question with three possible answers. The team giving the most correct answers (and in the fastest time, if there's a tie) wins the opportunity for their captain to answer a question. Only if the captain gets that question right do they light half of their postcode, first the outward code, then the inward one.

It's a well-constructed team element, emphasising the knowledge of the majority, and giving a good role to the captain. During the answer period, each person is represented on screen by a little light, which changes colour to match their answer, and this is entirely cool.

First two teams to light their postcode (ie, give two correct answers to the captain's question) progress to the next round. The other two go home with nothing more than the gleam in Smillie's eye.

After the break, the remaining players all answer five more multiple-choice questions, this time both teams and their captains answer. Smillie reminds everyone that there really must be no conferring, otherwise it's a five-point penalty and the question will be offered to the other side. Or disqualification, whichever is worse.

The little grey dots light up as players select their answer.

There's then a hugely-expensive effect, which we can summarise as, "Scotties, beam us up!" Really, what Star Trek was for 1968, Postcode Challenge was for 2008. The teams leave us, and only the captains remain. Carol then goes through the answers, and whichever captain gave the more correct answers (or gave their correct answers faster) has won for their team. The other captain – and their team – leave with nothing.

But how much have they won? That's the final round. To win the opening prize of £1000, at least one of the five supporters must have answered the first question correctly. To win £3000, the team must first win £1000, then two must get the second right. If all the steps are in place, and everyone got the final question right, the team wins £25,000, a good half-hour's work in anyone's book. The chance of this happening is small, but then people also beat the Eggheads.

We've already mentioned how we like the team structure, not assigning special responsibility to anyone other than the captain. The presentation is a bright orange-and-purple, which was in fashion in the late 90s, but was replaced too quickly by ice blues. The music irritated us rather, using the same sting throughout the show tends to the tedious.

As for the host: it's smiley smiley Carol Smillie, someone people either hate or find completely anodyne. We're in the latter camp: she could easily be replaced by any other host.

Overall, it's a perfectly find waste of half-an-hour. Not as intellectually stimulating as UC, but nowhere near as depressing as the other channels. Or, indeed, the re-heated tabloid fodder served to the rest of the nation on ITV England's Tonight With Jonathan Maitland programme. Only the Scottish viewers get to see an entertainment programme in this slot; the rest of us had to wait for the show to pop up on Challenge.

Image:Postcode_challenge_beamout.jpg The highlight of the show.

Image:Square BBC Radio Scotland.jpg

Step Back in Time

BBC Radio Scotland, October – November 2008

Join us, if you will, on a trip back into the dim, dark recesses of time. All the way back to autumn of last year, where we answer some of the greatest questions in recent years: whatever happened to Gail Porter? Passed over for the Blue Peter job in favour of Romana D'Annunzio, she did a stint on Sunday morning entertainment Fully Booked, then went off and married a bloke from some band or other. It turns out she's been doing some nostalgia quizzes on the wireless.

Karen Dunbar and Sanjeev Kholi are joined (on the sample episode we heard) by Johnny Ball and Kaye Adams. Round one invites the teams to guess the year from a few clues: the year Elvis married Lisa Marie, the year the UK did well at Eurovision – well, the latter rules out anything in this decade. It's 1967, the year when Johnny Ball compered the ITV Christmas night special, and the camera filming him on the Val Doonican Show blew up and he ended up doing his routine in the dark. None of the other panelists were even born in this year.

Round two is the almost inevitable television theme tune round. Was it Camberwick Green or Trumpton that had the clown turning the roller? Rather than ask the teams to discuss their answers, Gail simply reads out the answers. The teams have written down their answers, and we have to trust that they've been honest. Good job there are no prizes here, otherwise the BBC's Head of Competition Fairness will be coming down like a ton of cookies. There are some quickfire questions on the buzzers, and the BBC's Head of Very Loud Sound Effects has been paying a visit, the bell and buzzer are remarkably loud.

It's Lord Johnny of Ball!

In round three, Gail asks How Cheap is Some Stuff? What was the cost of various consumer durables and household objects? The Radio Scotland Rep read out made-up adverts in the style of the time, and it's clear that they've been rehearsing this bit. So much so that it's made the voiceover man quite one hundred and eleven. It's made the voiceover man quite ill. (Look, it's a 1967 show. We're entitled to at least two jokes from that era.) A new car would cost 920 guineas, that's £967.

Round four has some Real People talking about films. They're giving clues and quoting lines from a film made during the year; the sooner the teams answer, the better, as they score points and we move on to the next round. It's a rather good radio round, as the contestants are asked to don blindfolds and guess the toys from feel alone. A concept that has the players and the audience literally in the dark. Kaye Adams proves remarkably adept at guessing Kerplunk! from feel alone, not least when she pulls and a marble drops onto her hand.

We can't discuss 1967 without paying some tribute to the Summer of Love. "Scott Mackenzie advising everyone to wear flowers in their hair, obviously not aimed at me," says our host, whose hair is styled in the classic Richard O'Brien look. And we can't have a nostalgia quiz without a music round. It is, quite simply, Bits and Pieces from the Radio 1 Roadshow; a load of snippets from songs, and our teams have to scribble down the singers or group responsible. But there's something even Smiley Miley didn't think of: there's a bonus point for the first person to guess the link between the songs.

Are we up to the quick-fire finale? We're up to the quick-fire finale, a round in which Gail asks lots of questions that wouldn't otherwise fit into the quiz, and offers them on the buzzers to the teams. Who opened Radio 1? How can we sneak in some Paisley pattern? Who reloaded the weapons on The Golden Shot? Is Stanstead really that old? Why does the bell sound like the studio's on fire?

At the end of the show, we have a winner, we have a loser. Far more importantly, we've had a whale of a time. It may be a simple concept, but it's done with great zip and pace, and the good atmosphere carries on throughout the show. And, let's be honest, where else would we hear Johnny Ball shout "Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, and Grubb" to a question asking for the name of all the Trumpton firemen? But which did he miss out? The answer will come later.

Kerplunk champion Kaye Adams.

Còcaire nan Còcairean

MNE Media / Gaelic Media Service for BBC Alba, October 2008 – February 2009

In this knockout cookery competition, two chefs are given an hour to whip up two dishes inside an hour, then serve up to a panel of judges. It's not quite Ready Steady Cook: the time limit is much more generous, and the contestants bring their own ingredients and recipes.

There's time for the judging panel to discuss other matters arising from the dishes being cooked: in the sample episode we saw, there was a debate on the relative merits of rare and well-done steak, the latter being more typical of the Gaelic-speaking areas. They also filled time by saying just how stressful the final moments were, how the adrenalin rush may or may not help. The contestants aren't able to hear the gentle guitar music that plays at just the right moments during the show.

The whole experience reminded us of our school cookery exams: as well as the pressure of the television studio, the contestants must contend with a slightly overbearing woman (host Cathy NicDhomhnaill) who flitters around asking how the cooking is going and generally getting in the way. Then the examinees face the opinions of people who aren't going to pull any punches when it comes to their opinions. Judges Domhnall K MacGill-Eain, Maureen NicLeoid and her husband Alasdair MacLeoid are harsh, but fair.

And, like our cookery classes, it all seems to be done in a foreign language. For the benefit of those of us whose Gaelic is a little rusty (or in our case completely non-existent), the show carries in-vision subtitles. They enable us to translate "beetroot", "surf 'n' turf" and "sausages" and count down from five to one. It's an education, this show.

The judges discuss what makes a good sauce.


Second round, programme six

"The end is almost in sight", says the host, fully aware that the series has now been running for 40 weeks, and they'll have crowned three Countdown champions (two regular, one Champion of Champions) before we finish the series.

Louise Mayer is first into the hot seat, she's taking the Life and Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was warned off learning Welsh, and eventually became associated with Ireland. She gets one wrong, but finishes on a remarkable 17 (0).

Stuart MacDonald takes the Life of Blair "Paddy" Mayne, the Second World War soldier and co-founder of the SAS. The subject was a hero, the contender lives up to that reputation, finishing on 17 (1).

Gareth Kingston will discuss the of Northampton Town FC. The team's alumni include the former Countdown host Des O'Connor, who subsequently turned his attention to the entertainment industry. Unlike the Liverpool specialist show Quiz is Anfield, the contender is allowed to identify players and managers by their surname only, a clear time-saving device. His round ends on 16 (0).

Paul Moorhouse takes the Life and Work of Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist who co-authored the theory of evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin, and explored in South America and Malaya. There are a few errors in this round, but 12 (0) would not normally be enough to put him in last place.

Mr. Moorhouse recalled Trotsky in the opening round and explains how Wallace set out to find some sort of theory to explain evolution, then corresponded with Darwin, who had yet to publish his theory. He can tell his dinar from his minuscule, but 21 (0) doesn't feel like it's a winner.

Mr. Kingston set the game alight with the Great Fire of London, and now suggests Northampton are a bunch of cobblers. He says that it is possible for small clubs to make it into the top flight, and predicts that someone like Hull or Wimbledon might make it one day. There are a lot of good answers in the round, and it ends on 25 (2).

Louise Mayer did the Canterbury Tales originally, and took someone who has been retrospectively dubbed the first "green" poet, as in an environmentally-aware writer. The contender remembers JM Barrie's Cup for a swimming race on Christmas Day. Readers may recall such Blue Peter stalwarts as John Noakes, John Leslie, and Simon Thomas filming reports about this race, but it's a bit of a fake, they filmed a week or so before the real race. Would that be the warm-up or the chill-down? The contender ends on 27 (3).

Dr. MacDonald had Ghengis Khan last time. The first raid for the SAS was a disaster, which reminds us of the game show that (in the UK) shares their motto: Eamonn Holmes spent precisely 37 minutes fronting The Rich List on the American broadcaster Fox. The contender knows his target, and racks up correct answers at a good clip, playing a couple of good guesses, and finishing on 28 (4). It's enough.

This Week And Next

The Colour of Money

What's a smaller drinking vessel than a teacup? There was a storm in an doll's teaset this week, when reporters on a tabloid newspaper remembered that the Countdown producers like to play along, and shout their offerings down the earpiece towards Susie Dent, who will put some of the best on screen. This hardly counts as new news, seeing as how it was all over the papers in March 1999, and while it's never been shouted from the rooftops, no-one has ever said it doesn't happen. Still, if it helps to pad out oldspapers and displaces talk of the millennium bug, who's to care?

In other Olde Neus, the Daily Tabloid reported that ITV's flop game show The Colour of Money is a flop, and the seven screened episodes will be all. Some of us worked this out for ourselves when the last episode went out two months ago.

We were rather surprised to find that the Week is essential reading in Conservative Central Office. Within hours of our suggestion that Alan Sugar wouldn't be able to combine his role fronting The Apprentice with his day job czaring for the government, the airwaves were filled with Tory spokespeople saying exactly the same thing. While we've got your ear, Conservative culture spokesman Ed Vaizey, we've got an idea to help make television in England outside of London. You could cut the country up into regions, set up a company in each, give each company a broadcast channel in their patch, get them to make their own programmes, and sell them to each other to fill up the day. You could even give the whole set-up a nice memorable name, like Interdependent Television. Why has no-one thought of this before?

Britain's Got Talent

How big was Britain's Got Talent? 18.3m viewers of big, the sixth-largest viewing figure on television this decade, and ITV's largest since a February 2003 edition of Coronation Street. (Richard Hillman confessing his murderous crimes to Gail, as Off The Telly put it in 2006.) It dragged Mr and Mrs up ahead of The Apprentice. Mr and Mrs hadn't beaten 5m this year, but the Finals Night show was seen by 7.55m. The opposition was completely routed. HIGNFY on Friday was the fourth most-popular game show, but the audience of less than 4m is barely half the previous week's figure; 700,000 more than last week tuned in for the Saturday version. Beat the Star ended with 3.85m, just ahead of The Apprentice On Two with 3.6m. So depressed were prime-time figures that quotidian daytime fare such as Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is (BBC2, 1.2m) and Coach Trip (C4, 1.25m) entered the channel's top 30s.

Britain's Got Talent also led on the digital tier: 2.53m for the Saturday night show is the highest rating on any digital channel since ITV2's Bionic Woman programme in March last year, and beat all but one show aired this week on Channel 4. The Sunday evening narrative repeat has 825,000 viewers, but the one after Eurovision had 1.3m. Come Dine With Me on More4 benefitted from going out on Sunday, with 745,000 viewers, and Jade Goody As Seen On TV (E4) picked up 360,000 on first transmission, 225,000 an hour later. The BGT effect was particularly visible on Britain's Next Top Model (Living): 165,000 saw the original show at 9pm on Monday, timeshifts over the next two hours were seen by 195,000.

The fireman who even Johnny Ball doesn't remember was Captain Flack, who called the roll for the others. The oldest university in Scotland is St Andrews.

After eighteen months off air, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue returns (Radio 4, 6.30 Monday). There are finals of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World (BBC2, 6.30 Sunday), Countdown (C4, 3.25 Friday), and Mastermind (BBC2, 7pm Friday), and it's Young Musician of Wales week (HTV in Wales).

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