Weaver's Week 2010-04-04

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Coming up: a remarkable performance on University Challenge, master tacticians on Only Connect, Mastermind almost plays Numberwang, and is anyone watching ANTM? But first, a prize-winning show.

Dating in the Dark


Dating in the Dark

Endemol (trading as Initial) for Living, 9 September – 14 October 2009

(This review mostly based on the show of 14 October)

We were rather surprised last month to find that Dating in the Dark had been named as the Best Multichannel Programme at the RTS awards. What were they seeing to warrant such an accolade? Did the panel come to the right decision? Were we right to ignore the show for months until spurred into action by this award? So many questions, so little space...

Let's begin with an easier one. What happens on Dating in the Dark? The first thing we found when searching the interwebs for more detail about this show was a theory that someone called Ron and someone called Hermione were dating, only weren't telling their friend Henry. But we think this is a red herring.

No, the clue's in the title. Various people have conversations, with a view to forming romantic relationships. And, as though Blind Date were a literal rather than a figurative commandment, they do it in pitch blackness. The people can't see each other, but the other senses are available. Contestants can hear each other, they can touch, they can smell, and (if they really must) they can taste.

Dating in the Dark A viewer's-eye view of the Dating in the Dark set.

Now, this is all very simple. Probably too simple, so the show dresses it up and stretches it out for as long as it possibly can. There are ample shots of the contestants spending time with each other, as they're all quartered in a large house for the duration of the show. The three gentlemen are in an area with table football and comfortable sofas; the three ladies are in an area with comfortable sofas and everything painted a somewhat lurid shade of pink. They discuss the various people they're meeting, they draw pictures, they do anything to pad the show out to the required length.

The ladies and the gentlemen will not meet in the normal course of events. Their only contact can occur in a darkened room, in which there are no lights. The participants cannot see each other, and must talk to establish contact. And, if they really must, do other stuff like hold hands (do remember to wash them afterwards).

Viewers are able to see what's going on, not only from the soundtrack, but from the pictures generated by infra-red cameras. It's like those overnight Big Brother transmissions, when half-a-million people spent their nights watching Alex Sibley in the arms of Morpheus. Actually, this creates some proper dramatic irony, because the viewers are able to see the micro-reactions made by the contestants, those little tell-tale signs showing whether they're impressed with each other or not. Even the contestants won't always know their subconscious thoughts, and can't express them in later conversation. Nor will they be able to see the painting on the wall, or the aspidistra in the room. (Spoiler: no-one will get evaporated.)

Dating in the Dark The women's living quarters has lurid sofas.

As we've said, there's some blatant padding going on in this hour-long show. The half-hour dates are compressed into about 90 seconds on screen, so they can't be actually showing much dating. The majority of the first part is taken up by introducing the contestants, and seeing the results of some "compatibility scoring". How genuine this is, we don't know; it's possible for the producers to think that Ron and Pansy would make good telly, and put them down as most compatible with each other. They meet as a group, they pick someone to meet with, the producers' chosen pairs meet, then couples can choose their partners again, and do anything else that might help to pad out the show to the desired length.

Eventually, we get to the big reveal. The three pairs are set, and are led to stand on marks on the floor in the dark room, separated by a two-way mirror. For ten seconds, a light illuminates him. She is behind glass, and he can't see her reaction. But we the viewing public can, we can see whether she likes him or not. Then the tables are turned: his light goes out, hers goes on. Then the pair must leave through their separate doors, and decide whether to continue the date. Obviously, it takes two to tango, and only if both people want to go on will the date happen. If either or both wants to walk out (lugging an Endemol-issue wheeled suitcase behind them), they can, but to get out, they must walk past the person they've rejected. Is this what the audience wants, desperate people rejecting each other and blubbing into the Endemol-issue tissue?

Now, readers with good memories will recall our rant against ITV's Take Me Out (see the Week of 17 January), about how it was entirely superficial and vacuous. To its credit, Dating in the Dark squares up to this question, and comes up smelling of roses. By denying its participants the ability to see each other, they're forced to concentrate on deeper details, to assess a person's actual personality as demonstrated in a series of one-on-one interviews.

Dating in the Dark The men's living quarters.

Sadly, this liberated position wasn't shared by Living's advertising agency, who promoted the show with a press campaign using the line "How do you spot a ginger in the dark?" The Advertising Standards Authority ordered that the advert not run again, saying it was prejudicial against people with ginger hair. As is typical of the lax regulation of advertising, this ban came months after the original campaign, the damage had long been done.

The voiceover is by Scott Mills, a Radio 1 DJ who seems to have made it his life's mission to pop up on every single television channel. He's doing a competent job – that we found the narrative part of the background very quickly is perhaps a greater compliment than many. The reference to "boys" and "girls" does rather grate – none of the contestants we saw was under 30. So does the "coming up" / "previously" mechanic around each commercial interruption. Watching without the adverts makes this terribly obvious.

We've two other criticisms of the show. First, where do they get the contestants? What makes them apply to be on a show and have the details of their love life exposed to almost 250,000 people? There's an exhibitionist streak at play, and we wonder if some people are appearing more in order to promote themselves than to seek a bedtime companion.

Dating in the Dark The lady (back to us) is pleased with her choice.

The other criticism is that the programme drags on. We've nothing against languid presentation, we think that it's sometimes right to move at a slower speed. But the show must always move on, and we find that it's spending too long in the same place. It's a 45-minute show lengthened to an hour.

We found the show to be the television equivalent of soma, nice and relaxing while we watched it, and all we were left with was a zen-like calm without a clear memory of how we got into that state. Much of that is thanks to Phase Music's rather decent score. Technically, it's very good television, and it certainly avoids the superficiality of some other dating shows we've reviewed recently. But the best show on any digital channel all year? That's a very high bar, and we don't think it's quite that good – nominee Micro Men was more to our taste, Bamzooki was technically the best show bar none. We disagree with the result, but we can see how it came about.

University Challenge

Semi-final 2: Manchester v Emmanuel Cambridge

Both sides have lost a match in their progression – Emmanuel to Regent's Park Oxford (remember them?) in the first round, Manchester took a losing draw to St John's Oxford in the Qualification Quarter Final. Emmanuel's last victory was over Imperial, Manchester defeated Edinburgh last time out.

To work! And to "work", the first of this week's starters. It allows the Emmanuel side to quote Smiths lyrics at Thumper, as one does. Firths prove fruitful for the Cambridge side, and diplomatic crises of the early 20th century scarcely less helpful. We did not know that "hybrid" comes from pig breeding, but Emmanuel does. The first visual round is on the Latin mottoes of Division I football teams, and Emmanuel incur the wrath of the umpire for suggesting that Hull has a Latin motto. They use a quotation by Larkin, surely. Anyway, it's been one-way traffic so far, Emmanuel leads by 90-(-5).

University Challenge Glad to be here: Andy Hastings, Jenny Harris, Alex Guttenplan, Josh Scott.

Manchester get off the mark with the next starter, and progress with bonuses on the Castel St Angelo. Emmanuel buzz in with knowledge of the octane rating, and get the Geekery of the Weekery, online comics (Ctrl Alt Del, Piled Higher and Deeper, Questionable Content). Two out of three? Not bad. We'll take long-winded question of the week:

Q: What common four-letter word is formed by letters whose names are homophones of words meaning archaic measure of around 45 inches, second person personal pronoun, expanse of salt water and inventor of the flying shuttle?

Luck was the answer, though we had the measurement wrong. Archbishop Cranmer gives Manchester their second set of bonuses, which they nail in short order. The audio starter – introducing a round of waltzes – evades the sides, and Emmanuel leads by 145-35. Manchester pick up the bonuses, but are expecting every waltz to be the Blue Danube.

Emmanuel picks up the last words of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner... in reverse! Week. The. Of. Question. Manchester pick up a rather fine Beat the Teacher-style question with a catch, and prove to know something about the decades in which cultural institutions (the BBC, the OED) first appeared. Emmanuel do rather well on geological ages, and pick up the second visual round, on lists of elements. The lead is a surely impregnable 210-85.

University Challenge Manchester's team: Tom Whyman, Rachel Neiman, Jacob Whitfield, Nick Daunt.

But we'll play on, something might turn up. A number that is both a square and a cube? 12? Really? Manchester do well with legal loci, but Emmanuel are surely too far ahead to be caught now. They know rather a lot about conic sections. Manchester are still fighting, knowing that "Port" appears in the names of a lot of capital cities, but they're almost two hundred points behind. Emmanuel go forward with knowledge of Mars and the Earth, but are beaten by the gong. They've won, by 315-120.

Eleven starters! Eleven starters for Alex Guttenplan of Emmanuel Cambridge this week, his side made 30/49 bonuses. Mr. Guttenplan has now answered 49 starters correctly in his six appearances; we were interested to note stories in the press over the Easter weekend wanting his life story. We don't care, let his work on the screen speak for itself! Jacob Whitfield was Manchester's best buzzer, four starters as the team went 11/21 on their bonus questions. One missignal each, and the overall accuracy was 65/98. But the main thing we're applauding is the teams, sportingly applauding each other before and after the buzzer.

It's only the grand final!: St John's Oxford v this week winners

Only Connect

Semi-Final 1: Archers Admirers v Gamblers

Over on Channel 4, we could be watching Number One's Krishnan Guru-Murthy and two people who have been mentioned on this show (Vince Cable from a wall in last series's final, Alistair Darling's bet-on-blue Tie). George Osborne has, until now, evaded The OC's gaze. Later in the week, this show's host Victoria Coren will defeat Wanted's Richard Littlejohn in a battle in the Question Time studio; we're not convinced about the whole dubious boyfriends business, but it works in the hands of an expert.

We've got some harder questions. Much harder questions. Questions that will make these people look like Helen Adams from Big Brother 2, who Victoria will remind us about at the end of the show. This week's semi-finalists are the Archers Admirers (Archers from here on) and the Gamblers.

Gamblers have won the toss and elected to bat, it's the picture clue, and are honest enough say they're clutching at straws. Archers suggest everything came from Crimea, but they're not quite right – all four pictures were made from molten guns. They get the audio round, and hear Bobby V, Kiki D, and suggest Boney M. Would they do that on BBC4, where they've never played Miley Cyrus? No, the BGs. The Gamblers suggest that their group is things stolen and lost, but then realise that it's not that easy to steal the Lascaux cave paintings. Dogs have that one.

Only Connect (2) 60 degrees each: the Archers Admirers.

The Archers get two clues, and suggest that Triangle and π radians equate to 180 degrees. Er, yes, three points. From correspondence, we understand the entire nation hits the Gamblers' last set for two points, and the Archers are after a little mutation in the nomenclature. It goes over for a bonus, and cuts the Archers lead to 5-4.

Round two begins with the Gamblers, who have a sequence of numbers (clearly leading to 3), and colours. "Zero is black. It's not roulette again!" Again, wild guesses won't work: resistance is not useless in the slightest. The Archers spend 39 seconds working out a date. And, no, 30/02/2003 would not have worked as a palindromic date. Through the magic of our space-time transporter, we've been watching Only Connect's 996th series, (winners to play the Crossworders in the Ultra-Championship) and Victoriabot will ask almost exactly the same question, and get the correct answer 30/03/3003. Two points.

The Gamblers have a set of flags in alphabetical order, leading to the fourth country in English alphabetical order. That's good for two. Archers have dates and US presidents: it's the years in which an actor was nominated for an Oscar for playing a president. Welcome to the semi-finals! Gamblers make a declaration of independence with their last question, and pick up two points. Victoria is right to state that New Zealand gained full independence in 1947, having achieved Dominion status in 1907. Archers get so confused by their question that their hierarchy of needs leads them to ask for the fourth answer, which isn't going to work. Gamblers have a slight lead, 8-7.

To the walls, and the Archers are playing first. They start by staring blankly, then discussing philosophers and foxes and stock exchanges and Williams. "Shall we try doing something" asks captain Min Lacey after about 45 seconds? We recommend it. Jab away, it might help. They start looking for a bunch of terriers, and find a bunch of terriers. It's taken an awfully long time, and we think they're going for forenames in their third group. Jabbing almost at random, the team manages to solve the wall. Was that by accident? The second group was names meaning "red", including phoenix from the Greek. Women from Sex and the City appear in the third group, but the final group evades them – it's a blood line. Seven points!

Only Connect (2) Master tacticians: the Gamblers.

The Gamblers need to do something a bit decent with their wall, and kick off with four children that were adopted. Wedding anniversaries is something they're thinking about, as are a set of baskets. That takes a little coming out, but the team spends their minute trying to work out the fourth connection. Genius. Or it would be, if they knew their Dickies. Which they do, while discussing the other answers. Ten points!

So, the Gamblers have an 18-14 lead going into the final round. Not long to play, and the Archers have a reputation for doing rather well here. Subtitles of novels goes to the Gamblers, 3-1. Greek gods and their Roman equivalents is a 4-0 whitewash for the Archers. Famous football derbies is an excuse to smash two football sides together, and ends in a 2-2 draw. Railways and rail services has one question, it goes to the Gamblers, and they've won by 24-21.

Next match: Strategists v Hitchhikers


Heat 24

Who knows more about what, asks the continuity announcer. The host doesn't know much about game shows, suggesting this is the toughest test on television. A similar and more credible claim will be made on ITV less than an hour later.

Peter Benison is going to tell us about the Films of Billy Wilder (1906-2002). The subject was an Austrian emigré, whose Hollywood canon included "Sunset Boulevard", "The Seven Year Itch", and "Some Like it Hot". Now, our knowledge of films can be written on the back of a postage stamp, and this round goes completely over our heads. However, the questions are entirely intelligible to the contestant, who ends on 12 (2).

Michael McPartland is going to brighten up our Easter weekend with a discussion of the Nuremberg Trials (1945-6). These were the criminal proceedings against various military officers and political administrators in the Nazi party following the Second World War. The charges fell into four categories: conspiracy to wage aggressive war, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The round covers the entire story of the trials, from conception through application to the (literal) execution. A good round, ending on 14 (0).

Kim Howison has offered Charles II. It's not clear in the publicity, but we assume this is about the British king (1630-85), who fled to France, lost battles in England, hid up an oak tree, returned to the throne, and ensured Nell Gwyn did not starve. Ah, yes, that's the chap, the contestant describes him as a "political opportunist". The Act of Indemnity and Oblivion has an entirely cool name, and the contender does well, answering wrongly rather than passing gives a score of 11 (0).

And finally! John Greer is the last contestant of the night, and the last contestant we'll meet this series; he's got the fictional works of CS Lewis (1898-1963). Clive Staples Lewis is best known for writing the Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and some science fiction works. Lewis's day job was tutoring the students at Magdalene Oxford, where his friends included JRR Tolkein and Hugo Tyson. The round has a very strong bias towards the Narnia books, they account for 13 of the 17 questions, and we think that's a little too much. Anyway, 13 (2) is another strong performance.

Kim Howison begins her general knowledge round by confusing Anthony Worrall Thompson's given name, and never quite recovers, ending on 19 (0). Peter Benison also gets a tough set of questions, including one beginning after the buzzer, and ends on 19 (3).

The top six runners-up are confirmed:

  • John Cooper 29 (3)
  • Ian Scott Massie 26 (2)
  • Les Morrell 26 (3)
  • Colin Wilson 25 (0)
  • Peter Cowan 25 (2)
  • William de Ath 25 (4)

John Greer needs seven for the lead, 12 to come back. He misses the origin of a purple dye, and his offer of "Hilton" is judged insufficient when the answer's "Hanoi Hilton". Is there a sneaky little joke in this contender being given a question about "Reet Petite", a song with a title almost like the Narnia character Reepicheep? 21 (7) is the final score.

Michael McPartland needs eight to win, seven if he mostly guesses, and kicks off with knowledge of Rapunzel and the original employers of Roland Rat. He goes slowly through the remaining questions, but passes with winning post with the Sinclair C5 and plenty of time to spare. The final score is 25 (2).

This Week And Next

In the week to 21 March, BBC1 gave its Saturday night to rugby. We expected ITV to dominate the game show top three, but no. Dancing on Ice had 8.6m, and Push the Button recovers to 5.85m, but Masterchef (4.9m) ranks ahead of Dancing on Ice Friday (3.45m). University Challenge led the minor channels on 3.15m. QI XL finally took to the air, attracting 2.6m. Sport Relief had only one standalone game show this week, Dragons' Den had 2.5m on Tuesday night BBC2.

Leading digital show was Come Dine With Me on More4 (1.075m), beating A League of Their Own (The Satellite Channel, 725,000) and the returning Celebrity Juice (ITV2, 630,000). UK Living's imported show America's Next Top Model (440,000) is popular, but less popular than Only Connect (465,000), BBC4's top-rated show for the week.

University Challenge finishes on Monday (BBC2, 8pm). West End Story (BBC1, 4.10 Easter Monday) following the winners of three recent BBC / Lloyd Webber singing contests. ITV launches into a new run of Divided (5pm from Tues, not STV). Masterchef's finals week is condensed into three days (BBC1, Mon – Wed), but there's always Great British Menu to tickle the taste buds (BBC2, 6pm Tuesday, then 6.30 weeknights). And if you managed to miss the recent series of Bamzooki, it gets a repeat on BBC2 (11am Saturday). Occupy the studio now, and Jeremy Vine can't use it, which sounds good to us.

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