Weaver's Week 2011-08-21

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It's strange how obituaries can cause us to re-assess the subject's life. When we heard of Robert Robinson's death last weekend, we expected to talk mostly about his smarter-than-thou game shows. We didn't expect to wonder if he was indirectly responsible for John Humphrys' day job.


Robert Robinson

One of those talented odd-job men of broadcasting – Patrick O'Leary, "The Times", 1972.

Robert Henry Robinson was born in Liverpool on 17 December 1927. He died in London on 12 August 2011. Between these years, he became a household name as an erudite and learned broadcaster.

Robinson's love of learning was inherited from his father, who would learn skills and languages to improve his station. Robert was educated at Raynes Park Grammar, where writers of the calibre of Robert Graves, Cecil Day Lewis, and WH Auden would address the students. After the war and his national service, Robinson took up a scholarship to Exeter college of Oxford University. There he met his wife Josee Richard, moved in circles with Shirley Catlin (later Williams), Robin Day, and Peter Parker, and edited the student magazine Isis. His formative years provided material for Robinson's first novel, "Landscape With Dead Dons" (published 1956).

After university, Robinson worked for newspapers – composing crosswords and making up reader's letters on the Weekly Telegraph (no relation to the Daily Telegraph's weekly edition). Then he was film and theatre critic for the Sunday Graphic, then editor of The Sunday Times's gossip column "Atticus". By the late 1950s, Robinson was appearing on television, initially on the film programme Picture Parade, then on the viewer response programme Points of View, and The Look of the Week, an arts review show. He wrote film reviews for the Sunday Telegraph, and hosted the late-night satire revue BBC3.

In 1971, Robinson surprised many by joining Radio 4's Today programme as host. This was a surprise to everyone, including himself – not only had Robinson never heard the programme, but he had grown accustomed to nocturnal discussions, and consistently slept late. Robinson brought an urbane wit to the early-morning show, reviewers described him as the wasp in a sweet apple. He grew restive at the bad news he was discussing every single day – at times, he and co-host John Timpson were known as the Glums, depressing as well as informing their listeners.

For its first decade, Today had been a light-hearted affair, items of a topical nature, but it wasn't the news programme we know now. John Timpson provided the continuity between old and new regimes, but it was Robinson who divided the audience. Controller David Whitby wrote that Robinson had made Today into a far less frivolous affair, but that he had alienated some listeners – "when faced with a Today presenter who quotes Milton, some listeners may have fled to the more homespun ways of Terry Wogan on Radio 2". Robinson left Today in 1974, in part from lack of sleep, in part unhappy at the way politicians were taking over the programme and then not providing any sort of answers to their questions.

From the Ask the Family scrapbook.

Robinson was retained by Radio 4, and – perhaps trained on the Today programme – developed a broadcasting style where words were used sparingly. He wouldn't use a sentence where a phrase would do, and could say more with one well-chosen phrase than interviewees got out in three minutes. He was tipped for Desert Island Discs when host Roy Plomley died in 1985, but was passed over by Michael Parkinson. He was known as the host of Saturday night discussion programme Stop the Week, almost two decades of discussions somewhere – however approximately – related to the week's news. The programme was often derided as formulaic media elitism, a bunch of regulars in an exclusive London club knocking back champagne – the bubbly was in the fridge every single week. The show was loved by many, and only cancelled in 1992. A similar show lives on as Loose Ends with Clive Anderson.

Robinson's career followed other, divergent, paths. He was a literary man, hosting a show about books, prosaically entitled The Book Programme, and its offspring The Book Game and Writers and Places. He was particularly proud of his detective work to establish the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and of The Magic Rectangle, a review of television celebrity screened on the 50th anniversary of TV in the UK. He made travel programmes Robinson's Travels and Robinson Country, and a number of series exploring that moment where the quotidian and the remarkable meet. Ad Lib brought together groups of people who followed the same occupation, and Our House told the tales of families who had lived in the same house for half-a-century.

For this column's purview, Robinson will be remembered as the host of Call My Bluff and Ask the Family, and the host we remember for Brain of Britain. Some of Robinson's circle believed he was unfulfilled by these shows, a man of his intellect asking what's in a close-up of a fly's eye? But Robinson was excellent at his task; though Robinson didn't write the questions himself, he was sufficiently well-read and erudite to know what he was talking about.

He would ask for a slightly more precise answer from the leader, cheer on those trailing a little, sympathise with an answer just off target, and celebrate the implausible – tis better to have guessed than ventured nothing. Robinson enjoyed the money, and it helped him make the travel and documentary programmes he wanted to make. He continued to host Brain of Britain until the end of the 2008-9 contest, though missed one-and-a-half series through ill health. Though Robinson didn't see his game shows as his proudest work, he did recognise that they provided money to fund the work he enjoyed, and helped to introduce him to mass audiences.

Robinson wrote his memoirs (Skip All That, 1996), two other literary novels (The Conspiracy, 1968 and Bad Dreams, 1989) and three collections of miscellania – Inside Robert Robinson (1965), The Dog Chairman (1982) and Prescriptions of a Pox Doctor's Clerk (1990). All of these books are now out of print. He was voted Radio Personality of the Year in 1974, and into the Garrick Club later in the decade.

In 2007, Brain of Britain's then-producer Richard Edis wrote, "Bob is probably the last of the gentleman broadcasters". Stop the Week regular Laurie Taylor observed "Robert Robinson is a very intelligent man who had a very wry sense of the media, who found the media still slightly absurd. He was President of the Johnson Society, and he was very delighted to be associated with Johnson as he had a good sort of rumbustious delight in language and in the power of language. But as a lower middle-class person, he had a very, very, very good eye for pretensions."

In many ways, Robinson was a throwback, a product of an older time. He sounded old-fashioned, he looked like a slightly eccentric university don with wild hair covering a balding pate, and it wouldn't have surprised anyone had he turned out to live his life in the ivory towers of academia. Robinson was often accused of being smug, of allowing people to show off what they knew with an air of self-satisfaction. That was unfair, but we have to agree that sometimes came across as a smart alec: articulate, educated, witty, self-confident, occasionally disdainful, but always encouraging his listeners to improve themselves, and perennially entertaining. He was blessed with a voice that was instantly recognisable, and cultivated a speaking and writing style all of his own.

Robinson never believed that a single-word farewell was enough, preferring a more prolix end. And with that, we bid him goodbye.

Robert Robinson, 1927—2011

University Challenge

Heat 7: Plymouth v Durham

Well, BBC Riots 24 seems to have returned to its usual diet of guesswork, pontification, and more guesswork, so we should be able to get through this alive. GrumpasaurusRex is in a good mood. "So University Challenge, followed by new series of Only Connect, topped off with a catchup of Pointless. Quizgeek heaven."

A very short introduction to the game, Thumper doesn't even say that he's not explaining the rules, and Durham have bonuses on children's rhymes. Wrigglesss has the diversity watch: "Never seen so many girls on one team on university challenge!!" There are three on the Plymouth team, which we think is a record for any team from a mixed college. Durham, all blokes.

Thumper's spectacularly harsh to disallow Plymouth's pronunciation of "Halley's comet" in their bonus set, particularly as the astronomer is believed to have said his name "Hawley". Kudos to TheMapReader: "Very disappointed with Paxman for saying "twenny" rather than 'twenty'." Name the drug from its chemical structure in the first visual round, and Durham's lead is already up to 90-10.

More dubious decisions from Thumper, who said "Answer as soon as you buzz", then allowed Durham a brief but noticeable think. That's enough rubs of the green, because here comes Thumper reading out some trigonometric identities as though he understands what cosine alpha times sine beta means, never mind when he might use it. Actually, when might he use it? Durham remember the ear-tugging football brilliance of Slovenia, but gillalexander is missing it "Tuned out of University Challenge as soon as Paxo said 'trigonometric'."

We'll write "game over" right here, because Thumper's just told Plymouth there's plenty of time. There's never plenty of time! It's the audio round, and does no-one remember that Madonna sang "La isla bonita"? No-one remembers that fact, and Durham's lead is 145-25. The audio round is on the Desert Island Discs selections of members of the present cabinet, including the selection of "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)" by David Cameron. Second week running he's been embarrassed in this report. (CAUTION: last link will sell a copy of "Ernie", and all for under a pound.)

The microbloggers are going wild in the aisles tonight. KathViner: "They have never heard of Madonna on University Challenge! kids today / this makes me happy" Lucyalharrison: "massive lol that on University Challenge when the contestants were faced with a 'pop' song they have NO clue!!" CarolineHirons: "OH my GOD. Hold the phone! Did anyone just see the planks on University Challenge say that the Madonna song was Toto??! Am I THAT old??" Sophie Hinchliffe: "ah those cool Durham students on University challenge, if only i were one..."

University Challenge Plymouth: Rachel Remnant, Laura Donaghy, Peter Lord, Rebecca Emmett
Durham: Mark Rodgers, Adam Robertson, George Twigg, James France

The second visual round is on 17th century paintings depicting the artist at work, and Durham's lead is now the slightly embarrassing 235-25. Not only has everyone on the Durham team got a starter right, but everyone on Durham has got a starter that led to a full set of bonuses. Seven minutes until Only Connect resumes, and eifion is ready, telling Victoria Coren "I'm watching University Challenge with one finger over the remote control so that I can swap over to BBC4 as soon as it ends." Right there with you, squire.

"Embarrassing scenes on University Challenge". MissLDoble has the understatement of the year. Durham has been unlucky (or disadvantaged) to come up against Oxbridge colleges in the first round for the past four years, so they're about due a match against mortals. Plymouth do manage to get out an answer, but without buzzing, Durham are running out of time to reach 300 points, and achieve it. A win by 300 points? Just beyond them, the team wins by 325-45.

We're going to have to stop you there, Thumper, you've over-run terribly and Victoria is already in the

Only Connect

Heat 1: Social Networkers v Vegetarians

opening monologue about haddock. Right, playing this week are the Social Networkers, who advertised for their members online; and the Vegetarians, brother and sister and housemate who eschew the sins of the flesh.

First up for the Social Networkers is the visual clue, Stu Francis and KLM, but the symbol for the ABC is not recognised. Are we the only ones to listen to Lingua Franca? Very possibly. Audio for the Vegetarians, who hear two songs, both of them mentioning fairground rides. That's enough to buzz in, score three points, and save the world (or at least 600,000 viewers) from having to hear Ronan Keating's attempts at singing. The Wick o' Twisted Flax hides its doom sometimes, and there's already enough rubbish music in the column.

"The Mail on Sunday's gossip column" and "Gnasher" appear next. Ah, tripe seems to be the connection, Gnasher is an Abysinnian Wire-Haired Tripe Hound, and everything in that other rag is tripe. But the other clues don't fit, being black dogs. Two more for the Vegetarians with Ant McPartlin and Debits, things traditionally seen on the left. Drinking toasts score a couple for the Networkers, though we thought Prost and Kia ora were going in an entirely different direction. That's Only Connect, folks! The Vegetarians fail to score on their last connection; perhaps if one of the clues had been the St Louis baseball team, resplendent in their red robes. Entirely cumbersome as their point-guard backs up against the warning track to avoid conceding a touchdown (or whatever it is they do), they're all cardinals. The bonus for the Networkers draws the scores level at 5-5.

Round 2 is upon us: what's fourth in the sequence? Let's all sing along. Delirious! Incredible! Superficial! Cutie! Er, no. Cool! Er, no. Apparently, it is a song called "D.I.S.C.O.", but they're after "Complicated". The Vegetarians see "Keating" and think Australian prime ministers, but who followed Howard and Rudd? See, listeners to the ABC would know this already, and would probably be thankful that Hockey isn't the answer. Oh, wotsername, Julia thingummy. Gilligan? No, Gillard, a bonus to the Networkers. The Networkers get this year's calendar sequence, 12 November 2010 sets the idea, then 9 August 2007 the direction of travel, so 3 February 2001 gets three points.

The Gathering, The White Tiger, Wolf Hall. Booker winners, even we know that, but what's the latest winner? "The Monkey Cupboard" suggest the Vegetarians. Does that even exist? No, but we have come across There's a Monkey in the Refrigerator!, and a better read it is than most Booker prize winners. Social Networkers have the connection, but don't even offer a title. Other shows praise people for guesswork, but only on Only Connect would Victoria actually berate them for their cowardice. Again, the Networkers get the connection for their question – sonic speeds – but neither side can finish the list. Wick o'Twisted Flax o'Doom has pictures: a football stadium, New South Wales, the Borrowers. It's Old Trafford at the beginning, so the sequence ends with something blue. After all that, the Social Networkers lead, 9-5.

Bring on the wall! Sixteen clues, four groups of four. How do they fit together? The Vegetarians are first up. There are jackets to be seen, but they seem to be a red herring – nothing is coming out. There are types of fly to be had, that's one set. Characters from Shrek? They're present, but time is almost out before the three strikes rule comes in. Tiles in Mah Jongg are there, not that the team spots them in time. And, yep, some jackets – the Norfolk jacket as seen in The Phoenix and the Carpet. Six points!

For the Networkers, London boroughs is an obvious starting point, and their first guess is the right guess. Parasites form another set, and they're already up to three strikes after about no time. Sorts of walk emerges from a long think, and they're right to pick "random" as the final there. What's the final link? Fly fishing? No, types of anchor. Seven points!

The Networkers take a 16-11 lead into the final round, Mssng Vls. Words and phrases with the vowels extracted and consonants removed. The first set, alkaline substances, a 2-2 draw. Things to sleep on, that's another 2-2 draw. Synonyms for "quickly", a 2-2 draw. Types of type ends 3-1 to the Vegetarians, wine-producing areas 3-1 to the Networkers. Twenty questions, twenty correct answers, they've split exactly equally. Soccer terms only has one question, 1-0 to the Vegetarians. The Social Networkers have won it, 26-22.

Only Connect (2) John Larkin, Dave Lloyd, Cathryn Lloyd were the Vegetarians. And probably still are.

Next week's different questions will be answered by the Edwards Family and Inorganic Chemists. PatCrolla, welcome to the show: "First time watching Only Connect. I think I need to lie down in a dark room." Relax, you'll get used to it. And then we'll move into the quarter-finals...

This Week And Next

Half-way through the qualifying series, the repechage board:

  • 200 Homerton Cambridge
  • 180 Worcester Oxford
  • 125 Edinburgh
  • 105 Trinity Cambridge, Bath

Spooling back to University Challenge, where we need to run the stats. 47/71 for Durham, 6/30 for Plymouth, and an overall accuracy rate of 53/80. HistorianLaura was the Week's Random Punter of the Week: "11 correct he he we love university challenge".

Next match: St Andrews v Merton Oxford

There's absolutely no excuse for BBC2 consistently over-running like this. We can understand why it happens – Newsnight is timed to start at 22.32, a seamless link out of the News at Ten O'Clock on BBC1, and the rest of the evening is scheduled backwards from that fixed point. There's still no reason why BBC2 has to begin University Challenge at 20.02, forcing a clash with Only Connect at 20.30, and a worse clash if The OC begins a moment early, as it did this week. It's slipshod, it's selfish, it makes the BBC look incompetent, and if we were the Director General, we'd be banging heads together until they stopped being so foolish.

Ratings for the week to 7 August, and a clear win for In It to Win It. 4.9m saw Saturday's show, comfortably ahead of the 4.2m for Dragons' Den on BBC2, and 365,000 on BBC-HD. University Challenge finished third, with 2.65m seeing the match. Eggheads and Celebrity Eggheads sandwiched 8 Out of 10 Cats, all just over 1.75m viewers. There was no game show in Channel 5's top thirty, and there was no game show in ITV's top thirty.

A good week for digital channels: Come Dine with Me on More4 scored its first million-plus audience of the year, 1.09m. ITV2 profited from Britain's Got Talent Us (790,000) and the return of Hell's Kitchen Us (705,000), and Living had Britain and Ireland's Top Model, 475,000. Challenge also enjoyed record ratings, 225,000 for Millionaire, 200,000 for Catchphrase, and 190,000 for Take Your Pick. ESPN Classic's repeats of The Superstars had 13,000 Keith Fielding fans tuning in.

It's the Born to Shine final tonight (7.30, ITV), so don't forget to miss it. Britain's Favourite Button's other summer disappointment also comes to an end, Show Me the Funny has its live final on Thursday (9pm) after the final heat on Monday. Really, it's not all that bad. Celebrity Big Brother continues all week on Channel 5 and The Facebook, with the first live eviction on Friday. ITV2's spoiler at 10pm is a week of Celebrity Juice, but Channel 5 is biting back with The Beat Goes On (11pm Wed) promising fancy footwork and belting tunes. Something similar, but far better, on Street Dance Stars (CBBC, 9am weekdays). New Total Wipeout next Saturday (BBC1, 6.10), and if you're looking for some good news, Countdown returns on Monday.

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