Weaver's Week 2013-04-28

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With all of the attention the 1980s have been receiving lately, we thought it was right to look back at another classic of mid-1980s television, and an early episode of the show where players didn't know they were players until they played.


The Price is Right

Central for ITV, 30 March 1984

"The new, exciting family game show!" promises Voiceover Man, as synthesiser music plays and the crowd claps and cheers as though someone had just led them in a singalong of "Land of Hope and Glory" at the top of their voices. Which is good, because someone had just led them in a singalong of "Land of Hope and Glory" at the top of their voices. Voiceover Man introduces Leslie Crowther. He turns to the right and collects a microphone. He turns to the left and takes a cue card. Then, he utters his first words on the programme.

The Price is Right "Wendy Partridge, come on down!"

The music swells, and Leslie encourages Wendy to descend the stairs from the audience and onto one of four podia at the edge of the stage. Three other players follow in her footsteps, with the music taking a key-change of joy part-way through. Leslie explains that there are 300 people in the studio audience, and until he invited them down, none knew they would be playing. This was a novelty for British game shows, which had had a rigorous selection process rather than the producer picking someone out of each coach party based on his gut feeling of how lively they'd look on air.

We're going to assume that readers know the broad outlines of how The Price is Right works. The first one-bid prize is a self-assembly exercise bike, in a smart enamel finish, with five speeds and a mileometer. One of the contenders tries to bid in pounds and pence, which isn't going to work. The exercise bike goes for £90 in 1984 money; according to a leading online retailer, a similar item (with eight speeds – that's inflation!) can now be yours for £74.

The Price is Right Five speeds, and made in durable plastic.

Norma is our first winning contestant, and she's playing The Race Game. Four items – a barbecue, a tumble-dryer, a compact music centre (with record and cassette decks), and an ice-cream maker. All she has to do is match the price to the prize at the end of 45 seconds and she'll win it. Norma makes a good start, getting two right on the first occasion, but then she spends forever swapping two prices around, and two seconds to reverse her change. She wins the barbecue (£78), tumble dryer (£150), and swaps the record system (£195) and ice-cream maker (£130). These days, the barbecue and ice-cream maker both cost £25, the tumble dryer £130, and good luck finding a record and cassette deck.

Onwards, ever on. Leslie briefly explains that the wheel is going to be played later, and we see that a lot of the audience have come in suit and tie. Were they expecting to see Justin Timberlake crawling all over the stage? Tom spends only about a minute on Contestants' Row; he wins the food mixer, and is asked what he's going to do with it. "Power a nuclear power station, obviously," is the answer Tom didn't give.

The Price is Right It could be a good night tonight, if you play your cards ... oh.

In The Card Game, Tom is offered a set of cane furniture. It's a sofa and armchairs in a floral pattern, there's a set of shelves and a table. "The height of modern fashion," says the voiceover. Now, in The Card Game, the player draws cards from a pack until he's within range of the actual value – in this game, he can be £60 under but not a penny over. After deciding whether to play on or stick, to increasing advice from the audience, he sticks at £500. The actual price? £523, so another winner.

"Julia will look after you," says Leslie, offloading Tom to one of the hostesses. "Lucy will look after me," he continues, as another hostess hands him the name of the next contender. The next prize is a pine spice chest, a rack for spices that actually has doors and closes. It's £84 in '84, and if you want one these days, you might have to make it yourself.

Prizes like a sewing machine, a terrarium, and a stacking hi-fi with stereo speakers and a motorised Dec. Do they give go-karts to children of eight? Contestant Wendy is playing Danger Price, and must pick the three prizes that are not priced at £160. Leslie is already ramping up the tension, letting the contestant hear advice from the audience, giving time to think, time for the audience to play along. But there's not time to think "oh get on with it", no obvious stalling to pad out the programme. In the end, the hi-fi was £160, Wendy chose it, and she's not won.

The Price is Right She's not won. Is that a record?
No, a record is a round, black thing with a hole in the middle.

But we're straight into The Wheel. "Here we have a wheel. Even I know that." Ah, Leslie Crowther's impression of the idiot game show host. Highest score from the three progresses. There's a £500 prize for anyone who can hit 100 in one spin or two spins, and they get a bonus game. This could be that most of the wheel is yellow, but the 100 space is pink and the two spaces around it are both blue. Wendy scores 95, but Norma manages to reach 100, and is so excited Leslie suggests we give her a rub down with The Sporting Life, perhaps some good luck will rub off.

So, that bonus game for people scoring 100. One more spin: if it goes round precisely twice, the player trebles their bonus to a stonking £1500. Miss by one space, the 5 or the 15, and it still goes up to £750. Even though Norma "only" takes home the original £500, she's still through to the showcase final.

The Price is Right Norma's just won the wheel. No-one can believe it.

At the time, television was regulated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, and they had a Quiet Word in Central's ear, saying that they reckoned the whirly wheel was a bit too much of a game of chance, and could they replace it with something more skill-based. An opportunity to do this arose when production of The Price is Right was interrupted by an electrician's strike: when it came back, the wheel had been replaced by a "how much does this expensive item cost" challenge.

We've researched in the local press, consulted contemporary resources, and we don't find evidence to support the common claim: that the IBA forced The Price is Right off air. They were unhappy, they'd rather television was used for something more inspiring and improving, but only fought the battles they knew they could win. Trying to block the forward march of consumerism would have been a fool's errand, a show of considered powerless not seen since Canute raged against the tide.

The Price is Right Objects of consumer desire.

No, it was those bastions of unreformable conservatism, the studio technicians, who stopped the working woman from enjoying her dream of consumer durables. Because that's what The Price is Right was: a chance for the common person to dream of a better life. For some it was the football pools; if the odds were far enough in your favour, enough money to spend! Spend!! SPEND!!! When they were merely in your favour, merely enough to splash out on something nice – a holiday, a tumble dryer, a mini-stack stereo with twin cassette decks. These days, the lottery fills that role: a pounds' worth of hope to last all week.

The Price is Right The audience is waiting...

Back at the programme, Leslie's got a word for us. "Hello!" Twenty-six minutes and one ad break later, the host finally says hello to the viewers. The opening to the show was the coldest of cold openings, just getting on stage and on with the show.

His latest something nice is a cocktail bar, filled with a selection of drinks inside. For winner Fiona, there's a display of accessories – a ladies' watch, a carriage clock for any room in the house, an evening bag, and a lighter. A cigarette lighter. To light cigarettes, because at this early date it was still legal to smoke in the UK. She's playing Take Two, and is looking for the two items that add up to the target price. Her first pair – watch and clock – is wrong, but the watch and lighter proves more profitable. Leslie manufactures another possible catchphrase out of nothing, "You don't know? I don't know!"

The Price is Right If at first you don't succeed...

Marlene plays The Money Game, trying to find the two digits between 1 and 9 to complete a price before she finds four digits that don't fit. She's leaving with a moped and overalls, valued then at £672. These days, tricky to get much change out of £2000, because the price of consumer goods can go up as well as down.

An armchair with cushions made out of comfortable Draylon™ must surely be completely priceless, but Joan values it at £159. She plays The Clock Game – name a price, Leslie says if it should be higher or lower, Joan rebids, and so on until she's right. An eight-drawer chest is hers for £178, a portable 22-inch television is £214. The chest of drawers is still about that price, and while a 22-inch telly is £150, it's those low-quality flat-screen displays. The quality of consumer goods can go down as well as up.

The Price is Right The Money Game in progress.

After reaching 95 on the wheel, Marlene progresses to the Showcase Final. She's won the most already, and has the option to play or pass on Showcase 1. Two nights at the Ritz, tickets to a top show and the hotel's tea-dance. There's some luggage, a camera and slide projector with a free-standing screen. And then there's the highlight, for which Voiceover man moves from calm to really, really excited. It's the QEII! Four days in New York, and returning faster than a bullet on Concorde! Hey, we're like Bugs Bunny, we don't do excited, and we're jolly excited.

The Price is Right New York. It's a wonderful town.

For Marlene, it's a picnic hamper, an inflatable dinghy, a sunbed, and the highlight: a caravan they've had rolled in from the Bullseye studios. But she commits the cardinal Price is Right sin, and bids over the actual retail price. Norma's bid was under, but there's a catch: she was more than 10% under, so doesn't win the "highlight" of the showcase, that trip to New York. Still, a stay at the Ritz is a major prize in itself.

The whole thing descends into chaos, with the winner mostly looking with her back to the camera, but then the show was on the verge of chaos from the beginning. The consumer society demanded nothing less, and got nothing more.

The Price is Right We have no idea what's happening here.

University Challenge

Semi-final 2: Manchester v Bangor

So there was a piece in The Independent newspaper asking how Manchester got so good at University Challenge. The same way the rest of us get to Carnegie Hall: practice, man, practice.

And then The Observer previewed this week's semi-final with an article on the Manchester team. We assume that it was written by the staff at their subsidiary paper The Menchaters Grauniad, partly because it means they don't have to go more than a mile from their shiny office at Urbis, but mostly because it concludes with the baffling and surreal correction, "Rachael Neiman was misspelled as Rachael Nieman".

Mastermind Spell-checking: A-E-L, N-I-E-M-A-one-N.

Anyway, what a shame it would be if Manchester University were to get this far and no further. It would be a complete waste of effort by the journalsits, writing a long piece only for the subjects to lose two of their last three games and exit the tournament in a disappointing fourth place.

We note that Bangor has one member from Manchester and another from just over the border in Widnes. Manchester's closest approach to north Wales is their member from Buxton. A tomb subject to lipstick erosion? We would have thought it was young Blarney, but is actually Oscar Wilde. We're sure that Thumper gave a perfectly coherent off-the-cuff explanation of his question about the ideal gas doubling its size, and it was only removed to get in some more quizzing. Manchester got that, and the first three starters, but only four of the ensuing bonuses.

Which brings us to Question About a Flag of a Country To Which We Don't Know the Answer So We'll Just Remember Our Pointless Friends (Heck, It Won Them the Jackpot This Afternoon) and Shout "Central African Republic" of the Week.

Pointless Q: Which country's flag is this?

Richard Osman! Alexander Armstrong! You stars!!! Manchester knew that, and some other countries with five colours in their flags, and leads by 70-15. Neither side remembers the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest, where Estonia rubbed in how thoroughly internet connected it was; Bangor is able to answer "a capella" and "gold" to two starters very quickly. It's the danger with these onion-style questions: a person needs only know one fact that the writer thinks is obscure to buzz in and take the points. The audio round is on obscure classical composers, and Bangor – very briefly – has the lead, 80-75.

It is brief, because Manchester gets the next starter. Bangor picks up a number of missignals, and they're unlucky to think 19x21 is 401. Manchester tries to answer some spectacularly easy questions about combinatorics, and gets a mere two. Dear oh dear. Paintings of the labours of Hercules forms the second visual round, neither team remembers the Rock of Deucalion, and Manchester's lead is up to 125-65.

University Challenge Bangor has been Adam Pearce, Mark Stevens, Nina Grant, Simon Tomlinson.

Just as Bangor was guilty of a fist-pump around the music round, so Manchester give the sign of Stu Francis crushing a grape with their next correct starter. The game isn't won, but it's going to take something special for Bangor to come back, 60 points gap with three-and-a-bit minutes to play. They get the next starter, and run the clock down something rotten while discussing lines of succession at the moment monarchs were born. Bangor has Walsingham and questions about wits, but it's not going to be enough. Manchester's final score is 160-95.

And they'll be dancing on the pages of The Observer tonight! We're sorry to see Bangor go, they've made tremendously entertaining television and been tremendous quizzers during the series.

All of which leaves just two. Manchester and the University College of London. The defending champions are seeking their third undisputed title in eight years. The opposition is one of the biggest names never to have won University Challenge. A prediction? Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution was right, and we think UCL will set that straight in the final. 8pm on Monday on the telly, or next week in this column.

University Challenge Manchester's heroes: David Brice, Adam Barr, Richard Gilbert, Debbie Brown.

This Week And Next

The Jls have promoted their next concert tour by saying they'll split up. The eight-legged boy band rose to fame through The X Factor in 2008, and enjoyed a string of hits that were popular at the time. They were quickly eclipsed in popularity by the actually-fanworthy One Direction, and were last seen on Only Connect, being confused with a snooker table. Their next engagement is on The Big Reunion 3, coming to Channel ITV5+1 in 2017.

Show renewal news: The Great British Sewing Bee (BBC2) will come back for six more episodes: we hope they can come up with a better description of their contestants than "sewers", because that brings up images of going down the drain. There are to be 12 (count 'em!) celebrity episodes of Tipping Point (ITV), it's all about the lateral movement. Catchphrase (ITV) is also back, and we trust that Stephen Mulhern can come up with a better catchphrase than "The clue's on the screen, but what does it mean?" It's right, but it's not good.

Catchphrase Is it "Snake charmer"?

Awards season continues, with nominations for the Eurovision Rose D'Or (once upon a time, the Golden Rose of Montreux). Nominees in the Best Gameshow In The Whole World are "Oh Sit!", by The Gurin Company and others for CW Network; "Joko against Klaas", by Endemol Deutschland for ProSieben; and "Smart Face" by Dori Media for Cuatro. We're not familiar with any of these works. We are familiar with Let's Dance for Sport Relief (Whizz Kid Entertainment for the BBC), which is up for the Rose d'Or d'Entertainment.

It's said that you've arrived when you're the subject of a fawning two-page interview in a glossy magazine. For Richard Osman, we can offer a robust piece in the Saturday Independent. Is that close enough?

Pointless A non-gratuitous picture of Richard Osman.

BARB ratings for the week to 14 April. Britain's Got Talent came back with 9.6m viewers, BBC The Voice of Holland of UK grew to 7.8m. Masterchef (5.35m) took third, pipping Catchphrase (5.2m), Who Dares Wins, and HIGNFY (both 5.15m). A tie on BBC2, as The Great British Sewing Bee and University Challenge both recorded 2.95m; 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown was Channel 4's top game show with 2.05m viewers. Two million-viewer game shows on ITV2, Celebrity Juice had 1.85m viewers, and Britain's Got More Talent was seen by 1.12m. The Sunday repeat of BBC The Voice (etc) on BBC3 attracted 935,000 viewers. Alexander Armstrong's Big Ask brought 365,000 to Dave, and the Cor Cymru final had 35,000 on the edge of their seats.

Next week, it's the University Challenge final (BBC2, 8pm Mon), and that's followed by another chance to see the 2010 champions take on the Only Connect champions (BBC2, 8.30 Mon). The grand final also of Masterchef (BBC1, Tu – Th). Four Rooms is 4 Daytime (C4, 1.45), there's an English-language run of Mr and Mrs (ITV, 8pm Wed) while Dara O'Briain's School of Hard Sums returns (Dave, 8pm Wed). Also back: Would I Lie to You? (BBC1, 8.30 Fri).

Only Connect (2) Alex Guttenplan is back on BBC2 this Monday.

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