Weaver's Week 2013-09-08

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We roll back twenty years. Warwickshire beat Sussex to win the Nat West Trophy, people were complaining at treated tap water being labelled as "sparkling table water", there was a dispute about Labour's links to the unions, the Home Secretary was Michael Howard, and allegations about pop star Michael Jackson and young people. Meat Loaf has a new record out, and Nigel Short will be taking on Garry Kasparov for the world chess championship. Viewers to satellite might have seen The Family Channel, which included a 90-minute block of game shows: repeats of Catchphrase and All Clued Up, and a version of Trivial Pursuit hosted by Tony Slattery. Over on ITV, Ken Morley has a job to do.

Supermarket Sweep


Supermarket Sweep

Talbot Television and Central Television for ITV, from 6 September 1993

It's the grand opening of the Supermarket Sweep supermarket, but there's been a terrible mistaike! Ken thought that the supermarket would supply scissors to cut the ribbon, but the manager – an unfamiliar chap in a blue suit – thought Ken would bring his own. The manager says that in this store, you have to run for everything and bring it back within thirty seconds. "Never run with scissors, Dale." retorts Ken, after walking back to declare the store open.

And then we're into the opening titles: a laid-back saxophone piece, with a voiceover inviting us to "step inside a very special supermarket – the only supermarket in the world that gives you money!" There's £2000 waiting for some lucky person, by shopping smarter and faster than the next person. Everything is up for grabs. Including the shelves? Including the shelves, but not until the grand closing down sale. "There are prizes in store and much, much more," so let's meet the contestants.

Supermarket Sweep I declare this store — open!

Today's shoppers are Mandy and Julie from Poole; Wayne and Richard from Chesterfield; Eve and Julie-Anne from Nelson in Lancashire. After running onto the set, the players stand behind podia made to look like shopping baskets. And they clap themselves like there will be points for clappage. These contestants are going to applaud anything. The USSR may only have been out of business for twenty months, but already there's nostalgia for the self-congratulation look of the Politburo.

Supermarket Sweep They live for the applause.

Dale Winton (for it is he) is dressed in a blue suit. "Sharp" was the word that sprung to mind when we saw him. "Relieved" might be the word Dale used: after seeing the North American version, he correctly spotted that the British audience would either love or hate this programme. In his biography "My Story", Dale tells us that Central wanted a "name" star, such as Ross King or Keith Chegwin. Because, yes, nothing says 9.25 on a dreary autumn morning quite like Cheggers Runs Riot Around A Supermarket.

For whatever reason, all of these established performers fell through, and Dale got an audition. Central thought he was too camp and not a name star; Dale used his salesman techniques to tell the Central commissioners that he was the best man for the job, that there's nothing wrong with a bit of camp in the mornings. He got the job and managed to convince ITV's commissioners that someone a bit new would work in the show.

Supermarket Sweep Dale Winton in his lucky suit.

In retrospect, it's a little difficult to see why ITV was so reluctant to chance a relative unknown: perhaps the 75-episode commission, running right through to Christmas, scared people. Had it gone wrong, they could be eating turkey from early October. But the show could have failed because the format didn't gel with the UK audience, perhaps the recently-ended recession had put them off consumerism. Oh, who are we kidding. The only thing that will stop people from spending money is a breakdown in the national credit card infrastructure, or a strike by the clothes-hanger makers. Supermarket Sweep is here, and it's started.

While we've been discussing him, Dale has already asked the first question, and Julie-Ann has retrieved the marked can of dog food from the shelf to win the mini-sweep. And there's been the obligatory chat with the contestants: all done in one block, but not until three minutes into the programme. We've already had a taste of the action, and that's done to tempt us through the slightly dull bit where we hear a little from the players. Even two decades on, it's standard to have contestant chatter at the beginning, and rare for it to break up the flow of the game. Pointless moved their chatter during round one about a year back, and we're still not sure that's an improvement outside the celeb shows. Britain's Best Brain on Channel 5 a few years back had the best idea: talk to the players before their solo rounds, and spread those through the programme.

Supermarket Sweep Which of these costs less than £1? Honey, peanuts, or peanut butter?

Back to the show, and the contestants play various games, referring to products on the shelves. Generic products, like "back bacon" or "new potatoes", none of the brand-name nonsense from the overseas equivalents. Games like "Reverse reveal", where Dale gives a broad clue, and starts spelling the answer backwards. "Global shopping" is just an excuse to ask the question, "Where am I?" as though he's the new Henry Kelly. Not that we're done with the old one: a new series of Going for Gold began on the same day, also running to Christmas. "Food and drink" is some more descriptive passages about nosh and glug; "The Pricing Game" asks which of these items costs less than £1; and "Scrambled letters" is anagrams of products, with clues. Had they invented the Teatime Teaser at this early date?

Looking back, it's clear that this this was an episode recorded on the first day of filming – perhaps the first one of all. Dale is a bit nervous, he stumbles over his words a little, fluffs one or two of the explanations. And, with this being a low-budget daytime show, those imperfections have to stay in. Dale noted in "My Story" that he was under instruction from the producer to be a bit tough, not to be overly-camp. But there's also one of the programme's hallmarks, the answers are "gammon, Dale" and "grapefruit juice, Dale", jamming in the host's name. It doesn't naturally fit, it's something the host has asked the contestants to do, but it establishes this bloke in the blue suit as Dale. And it associates him indelibly with the programme. In the sample question earlier, ten seconds on the clock to players who said "Peanuts, Dale".

Supermarket Sweep Nappies, nice and expensive.

After the ad break, it's the two minutes of magic of the actual Sweep. For two minutes, the players are allowed to run in the aisles, swap their trollies, collect a complete shopping list, and grab an inflatable each. To help the recording, this was all done out of order: the questions for one set of players were asked and checked, then their partners, then the round robin. And then they'd go off, and another set of players had their questions. Only then would there be the Sweep round, the prices calculated and checked, and the finale played. Then the store got reset for the next day's players to do it all again.

The Sweep was the emotional heart of the show. A pet fantasy for most people: going round a supermarket, only a handful of other people there, able to pick anything off the shelves, throw it in the trolley, and then someone else will pick up the bill at the end. Get groceries and food for a month, and do it all in two minutes flat. Dale is enabling this dream, he's letting contestants do something a little naughty, giving them permission to break the normal rules of shopping.

Supermarket Sweep Do tactics say "pick these up?"

Well, permission to break some of the normal rules of shopping. The one about not knocking over the displays, that applies, because there's a £25 penalty for damaging goods. One of the contestants in this episode crashed into the CD rack, and spent ages putting the music back on the shelf. Would it have been better to swallow the penalty and try to get more stuff? Also, the rule about not running into store staff still applies: banging into cameramen is also going to cost. Though, if a contestant bumps into one of these massive floor-mounted cameras, they're going to be hurting the most.

Critical reaction to this first show was negative. The press will slag off anything a bit new. Even after a month, it was clear that Supermarket Sweep was a minor hit, and with a bit of care and a bit of confidence it could go far. Dale had visibly not had the confidence, but (again, drawing from "My Story") he found he had the support of Cilla Black, and received some constructive criticism from Shane Richie of Win, Lose or Draw. Central wanted to re-cast the host, the producers helped to find Dale a more natural style, and the rest (as they say) is history. A teatime revival last decade didn't last long: the tastemakers on ITV and Channel 4 were doing battle over chat shows and cookery programmes, and shiny games literally didn't fit their schedules. Not until Pointless and The Chase went head-to-head in 2010 would 5pm become more interesting to this column.

Would Ross King have made a better host of Supermarket Sweep? The man is a consummate professional, he could make almost anything worth watching, and he would have made a very good host. He wouldn't have been Dale Winton, and it's almost impossible to think of Supermarket Sweep under anyone else.

Supermarket Sweep

Countdown Update

To the surprise of no-one, Dylan Taylor went on to complete his run of eight wins. That's putting it mildly: Mr. Taylor's total of 974 points is the greatest total ever recorded by an eight-game winner, beating the 965 compiled by Giles Hutchings in April. In five of his wins, Mr. Taylor made the maximum score in thirteen rounds, and he twice recorded winning margins of more than 80 points. As we said a few weeks ago, he's one of three favourites for the series title, alongside carry-over champion Glen Webb and Zarte Siempre, the chap Dylan beat.

Gemma Church (6 wins, 601 pts) took over the champions' chair, recorded a century first time out, and seemed to improve with every game. That was until she ran into Peter Etherington (1 win, 130 pts), a dip in Gemma's form coincided with a challenger of quality. It's worth noting that Mr. Etherington had experience in the studio, having won two games back in 1992. We're not entirely convinced about the return of former winners – people who played and lost, maybe; people who won a bit seems to be not entirely sporting.

Anyway, Mr. Etherington was soon usurped by Jen Steadman, and in six heats so far, she's compiled a 12-max, a 13-max, and a 14-max spoiled by an awkward numbers round. She's surely going to complete an octochamp run on Tuesday, and would be assured of a place in the final if she wasn't the fourth implausibly brilliant contender we've seen so far. And it's only the start of September!

The seedings so far:

1Dylan Taylor8 wins974 pts
2Glen Webb8945
3Jen Steadman6so far
4Gemma Church6602
5June Glasspell5491
6Zarte Siempre4542
7Margaret Lawless4359
8Rory Coleman3340

This Week And Next

The death has occurred of David Frost, television executive, producer, and interviewer. He's known in these parts as the original (and best) host of Through the Keyhole, but that was a small part of a tremendously long and varied career, best summarised in his interviews. We'll remember him for his interview with fraudster Emil Savundra in 1967 , an early example of Frost's "Would you like some more rope?" style.

The death has also occurred of David Jacobs, the polished broadcaster. His contributions to game shows included the chair of Tell the Truth and What's My Line, and the pop discussion programme Juke Box Jury. The collection, now complete.

University Challenge continued, with Keele taking on Liverpool. A medic for both sides in seat four, a PhD student as the captain, and a lucky mention of the Melbourne electorate of Batman. Surely they couldn't predict that the Aussie election would take place on the same day as the Saturday repeat. We spotted Katherine Monks of Liverpool working out a question on her fingers (and getting the correct answer) – one of eight on the night.

It was part of a strong start for Liverpool, racing to a 105-0 lead before attributing Diwali as a Jewish festival, which had Thumper calling up to the next floor asking for his eyebrows back. Mr. Bother of the Bar wondered why no-one had mentioned that one of the contestants looked like Chris Evans; this would require us both to know what Chris Evans looks like and who the heck he was.

The game was over immediately after the music round, when Liverpool's lead had extended to 150-15, and Thumper told Keele "there's still plenty of time." Luck was not with Keele: in a set of bonuses on The Canterbury Tales, they twice said "The Wife of Bath's Tale", but veered away for the third time, when it was right. Unimpressed when Thumper had a sneer at a guess from Liverpool: good quiz hosts know that even the guesses count. The final score: Liverpool 295, Keele 40.

University Challenge Keele: Austin Haffenden, Rob Croton, Harriet Earle, David Sharpe
Liverpool: Katherine Monks, Daniel Jenkin-Smith, Chris Spencer, Nick Nugent.

Mr. Bother's bar is currently closed while an extension is built, having exceeded its permitted capacity.

On last week's edition of Break the Safe, we learned that the first two books of the Bible were Genesis and The Exorcist. This can't be right: surely Genesis was a rubbish 70s prog rock band responsible for inflicting Phil Collins onto an innocent world.

Ratings from BARB in the week to 25 August, when The Great British Bake Off returned, and reached 6.6m viewers. That's well ahead of Celebrity Masterchef (5.15m) and Break the Safe (4.45m), with Tipping Point (2.75m) just beating Dragons' Den and University Challenge (both 2.65m). The Big Brother final had a series-best 2.2m viewers, the Celebrity edition launch show just shy of 3m. Come Dine With Me and a Sunday repeat of Bake Off both took 1.15m. A League Of Their Own returned to The Satellite Channel, and pulled 685,000 viewers. Hell's Kitchen on ITV2 was just 5,000 behind, and QI XL on Dave also attracted 500,000 – the first time Fry and co have done the half-million on Dave all year.

Big Star's Little Star (ITV, Wednesday) gets a review next week. Before then, a new run of Tipping Point (ITV, 4pm weekdays), and the end of Celebrity Big Brother (C5, all week) is interrupted by the possibly non-contest Celebrity Super-Spa (C5, 10pm Friday). Next Saturday has Tess Daly on Puppet Game Show, sports people on Pointless, Edith Bowman and Dan Walker on Country, X Fac at 8, and the pair of Cilla and Holly on Keyhole.

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