Weaver's Week 2017-01-08

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Democracy season is open! In the Poll of the Year 2016, we're taking votes for the Best and Worst New Shows of 2016, and for the Greatest Game Show currently on telly. Polls close on Friday the 13th, and we expect the results in a live interactive video streamingcast a few days later.

Christmas shows tend to pass under the radar. Confusing stuff like Home for the Holidays (C4, 2011) gets left out of the record because of when it goes out. Not this time.

Coming up: Alan Carr's 12 Stars of Christmas | Blankety Blank | Noel Edmonds' Sell or Swap | Countdown Finals Week | Other news in brief

12 Stars of Christmas


Alan Carr's 12 Stars of Christmas

Magnum Media in association with Travesty for Channel 4, 19-23 December

Alan Carr is one of Channel 4's most popular hosts. His weekly gabfest, Alan Carr Chatty Man, pulls in a large audience. And it gets famous people, those too edgy for Graham Norton on the BBC, or too alternative for Jonathan Ross on ITV.

Carr's style is high camp. Flamboyant and cheeky, but full of respect for his guests. You don't go on Chatty Man for a grilling, nor do you get an easy plug for your book.

Justin Beaver, Lady Baabaa, Lambsey Lohan. All have appeared on Carr's chat show. None are here tonight. But we do have a very decent raft of stars. From The X Factor, Little Mix. From BBC The Amazing Spinny Chairs Show, will.i.am. From Countryfile, Kate Humble. From Miranda, Miranda Hart. From Bear Grylls Mission Survive, Bear Grylls.

12 Stars of Christmas Carr and guests are dwarfed by a house.

And from the Play School props department, a fairy house. With a door. And windows, one, two, three, four, and more. Eight windows on this giant house, and a door makes nine. These are the windows (and door) on Alan Carr's Advent calendar. Normally, an Advent calendar has 24 doors, with a small treat behind each. Carr's calendar is deficient, just nine things to open, but there's a big treat behind each: a celebrity with a question.

Alan isn't alone in the studio. He's joined by some Channel 4 celebrities: one show had the line up of Michelle Keegan (Our Girl), Josh Widdicombe (Insert Name Here), and Louis Walsh (The X Factor). None of which are Channel 4 shows, demonstrating how Alan is a colossus of entertainment, he just steps over such minor details as channel boundaries.

Each of the celebs is playing for a third of the audience, coloured red, white, and green. Traditional Christmas colours, according to Carr {1}.

12 Stars of Christmas The audience, and a giant present in the middle.

Most of the show is questions asked by the celebrities. Little Mix are talking in a foreign language, what are they talking about? Matt Lucas is swapping his face with someone else, whose face has melded with Matt's? The players write down their answers, and score a point if they're right.

After a couple of questions, the audience get to play. Alan has brought along a massive ball pit, it must be ten foot on all sides.

In this ball pit, three gifts have been hidden. There's a cheap gift: a 12 Stars of Christmas mug. A decent gift: a hat and scarf set sponsored by Woolco. And a very nice prize: tickets to the Harry Potter studio tour, some fine chocolates, and skincare products.

The first person to pull out one of these prizes will win it for all the people in their section of the audience. Should any of the celebs be ahead in their challenge, their player gets a head start.

12 Stars of Christmas Grab a gift from the pool of prezzies.

And so the show continues. To break up the trivia, there's a physical challenge: Jessica Ennis-Hill finds coins in a Christmas pudding: can the panellists beat the champion? Nothing terribly original, Chris Moyles' Quiz Night covered this ground in the last decade, and diving in ball pits was a Double Dare idea back in the 1980s. But we're not really watching for innovation, we're watching for comfort and joy.

Alan Carr makes everyone feel comfortable. He's a cosy blanket, covers everything in the warm glow of his japes. And there are many moments of joy, such as Davina McCall manhandling Nick Grimshaw while Alan Carr and Bradley Wiggins pedal a tandem. Or McCall, Grimshaw, and Carr talking about how Alexander Skaarsgard looked in the Tarzan movie.

12 Stars of Christmas Michelle Keegan tries to crib an answer from Josh Widdicombe.

12 Stars of Christmas never loses sight of its sponsors, making sure to jam in as many brand names as possible during the show. We still reckon that's a bit gauche.

The sponsors also get into the final game, a luxury holiday for someone. The winning celeb (or celebs) jump into the ball pool, seeking the one present in there. When Alan gets hold on the present, he stops a counter, and that determines the winner. The show ends, inevitably, with all the celebs diving into the ball pool.

An enjoyable hour, we don't remember the details in the morning, but we do remember having fun.

{1} Carr's script is liturgical nonsense: blue or violet are used in Advent; as this series went out after Gaudete Sunday, rose pink would also be in order. Christmas (white and gold) doesn't begin until 25 December. {2} {Back to article}

{2} Can we stop talking about religion? It's Christmas. {Back to article}

Blankety Blank

Blankety Blank

Thames (part of FremantleMedia UK) for ITV, 24 December

David Walliams hosted a revival of Blankety Blank. "Lower your expectations," said Walliams in the introduction, before paying tribute to the hosts. "It's a game show requiring no general knowledge, no skill, and no intelligence. Let's meet the panel."

Blankety Blank Top: smart-alec, old stager, comedy legend.
Bottom: cynic, wildcard, newbie

Joe Lycett hadn't quite understood what he needed to do in seat one, mucking about equally is fine but there's a limit. He established a running gag, and had the contestants been smarter, it would have ruined the tie-break.

For much of the game, the contestants didn't understand what they needed to do, as in match the answers. They weren't helped by some vague questions, such as "Rudolph the reindeer doesn't just have a red nose. When he gets cold, his blank also turns red." Antlers? Hooves? Ears? Tail? Other part of the body?

Compare and contrast against a Terry Wogan sample question: "I've just heard that Jimmy Young's OBE award was delayed. It was originally put forward for the birthday honours of Queen Blank." Victoria? Elizabeth I? Boudicca? There aren't many options, the player should get something right.

The rest of the panel worked well. Anne Robinson and Lesley Joseph were consistently funny. Brooke Vincent played the young ditz to perfection, and set up many running jokes. Louis Walsh was surreal at bottom-middle, allowing David to bicker with him. Top right is the Elder Statesman slot, filled by Paul and Barry Chuckle. It's the seat they've been after all their professional life.

Blankety Blank A nice piece of design.

Prizes were just the cheap side of cheap: a swingball set, a wok grill plate, an exercise bike. Scores were kept using the manual circle-and-triangles, literally no expense spent. The décor had tinges of art deco, it's all in the arches and circles, and the staircase at the back of the stage. The music was a reinterpretation of Ronnie Hazlehurst's package, both titles and think pieces.

The show was booked for an hour, and had to fill to make the time up. Handing out comedy gifts to the celebrities filled some time, as did "accidentally" over-rotating the set and having to haul it back. The finale was a joke we saw coming a mile off, and loved.

Can Blankety Blank go to a series? David Walliams will take some getting used to – all his predecessors have played Ver Blank as a show to mock, Walliams went a bit further into the joke and pretended it was a serious affair. If they can get a panel of this quality every week, and not rely on ITV celebrities, then it could happen. Remember, Alan Carr got decent names for his show.

Blankety Blank The valuable bit of the prize.

We can see Blankety Blank fitting into a 45-minute slot, no longer. A lead-in for Britain's Got Talent in the spring? Something to fight back against Strictly in the autumn? That awkward slot on Sunday evenings? Ver Blank can go anywhere.

Sell or swap

Noel Edmonds' Sell or Swap

Crook Productions for Channel 4, 30 December

Noel Edmonds always claims that any television show is 20% better when it's live. By Noel's own logic, a taped version of Sell or Swap Live would be 25% worse, and not just because the show only works when it's seen live.

Behind Noel is another rotating stage. Over the course of the hour, it will contain a campervan, a Donald Duck puppet, some David Bowie portraits, a ruby ring, a scooter, and a sweet cart. Two professional auctioneers will try to get lots for these lots. Bidders need to call the "Swaperators" on an 0808 number to "pre-register", by which Noel means "register".

Sell or swap What's on the carousel tonight, Noel?

The show took cash bids for the items offered. They'd also take "swaps" – other goods, or services. You could sell your item for £2500 cash. Or for gardening services. Or a timeshare. As time expires, the seller chooses one of the offered swaps, then chooses whether to turn that down in favour of the cash.

Now, this column is fine with complicated television. We watch Only Connect. We understand the tournament structure, and we're depressed that they've dumbed it down for the current series.

But Sell or Swap was a new level of confuzzlement. After you've called the Swap shop, what next? Are we seeing all the offered swaps, or just some of them? And if we're only seeing some, who decides?

Sellers preferred the cash. Of course they did. All of the sellers had a short video, explaining how they might use money. They didn't have a short video explaining how they might use a short break in the Cotswolds.

And people can divide money up into many smaller projects, they can use pounds and pence as they see fit. Swapped items force the recipient into a certain action; cash gives the liberty to make your own decisions. {3}

The show had technical problems. The scoreboard couldn't keep up with the frantic pace of action, often an auction would close and it would be 30 seconds before the board had all the bids on it. Video messages were dropped in quite gratuitously, "we've gone to the trouble of making this, we're going to use it, however little it's got to do with the show."

Sell or swap Noel tries to bring the show off air gracefully.

Noel falls off the revolving stage as he goes from one sale to another. He moves with such pace that the stage cannot revolve fast enough, and he begins a segment in the dark. Earlier, Noel teased us over a commercial break with "a big new offer"; it turned out to be the one swap to be accepted.

In the end, Noel lost his place. "You're on to the sweet cart, Noel." "It's between the garden makeover and – how much was the top bid?" They had to talk all over the credits for the final decision. Time ran out: Noel didn't even get to bid us goodbye.

After eleven years on Channel 4, we're used to Noel controlling the show, saying a few words and giving an unsubtle hint to the player. Heck, on House Party, on Late Late, Noel knew where he wanted to be in five minutes. On Sell or Swap, Noel didn't control the show, he couldn't influence people's decisions. He can push emotional buttons, helped by the video packages and by having people – sellers and buyers – on stage with him. But he can't nudge people into making their wrong decision.

Has Noel Edmonds lost his knack of making gold out of unpromising live telly? Or, after forty years of effort, has television finally found a format so incompetent that even Noel cannot save it? We reckon it's a bit of both. And, given the poor reception, we don't think there'll be a second show.

{3} The same ideas are behind overseas aid policy. Giving people cash empowers them to make their own life. Telling them that they must have farming equipment forces people down a path that often proves wrong for individuals and communities. {Back to article}

Countdown Finals Week

Yorkshire Television for Channel 4, 15-23 December

With fouth-best player Annie Humphries absent, Tom Stephens secured a reprieve. He'd won five in mid-November, a total of 474 points. Martin Hurst was top seed, an 830-point octochamp from late August. Martin took the lead on a six-small numbers round, benefitted when Tom offered "muffiest*", and never looked like being beaten. The final score was 102-52 in Martin's favour.

Stephen Fuller pulled off a major upset, defeating Jamie Washington by 83-52. It's not just that number 7 beat number 2, but the size of the victory. Stephen started with "printout", with "rumours" and "piloted" and "oversaw" and a numbers game. Victory was sealed through the niner "alarmists". Stephen hadn't impressed in his six July wins, he was much better when it matters.

Andrew Macleod and Rik Anstee met in the third quarterfinal. It was tight for most of the match, Andrew's "Freakish" winner the only thing between them. But Andrew won the third numbers round, and it was one-way traffic thereafter. "Opening" and "Educates" were winners, another good solve for the last numbers, and the conundrum as well. Andrew won by 114-56, and recorded an 11-max game.

John Shaw and Andrew Fenton went in the fourth quarter-final. In the opening half, only a disallowed word from John split the players, and a missing anecdote confused the viewers. John didn't write down "Qintar", costing him some more points. John's slips were the only errors of the match, seeds four and five were equal in every other round. That's until the final numbers round, a two-large selection that John hit to perfection. The crucial conundrum went begging, so Andrew won by 94-90. That "not written down" cost John the game.

Martin Hurst and Andrew Fenton returned for the semi-final. Martin took a commanding lead, through Andrew's "tudgier*" and "outsaid*" and an error on the numbers. Andrew hit back with "Scourge" late in the game, only for Martin to retaliate with "Turbots" in the next round. Martin won the match by 100-64, his seventh century score from ten games.

Andrew Macleod and Stephen Fuller played the second semi. Stephen's incorrect offer of "distempa*" allowed Andrew an early lead, extended by a good numbers spot. Stephen pulled back with the next numbers, but Andrew had winners out of his pores – "Tribade", "Darksome", "Outrange". The game was over by the second interval, and enlivened by Andrew's completely made up conundrum spot "Rosefinch". Made up, and correct. Andrew wins by 111-60, his sixth century from ten.

Top seed Martin Hurst met third-seed Andrew Macleod for the title. The two players were in lock-step to the anecdote, each scoring a maximum in five of the opening six rounds. Most of the time, they offered the same word as each other. This pattern continued for a couple more letters rounds.

Martin cracked the game open in the third numbers round, scoring 7 points on his six-small selection as Andrew got nowhere near. Andrew's "reupload*" was disallowed, it's not (yet?) found its way into the dictionary. We thought Andrew would pull back with "airdate*", but Susie tells us that this former Countdown favourite is now two words.

Sell or swap Andrew MacLeod applauds series champion Martin Hurst.

And that was it. Andrew pulled ten points back through the final numbers game, and Martin won by 96-85.

This Week and Next

The holidays were bookended by Only Connect (2). Before the break, the Beekeepers beat the Policy Wonks by 24-17. A lovely connection set of Alba, Springfed, Sarmento, Dianapolis gave two to the Beekeepers; they also got three for Jeeves books. Victoria went on a soliloquy that everyone should read Jeeves. The Beekeepers' four-point advantage lasted into the final round, where it was stretched slightly.

Celebrity Mastermind took place. Hacker T Dog, the controller of CBBC, stole his show by barking correct answers like he was chasing meat pies. Tyger Drew Honey wowed with his knowledge of The Office. Kadeena Cox proved less good at answering questions in the chair, but she played Mastermind, and many people don't even get that far.

Pop Quiz The Comeback was a thing. Mike Read continued his effort to roll back the hands of time, inviting pop stars from the distant past (ie the 1980s) for a nostalgia trip. The show lacked a spark, it didn't have the clash of the generations, the Shiny New Whippersnappers against the Old Duffers. Zara Larsson versus Roland Orzabel And A Kangaroo, that's what we needed.

Christmas University Challenge happened. We were pleased to see that two all-women sides competed, a far cry from the all-bloke sides on the student edition. These sides met in the first eight-women contest of the BBC era – and likely the first ever. Our esteemed readers will doubtless correct if we're wrong.

The series was won by St Hilda's Oxford, including Adèle Geras and Val McDermid from the current Round Britain Quiz teams, with Fiona Caldicott and Daisy Dunn adding answers. And, yes, that's the first all-woman team to win a UC series.

The student edition of University Challenge was won by Bristol, beating Oriel Oxford by 265-70. Close for the first ten minutes, then very one-sided.

A few years ago, this column included some entertaining microblog reactions. We stopped because a) it was the quarter-finals, b) the tenor was getting us down. The University Challenge Review confirms that nothing has improved:

"Reading through the University Challenge hashtag on Twitter there was an atrocious number of vulgar and derogatory comments aimed mainly at Bristol's superb captain Alice Clarke. I think it's fair to assume that the type of person who'd be interested in going on UC would be the type of person to watch it. And if you were to watch the show and see an excellent performance from a woman only to go on the internet and read such horrible comments completely irrelevant to said performance its not exactly going to make it seem like an appealing thing to put yourself through. [..]
Obviously there were a great deal of positive posts as well, but its far easier to discourage than it is to encourage, so I encourage you to call out the heinousness if you ever come across it. Its a small drop in a big ocean, but with enough stones waves can be made."

Civilian Mastermind had its final heat. Adam Barr (Naval battles of WWI) won with 23 (4 passes). It was a close match, as Trevor Rhodes (Charles Laughton) made 23 (6 passes). Fewer passes wins, so Adam Barr takes the final spot in the semi-finals. Adam was part of the winning Manchester side on University Challenge in 2013.

Dave Mason (Punisher Max comics) and James Shore (de Haviland Mosquito) completed tonight's foursome. We now know the six high-scoring losers. Two come from the opening heat, and five of the six places were transmitted by 9 September.

And Only Connect ended the festive break, as Oscar Men beat Genealogists by 17-11. A low-scoring game, we enjoyed descriptions of high street bank logos (three arrowheads, blue spread eagle), and words that led to Own, Li, Con, and Necked.

Elsewhere, Buzzerblog watched The Wall (Springhill Entertainment for NBC). Unneccesary fluff, automatic losses "because it's the rules", and players being split a la For the Rest of Your Life (ITV, 2007-9). We would be surprised to see a remake on these shores, even KYTV is steering away from brash and incomprehensible shows. NBC pays protection money to a serially bankrupt casino shark.

A director's cut of Talking Telephone Numbers from 1995. It's complete with talkback from the production gallery (and if you're watching on headphones, talkback's only in the right ear). All is normal until Carlton's Lack of Quality Control kicks in, and fast-forwards through Brian Conley's entire routine. Also of note: an announcer calling the shots and counting bars during a performance by The Human League, and calls of "Two minutes until stop talking."

Channel 4 has published the casualty contestant list for The Jump, which again goes over Sunday evenings. Lots of sportspeople, the obligatory reality telly stars, and others. We may not have a winner in there: two of the three series so far have been won by late replacements.

BARB ratings for the two weeks ending Christmas Day are out. Strictly Come Dancing consolidated to 13.3m viewers, which does confirm its place amongst the year's top ten. Masterchef The Professionals finished with 3.65m. Strictly Len Goodman was seen by 4.25m, and Mr. T Dog brought 4.1m to Celebrity Mastermind.

Blankety Blank did well in the Christmas specials stakes, 3.55m saw the Christmas Eve show, and it dented Pointless Celebrities – 4.75m compared to 5.15m the week before. ITV can call that a hit. Channel 4 have a less clear result with 12 Stars of Christmas – about 850,000 for the shows.

The bookies paid out on Strictly Come Dancing, but it came second on consolidated ratings. Call the Midwife topped with 9.2m, Strictly had 8.95m, and Bake Off 8.2m. Doctor Who and The Eastenders tied on 7.85m, and A Party Election Broadcast By The Queen flopped, 5.5m on BBC1 was only slightly more popular than Frozen. Don't expect a series.

This week, Insert Name Here begins its regular series (BBC2, Mon), and there's some celebrity dancing on Dance Dance Dance (ITV, Sun). On more niche channels, The Big Spell comes to The Satellite Channel (Sun), Y Talwrn (Radio Cymru) begins its series, and Dancing With the Stars reaches RTE1. Next Saturday's Pointless Celebrities is food and drink.

Photo credits: Magnum Media / Travesty, Thames (part of FremantleMedia UK), Crook Productions, Yorkshire Television

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