Didn't They Do Well!
BBC One, 15 January to 18 March 2004 (10 episodes in 1 series)
Way back in the dim and distant past, someone at the BBC had an idea for a show without a host. "Playback" (a working title) would pit contestants in the studio against actual questions from quizzes shown in the past. Thanks to the way it's funded, the BBC is able to take the time to tinker with a format before putting it to air, and the main tinkering to this format was the addition of a host. Step forward Bruce Forsyth, voted as the Best Game Show Host, Ever by readers of this website in 2002. Bruce has recently rejoined the BBC, and this show marks his return to primetime for Auntie.
The mechanics of the show are not difficult. In the opening round, three teams of two take turns to pick a quiz show host (and, by implication, a BBC game show) off a board. They're asked a question by that host, and given points if they get the question correct; one point on the first pass of the board, two on the second. As well as a broad general knowledge, this round rewards a knowledge of BBC game shows: a question asked by Mike Read must come from Pop Quiz and hence be about popular music. One asked by Noel Edmonds will probably be from Telly Addicts, but might be a general knowledge question from Lucky Numbers, while something from Jeremy Paxman will be from University Challenge and be a) very hard, b) extremely difficult, and c) excruciatingly long.
Round two sees each team pick a category, then attempt to name five people in that category from brief film clips. If they get all five right, they qualify for a "which one of these did X" question worth bonus points. The team with the fewest points after this round leaves the competition.
Round three has five clips from the past. In each clip, the presenter is reading out a lengthy introduction (around 30 seconds long), or describing something. The two remaining teams have to work out who or what is being described, and the faster they work out the answer, the more points they score. There's a slight twist: if team A buzzes and gets the answer wrong, then only team B can buzz in next. Team A will only get a second shot if team B guesses and guesses wrongly. The highest total score across all three rounds moves on to the final.
In the final, there are eight quizmasters on tape and 90 seconds on the clock. Each quizmaster reads out a question, and the contestants must give the correct answer. If they're wrong, the same quizmaster reads another question, and the clock only stops when the contestants give the correct answer. Before winning any money, the contestants must answer one final question: they choose one of three categories, and can think and confer during the remaining time. Give the wrong answer, or run out of time, and they go home with nothing. It pays to know the length of questions: many editions of the show used questions from Dog Eat Dog, where host Ulrika Jonsson shamelessly stalled and padded for time in a failed effort to raise some sort of tension. Anne Robinson bangs out the questions far faster than Jeremy Paxman, but Paddy Feeny is faster than both.
There are those who consider this show as an exercise in television nostalgia. We do get to see clips of old shows, and some clips of the title sequences, and some unusual choices spark severe nostalgia. (Kenny Everett's Brainstorm? Paddy on Top of the Form? A show called Quiz Time, Gentlemen, Please?!) One minor niggle: in the third round, the remainder of the interrupted clip isn't shown, and the viewer loses the thread of what the speaker is saying.
If we consider Didn't They Do Well! as a game show, it's a very polished piece of work. Using scratchy old tapes as a source of questions could present problems - can we hear and see the show? - and it's to the technicians' credit that we don't notice the work they've put in to equalise the volume and clean up the video. Even in the first round, there's some careful planning: doubling the points for the second round is an improvement some people suggested for the Britain's Brainiest series on ITV a couple of years ago.
Perhaps the only weak point of the show is the final round. A potential jackpot of £32,000 instantly suggests some sort of doubling mechanism, perhaps five questions from £1000, or eight from £125. Instead, the payment for each question starts at £500, and works its way up to make the final question worth a curious £12,000. While this sort of cumulative jackpot has some appeal, it lacks the clarity of a simple double. Maybe that approach would have been too reminiscent of Millionaire.
The other problem with the game is the forced all-or-nothing gamble at the end. While the first three rounds have been a charming and light-hearted exercise in nostalgia, the final suddenly has teeth, and is quite happy to bite people's legs off given half a chance. While the rest of the show brings to mind the Olympian spirit in which most of the BBC's games have been played, this modern finale confirms that, for the modern corporation, it really is how well you do that counts, not how well you play. It's a modern twist, and simply doesn't sit with the rest of the show's slightly anachronistic feel. Didn't They Do Well! could have appeared on our screens ten years ago, with no more than slight changes to the format. That the final round is so blatantly a 12-Yard ripoff does stick in the craw. David Young's device had its place on Friends Like These, was bad enough on Dog Eat Dog, is out of place on In It to Win It, and sticks out like a sore thumb here.
One possible improvement: steal half an idea from 19 Keys. The contestants get to build up their pot over the first minute, but after that time's expired, their pot diminishes at the breathtaking rate of £1000 per second. It'll fade away to nothing in a maximum of 20 seconds, so shortening the last round to 80 seconds of playing time.
Finally, we can consider Didn't They Do Well! as a vehicle for Bruce Forsyth. Here, it's a success. In the entire 28 minute game, there are between 20 and 26 questions, giving the host plenty of time to banter with the contestants, use his parade of catchphrases (most slightly modified for the format), and generally entertain as well as he's ever done. Only the prospect of Bruce sending someone home with nothing (and that's never happened before) puts a damper on the proceedings.
Didn't They Do Well! is a technological marvel, a decent archive clip show, and shows a good game. Ahem.
(to the first losing couple) "Thanks for appearing on Didn't They Do Well!? - but didn't you do badly?!"
"Nice to quiz you, to quiz you - nice!"
"...And thanks to all the quiz show hosts we've featured - didn't they do well?"
BBC Format Entertainment