Talkback for Channel 4, 31 October 2003 to 11 June 2004 (16 episodes in 2 series)
Jimmy Carr is our host, so already the show is on the back foot. His previous credits include being the less entertaining host on the interesting Your Face or Mine?, and being caught in the glare of the autocue while auditioning to be the new Angus Deayton. His style on this show is to make asides and little one-liners. His contract, it appears, calls these "witty and slightly vulgar." The word "cruel" could be more appropriate, along with a choice selection of Anglo-Saxon epithets.
The studio is well decorated, and made to look like the library in a Georgian mansion. Two walls of the studio contain bookcases: one of these bookcases slides open to reveal a large square platform, on which the contestants glide into the studio. Mr Carr then introduces the contestants, states an embarrassing fact, and asks them to figure out to whom that fact applies. So far, so good: the slightly embarrassing fact is nothing much new, and the sliding platform and bookcases is a very good piece of visual television.
Mr Carr now asks some simple questions. The contestant with the fewest correct answers at the end of each round leaves, until only one remains, and that person has won the night's big prize.
However, there's a catch the size of London here. While the contestants are answering, they are distracted by physical pain. In one round, contestants didn't use buzzers, but put their fingers on mousetraps and waved them about to answer. In others, they were beaten up by bullies, and shot at by paintballers. If it's not physical torment, it's strange dietary habits - contestants have been encouraged to put maggots and sheep's testicles into their mouth.
Some argue that television does not shape society, but holds up a mirror to society. What does this show tell us about society in the early days of the twenty-first century? That someone, somewhere, thinks that they can make a quick buck out of showing other people suffering. It's nothing new, Jeremy Beadle did the same thing for much of the 90s, Candid Camera proved amazingly popular thirty years earlier, and people in Italy still enjoy this type of show. Real pain being inflicted on real people has been popular in Japan for many years. Whether this become popular in the UK remains to be seen.
Mr Carr attempts to make light of the situation by cracking his feeble jokes. They do help to keep the show moving, but the poor quality of too many of the gags - and his gratuitous use of bad language - helps to keep the show at a mediocre-to-rubbish level.
Eventually, after three rounds of doing hurtful things, someone emerges the winner, and is given a large prize - a brand new car, a large stash of money, or thereabouts. However, they then have to gamble the prize against five questions - for each question incorrectly answered, some of the prize is burned or otherwise damaged.
When Mr Beadle was pulling his practical stunts, commentators had a running joke that someone, sometime, would punch the man's lights out. We never saw it happen, the researchers had done their homework, chosen exactly the point to stop the wind-ups, and sought clearance from their victim. We were only slightly surprised that no contestant has been shown punching Mr Carr's f@~!in' lights out - such gratuitous physical violence is an alarmingly close fit to the format of Distraction, and would make an almost appropriate climax for the show.
Instead, the viewer is left with a sense of opportunities wasted. Channel 4 has done better. Jimmy Carr, yes, he's done better. Even the basic idea, asking people simple questions while distracting them, can be done better - as we saw in BBC1's The Chair a year earlier. That made for rather dull viewing, but it was clearly done in a relatively friendly manner.
It would be unfair to describe Distraction as brainless entertainment. It is brainless, and it doesn't entertain.
There was a celebrity version of the show in 2003 (if you can call it that) when four members of Big Brother 4 were invited to be shocked, have bottles smashed over their heads, be shot by a paint gun and get the burning money out of the toaster. Federico Martone, Cameron Stout, Anouska Golebiewski and Jon Tickle took part for charity. Jon Tickle was the victor and managed to save about £3,500 from the toaster for Cancer Research and got in a plug for his new Sky One show Brainiac. Cameron was taunted by Jimmy Carr because of his choice of charity (Canine Epilepsy Support Group).
In the US version of the show, the budget was bigger so on some of the shows they built a large Perspex box and blew up the prizes using explosives, on the others they damaged the cars like the UK version.
Frankie Boyle was one of the writers of the show.
Both series are available via 4oD's YouTube Player.