Pronouncer: Nina Hossain (Series 1 and Star Spell special), Mishal Husain (Star Spell series)
BBC One, 29 November 2004 to 31 December 2005 (12 episodes in 2 series)
as Star Spell 1 January 2005 to 15 October 2005 (6 episodes in 1 series + 2 specials)
A national spelling bee for children aged 11 to 14 heavily influenced by the documentary movie Spellbound and stripped across a week. Ten regional heats have been held, producing five young contestants from each region for the televised national heats. Each 30-minute national programme sees two regions represented. Before the start of each bit, we see some documentary clips from the regional heats of various kiddies in tears of joy/disappointment* (*delete as appropriate).
Since there are two nations per show, Round 1 is essentially played twice. Each child has 45 seconds to spell as many words as possible. Errors are signified by a nasty sounding buzzer and the correct spelling is given and displayed at the end of the round (though always capitalised, for some bizarre reason). The eight-foot high head of former BBC newsreader Nina Hossain reads out the words in her best RP accent. If the child doesn't understand the word, they can ask for it to be repeated or request a definition. The top two scorers from each region go through to the "spell-off".
Here, the four remaining contenders take turns to spell words with a wrong answer meaning elimination. Last one standing goes through to the grand final in which the winner gets a holiday and "multimedia equipment for their school" (blimey, come back Beat the Teacher, all is forgiven). Contestants have to apply through their school, so there's no chance of a home-educated child waltzing through and keeping the prizes for themselves, alas.
Although largely successful as a concept (it being handled by the same team who brought us the revived Strictly Come Dancing) there are many aspects of this show that strike us as being heavy-handed. First of all, ten contestants in a half-hour quiz seems a bit 'over-staffed' - losing 60% of the contestants in Round 1 is a rather blunt instrument, particularly as the result is being decided over just 45 seconds (about 8 words). It seems to be A Bit Of A Wasted Journey to have a better-than-even chance of going home after less than a minute of screen time. (The second series has rectified this, having only three contestants from each region competing. Someone high-up at the Beeb been reading this site?) Also, repeating Round 1 twice isn't particularly clever, and as such the programme never progresses as much as it should. (Almost spookily, this too has changed for the second series, with a new game of 'spelling tennis' being introduced, which only a particularly unkind reviewer would note is distinctly similar to a game played already in ITV's one-off celebrity Spelling Bee. The following sentence is left as it was after the original series aired so that readers can fully appreciate the staggering prescience.) So many elements are competing for the precious few minutes that the end game also feels very rushed. This is either a 45 minute show with a 30 minute time slot, or they should have used 3 or 4 finallists per region.
But hey, dig that typography. And did you spot the spelling mistake in the previous paragraph?
Spin-off Star Spell involved the five child finalists each coaching a celebrity to take part in a one-off version of the programme with the aim of winning £10,000 for their chosen charity. In the first one, Richard Whiteley was the champion besting Jo Brand, Penny Smith, Jeremy Bowen and Richard McCourt, who subbed for Donal McIntyre.
Following the successful one-off, a full series of Star Spell appeared in October 2005.
2004 Gayathri Kumar
2005 Niall O'Neill
2005 Richard Whiteley (special)
2005 Vanessa Feltz (series)