Action Time for Channel 5, 12 January to 9 December 2001 (18 episodes in 2 series)
Humph, yet another great and inventive Channel 5 show that nobody is watching because, well, it's on Channel 5. Please hold on for a couple of seconds whilst we just sit here looking smug at our superiority for giving the channel a chance.
Right, done that. Now on with the review.
This is billed as a reality TV show because it was invented before Big Brother which really was a reality show. However, we'd like to point out to the entire press corps - whom have completely misunderstood this point - that the Mole is NOT a reality show. Got that? It's much more in the 1980s action/adventure mould. The programme was the winner of the Golden Rose of Montreux in 2000 (or rather the original Belgian one was) so we're expecting big things here. And, strike a light, it's an Action Time production. After years of studio quizzers, here they are having a crack at the sort of show you'd normally expect Hewland or Chatsworth to be doing. As it turns out, they've done a great job.
The Mole brings ten people together for the adventure of their lives. The ten must work as a team but must also work as individuals as round by round we lose the player voted the weakest... erm, I mean, the player who is furthest away from the Mole's identity, more of which in a moment. The ten people (nine contestants + the Mole) are set three challenges worth between £5-20,000 during each episode. After all eight episodes, the total prize money could be worth £200,000.
The Mole is the one contestant who isn't really a contestant. Instead, they've been chosen especially by Action Time to try and sabotage the groups efforts as subtly as possible so that they don't win the money. Only two people know who The Mole is - the Mole and the Series Producer (and possibly Santa, because he knows everything you've been doing, right?)
At the end of every episode, each player has to take a computer exam. The questions are multiple choice, half of them to do with the Mole's background (Does the Mole have children? Do they have a tattoo?) and the other half are to do with what the Mole has done during this episode (What did the Mole have for breakfast? Which group was the Mole in during the Rally Driving challenge?). Although we don't get to see many of the questions, they do seemed designed in such a way that many of the correct answers could refer to several people so the players could be right by being wrong, if you see what we mean. The person with the least amount of right answers has to leave immediately.
Now, if you have a mole in real life and it becomes irritating, you should go to see doctor. Or perhaps a pest control expert. However, this is one Mole that can never be got rid of as they automatically pass the exam. Given that they know who they are, they'd have had to pick somebody really thick to not be able to get all the questions right, really, which are remember all about themselves. Hence, the Mole is never eliminated, leaving us with three people in the final episode - the Mole, the loser and the winner.
The theme tune for the show is really cool in a modern day spy thriller sense and gets in your head and never leaves (It's also the same as the Australian version - FACT!). We cannot fault the atmospheric suspense/action mood music which is also superb, together with some contemporary rock and dance tunes when the situation requires. In fact, the sound track is so good we want one NOW please Action Time, and we'll perhaps even forgive you for The Answer Lies in the Soil if you release one/send one to us.
The show is hosted by none other than Glenn Hugill, whom you may or may not remember/care played a bent copper in ITV soap Coronation Street and - if memory serves - was jilted at the altar by somebody or other (again, in the soap, not real life). He's a great success, proving to handle the Beadlesque "...and what Simon doesn't know is..." moments superbly while having a laugh with the contestants at the same time.
Perhaps more important than the host are, of course, the contestants and here there is a good demographic cross section of the UK, five men and five women with an age spread of mid 20s to mid 50s with a variety of jobs. It certainly isn't the human zoo that Big Brother was. Personality wise, you've got pretty much most different styles of personality you'd expect when you put ten random people together: Sporty Mole, Baby Mole, Scary Mole, Funny Mole, Arty Mole, Blatant Alcoholic Mole, Serious Mole etc. And yes, it does get more upsetting when they get eliminated the further into the series you go because you begin to like them. It still comes as a HUGE kick in the teeth though as the person you suspected was The Mole gets eliminated and you have to reinvent all your theories.
The challenges are genuinely interesting although some of episodes 'fit together' better than others. There's also loads of variety, only two of the challenges so far have involved jumping off something at great height - the opening stunt of flinging the contestants off a plane at 10,000ft, and bridge swinging - jumping off a bridge with a 100ft rope. The rest have been a combination of physical, mental and psychological tests. Amongst the best have been:
Finding the Hostage: One of the players is taken captive and locked up somewhere in Jersey. The others have to split up into three groups who have to search for him by plane, car and boat. Each team is given a phone with three pre-programmed numbers. The hostage's phone can only take incoming calls and can see through a two inch gap through a window. Each of the three teams have to liase before trying to free the hostage because there is a key in each vehicle. Can they find and rescue the hostage within ninety minutes?
The Maze of Maize: The contestants are woken up in the middle of the night to play a game in a field of corn. The contestants have to pair up with one of the two running the maze and the other one trying to guide them using an overhead shot. Also in the maze are two hunters whose sole aim is to is to catch the runner. The team won £10,000 if the four pairs could stay alive in the maze for a cumulative time of five minutes or £15,000 if they could finish the maze. Funnily enough, nobody seemed to spot the really easy route to the finish but one team successfully managed it anyway by going all the way round the back. This challenge was pure comedy when you could see there was going to be a hunter round the corner, they'd be a choice expletive followed by a small chase with the guide offering useful direction along the lines of "run like hell!".
Shipwrecked: Whilst five of the seven remaining contestants were fishing as part of another challenge, the other two were on an island constructing a pretty basic shelter for the others. That night, the fishing people would have to spend the entire night on the island to win the cash whereas the people who built the shelter would get to spend the night on a luxury five star boat with all mod cons. However, one of the people on the island could join them by phoning the boat up using the one phone given to them and nabbing themselves a free pass to the next show whilst they're at it but of course costing the team the money and the rest of them will have to stay out anyway. Funnily, they decide to split the phone and the battery up so no one can do it. After surviving the cold night, rather sadistically they're offered another challenge to get off the island and back to the boat.
Paintball: One person is locked up in a truck and has to be rescued by the rest of the team by surviving a game of paintball. If they can rescue her and get her back to the start with at least one team member still alive then the whole team wins £10,000. But, and here's the Jerry Springer twist, after paintballing for two hours and being rescued, if the captive shoots any rescuers then the challenge is failed but the captive wins a free pass into the next round. Stabbing your team in the back for your own personal gain. Dilemma! And the fireworks after this game were really quite something...
In fact there's often an area of nastiness and edge in each challenge, kind of like a modern day Ultra Quiz if you must. Each of the challenges potentially gives the Mole a chance to sabotage. The problem for the team is that they are often split up into groups and so aren't in contact with each other all the time and so only get a certain time to be able to watch each player.
That's the other rub for the competitors - whilst one person is being paid to sabotage everyone else mucks up all the time. Perhaps it's to throw other people off the scent (this clever double-bluff element is something that the producers have mysteriously forgotten to highlight). However, more often than not it's just the contestants not being very good at the challenges. The sole job of the contestants is to work out which one of them is doing it deliberately. At the end of each day the players file away a video diary analysing their own and everybody else's performances during the day and their own private thoughts.
Back to eliminations, then. Everybody has to have their bag packed because if they're out they leave immediately. Glenn types in the names of each contestant one by one into the nifty laptop computer. If the screen goes green then they are safe. If it goes red then they are out. The contestants are never told how well they've done. In the first few episodes this was rather tedious, but now we're emotionally attached to the contestants there is genuine tension. Whilst the losing contestant is accompanied by Glenn to a cab straight to the airport, the others reminisce about how lovely they were which is surprisingly cloying, actually.
The production values throughout are great. The computer effects are nicely done, the use of the Mole logo is well standardised throughout the varied locations, and difficult edit of squashing multi-hour challenges into a few minutes has been handled with skill.
Also interesting to point out is the Crime and Retribution-style split screen effect they tend to use during the challenges where the group is split. While you necessarily lose some of the detail of what's going on, the filmic effect is striking and it's nice to see something different from the standard Medium 2 shots.
In closing then: we like The Mole and it is undeniably compelling stuff that feels like it's had a lot of effort put into it. Therefore, it was something of a shame that the ratings weren't that great despite a huge marketing budget, but that's the fault of the stupid public and the fact that 8pm on a Friday is a fiercely competitive slot. What can you do, eh?
"I have a challenge for you."
"There is just one more thing..."
"Your challenge is lost."
Based on the Belgian format De Mol.
The contestants actually thought they were joining a show called Adventure Challenge before the cameras began to roll.
Directed by former Ghost Train presenter Angelo Abela.
Contestant Sara Lee changed careers and became a TV publicist - first for Channel 5, then for shows such as The X Factor.