Watching the Detectives



Nicholas Owen


Ludus for ITV1, 2005


Boring daytime filler based around TV detective shows. Veteran ITN newscaster Nicholas Owen quizzes three contestants on their knowledge of TV detectives, we get to see some clips of stuff from the Granada archives, and there's a ridiculously drawn-out final round "identity parade" in which the winning contestant is shown a clip and then has to pick out the lowly Equity member who appeared in it (think of Never Mind the Buzzcocks' identity parade, minus the jokes).

This is a show that does just about everything wrong. It was trailed as coming from the creator of The Krypton Factor, and yet for a show with so much experience behind it, it does come across more like a sixth-form media project. The setting - Arley Hall, a dead swanky mansion in Cheshire formerly used as Cluedo's Arlington Grange - is promising, and looks good in the pre-title sequences, but is used so poorly they might as well have made it in a studio set. (Actually, now I come to think of it, is there any on-screen evidence that they didn't?)

Next problem: the host. So many newsreaders have turned their hands to quiz chairing, and made a decent fist of it, that it's easy to assume any TV journo is somehow automatically equipped to handle a game show. That theory comes somewhat unstuck when you're presented with Nicholas Owen, who really isn't very good at all. His manner is that of a rather staid and condescending BBC children's presenter of the 1950s, and he has no rapport with the contestants - indeed, were host and contestants not occasionally shown in the same shot, you'd think he was recording his bits separately. It doesn't help that he has to go through the rigmarole of introducing the contestants, and ask them whether they've had any run-ins with the law. Please understand that we've got nothing against contestants sharing amusing anecdotes; it's just that hardly anyone on this show has one, and hearing that someone once got pulled over for having a broken indicator just doesn't excite us. (If anyone ever responds to Nicholas Owen's query with an answer along the lines of "Actually no, I've never had a run-in with the law, which is ironic because I still have Shergar's head in the freezer compartment at home" then we might concede that the exercise is worthwhile.)

And so to the quiz. There's a basic on-the-buzzers round about TV whodunnits, a Swapheads-lite round in which contestants are given a TV show to bone up on, an observation round, and another on-the-buzzers round alternating questions about TV detectives with questions about real-life crime and police work. Some questions during the show are illustrated with clips from the Granada archives, which is nice, except that they never seem to show any of the good bits. After all, there's a lot of good stuff in those archives. Shame it's mostly stuff that can't be shown before the watershed.

There's obviously a bias toward ITV programmes, but then it would be naive to expect anything different. The real trouble is that with subject matter like this, it's hard to pitch questions at the right level. Doing it as a quiz for casual fans of the genre, there's one rather huge snag: there just aren't enough reasonably well-known (and interesting) facts to sustain a show like this. You can have the "who played x" and "where was y set" questions, but there's hardly anywhere else to go without demanding arcane specialist knowledge. If they really wanted to find an all-round expert on TV detective shows, then they could ramp up the difficulty accordingly and make a proper contest of it. Instead we have a quiz which veers erratically between ridiculously easy and ridiculously obscure, with precious little middle ground.

The endgame achieves the strange double whammy of being both bizarre and tedious: the winner is shown a clip of some crime-related drama and has to pick out the unknown Equity member who appears, from a selection of six. They do this by eliminating them one by one. The prize money increases for each one they correctly eliminate, until there are only two left, whereupon it suddenly becomes double-or-quits for no apparent reason. Eliminate the wrong person on the second, third, or fourth go, and your prize money is safe. Eliminate them fifth and you lose the lot. Yes, the contestant has the option to quit rather than risk losing it, but it still doesn't feel fair. And if the contestant does quit, then it's a big anti-climax. Normally we'd complain about ITV's intrusive "NEXT" graphic popping up while a quiz is still in full swing, but in this case we welcome it. At least its pretty colours give us something interesting to look at.

It's hard to think of another game show in which just about every single element of the production falls flat. To the problems already mentioned, we'll add the hopelessly unrealistic use of "audience applause" sound effects, a curious scoring system that we couldn't really fathom, but which appears to based on a conversion rate of six points per question (OK, it's hardly a crime - ho ho - but SIX points? Why?), the fact that the commercial break comes in the middle of a round, the ubiquitous premium-rate viewers' question (which, touch-tone phones being considered terribly passe these days, you can only enter by SMS text messaging), and even the fact that the title is just so hackneyed. None disastrous on their own, but together they just compound the will-this-do feel of the whole enterprise. We'll throw a bit of credit in the direction of the researchers responsible for locating five actors who look sufficiently like a sixth, but it's a shame their efforts are squandered on such a boring endgame.

And all this from people who have done truly wonderful things in the past? If we didn't already know, we would never have guessed.


"Fingerprints on your buzzers..."

Key moments

Plenty can go wrong on quiz shows, from hosts being out of their depth to apparently good ideas falling flat on screen, and indeed this show suffered from both of those. But one thing you don't see very often is the actual questions dying a death. So let us give you a blow-by-blow account of a thoroughly cringe-making instance where that happened.

It's the props round. Three props are brought out, one at a time, which in theory should provide clues to a show. The show on this occasion is The Last Detective, a series at the comedy-drama end of the genre, with Peter Davison in the lead role and Sean Hughes as his best friend. It's not monstrously obscure - it ran to seventeen feature-length episodes on ITV1 between 2003 and 2005, so even had the advantage of being fairly recent.

Now, the people who make Watching the Detectives aren't completely useless. The format may be a dud, but at least they can spice it up by bringing in a prop with visual impact. So they bring in a full-grown Newfoundland dog. It's a huge, somewhat lumbering and quite shaggy animal, guaranteed to make an impression. And if you know the programme in question, it's also a dead giveaway. Normally you'd put the giveaway clue last, but since they've gone to the trouble of getting this dog in, they obviously want to make sure that they actually get to use it. So it comes out first. Nicholas Owen introduces the round and announces the first clue, the animal handler brings the dog on, the person in charge of the sound effects presses the button marked "audience (delighted)". Nicholas Owen looks expectantly at the contestants.

Blank looks all round. This clue is just about the biggest giveaway imaginable and nobody has the foggiest idea. If they don't get it from this, then they're not going to get it at all. From this point on, the round is doomed.

Nicholas Owen may not be a great host but he's faced worse than this. Surely. So on he goes. He brings out the second prop. It's a bottle of beer. This is, quite frankly, a terrible clue. Even if it had been the first clue, it would have been a terrible clue - not merely vague (a TV detective who likes a drink? It doesn't exactly narrow the field much, does it?) but downright misleading. Yes, the lead character in The Last Detective drinks beer. But it's not a character trait that would lead one to think of him particularly. There is a regular character in the show who is a heavy drinker, but it's neither the lead nor his sidekick. So the contestants are being asked to identify a programme from a prop that would be associated with the central character in any number of detective shows, but, ironically, not this one. Unsurprisingly, this clue does not help the contestants in the slightest. We already know that none of them know the show in question, so additional clues are just an exercise in flagellating a deceased equine. Even the dog is probably wondering how on earth he got himself involved in this.

Nicholas brings out the third and final clue. It's a DVD of a Doctor Who adventure from the Peter Davison era. It's got a picture of Peter Davison on the front, staring blankly at us. Three contestants stare blankly back. Nicholas gently prods them with the suggestion that they should pay attention to the actor involved. At last one of the contestants buzzes.

"Umm... Campion?"

No points were awarded.


Format by Stephen Leahy, Trish Kinane and Mike Adams.

See also

A more positive Weaver's Week review


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