Weaver's Week 2002-01-05

Weaver's Week Index

5th January 2002

Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.

Happy new year from Weaver Towers!


Chatsworth Productions for Thames Television and the ITV Network, 1989.

The production credits tell you that this is not a new show. This is not a show that's still in production. This is, sadly, not a show that's likely to be in production any time soon. But it's the first time these episodes have aired since their original transmission, and they are about due a review.

The format is not simple. Host Annabel Croft introduces two contestants, chats for a bit, and gives them each a backpack. One contains £1000 in cash; the other is empty, and it's not possible to tell which is which. The contestants are blindfolded and dropped by helicopter somewhere in open country. They can talk to each other, and to Annabel who is located somewhere between the two.

Each contestant has to first explain their position to Annabel; she will then help them to find a key that will be used to open the other case. Retrieving that key entails some form of physical challenge - it wouldn't make good television just to have the key hanging on a hook on a gate, so they're hidden in a bee hive or at the centre of a maze. The contestants must get the keys, close a gap of about 8 miles, and physically touch each other within 40 minutes to be allowed to open the cases and win the game.

Still with me? Good. This is where it gets complicated. Flitting in a helicopter between the two contestants is the Interceptor, who is able to fire an infra-red beam. Each of the backpacks has some sensors: if the beam hits those sensors, the case will lock and cannot be opened. If that case contained the money, it's lost. Unlike Annabel, Interceptor knows the starting points, but isn't able to intercept the communications between the players; he doesn't know the location of the keys, either. I have a suspicion that, like the Devil of legend, Interceptor wasn't allowed to cross running water while on the ground, but this may be wrong.

When written down, this sounds horrendously complex. In practice, it actually flows quite smoothly. The show's excitement and suspense comes from the triple jeopardy that the contestants are in: they need to meet up, they need to act quickly, and they need to avoid coming close to Interceptor. These three aims tend to pull in different directions.

There are a couple of fixes from the production staff that may not be apparent to the casual viewer. Annabel tells the contestants that transport is provided, so while it may look like the contestants can pick any way to get from start to finish via key, their route is carefully plotted by the producers. By and large, the transport tends to be in open-topped vehicles, allowing a clear shot for Interceptor. This also allows the producers to control the timing of the contestants' progress, ensuring that Interceptor can be at both key challenges, then make his way to the meeting.

Unlike Chatsworth's previous commission, TREASURE HUNT, and their subsequent THE CRYSTAL MAZE - both of which ran for six years - this was for the main commercial channel ITV, not its esoteric sibling Channel 4. Interceptor owed a lot to Treasure Hunt - the race against time and the use of helicopters was a straight lift. Most of the crew had worked on Treasure Hunt, and many of the new crew to Interceptor would go on to feature in the credits of The Crystal Maze. There was also some wonderful comic interplay between Interceptor and his pilot Mikey (Michael Malric-Smith, of the Treasure Hunt communications helicopter.) The music was another remarkably appropriate Zack Lawrence piece, based very loosely on some Chopin piano figures.

Back in 1989, viewers were not expecting to find such an evil character as Interceptor on their screens, telling contestants that they were useless. Sean O'Kane, who played the title role, didn't so much have a catchphrase as a trademark high-pitched squeal of delight. He also dressed from head to foot in black, including a long flowing cape. Clearly an inspiration for Anne Robinson's costume in THE WEAKEST LINK.

Which brings us neatly to Annabel Croft. She had replaced the pregnant Anneka Rice for the last series of Treasure Hunt, and was very much a jolly hockey sticks kind of girl, the sort who would glow, not perspire. Though she was a competent host, she didn't have the charisma needed to counterbalance the towering figure of Interceptor. With the contestants changing each week, and many seemingly plucked from the fraidy-cat school of fear, the balance of the show was about ten years ahead of its time.

The ratings weren't brilliant, but - as the failure of SURVIVOR this summer showed - people don't watch so much television in high summer. However, the main factor that did for Interceptor was the Broadcasting Act of 1990. This imposed a new regulatory structure on the regional ITV companies, including a stringent quality threshold for applicants. In this light, the ITV companies felt a requirement to produce clearly intellectual programming, at the expense of "popularist" action-adventure shows. Such as Interceptor.

It's worth noting that Thames Television lost its weekday London franchise to Carlton Communications following the Broadcasting Act; and that once the franchises were awarded, ITV commissioned its version of GLADIATORS, a popularist action show if ever there was one.

Could Interceptor work again today? Quite possibly. The amount played for would need to increase: economic inflation alone would double the prize to £2000, and game show inflation would make £10,000 a good amount to play for. Dave McBride, SAS officer turned WANTED! tracker, is a possibility to play Interceptor, while someone like Ian Wright (FRIENDS LIKE THESE) would have the minor gravitas that Annabel lacked to guide the contestants round.

Technology could enable the game to be played live, but I think that would be a mistake; the quality of four separate feeds (two contestants, one Interceptor, one host) could not be guaranteed, and if the final meeting were to take place in a poor communications area - or merely under a bridge - the show is ruined. It would be possible to use split screens and picture-in-picture effects - these were not used in the 1989 original, which relied on visual cuts and the action not following the soundtrack.

Without a broadcaster willing to commit to this risky project, such plans will remain pipe dreams. Interceptor continues at 9am weekend mornings on Challenge TV.


MILLIONAIRE has 30 minute episodes nightly till Tuesday (8 Su, 8:30 Mo, 8 Tu)

In Monday's WEAKEST LINK, Annie Meets the Redheads. All the contestants are also copper tops. Mo 5:15 BBC2, regular episodes through the week. There's also a WL Primetime at 8pm We. Fr sees comedians trying to raise a smile from the host.

The smart alec in COUNTDOWN's dictionary corner is Monty Don.

Looks like ITV's slate of daytime game shows have all bitten the dust: THE BIGGEST GAME IN TOWN ran out of game last year, WHEEL OF FORTUNE has gone, and now THE PEOPLE VERSUS is replaced by a docusoap about planes. You do get repeats of CATCHPHRASE at 5:30 Fr. BBC1 has repeats of WIPEOUT at noon from Tuesday.

Radio fans may wish to note ROUND BRITAIN QUIZ 1:30 Mo and 11 Sa; JUST A MINUTE 6:30 Mo and 12:04 Su; and the much-awaited return of PUZZLE PANEL 1:30 We. All on Radio 4 - www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/

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