Weaver's Week 2004-09-25

Weaver's Week Index

25 September 2004

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

Scares on Thursday

This Week will be slightly shorter than normal, as we're busily working away behind the scenes to get the new all-singing all-dancing UKGameshows.com ready for its imminent launch.


SCARY SLEEPOVER (Wised Up Productions for Granada, ITV, 1601 Thursday)
MAD MAD HOUSE (A Smith & Co / USA Networks, SCI-FI channel, 2101 Thursday)

For some reason, Thursday has become something of a home for programmes about the spooky, the supernatural, and things that generally go bump in the night. This week's review looks at two such shows, trying to tell us something we didn't know about ourselves.

The concept behind the children's programme Scary Sleepover is simple. Three children who have never met get to spend the night in a haunted mansion; if they make it through the night, they win a trip to somewhere nice, such as a theme park. If someone gets so scared by the noises off and the challenges, they can press the panic button, but the team loses their prize.

Watching three excitable youngsters sleep for twenty minutes doesn't exactly make for gripping television - though it never exactly stopped BIG BROTHER. The producers therefore give each of the children an individual task to perform. The task is tailored to the contestant's fears, which does rather remind us of FORT BOYARD's tactics. Success means that the group earns a reward, such as a message from home; failure means they, er, don't earn that reward. It's perfectly possible to fail all three challenges, but still win the big prize.

Of course, with children involved, the mansion is not haunted, but is full of special effects and more than a little gloop. After all, where would children's programming be without gloop coming out of the set? We suspect - but have no proof - that the show isn't actually filmed during the night, but during the day, which might help to explain why the show is long on scares, but very short on anyone actually sleeping.

We like the challenges, they often involve finding something in a room full of the things one dislikes. We're not convinced that it's morally right for children to put themselves under this sort of peer pressure, but better this than something clearly damaging. We really dislike the way everyone on the show shrieks at the top of their squeal all the time. Do we get headache tablets for this kind of thing?

Anyway, that brings us to WEAKEST LINK, featuring the woman in black, and eventually to the imported show MAD MAD HOUSE. We don't make a habit of reviewing imported programmes, but the point of having rules is to break them from time to time.

The basic concept here is to take some apparently normal people, put them in a house (not haunted, just very grandiose in a faux-gothic style) with some people who appear different from the norm, and see who can win the favour of the latter group. The "alts" - presumably names for their "alternative"

lifestyles - include a self-proclaimed vampire, a "modern primitive" (his concept's not been explained in any detail), a naturist, a "voodoo" practitioner (who is actually in the ifa tradition - a non-trivial distinction), and an Australian witch. This column's prediction about Amanda Platell was alarmingly close to the mark.

So far, so freak show. Then we look at the contestants, and wonder who exactly is normal here. We've two or three people expressing strong religious convictions, another who clearly models herself on Anne Widdecombe right down to the clothes and the job with the socially-conservative Republican party. As seems to be obligatory on all reality shows, there's an erstwhile exotic dancer, someone at least ten years older than the other participants, and a ranch hand. If they had a certified genius, we'd be making direct comparisons with the cast of the UK's Big Brother 4.

Each episode includes a few challenges for the contestants. One of them will grant the winner immunity from elimination - in the first episode, this challenge involved rummaging in some gloop made to look like blood for trinkets, another involved playing "match the fruit" with people wearing nothing more than loin cloths. Other challenges involve participation in the "alts"' lifestyles and practices. Towards the end of each episode, the hosts discuss each contestant, and decide amongst themselves who should leave. Whomsoever has the most votes goes, the immunity winner will break ties.

Cutting to the quick, the game here is to impress the judges by the way the contestant acknowledges and respects their unusual choice of lifestyle, and is open to challenge themself. Nothing less will work, nothing more is required. The show aims to create mutual respect between the various participants, and to present the different lifestyles as equally valid. By not deliberately provoking the contestants into rows and arguments, there's space on screen for everyone involved to learn more about other people, and hence about themselves. The feeling here is not dissimilar to the one we got from Big Brother 4's unexpected swerve into public service territory.

That said, we're not giving Mad Mad House unqualified praise. Whether it's down to cautious UK editing, or how the programme was distributed, there's a lot of blurring on the image. Most of it is over the parts that naturists show and the rest of the community doesn't, but other blurs appear over people's clothes for no obvious reason. It gets a bit tiresome to watch, especially when we've still got a slight headache from Screaming Screamover.

As is the North American style, there's no voice-off to link the various parts of the show. Instead, the continuity is provided by the participants, which means we have to familiarise ourselves with fifteen voices in a very short space of time. Inevitably, that leads to confusion and a feeling that the directors have to pack in twice as many shots as are necessary for the narrative. On the other hand, a voice-off during the blood gloop game would have come dangerously close to IT'S A KNOCKOUT territory.

More seriously, we're not entirely convinced that the unusual lifestyles are anything more than a gimmick. We're only two episodes in, and this might change over time, but it feels like the vampire especially has been brought in to scare the contestants. They would have had more success with Dobbin the pantomime horse.

Even though we're sometimes left wondering who is "normal" and who is "alternative," not least when the Anne Widdecombe-alike asks "Who are those freaks to judge me?" thus proving she's completely missed the point, we reckon Mad Mad House is worth watching more as entertainment than as a genuine learning experience.

From there, it's a quick Thursday night click to BOGNOR OR BUST featuring the ghoulish Tara Palmertompkinson, QUESTION TIME featuring many politicians, and THE WEEK with Michael Portillo. Sweet dreams.

Established by Papal Bull in 1498, and not finally abolished until 1832, which group, based in Spain, investigated religious orthodoxy, especially amongst groups that had been forcibly converted?


Heat 20/24

Sibyl Ruth is taking the life and works of Wilfred Owen. She starts well, falls into pass hell, but breaks through again late in the round to finish on 7 (4).

Allan Cook tells us about the life and works of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He takes the questions steadily, but well, finishing on 14 (1).

Roy Humphrey offers Unicorns. It's a broad church, moving from Greek mythology to narwals and Harry Potter without effort. He goes very slowly, but moves well across a very wide-ranging subject, finishing on 9 (4).

Ann Leaney has Alexander the Great. She knows a lot about the subject, but these questions are some of the most obscure we've ever seen, finishing on 5 (1).

Ann has some somewhat more straightforward general knowledge questions, and she storms away to 19 (4). Sibyl is less confident in her questions, knows she's not going to win, and rather falls away to finish on 13 (10). She had fun.

Roy has brought a stuffed wombat with him, as one does. He gets this week's Life of Brian question, and finishes on 19 (6).

Allan needs six to win. He gets six of the first seven, and runs up the score to finish on 27 (3).


First round 2/14. York -v- Lancaster

York's last appearance was two years ago, when they lost to Newcastle and Emmanuel Cambridge. Lancaster haven't made the cut since the 1999 series, where they were the first victims of eventual winners Open. The chances of York and Lancaster drawing each other in a random draw are 1/27. Not significant on its own.

Second set of bonuses, up pops the Shakesperian origin of the red and white roses. What are the chances of that, eh? Lancaster has a big lead at the first picture round - types of sword put them up 100-20.

From the department of "do be polite" - Thumper goes on one of his rambles about a telescope, Lancaster accidentally buzzes, gets the question wrong. "I don't know why you're so excited."

That burst of charmlessness doesn't put Lancaster off their stride, advancing to a commanding 170-20 lead after the bonus round on animals in pop music. This isn't going to be close, but Lancaster's sterling performance is making it an entertaining game. The obligatory HERCULES question seems to have vanished from Mastermind, but one on Archimedes' screw is spotted by York. They later get the set of bonuses on biological classifications, which is helpful as they have the one biologist in the studio.

By the second picture round - Name That Shark - York has pulled up to a very respectable 70 points. Lancaster has 205. Matthew Platts gets two starters on netspeak, Lancaster gets the "God does not play dice" question that Allan Cook got on Mastermind not half an hour ago. York makes a very strong run through the final minutes, but doesn't quite do enough. Lancaster wins 250-120, it would be most surprising to see York return in the repechage.

Captain Cherry Canovan headed Lancaster's charge, with 101 points, Alisdair Anderson's 82.4 helped as well. Matthew Platts was York's best buzzer, making 56 points. York made 10/21 bonuses, Lancaster 22/40, and neither side missignalled.

Next: Newcastle -v- University Oxford


Tuning around the dial last Sunday, we chanced into POINTLESS VIEWS, the BBC's "viewer response" programme with Terry Wogan. One of the one million people who actually watched CRISIS COMMAND two weeks ago had written in, to say that when he heard about a massive flood heading to London, he immediately prepared to leave. The viewer was annoyed to learn that this wasn't actual news, but part of a game show. Evidently the fact that it was projected onto a screen and had people walking in front of it weren't clear enough for these viewers; what we need is a small bar scrolling along the bottom saying, "This is not a real news broadcast, it's part of a game show." You don't get this trouble with programmes on BBC4. Mainly because no-one's watching them.

Wynn Jones, a name familiar from Mastermind, appeared in a very close edition of BRAIN OF BRITAIN, with one point separating all four contestants. And heck, you never know when you'll be asked a question about the Spanish Inquisition.

This week's big new show is Channel Five's THE FARM, in which nine minor celebrities are put on a farm in darkest Wiltshire and told to look after some animals. By the end of the week, the animals will be looking after the celebs, mark our words.

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