Weaver's Week 2005-07-17

Weaver's Week Index

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


As easy as 1-2-3 - 17 July 2005

"There's a game show format in that: the All-New Star-Studded $25,000 Sudoku. Not a very good game show format, but it exists all the same." - Chris Dickson, November 2004.

Vorderman's Sudoku Live

(Hanrahan Media for Sky Onc, 1 July)

Sudoku Live. What next? Carol Smillie's Wordsearch? Barry Davis presenting the World Stare-Out Championships? The Noel Edmonds' Live Rubik's Cube Solving ... oh, hang on, we've done that already.

The game itself is very simple. Take a 9x9 grid, subdivided into 3x3 mini-squares. In each row, each column, and each mini-square, insert each of the numbers from 1 to 9 exactly once. There's nothing special about a 9x9 grid, it could be 16x16, or 4x4, or 6x6, or (for fans of games that look harder than they are) 29x29.

There are a number of competing claims to have invented this contest. Leonhard Euler invented the "Latin Squares" puzzle in 1783, without the sub-square restriction. Dell Puzzle Magazines came up with the "Number Place" in the late 1970s. They've been relatively well known amongst advanced puzzlers for some years, and have appeared in many World Puzzle Championships over the years - it's a great puzzle for a competition that tries to be culture-free. But it was in Japan, where the orthography doesn't lend itself to the form of crosswords we know, that the game really took off.

Fast forward to the last months of 2004, and enter Wayne Gould. He's from New Zealand, used to practice law in Hong Kong, and developed a piece of computer software that can generate these puzzles in its sleep. He sold some of these puzzles to British newspaper The Times (prop: R. Murdoch), and they made a relatively quiet debut on 15 November last year.

Over the first few months of this year, sudoku puzzles began to become more widespread. The Guardian claimed that their hand-crafted puzzles were superior to any computer-generated nonsense, the Independent went for quantity over quality, the Mirror signed up Carol Vorderman to promote their puzzle, even the tabloids Sun and Star added one.

They've appeared in all major national newspapers, many regional newspapers, and has spread to India, Australia, Canada, the US, and most recently Germany. (Well, most recent that we've heard of. They've probably turned up in the People's Daily by now.)

The mania for these puzzles has been quite remarkable, and perhaps comparable to the Teletubbies, the Cabbage Patch Dolls, or the yo-yo. Inevitably, they've spawned a spin-off game show. With almost equal inevitability, it's turned up on Sky One (prop: R. Murdoch).

image:Sudoko-live-grid.jpg As a promotion, the producers commissioned this giant grid on a hillside in Wiltshire. Except it wasn't solveable - doh.

Kaye Adams, Helen Lederer, Rowland Rivron, Dave Gorman, Linda Barker, Aldo Zilli, Jakki Brambles, Deborah Stevenson, Richard Blackwood. Just some of the stars who tried to appear intellectual on this show. There's a live puzzle, which has appeared in the Daily Mirror (prop: not R. Murdoch) and our host is after the four numbers that appear in the corners. But the grid as it stands is indeterminate, and (according to various people with big computers, or with more time than sense) has 2,361 possible solutions, or 1,905. A lot, anyway. Home players need to watch the show to complete the grid.

Much of the first act was taken up explaining the basics of the puzzle, talking to the celebs, and showing a filmed report about the phenomenon. The grand total of one number was placed on the grid, out of 61 required.

In the studio, they've managed to find someone called Susan, who liked her friend Mr Doku so much that she married him. Do we have to spell this out? With that, filmed reports from a Vorder-class on the London Eye, and footage of a short timed test they did last week, there are enough clues to solve the entire puzzle.

Each celebrity heads up a team of eight members of the public. A few of them have solved the problem. Heck, even while writing bits of this review, this column has managed to crack the puzzle, and we're not even at the second intermission. Richard Blackwood is just as annoying as he was the last time we saw him.

It's becoming evident that all we're going to get on this show is one puzzle, solved more by divine revelation than by any logical process. The numbers we're being given are useful additional clues, often they help in the parts of the puzzle that are most obscure. Yet there's no step-by-step explanation of how to solve the puzzle, not even a reasoned working out why a certain number goes in a certain place. An opportunity lost, as the sudoku puzzle is perhaps a perfect opportunity to demonstrate deductive logic - taking the clues one already has to form a further conclusion, then using that as a clue to form another conclusion, and so on. Instead, this is sudoku-as-entertainment, not a serious discussion of intellect. Still, this column expects nothing less from R. Murdoch's organs.

How could we have competitive sudoku solving as good television? One could have a bundle of people solving the same puzzle at once, but that doesn't necessarily make very good television. The contestants could be asked to find the contents of a given cell, one that the compiler reckons is one of the last to be solved. Two players could go head-to-head, and enter alternate answers on the same master grid - first wrong answer loses, or whoever takes the least time over their moves wins. Maybe the contestants could record their thoughts on the match as it progresses to be played back in voice-over, just as chess players did on The Master Game back in the early 80s. None of these will be tried at The Independent sudoku championships in London today, as the event will not be televised.

Back at the studio, the game finishes with a call to a home player, someone in the studio winning, and that's it. Rather along the lines of ITV's The Great British Test, the show just peters out to an anti-climactic end. We don't even get to see la Vord rubbish the sort of claims that Phillip "Gopherman" Schofield makes at the end of every Test the Nation.

And finally. If you're still stumped, just remember that, mathematically, we can prove the top line is always 123456789. All you've got to do is change the clues so that it fits...


First round, edition fourteen

James Hart has been swotting up on the Life and Career of Lyndon B Johnson. He starts with a pass, but progresses with speed and alacrity. 12 (4) is a very good score.

Tim Austen offers the Mughal Empire, 1526-1628. It's clear from the first question that this is Indian history; it's almost as swiftly clear than he knows his subject, as the final score of 14 (0) proves.

Derek Moody will talk about I, Claudius. This is the book and old television series, not to be confused with Up Pompeii. The latter was a comedy; this is serious, like Derek's challenge - 18 (0).

Mary Dixon takes the Just William books of Richmal Crompton. We're thankful that the round does not contain any mentions at all of Bonnie Langford, and we're impressed by the 15 (1) score.

James makes the claim for Mr Johnson as one of the most progressive presidents; his round finishes on 17 (11).

Tim mentions how Babar conquered the Indian sub-continent before giving his name to a famous elephant. Mr Austen was the captain of the victorious Somerville Oxford team on University Challenge 2001-2. He does well, but visibly kicks himself for missing some sitters. 25 (1) is the mark.

Mary talks about her website listing pubs and restaurants with disabled facilities. She starts well, but spends some of the round in pass hell, finishing on 21 (6).

Derek says there's a curse around I, Claudius - will it stop him from winning tonight's show. There's a shaky start, but the win is as clear as 29 (1) makes it look.

This week's show must surely lend strength to our argument for some sort of second-chance round. Mr Austen's performance was far better than many of the weekly winners, yet he is eliminated purely for being drawn in a strong heat.

Big Brother 6

Our good friends at TV Cream (we watch Mastermind so they don't have to) pass on the news that Orlaith's former flatmate was Zoe Salmon, the new Irish presenter on Blue Peter. Miss Salmon joins Billie Piper and Alan Clark-Diaries as people tenuously associated with this year's series.

17) Kinga 175 (nc)

16) Doctor 750 (-1)
15) Eugene 819 (+1)
14) Mary 902 (nc)
13) Lesley 1060 (nc)
12) Orlaith 3280 (+3)
11) Roberto 5510 (-2)

10) Sam 7030 (+1)
9) Vanessa 16200 (+1)
8) Derek 17300 (nc)
7) Kemal 42600 (nc)
6) Science 54400 (-2)
5) Craig 60700 (+1)

4) Anthony 108000 (+1)
3) Saskia 110000 (-1)
2) Makosi 178000 (+1)
1) Maxwell 206000 (nc)

News Wrap

The Gambling Commission has already turned its attention to the gratuitously easy questions on television phone in quizzes. You know the sort: In which state is New York? A) Serbotonia B) New York C) Ubber Elpa. Call and win now on 0990 6292508 (calls charged at £2 per second)

The commission, which was only formed under this year's Gambling Act, and won't even begin work proper until 2007, looks set to clamp down on gratuitously simple competition questions on premium rate lines. Instead, it will expect competitions in this way will have to contain an element of skill.

A competition will require a "reasonable belief... that a significant number of potential entrants will be dissuaded from entering because of the level of skill involved." In short, if the question is so obviously simple that everyone who plays gets it right, the contest becomes indistinguishable from a lottery, and will be treated as such. Yep, it'll have to pay 5% of takings in tax, and the suave and attractive host will be replaced by Julian Clary looking like a leprechaun.

Channel 4 hopes that this fate won't befall its new venture, Channel 4 Quiz TV. It'll be run along exactly the same lines as 9 Live, which had a trial broadcast on E4 late last year. We found the show dull to the point of preferring the politics channel, but must note that ITV2, Performance, and Sky Travel have all given over large swathes of airtime to competitions like this.

After finishing work on Big Brother, one might expect the host to take a short break before starting on their next project. Not so for Davina McCall, who will host He's Having a Baby on Saturday night BBC1 and BBC3 from August. The host said, "I really can't wait to do this programme. It's a well known fact I'm evangelical about birth. I'm really looking forward to helping prepare these dads for the best journey of their lives. Men largely get ignored when it comes to pregnancy, birth and becoming a parent, so it's time to give them a helping hand."

The show, which appears to be a competitive version of fatherhood, will feature tasks that might occur during a child's first eighteen years of life. There's how to change a nappy in public, how to stop a tantrum in the supermarket, and how to give a driving lesson. Oh, and a game that should have been copyrighted by Punt and Dennis: how to make a nice hot cup of tea.

You can tell it's the middle of summer, as we're short of highlights for the coming week. A Weakest Link special involving stars of reality television (Jade Goody, John McCririck, Stan Collymore et al) is next Saturday, while tonight sees the entertainment side of ITV reviewed in Melvyn Bragg's series.

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