Weaver's Week 2007-07-22

Weaver's Week Index

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


Sorcery Today

"There's a rooster on my shoulder!"

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Twenty Twenty Productions for BBC1, BBC2, and CBBC, 9-20 July

Fourteen youngsters - seven young gentlemen, seven young ladies - are whisked off to Clayesmore Manor school in Dorset to learn how to perform magic tricks. At the end of the two-week course, the best sorceree will be named the winner, and apprenticed to The Sorcerer.


Rail replacement services were provided

As the more astute readers may have noticed, there is a certain cultural paradigm about the education of young magic users. It should be carried out at a boarding school, where the youngsters will live apart from their parents and guardians. Transport to and from the school will be provided by a conveyance - in this case, a bus - that is older than the person driving it. Lessons should be conducted in oak-panelled rooms, with students dressed in very formal uniforms, paying careful attention to their mentors. Any resemblance between the appearance of this programme and he-who-shall-have-a-cameo-in-the-opening-episode-and-then-not-be-mentioned-even-implicitly is one of those crazy coincidences that just happen in televisionland. And so is the timing.

If we're going to take this as a straightforward magic contest, it's not particularly promising. Many of the youngsters show some talent, some showed a lot of promise, but it would be too much of a stretch to make almost ten hours out of their work.

However, there are other people at hand to share the workload. Miss Evans and Mr. Knight, the teachers of magical tricks, explain the skills that the contestants need to master, and show exemplary patience while their charges learn these talents. Miss Ford, a sour-faced housemistress, ensures that everything in the dormitories is ship-shape. Also on the staff are Mr. Greenhaus, a teacher of the magical arts - stagecraft, patter, movement, that sort of thing - and Dr. Shidlow, the chemistry master. But the show is stolen by Maximillian Somerset III, The Sorcerer. He's a larger-than-life character who made his entrance with a cockatoo on his shoulder, and smashed up the students' mobile telephones before they'd even passed through the front door. Though flamboyant, The Sorcerer - like all the adult characters - is able to show a softer side where it is called for.

Each television programme includes a magic show for the sorcerees, usually from a visiting magician who will (it is hoped) inspire and educate while also entertaining. And, of course, the youngsters must perform their magic, initially before their tutors, latterly in front of their family, friends, and an unrelated audience. Following the show through its two weeks enabled viewers to see young people develop, to explore aspects of themselves that they had never considered before.

The school's motto is of dedication, discipline, and detail. For some contestants, this was a greater challenge than the magic. Some of the boys were unable to control themselves while in the academy, leaping about the bedroom and answering back to the staff. Making amends cost them rehearsal time, and that impeded their progress through the contest. Slightly quieter, more studious types profited, but a certain exhibitionist streak was required of the winner. Though each trod similar ground to the last, no two shows were the same. There was a cycle to the programmes - learning, then rehearsal, then performance - but this structure was never allowed to become repetitive.


Mr. Sorcerer, sir

Over recent years, CBBC has developed a knack of making high-profile reality shows - footage from taking a dozen children on trips to the Andes, Arctic, and Amazon rivers has been made into the Serious series of programmes. That's the style they've used on Sorcerer's Apprentice, the presenter is with the action, able to talk to the participants immediately before and after the main event, but isn't seen to be part of the storyline. Barney Harwood is one of the most experienced presenters with CBBC, and he does a fine job of setting the scene, then melting into the background. Watch this man, he's going places.

Also going is the very dodgy moustache that Mr. Heywood sported for the first two episodes, and that brings us to the editorial novelty of the show. The main programme, telling the narrative story, went out at 5pm each weekday. There was a second show, rather lazily entitled The Sorcerer's Apprentice Extra, which went out at 8am the following morning. Unlike every other reality show in modern history, from Big Brother onwards, the Extra show had footage of the main competition that wasn't seen in the main programme. We're not just thinking of extra practice footage, or even an explanation of how a certain trick was done. No, the additional footage told of important events. For instance, in the first programme, three of the boys were misbehaving, and their punishment was to stand against the door and not watch The Sorcerer's show. This event was clearly important to the development of their characters, yet wasn't shown or even mentioned on the 5pm programme.

The second show had the usual extra interviews, a demonstration of the magic to be taught in the next show, and a competition between Miss Evans and Mr. Knight. It was in the production and disappearance round that Mr. Heywood's moustache vanished, and we just wonder how many other viewers noticed it had gone. Or, indeed, that it was there in the first place. The re-growth of his facial hair was a very subtle joke for regular viewers of both shows.

Overall, we're rather pleased with The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Yes, the show was derivative. Not from Sahlan Sugar's The Apprentice, but from an existing idea of what a school for sorcerers should be like. Paying a light nod to he-who-shall-have-a-cameo-in-the-opening-episode-and-then-not-be-mentioned-even-implicitly was a creative short-cut, one that the audience would be aware of in generality if not detail, and one that allowed the producers to concentrate their energy on making quality television. The competition was so intense that some of the competitors might have stopped having fun, but the programme rolled along at a cracking pace, and the grown-ups (three parts genuine educators to one part cartoon characters) added a welcome zest to the show. And, at ten episodes, the show had a clearly-defined beginning, an uplifting end, and wasn't so long as to be daunting.


Heat 2/24

We should have recognised last week's contestant John Burke from the Open University's 1999 winning side on UC; and divined through the informality of the show that it was Miss Susan Sworn. Apologies to anyone who wants one.

John Rook will take French Political History, 1815-1914. His first question is about the person who re-built Paris in the 19th century, a M. Hausmann of a famous £500,000 question. Mr. Humphrys' French accent is clear, but we've spent so long watching TV5 that any British attempt (including our own) sounds silly. 13 (2 passes) is a good score.

David Love will discuss the Life and Works of Gustav Holst. Writing in The Independent this week, Miles Kington mentioned how Radio 3's jazz programme always puts in a New Orleans classic about two records into the show, so that fans of that style (who dislike anything else) can take their signal to leave. Second question here is the obligatory Planets one. Mr. Love gets that answer correct, and many others, finishing on 15 (0)

Alastair Finch has been studying the Films of Harrison Ford. His final answer is "Heroes", which (surprisingly) isn't a plug for the show starting next week on BBC2. He also ends on 15 (0).

Anne Thomson Knox has the Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Only three of the questions are about her life after meeting Mr. Kennedy, and Mrs Thomson Knox benefits from having a question start after the buzzer. Her final score: 16 (1).

Mr. Rook is first to face the general knowledge round. We have a conversation, so there won't be a play-off. He suggests that there was a tendency to violence in France; plus ça change. Mr. Rook fell in the first round in 1988, taking European History 1815-1914. One of his questions is about the College Bowl Boat Race, between Yale and Harvard; the latter leads the series 88 to 54. His final score is 24 (4).

Mr. Love says that Mr. Holst was a three-hit wonder at his death, which still makes him amongst the most successful British composers. A David Love appeared in the show on 22 March 2005, taking the Presocratics; we do not recall if this may be the same gentleman. He has a good think to find the correct answer "Saltpetre", taking him to 24 (1). It was a worthwhile think.

Dr. Finch has been with us twice before; a first round match in 1988 (Cary Grant) and 21 June 2004 (RMS Titanic). We're rather pleased to learn that Bristol Temple Meads is a Grade I listed building, and wish that Birmingham New Street were good enough to be listed as anything other than a magnet for wrecking balls. His final score is certainly good enough, 26 (0).

Mrs. Thomson Knox reminds us that Frank Sinatra nicknamed her "America's Queen", setting up Mrs. Kennedy Onassis for a fall. It appears that Mrs. Thomson Knox is making her first appearance on this show. She asks for a question to be repeated, and then errs - that'll cost a lot of time. Her round rather falls apart after that, ending on 23 (2).

University Challenge

Heat 2: SOAS v Magdalen Oxford

The School of Oriental and African Studies has sent the first student studying Nepali that we can remember; Magdalen will be hoping to repeat the combination of talent and luck that gave them titles in 97, 98, and 2004. Thumper suggests that the easiest way to work out VAT without a calculator is to take seven-fortieths. We reckon it's simpler to take 10%, halve it, halve it again, and add up. Which probably explains why we're writing these reviews, and young Thumper is presenting the shows.

Magdalen has started the show, more than SOAS has done; at the first visual round, on self-portraits, Magdalen has a lead of 80-0. Which brings us to High Culture Moment Of The Week:

Q: In the Simpsons version of Cluedo, a necklace and a slingshot are among the murder weapons. Name any one of the other four weapons.
Magdalen, Charlie Partridge: A skateboard.
Thumper: No..
SOAS look blank.
Thumper: It's a rod of plutonium, a saxophone, a poisoned doughnut, and the extendo-glove.

Eat our knickerbockers. Magdalen's Daniel Sinnot buzzes in on a question about the geography of Dublin. Far better we have a "where do you come from" question in a show that's almost won already - Magdalen's lead is in three figures and we're only ten minutes in - than in a tight semi-final. It always helps to listen to the question.

Q: Viewed by the cynical as evidence that nearly four out of five men are liars, what percentage of men admitted to being distracted from work by "adult entertainment websites"?
SOAS: 30?
Thumper: No, the answer was there - 20%.

The audio round is on winners of the Mercury Music Prize, perhaps the only time Dizzee Rascal will rub shoulders with classic painters. Magdalen's lead is 135-20. SOAS is able to complete the sequence that was once retro-initialised as Quiz Shows, Web links, E-mail, Radio & TV, Triv or Tosh?, Yak-bak, UK-GSL, Infoburst, Odds & Ends, Puzzles. Whatever happened to those, eh?

Quietly, very quietly, SOAS is pulling back. It's all thanks to the buzzes of Joe Perry, the other members of the team might want to have their buzzers checked. By the second round - on the flags of the Commonwealth, SOAS has pulled the deficit back to 145-100. Quite why Thumper was surprised that an avowedly international university should know its flags is itself a surprise.

Q: Within the chamber of the House of Commons, uniformed attendants who are not police officers but...
Magdalen, John Wright: Sergeants at arms.
Q: ...but who are responsible for ordering the public and press galleries are known by what two-word name?
A pause.
SOAS, Ben White: Men in tights?
Thumper: How many words is that?

We take it all back. Badge messengers, the rather tedious answer. SOAS come within a shout of tying the game, but misses three bonuses on national parks. The next starter and bonuses are more to their liking, and with less than two minutes to play, the game is tied. Magdalen gets the starter, forgets that the metre was defined so that 40 million of them encircle the earth, but can use that information to work out the planet's surface area. SOAS gets the next starter, all three bonuses, take the lead, and - by golly! - they've pulled off the most improbable win, 165-160.

Captain Joe Perry buzzed best for SOAS, eight starters and the team's one missignal. They went 14/24 on bonus questions. For Magdalen, Daniel Sinnot had five correct starters and two of the side's three missignals, they made 15/24 bonuses.

Next match: Leeds v Liverpool

This Week And Next

Over at Bother's Bar, Gentleman Lotsa Question has been holding up the microphone to Tim Child, the creative genius behind Knightmare and Time Busters.

OFCOM's director of observing the blindingly obvious has observed that broadcasters are increasingly blasé about premium-rate telephone calls. "Phoning a TV show isn't like ordering pizza. When you put the phone down nothing arrives: you just have to trust that your call was counted," said Richard Ayre.

He's found many breaches of procedures relating to premium-rate services, and said that broadcasters were "in denial" about the abysmal state of the market. He had particular criticism for the BBC's Any Dream Will Do programme. "Viewers were informed of premium-rate numbers to call long before the lines would register their votes, and that during each programme there was a period when the lines were 'frozen', callers being warned in both voice and caption that if they called in they would be charged but their votes would not be counted,"

The proposals - and OFCOM has said that it accepts the broad idea - include a clear statement in each broadcaster's license that it is responsible for the use of premium-rate contact. If this means that there is clarity over whose knuckles get rapped - an OFCOM investigation superseding those by ICSTIS and the Gambling Commission - we can see the benefits. Should the current triple-jeopardy rule remain, this would be window dressing. A full report is due by the end of the summer.

In an unrelated development, the BBC found that the Brainteaser stunt - of faked winners - had happened on Comic Relief, Sport Relief, Children in Need, children's show TMI, and programmes on 6 Music and the World Service. Of these, two cause particular concern - the Liz Kershaw show on 6 Music had deliberately faked a "live" phone-in element on a recorded show, and Sport Relief had ignored warnings that their contest could not be run. The director general Mark Byford ordered that all phone-in contests be taken off air. Telephone voting - the subject of OFCOM's criticism - will continue, but Popmaster has been taken off air as though it were the worst thing to happen to Radio 2 since the invention of Steve Wright.

Viewing figures for the week to 8 July, as compiled by BARB. Finding the game shows on BBC1 need not detain us - the regular Saturday night set was abandoned in favour of a charity concert that no-one watched, and BBC2 can only offer Old News (Mon, 1.95m) and Old Buzzcocks (Wed, 1.5m). The field was open for ITV to shoot home a fantastic Saturday night stunner, but they had Sing It Back: Lyric Champion 2007, propping up the channel's top 30 with 3.4m. We'll be reviewing it next week. So 4.6m for Big Brother takes it to the head of the game show class, with 8 out of 10 Cats securing 3.35m and third place overall. Deal had 2.5m, and BB On The Couch 1.95m.

On the digital networks, America's Got Talent rules the roost with 760,000. BB Little Brother sneaks ahead of Big Mouth by 2000 viewers in 450,000. Deal on More4 secured 195,000 viewers, as Come Dine With Me succumbed to the tennis finals. Data for Challenge has not been released.

Only one new series of note this week, La Carte aux Tresors begins on TV5 (5.30 Wednesday). There's another chance to miss Shipwrecked (C4, weekdays at 11am), beginning with the episode C4 said would never be repeated.

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