Weaver's Week 2007-10-14

Weaver's Week Index


Paul Coia's Pleasure

Anyone for fencing?

Image:Countdown vorderman 1982 square.jpg


Yorkshire Television for Channel 4, 2 November 1982

(Repeated More4, 1 October)

Judging by the first edition, it's both easy and difficult to see how Countdown turned into the quintessential Channel 4 programme. The easy bit is the way it embodies a bit of learning, a bit of fun, and a bit of explanation – although Channel 4 never had the mission statement of "educate, entertain, and inform", in 1982, those values ran through the independent sector as well as the BBC.

The difficulty we have is how on earth it managed to survive to a second series, never mind a fifty-second. The opening titles have changed in the years since, and we reckon that the original sequence – a movie-style countdown from 10 to 1, with the show's name appearing at intervals – was more effective than many of its replacements.

The set, however, can be summed up in one word: yuck brown. Judging by the clips from other shows of the era, Channel 4 must have written the colour of the studio into the contract of every programme. Channel 4 News came from a set that was brown and yucky. Union World, a set of distinct yuckiness and clear brownness. Even the seminal disaster Kiddystare was yuck, though that's more to do with the show's comment than its set. But we digress. Countdown had a brown set, and it was atrocious.

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At the left of the set, as the viewer saw it, was host Richard Whiteley. He was younger, had his own hair, and somewhat more serious than we would come to know. On the opening show, he had quite a difficult job: though Countdown is a simple game once you've got accustomed to it, there's a bit of explanation required for newcomers. Not entirely sure that it needed quite as much explanation as Richard gave it, mind.

The two contestants sat in the middle of the set, one either side of the clock. It was a 30-second clock, with those little six-degree sectors that light up, one per second. There were bulbs fitted to 45 seconds, the length they'd used on Calendar Countdown earlier in the year, but only the first two-third would ever light up. There were no other markings on the clock: no quarters, not even little ticks to mark the five second intervals. In front of the contestants were gigantic digital scoreboards, giving the points they'd earned.

To the right of the screen, as we saw it, was the adjudicator. For the opening episodes, this role was filled by Ted Moult, advised by a lexicographer called Mary. We saw her at the start of the show, but all the yay-or-naying was done by Ted. It's been suggested that this was due to the rules of Equity, the actor's trade union, who had ensured that people who appeared on television had to be paid a fee, but people who spoke on television had to be paid a higher fee and appear in the end credits. It's also been suggested that Mary didn't speak purely because there were no dubious words in the opening edition. Ted would give a brief entertainment at the end of part one, and would help Richard to fill in the final seconds of the show.

Image:Countdown square kathy 1982.jpg

Elsewhere in the studio were the letters and numbers board. The letters were yellow on light grey, and were written in a rather fancy typeface. It was, perhaps, a little difficult to tell the "E" apart from the "F". These letters were put on the board by Kathy Hytner, a lady with a flower in her hair, who would announce each letter as she drew it. The "consonant" and "vowel" boxes weren't labelled, which is strange. Stranger still is the appearance of Beverley Isherwood, who would pick the numbers from the board (a curious 4-6-7-6 arrangement, giving only 19 small numbers) and put them up. The numbers were announced by Richard Whiteley, an entirely curious arrangement, and one that suggested one of the hostesses was going to be replaced very soon. Carol Vorderman was on hand, and she very carefully explained exactly what she was doing in both numbers games. The final round was the Countdown... anagram, which rolls off the tongue like a pile of sticky toffee rolls off a flat table.

In total, the show was somewhat underwhelming. The game stopped for so many explanations that it didn't properly get going, and it felt somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the greatest contribution to this flat feeling was the lack of response from the audience. Richard made some of his trademark puns during the contestant introductions, and called Carol the "vital statistician", but the audience just sat there glumly. Not a titter, not a snigger. It's as if the show had been recorded in front of the contestants' guests and no-one else. Not even Ted Moult's entertainment could rouse them from their slumbers. In fairness, every Countdown book has recalled how recording the opening editions was like pulling teeth, it took more than a day in the studio to tease out the 23 minutes we saw. It's no wonder the audience was a bit grumpy, hearing the bad puns for the umpteenth time.

Somewhere in the mid-1980s, there was a small but crucial change to the countdown music. Rather than ending, "da-da, da-da, diddle-de-de", it ended, "da-da, da-da, diddle-de-de. Doo!" It's just one little note to signify exactly when 30 seconds are up, but perhaps the most significant absence from the first show.

But there was a certain something there. Ted Moult had done this show before, and had he had more than about a minute, would have started to entertain. His replacement from episode 7, Kenneth Williams, certainly knew how to play a moribund crowd who had just been listening to Clement Freud. Reduce the slight over-staffing, allow the lexicographer to share their knowledge with the rest of the audience, tease out the feeling that watching Countdown is like belonging to a club with a slightly balding smoothie trying and failing to keep control. The elements are all there.

The greatest element, though, was present from the start. It is impossible to just sit and watch Countdown. If you're not doing something else entirely, you're watching and playing the game. Passive viewing is not going to happen, Countdown (and Des Chiffres et des Lettres) designs it out entirely. With that, and with the time that Channel 4 and Yorkshire Television had, success was assured. The various Countdown books explain how the producers almost ran out of faith, and it's a mercy that they didn't.

Ofcom's Inquiry Into Children's Television

As we briefly mentioned last week, OFCOM published a report into the decline of UK-produced children's television. The facts haven't particularly changed since this column looked into the area last year.

Only the BBC makes new shows, and then only for pre-school and primary school children. ITV and Channel 5 have given up, and the satellite channels rely on cheap imports that can never reflect British life as well as home-made shows. Even when there are British shows, they're often made with at least half an eye to the export market, often making them much more international than British. It's almost a textbook definition of a market failure, and the BBC cannot compensate for the many shortcomings of the commercial sector.

OFCOM has failed in its subsidiary task of joined-up thinking: after banning much food advertising during children's programmes, it's hardly surprising that the amount of revenue received from those commercial breaks has fallen. In turn, that's led to a reduction in budgets. The ban on advertising foods high in fat, sugar, or salt was based entirely on prejudices, and addressed a symptom, not the root cause.

OFCOM proposes five solutions to the problem it has created:

  1. Let the market run its course. This would, effectively, leave the BBC as the monopoly provider of children's television.
  2. Quotas on broadcasters. This could be a return to the heavier regulation of the IBA, but would more probably involve a levy on advertising in shows attractive to children, then production companies competing for the funds. Such funding strikes us as a messy solution.
  3. Tax incentives would be easy to implement, but only address the symptoms, not the underlying problems.
  4. Extending the remit of existing public service broadcasters. We're not entirely sure what this approach would entail, even after reading OFCOM's document.
  5. Create a new institution, funded, with commissioning powers. The Children's Broadcasting Commission (a name we've just made up) would make shows and either sell them to other channels, or have a block of time on one of the channels.

Tax breaks could suffice to keep the industry ticking over until a ChBC could be set up. Fundamentally, there is a tension between the light-touch regulation that has been favoured by governments for the past twenty years, and the protection required by British culture. It's perhaps the first time that OFCOM – and its immediate predecessor organisations, the BSC and ITC – have had to think about what is quality television.

From Crackerjack to Trapped, game shows are an integral part of children's programming. Lose the youngsters, and we risk losing older viewers; that's the view of pressure group Save Kids TV, who have set up a petition for Downing Street.


Heat 14

Last week's Sunday Telegraph reported that the BBC is to place adverts in women's magazines encouraging the readers to apply for this programme. John Humphrys is quoted as saying, "It's odd. Women used to do better and there used to be more female contestants. It was the norm for women to do better than men. Then something changed. I'm not sure what."

Gerry Waldron tackles Irish History 1916-23. This was the era of great political turmoil in Ireland, the era of independence for the south. The contender has researched well. His score: 14 (2).

Next up is Rachel Hobbs, and she's taking Iron Maiden. This isn't a reference to Mrs. Thatcher, but a rock group formed in 1976 and still going. The round is rather heavily skewed towards the group's earlier works, but we're not going to argue with a score of 16 (3).

Robin Healey has the Life and Works of John Piper. The subject was an artist and designer, active in the middle of the twentieth century; amongst his works are windows in Coventry and Liverpool Cathedrals. It's a good round, 11 (2)

Magnus Moodie will discuss The World War series of novels by Harry Turtledove. In these books, the 1939-45 war is rudely interrupted by an invading force of aliens. They might have waited for us to stop blowing ourselves up before they started blowing us up. The round stutters a little, finishing on 12 (1).

Mr. Healey recalls John Piper's relationship with John Betjemen, and has toured the land while researching his appearance here. His round starts well, but has the misfortune to get a rubbish question about the Humber Estuary and the Wolds, and finishes on 21 (5).

Mr. Moodie discusses his job, in commercial property. He's from Scotland, and has the misfortune to get a question on English Heritage. It's a confident round, ending on a question about Monty Python, and finishing on 22 (5).

Mr. Waldron appeared on The Weakest Link last year, the only one of this week's contestant to have a game show career in INFAX. He also discusses his work, as an epidemiologist, before delivering an epidemic of correct answers, taking his score to 26 (2).

Rachel Hobbs is a female contender, and that's perhaps more remarkable than her appreciation for a great literary band, responsible for the UK's second-favourite number one single (according to a 2005 poll on Radio 1) and whose singer is a champion fencer. With swords. Eleven required to win, and though it starts with a sitter (plots of Neighbours), the round finishes on 25 (9). Six passes killed it.

A piece in Monday's Media Guardian intimated that John Humphrys believes women triumph in general knowledge, but men do better in specialist topics. Is his observation based in fact? We have records of every round in the BBC TV revival, and will take advantage of next week's break for snooker to examine his claim.

University Challenge

First round, 14/14: Christ Church Oxford v Homerton Cambridge

Second year running we've had an Oxbridge match to end the first round. Last series, the corresponding episode aired three weeks before Christmas; this year, it's going out before the leaves fall off the trees. Christ Church gets the first bonus set, including a question asserting a resemblance between Andrew Marr and Vladimir Putin. Homerton have the dubious assistance of Thumper reading out chunks of Chaucer. Christ Church get Thumper discussing forces in particle physics with no attempt to pretend he knows what he's on about. The first visual round is Name That Euro. Christ Church's lead is 90-15, and we'll take Payment Demand of the Week.

Q: A state park in Wyoming, the dam around which it was developed, and a National Football League side based in New York State all take their names from the nickname of which 19th-century-born Iowa scout, guide...
Max Kaufman, CCO: Buffalo Bill

Homerton's first buzz in forever is on a cute definition of biography. Christ Church responds with the definition of "intelligent falling" by Philip Guedalla; it's not quite the half-way mark, but Christ Church needs only 25 points to come back. The audio round is on modern music, and Christ Church's lead is 125-45. That brings us to Sneer of the Week:

Q: Hedera helix, Viscum album, and Ilex aquifolium are the botanical names of three plants, cuttings of which are traditionally on sale in the weeks leading up to which festival?
Homerton, Andrew Blackburn: Palm Sunday.
Thumper: Oh dear.
CCO, Kaufman: Christmas

They're only sneery if you know the answers! Christ Church moves to 150 early in the third stanza, but doesn't pick up the Utterly Obscure Classical In-Joke of the Week: John de Mol's short-lived television channel Talpa, named after his own surname. The second visual round is our Hidden Transmission Indicator of the Week, reviewing RIBA Buildings of the Year; this year's award was made just last Saturday to the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach. CCO's lead is up to 195-65, and everyone has at least one starter correct.

Repechage Results:

  • Lancaster 185
  • Liverpool 165
  • Magdalen Oxford 160
  • Birmingham 145

Five minutes to play, we know that the Oxford side has won, and it doesn't look like Homerton will take the points needed to push Birmingham out of the repechage places. There's a Zig-Zag of the Week, where Homerton buzzes with "Upstream" where the answer is "Downstream"; there a question where contestants are invited to connect a pepper to the first two letters of "knapsack"; and a chemist claims the queen of sciences is chemistry. It's all getting a bit silly, and Christ Church emerges as winners, 245-65.

Charles Markland came out as Christ Church Oxford's best buzzer, seven correct starters. The team had 23/42 bonuses correct, and two missignals. Kwasi Agyli-Owusu was the only Homerton player to get two starters; the side was 5/15 on bonuses, and also had two missignals.

Next match: Lancaster v Birmingham

This Week And Next

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It's only October, but the competition for next year's Eurovision Song Contest has already begun: Iceland held her semi-finals last week-end, and Albania is not far behind. There will be a different structure to next year's contest in Belgrade, as only the Serbian entry and those of the Big 4 are guaranteed places in the final. The remaining entries – about 42 of them – will be divided at random into two semi-finals, each providing nine entries via the traditional televote. A tenth spot will be allocated on the basis of each country's back-up votes. Countries will only be able to vote in the semi-final they're competing in, and we must assume that the BBC will be showing neither programme. It's not immediately clear how the EBU proposes to handle the voting in Saturday's grand final, as that has been even worse viewing than your average Czech entry.

OFCOM's fortnightly Moaning Minnies report has lots of criticism for television and radio game shows. BRMB was censured for describing a meal for two in a Greek restaurant with a big screen TV as "a trip to Athens to see the Champions League final". It's not so much that "Athens" was the name of the restaurant as the way Birmingham's station failed to make this clear. Real Radio Scotland was slapped on the wrists for not making it clear when a premium-rate SMS competition closed. EMAP was warned after it failed to make clear that one of its promotions was taking place across many stations, not just one.

A year-old complaint about a How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up call-and-lose opportunity on FTN was upheld, as the answer to "eight times ten minus thirty plus sixteen" (2505, obviously) was mistakenly listed as 2456, after the broadcaster had used 60 rather than 16 for some of the sums. EMAP confessed to obscuring coins in a Count The Money puzzle; its confession to defacing the coin of the realm falls outside OFCOM's remit.

A second series of the mis-spelled Cirque de Celebrité (sic) has begun, still without the needed accents above the other two Es in the final word. The programme, made by Staines Kingston and Yeading Broadcasting for broadcast on its local channel for west London, fell victim to an 0898-gate cock-up. Some calls were made before the announced cut-off, were not counted, but were charged. SKY's programming is so derivative that it can't even come up with its own gaffes!

Leafing through this week's edition of "Broadcast" magazine (we buy it for the pictures of remote controls on page 3, don't you know...) we read some good news for fans of bodging. Though the press copy of a speech given by Channel 4's chief exec said that Scrapheap Challenge would be thrown on itself, the actual spoken words didn't say it was ending. We are informed that the future of Scrapheap – which has one-and-a-half series in the can yet to air – remains undecided at this time. Has Cathy Rogers got two teams of three television people, hoping to construct a working format out of bits of old shows they find lying around?

Ratings for the last week of September showed X Factor still ruling the roost, with 7.1m viewers for Saturday's show. Antan Dec had 6.55m, and In It to Win It took third place with 5.15m. The Come Dancing preview took 4.85m, and Millionaire 3.75m. University Challenge tied with Nigella Express as BBC2's most popular show, 2.95m tuned in. QI had 2.8m, Mock the Week, Eggheads, Link, and The Restaurant all had more than 2m, and Mastermind had its best of the year, 1.9m. Deal had 2.2m.

On the digital channels, Sunday night X Factor repeats on ITV2 were the most popular game show, seen by 1.13m. QI on BBC4 (650,000) beat first-run Xtra Factor (615,000). Hell's Kitchen USA (550,000) outranked Come Dine With Me (370,000), and CBBC's Beat the Boss and UK Gold's Dancing with the Stars (both 250,000) were more popular than More4's Deal or No Deal (210,000).

If you're quick, you'll be able to see Torvill and Dean host a Dancing on Ice gala (ITV, 1pm Sunday). New programmes for UKTV Dave include the British version of Whose Line is it Anyway? (2pm and 7pm weekdays) and The Apprentice (9pm Thursday). Dragons' Den begins a new run on BBC2 (9pm Monday), followed on Tuesday by Classical Star (BBC2, 9pm). Dirty Rotten Cheater comes to daytime television (BBC1, 2.35 weekdays; check regional variations).

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