Weaver's Week 2007-12-02

Weaver's Week Index


Not By Strength, By Guile

This week, an undergraduate at Birmingham University proved that the two state, three colour Turing Machine can solve any problem. Undergraduates at Oxford spent their week having a bit of a riot. More on that machine.

Who Dares Wins

12 Yard for BBC1, 8pm Saturday

Image:Square 12 Yard.jpg

The basic premise of this programme is to make lists. Lists of classical composers called Franz. Lists of synonyms for ships tilting. Lists of things to get while shopping. Lists of basic BASIC computer commands. Lists of equipment used by cobblers – oh no, that's lasts.

Ahem. Teams of two take part in this game. The teams haven't applied together, indeed, we're told that they don't meet until they reach the studio. Whether they have a few minutes to get to know each other before the game proper starts is something we don't know. The couples enter by walking on from opposite wings, almost meeting on the studio floor, then ascending a flight of stairs before reversing to finally meet by the host's desk. It's a piece of high theatrics, lengthening the tension without making it look like they're dragging it out. It's also the best single thing in the game.

After meeting, the team goes into one of two soundproof pods, and both pairs are told the subject of the first list. Most of the lists are on a wide variety of popular culture subjects – in the opening weeks, we've had top 40 hits for Madonna, Carry On films, top 40 hits for Michael Jackson, films starring Tom Hanks, and top 40 hits for Elvis Presley. Neither side is told how many possible answers there are in the list; at this stage, there are generally 30 or more valid responses.

The challengers bid first, and discuss amongst themselves how many correct answers they can give. The host relays their decision – but not their reasoning – to the champions, who can then name a higher number, or invite their opponents to start giving answers. Eventually, of course, one side will begin to give answers, and will continue giving answers until they've matched their bid, or they've given something that isn't on the list. The answering phase is reasonably predictable, the host will try to ramp up the tension while answers are given, but though there have been errors, there hasn't yet been an occasion where the team was doubting themselves, making genuine tension for the host to exploit.

A second list is played out in a similar manner, with the champions bidding first. If one of the sides has a clear win, they get to play the cash list; if not, the sides play a tie-breaker list, giving answers in turn. There are rather fewer valid answers here.

Whichever side qualifies can play for cash, on a further list with about 25 possible answers. Three correct answers earns £5000, six is worth £10,000, and nine nets 15 grand. Twelve valid responses will be worth £25,000, and fifteen in a row gives the jackpot of £50,000. It's a neat little formula, getting quickly into the interesting decisions, for the side can stop playing and take their money at any of these havens; give one wrong answer and they leave the round with nothing. Win or lose, the team returns as champions, with the chance of playing for more money.

We see this cycle complete twice in one programme: the second run is interrupted by a commercial for The Lottery Corp, building white elephants in East London since 1994. After the second money round comes a second commercial for The Lottery Corp, but viewers can safely switch off, as there's nothing worth seeing after the round ends.

Nick Knowles is the show's host, appearing in his first high-profile show. He's right not to build tension too high when it doesn't naturally exist, but short of coming up with 100 different ways of saying "it's on the list", his role has very little to do once the game gets properly going. His previous credit was the rather rubbish second series of Judgemental, and we can't honestly hold the decisions of the producers against him.

The format is tremendously derivative, of course, being almost identical to one of the rounds on recent French favourite La Cible, almost identical to the old stager Ask No Questions, and not dissimilar to one of the rounds on Wipeout. It feels like a daytime show that has been gifted a chance it doesn't fully deserve at primetime; the subject matter is light and undemanding, and one could safely chop a nought off the rewards to reduce the show to a daytime budget. Perhaps our view is skewed by the presence of Michelle Hogan, billed on 2003's Grand Slam as the Queen of Daytime Television; prior to last night's edition, she had already added £37,500 to her pile of prizes.

It is fair to say that almost all the lottery formats would work as a daytime programme. One Against One Hundred might need simpler final questions, and we wouldn't care to resurrect Millionaire Manor and Big Ticket on the grounds of their complete rubbishness. Judged by this yardstick, the current show is no worse, and probably no better, than the lottery deserves.

There's one thing we do need to change: the title. When ITV made a pilot edition of the programme with Eamonn Holmes, they called it The Rich List. It's a programme about making lists, and people get rich from it. The new title is just naff: it's derived from the Special Air Service, a branch of the military that's renowned for going into very difficult situations and blowing things up to achieve their aim against all odds. Completing a list of fifteen football clubs with the word "Town" or "City" in their name isn't exactly in the same league. (We could give a long rant about how difficult it is to track the difference between Division IV and the Football Conference, even if you know what they're called this week, but it's a hopeless cause.)

Who Dares Wins is entertaining fluff for a Saturday night, it'll succeed in its job of drawing in viewers who don't want to watch Family Fortunes, and that's about it.


Heat 19

Steve Hoar takes the Adrian Mole Novels by Sue Townsend. The questions zap from the start of the diaries in 1981 to the most recent book, and even for a fan (such as this writer) they were very difficult. 5 (5).

Dan O'Hara discusses the History of Sound Recording 1887-1925. This was the early years of the gramophone, reflected in the questions. A slight stutter in the middle, and we finish on 11 (1).

Carole Chittleburgh has the Works of Moliere. John "Smallhead" Humphrys has a fair amount of difficulty with the French words. The round gets off to a good start, but falls into passes in the final seconds, finishing on 12 (3).

Stewart Cross has been swotting up on European Female Painters Until 1900. Sounds like a large topic, but the contender works in an art gallery, which has to help. Again, not a perfect round, ending on 12 (0).

Three contenders are clearly vying for the title tonight; Mr. Hoar will probably not be winning. He can still be the same age as Adrian Mole, and discusses Sue Townsend's trenchant political views. He perhaps might reconsider the suggestion that Alan Jones is a Welsh soprano, but 14 (6) marks a good recovery.

Mr. O'Hara confirms that he doesn't walk around with one of those Mpthingies in his ear. He does correctly point out that Scotland's oldest university is St. Andrews', but that was Hidden Transmission Indicator of last week's UC. He ends up on 21 (5).

Moliere was obsessed about sticking the boot into doctors, we're advised. Carole Chittleburgh's round never really picks up speed, ending on 19 (9). One of the questions asks after the bit of a website address properly called a solidus. "Slash", says Smallhead, only to call it a "stroke" during the closing credits.

Mr. Cross took Titian when he appeared in August 2004, and Italian Renaissance Painting in April 1987. He's also been on Connoisseur and, since we saw him here last, Eggheads. Not the most taxing of odd one out rounds, there. Female painters struggled, of course, incurring the wrath of polite society and the patriarchal hegemony. Or something. Ten to be sure of a win, and he gets half way there before stalling, and seeming to tread more gingerly afterwards. It's still enough to do the job, ending on 23 (4).

University Challenge

Repechage Final: Birmingham v Magdalen Oxford

Birmingham lost to St Andrews (who are in the quarter-finals) but tonked Lancaster; Magdalen was just beaten by SOAS (who are already out) and beat Liverpool. No change to the rules, which is re-assuring, and we'll issue the standard disclaimer that your humble reporter has a degree from Birmingham hanging on his wall.

Magdalen know that they'll have to get off to a strong start, and does just that, picking up 40 points on the first two starters. Birmingham gets off the mark with a question about the year when Wimbledon won the FA Cup, as opposed to falling out in the Third Qualifying Round to Horsham. The visual round is on current administrative regions of Wales, after which Magdalen has a lead, 50-35.

We're slightly surprised that the football fans didn't know which country Debrecen can be found in, but then they've probably got better things to do than follow the UEFA Cup Extra Preliminary Qualifying Round, when the Hungarian side falls out to BV Pyotnvk of Putnici. C'way the Bilberries! Ahem. Birmingham has a computer scientist from France in seat one, and he dredges out the answer to a literature question from somewhere or other. We'd be more surprised if a student of Eng Lit from Germany could answer a question of quantum physics with a loose link to Bavaria. The audio round is orchestral versions of pop songs, or Muzak as it's improperly known, and Magdalen's lead is slowly coming down, 80-75.

No one is able to identify Skewes' Number (more), widely believed to be the largest number ever to serve a useful purpose in mathematics, at least until they saw the size of the bill resulting from 0898gate. After being pegged to within five points, Magdalen pulls away with two starters, a near-perfect set of bonuses, and is suddenly 50 ahead. And further, as their man from Dublin, Daniel Sinnot, knows about cricket. They make the last eight of the cricket world cup, of course Irish people know about cricket. Birmingham gets back in the game after captain Lewis Stephens knows the chemical name for Viagra. Leads can go down as well as up, and after the second visual round – Italian bridges – Magdalen is 145-120 ahead.

The Oxford side gets a question about Iona Cathedral, a game played by boastful bishops. We'll bring up the file labelled "Oh no not again", with reference to the Week of 26 August 2007. These questions went to Birmingham.

Q: Your bonuses are on chemistry. Green vitriol is the hepta-hydrate of which ferrous salt?
A: Iron sulphate.
Q: When ferrous sulphate crystals are distilled, which acid is produced, hence its former name, oil of vitriol.
A: Sulphuric acid.
Q: Which salt, also known as blue vitriol in its penta-hydrate form, is produced by the action of copper with sulphuric acid?
A: Copper sulphate.

After hearing, "No, just sulphate," to their first answer, the side quickly cottons on that Thumper doesn't understand this enough to give leeway. After the next starter, the scores are level at 165-all, and we're into a four-minute shootout. Which brings us to the next entry from the file labelled "Oh no not again."

Q: From 1821 to 1920, Kingstown was the name of which Irish ferry terminal..?
Daniel Sinnott, Magdalen: Dun Laoghaire.

This time, we point to the Week of 3 April 2004, and point out that ever since, we've been referring to that (slightly inaccurately) as the "Where do you live, Magdalen" question. There's some frantic clock-running from the Oxford side on the next set of bonuses, their lead is up to 35. A starter for Birmingham reduces the advantage to 10, and then a complete guess on a Nabukov quote puts the sides level again. Three bonuses yield no points for Birmingham, and the entire match hinges on the next starter. It's dropped by both sides, and Roger Tilling sounds like he's going to explode with excitement. The next starter goes to Sinnott, and at the gong, Magdalen has won, 210-200.

It's worth noting that Magdalen was never headed in the entire contest, and that 200 points is the highest losing score of the series – at least so far. For Birmingham, Thomas Miconi and Mark Goodwin both got four starters, the team had 18/33 bonuses. Daniel Sinnott's six starters helped Magdalen to their fortuitous victory, the side had 19/34 bonuses and the night's one missignal.

Next match: Leeds v Warwick

This Week And Next

At the Children's BAFTA awards, The Slammer was named best entertainment programme, beating Raven and Skatoony. Barney Harwood was named best presenter.

Endemol's chairman Aat Schouwenaar has said that the call-and-lose market in the UK is almost dead. His company was responsible for Brainteaser, the first of the 0898gate swizzles to reach a conclusion, and pointed out that swindling viewers "is not a business model on which I would build the future of Endemol." He did not discuss the retina-scorching shirts of Noel Edmonds.

A minor piece of controversy at Brain of Britain recently. New host Peter Snow asked a contestant the term for a number, such as pi, that cannot be expressed as a fraction. "Transcendental," said one contestant, who was marked wrong. "Irrational" was the answer the setters had in mind; a transcendental number is a special kind of irrational number, one that cannot be expressed as the root of an integer polynomial. Pi is a transcendental number, and a poor example for the setter to use. Though this did not alter the outcome of the contest, it does show the folly of not using a single question-setter of the calibre of Kevin Ashman. More on transcendental numbers.

Minor unpleasantness at Have I Got News for You, where Ann Widdecombe has promised never to do the show again. She hasn't reached this decision because she was truly dire on last week's edition, even worse than Alistair Armstrong, but because she can't endure the juvenile humour of Jimmy Carr. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Ratings for the week to 18 November saw Children in Need (9.55m) the highest-rating show with some game elements. Top programme we'd normally cover was Strictly Come Dancing (9.4m for the performances), which beat both X Factor and Monday's premiere of I'm a Celeb (both 9.15m). Family Fortunes (6.45m) beat the debut of Who Dares Wins (5.7m).

On BBC2, QI recorded its highest audience by far, 4.75m tuned in. Returns for Secret Millionaire (3.5m) and Buzzcocks (2.95m), and a series high for Dancing on 2 (2.9m). All of these shows, plus Link (2.75m), Eggheads (2.7m) and Deal (2.65m) beat the imported-but-little-watched comedy Heroes (2.6m). We look forward to the Rusty Old Radio Times giving a cover to one of these more popular shows, and we can guess which would have pride of place on Marcus Brigstocke's living room wall. The delayed version of HIGNFY had 2.3m on Saturday night, and the much-delayed Scrapheap Challenge 2006 final was seen by 2.05m.

Top digital game show was ITV2's Celebrity coverage on Monday night, 815,000 turned over. There were series highs for Celebrity Scissorhands (645,000 on Thursday) and the phenomenally successful Come Dine With Me (620,000 opposite Scrapheap), and 630,000 for QI. All these shows beat Xtra Factor (485,000) and X Factor repeats (470,000). Challenge's top was Sunday afternoon Bullseye, 80,000.

We're really rather short of new thrills for the coming week: when the I'm A Celebrity Reunion (ITV, 9pm Tuesday, not Scotland) is the most note-worthy new show, we're in trouble. So much so that our server sent in a sick-note for some days, but has now been nursed back to health. Amazing what a hammer can do...

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