Weaver's Week 2008-01-27

Weaver's Week Index

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How We Used To Quiz

The Week may have been running for seven years, which is almost back to pre-history in these internet times, but there are still some things that happened before we began. This edition recalls the UK's very first game show. It was broadcast seventy years ago this week, and is written in the style of the time.

Spelling Bee

A B.B.C / N.B.C co-production, broadcast in the B.B.C. Regional Programme, 6.15pm Sunday 30 January 1938

On 17th inst., The Times reported, "Radio listeners may at some time during the term be amused by hearing the first cross-Atlantic example of a form of radio entertainment which is having a great vogue in America – namely, a 'spelling bee,' between representatives of the Universities of Oxford and Harvard."

The programme aired on the 30th, and turned out to be a wonderfully entertaining and somewhat educational distraction. The rules were simple. Eight members on each team, 30 seconds to spell the word, as adjudicated by the Oxford Dictionary for the Oxford team, and Webster's New International Dictionary for the Radcliffe and Harvard side. (Radcliffe, lest we forget, educates young ladies only; Harvard is still an all-male institution.) There's one point per correctly spelt word, but a gong will sound if the speller's in error. Such mistakes can be passed across to the next person on the other team for a bonus point.

In the UK, spelling bees enjoyed a brief vogue during the 1870s – Frederick Warne sold a million copies of Nuttall's Dictionary in that decade – but have since fallen from fashion, and are most commonly administered by the more sadistic breed of school-master to particularly truculent second-formers. The Americas find such pursuits quite entertaining, with an organised competition for school-children climaxing in a national final each spring.

The Oxford side won the toss and elected to go second; the opener for the Radcliffe-Harvard side was the easy "beatitudes". Oxford's second word was the first to give an error, the second "h" in "haemorrhage" drained away, taking the point with it. Remarkably, the Radcliffe-Harvard team failed to smash the sitter "loneliness" for a simple point, but Oxford slipped on "labyrinthine", omitting the first "i". After one round of words, Radcliffe-Harvard led by seven points to six.

The quality of spelling improved at the start of round two, with "antiquate", "obsequies", and "omnivorous" providing no problems. Oxford's side managed to insert a second "r" towards the start of "corollary", and there was a tremendous to-and-fro over "daguerreotype"; the Radcliffe-Harvard team opened with "daguerrotype", omitting the "e" before the "o"; Oxford came back with "daguerotype", also excluding an "r"; Radcliffe-Harvard offered "dauguerreotype", a superfluous "u" in that suggestion; Oxford won the point at the fourth bite of the cherry. By the end of round two, the scores were level at 12-12.

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"Mulligatawny" cost Oxford dearly, losing an "l" somewhere in the transcription, and "aninimity" for the state of being anonymous had us wondering whether the bee might be improved by a professional pronouncer, perhaps drawn from the broadcasting company's tenured news-readers. Radcliffe-Harvard inserted an extra "c" in "braggadocio", and the round ended with the side 18-16 ahead.

Not including a mathematics student on the Oxford side had introduced great peril to the side's chances, and their hopes were dashed by the Charybdis of "isoscoles": an "o" transmuted into an "e". "Pettifoggery" also required four attempts to resolve, with the Radcliffe-Harvard side offering the near-nonce "pettiffogery". "Trachea" also presented problems for both sides, with "trakha" coming as the final offer from Oxford. At the end of round four, Radcliffe-Harvard had a lead of 24-20.

Time was against the Oxford side, though they had done well to get "bivouacked" and "sesquipedalian" at the first attempt. Radcliffe-Harvard proposed "trunsion" for the equipment used by a policeman, but one Oxford speller suffered the ultimate "embarassment", dropping an "r" from the night's final word. Time expired part-way through the fifth and final round, with the Radcliffe-Harvard side emerging the winners, by 28 points to 24.

The teams for this contest were:

Radcliffe-Harvard: Arthur Racine, Arthur Cantor, Malcolm Perkins, Robert Amory, S. E. Turetzky, Arnold W. G. Kean (all of Harvard University); Elaine Fraser, Norma Nasmyth (of Radcliffe College)
Oxford: Prince Obolensky, Conrad Cherry, John Irwin, Lord Oxford and Asquith, John Witty, Peter Wood, Penelope Knox, Miranda Tallents (of Oxford University).
Hosts: Paul Wing (N.B.C.), Thomas Woodroofe (B.B.C.)

The success of this broadcast should be not be under-estimated – it secured a description of almost a full column in The Times on Monday morning, a re-capitulation of greater length than any of the week-end's Football Association cup matches, and upon which we base our report above. C.F. Tufnell of Chelsea Square became the first known critic of these "game shows" when he wrote to The Times about how many young fellows would fail the army's dictation examination. Some of the pitfalls he identified were: parallelogram, harass, aggressor, agreeable, symmetry, cemetery, scimitar, accommodate, paroxysm, assassinate, scythe, fuchsia, fascinate, and privilege.

The response was overwhelming: letters of praise flooded into the Radio Times. None of them were printed, for the letters page (and consequentially its inconsequential editor Miss Alison Graham) had yet to be invented, but another trans-Atlantic Spelling Bee was arranged within a fortnight, to be aired on 6 March, with two further Bees to be made domestically. The second match was contested by people from all walks of life – an actress, a broadcaster, a schoolboy, a sportsman – and the British side won by 37 to 27.

In domestic competition, the Over Forties beat the Under Twenties by 37 to 24, Women beat Men by 24 to 18 in a shorter 30-minute programme, and license-payers began to wonder if the corporation should change its name to the Bee Broadcasting Corp. They got their revenge at the start of May, when Listeners beat the B.B.C. by 25 to 22.

Flushed by this success, the format transferred to the new television service, compered by Mr. Freddie Grisewood. Reduced to 15 minutes in length, the series proved to be very poor, even for the new radio with pictures, and the service moved to such visual fare as Tasting Bee, where we could at least see the players' expressions as they bit into strange and unusual delicacies.

Many of the original contestants proved to be much more successful. Arthur Cantor, the first person ever to answer a question on a UK Game Show, went on to become a major player in theatre, producing over 100 shows on Broadway. Robert Amory became a deputy director of the C.I.A., and Arnold W. G. Kean – a British student at Harvard – wrote the civil law on aviation. Amongst the Oxford side, Obolensky's greatest moment had come two years earlier when he scored a try against the All Blacks, running three-quarters of the length of the field and beating off many tackles. Conrad Cherry became a professor of religion. Lord Oxford and Abingdon owed his celebrity to his father Herbert Asquith, the recently deceased Prime Minister.

The brief fad for spelling bees failed to last past the end of 1938, but the nature of all things is circular, and a few shows tried – and mostly failed – to make spelling compelling during the early years of the 21st century. In a tribute to the format's origins, one of them was even called Spelling Bee.


Heat 21/24

Do not believe the hype they have been placing in some of the more popular press, this is yet another heat in a series that seems to have been going on since Mr. Woodroofe and Mr. Wing first banged their gongs.

Peter Dutton has the Life and Music of Herbert Howells, a classical music composer active in the early 20th century. He has rather been eclipsed by his contemporary Elgar, but Mr. Dutton has researched well, scoring 13 (2).

Anna Torpey discusses the television series The Sopranos. This is a series about gangsters from earlier in this decade. Again, we know next-to-nothing about the topic, but we do know that 14 (0) is a good score.

Damian Land has the Life and Reign of Richard II. That's the king of England from the late 14th century, though quite what anyone could confuse him with is beyond us. It's a slow and steady round, and a 9 (1) finish.

David Wilson has chosen the Chandos novels of Dornford Yates. This subject completes a full house of specialist topics about which this column knows nothing, and that's how to tell us apart from any of the contenders, Mr. Wilson ends on 10 (0).

Mr. Land reminds us that Richard II introduced the term "Your majesty", and asked his visitors to bow and curtsey. His general knowledge round also progresses at a majestic pace, ending on 16 (2).

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Mr. Wilson talks about himself, rather than his topic – he's a translator, able to work in seven or eight languages. He gets the device that was once dismissed as "No good will come of it: its name is half-Greek and half-Latin." It will certainly not work if someone tries to show a Spelling Bee on it. The final score is 19 (0).

Mr. Dutton also discusses his work, as a church organist, and he bewails the dumbing-down of church music to the popular music idiom, accessible and not challenging. We don't do not challenging on this show! The general knowledge round moves swiftly, but with more passes than anything else, ending on 19 (8).

Mrs. Torpey requires six to win. Smallhead takes issue with her description as "full-time mother" rather than "housewife", as she does a whole lot of jobs. She knows the brief description of Byker Grove, but has many passes and errors before passing the finishing line with a couple of questions to spare. The final score is 21 (4).

University Challenge

Contrary to speculations in the tabloid press, Mr. Woodroofe will not tonight be discussing the quality of shop-bought underlinen.

First Quarter-Final: Manchester v Trinity Hall Cambridge

Manchester hasn't played since last year, narrowly beating St. Edmund Hall Oxford in the second round; Thumper reminds us that the university is aiming for its third successive final, a feat we don't believe has ever been achieved before. We have to go most of the way back to Cantor and Obolensky's day for Trinity Hall's last match, they beat Worcester Oxford by a very comfortable margin last week. Manchester showed their prowess by scoring 27 consecutive bonuses in their first-round match, neither of Trinity Hall's opponents has raised a challenge, and the side has yet to capitalise on its bonus questions.

"If you don't know the rules, you shouldn't be here," says our host unhelpfully. Thirty seconds to spell each word, errors will be passed across to the other side, and we'll keep going until someone gets it right.

The first round of bonuses is on undeciphered scripts, yet manages to last the entire round without once mentioning doctor's handwriting. Or the very dusty old artefact we found while researching this week's featured article. It's a hieroglyph, depicting a man with a very small head, a large leather chair, two rounds of two minutes, a Man pointing to his Chest, and the symbols BBC. What can it mean? Almost straightaway, we'll take Name Your Favourite Eurovision Host City:

Q: Noted for its concentration of Jugendstil architecture, which city and port has historically belonged to Poland, Sweden, and Russia, was occupied by the Germans in 1917 and again from 1941 to '44, then annexed by the USSR...
Manchester, Andrew Read: Kalingrad.
Q: ... having been the capital of independent Latvia from 1918 to '40 and was restored as that country's capital in 1991?

Manchester is clearly a university where they like their hyphens, knowing that chick-pea and bumble-bee are incomplete without the little bar in the middle. Just four starters until the first visual round, parents and children from the world of acting; Manchester had a slim lead, 35-30.

Trinity Hall knows Appolonius's Problem when it comes up and is tangential to them, and secures a set of bonuses that are also on geometry. Manchester knows their homophones, allowing the side to re-take the lead; guessing that Menuhin was describing Beethoven gives them some breathing room. Is it fair that questions about Salford should be asked when Manchester is in the room? Perhaps: it's not as though sides from the rest of the country draw their students from the locality, and there's no-one on the Manchester side from nearer than the Wirral. The audio round is on the work of Kurt Weill. Manchester has stretched its lead somewhat after that early shock, and is 130-45 ahead.

Trinity Hall needs a good comeback, and gets off to a decent start by knowing that Namibia had been a German colony, and advances on the curious diet of spinach and the Spanish Civil War. The second visual round is on 19th century prime ministers, and the Cambridge side has made something of a comeback – it's trailing by 150-105.

A run of dropped starters ends with a break to Trinity Hall, but they fail on a set of bonuses about Ascension Island. Trinity Hall gets the next starter, and World Heritage Sites in Asia close the gap to 15 with three minutes to play. Manchester pulls out a starter about Tolkein, and is politely winding down the clock as much as it reasonably can. Trinity Hall is the most able to do physics calculations in their head, but Scottish rivers leave the gap at 20, and when Manchester gets the next starter, it feels as though the game is theirs to lose. Though the side drops all the bonuses, getting the next starter puts the match beyond doubt, and Manchester's final winning score is 195-150. At times, the match felt closer; at times, it felt like it could be a whitewash. A comfortable Manchester win feels about right.

Andrew Read was best buzzer for Manchester, five starters as the side made 18/33 bonuses with one missignal. Sean Prendiville was the best buzzer for Trinity Hall, four starters; the team was once again let down by its bonuses, just 10/30.

Next match: Christ Church Oxford v Warwick

This Week And Next

Our best thoughts are with Jeremy Beadle, who is recovering from a particularly nasty bout of pneumonia.

Italian Big Brother fell off air this week, after an outside broadcast was visited by protestors complaining about housing in Rome.

Another week, another faked BBC competition. In May 2006, Jo Whiley pre-recorded her show on Radio 1, but announced a fake name as the winner of her phone-in contest. A month earlier, Russell Brand had been involved in deception on his 6 Music show, when a staff member pretended to win a contest.

BARB ratings for the week to 13 January, and two returning shows take the top spots. Dancing on Ice had 9.35m in its new ITV Sunday slot, and In It to Win It took 7.05m the night before. Millionaire had 5.65m on Saturday night, beating The One and Only's 5.25m. University Challenge began the year with 3.55m, Masterchef returned with 3.25m, and Link took 3.05m. Deal was the only game show on C4, securing 2.9m.

E4 continued to show BB Celebrity Hijack, with 780,000 seeing Friday's show. A repeat of last year's Dancing on Ice final attracted 530,000 on ITV2, just ahead of Mock the Week and QI on Dave, both taking a half-million. The biggest game show on cable channels, however, was Come Dine With Me, seen by a remarkable 820,000 viewers on Sunday evening. Challenge's most-seen show, by comparison, was Sunday teatime Catchphrase, attracting 109,000.

The highlight for next week is the seventh series of Raven (CBBC, 4.25 weekdays) which looks harder and nastier and is certainly all-new.

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