Weaver's Week 2011-10-16

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Microblogger Twistedwillow wrote this week, "I like Only Connect. It reassures me I am not completely stupid after University Challenge." Is that possible, or impossible? Will we need to invoke Perry Fripp, the mezzanine-level deity with responsibility for game shows, once more? All, some, or fewer of these follow.




Gogglebox / Group M for Channel 5, 12 and 19 May, and from 5 October

As the calendar turns, it becomes clear what the defining theme of the year will be. Last year, the year of cookery shows. 2009, the year of Simon Cowell versus Britain. 2007, the year of call-and-lose scandals. The fast-aging year of 2011 looks like it'll be remembered as the year of magic and illusion.

Already this year, we've looked at Penn & Teller: Fool Us and watched its summer series, there were performing celebrities (and Peter Jones (3)) in The Magicians (23 January), Derren Brown continues to do whatever he does on Channel 4, and someone's done a trick on E4, because Friends has vanished into thin air.

Impossible? Philip Escoffey.

Now Channel 5 has its shot at performance magic. Impossible? is hosted by Philip Escoffey, who is billed as an illusionist. He tries to make people believe the impossible is possible, and that the possible is impossible. To prove it, he invites members of the public to play a part in some of his tricks, and decide for themselves if he's performing a magic trick or just playing a trick.

Having missed the two episodes in the spring, we caught up with Impossible? in its celebrity variant. Two Channel 5 celebs (Brian Dowling and Josie Gibson off of Big Brother; Jenny Frost and Jeff Brazier off of Live From Studio Five) are involved in five tricks. Each of them is an entertainment in its own right: is it *really* possible for Philip to predict the results of random typing on a manual typewriter? Can he always convince people to open five safe boxes and leave the one with a trap inside?

If viewers want to watch a demonstration of magic, the programme works. Philip is a confident illusionist, he has the technical knowledge to make these stunts, and he has a stage presence that we found irresistible. The staging helps: Impossible? is filmed in a gentleman's club, the sort with books on the walls and lots of little tables, places where Phileas Fogg would go to pass the time and bet on the most improbable things. It's a relaxed atmosphere, but never quite informal.

Impossible? Brian and Josie have something explained to them.

There are other levels to this show. After taking part in each trick, but before revealing its outcome, the panelists are asked if the trick is "possible" or "impossible". For the purposes of this show, the words have very specific meanings. A "possible" trick is one that can be repeated: not only will the trick work this time, but it will always work. Under any conditions, and with any assistants, Philip would be able to get the same result. An "impossible" trick is one that cannot be done: the trick will fail, and it can be demonstrated that it can only succeed through pure chance.

Instantly, we're catapulted into a world of certainty. Either this trick is reproducible to infinity, it can be done by anyone, anywhere, at any time; or it won't work now and can never work. A guaranteed success, or an inevitable failure. Simon Cowell Says The Country's Got Great Singers or Don't Scare the Hare.

Impossible? Six sealed boxes, and only one question: possible, or impossible?

Very quietly, very softly, Philip Escoffey is introducing two concepts to the late-night Channel 5 audience: the concept of proof, and the concept of refutation. To prove something will work, it's necessary to show that it will always work, whatever happens. For instance, take the box trick from Brian and Josie's show. Six coloured boxes, one of them is ruled out, and something comes out of the other five. To be exact, the players put their hand in a hole in the top of the box, where there's some black cloth, and draw out something small and light. Then Philip removes the last box from the table, to reveal a loaded animal trap that would take someone's wrist off. Being reasonable sports, we're not going to out-and-out say how this is done, but we're convinced that it will always work, whatever box is initially ruled out.

Then there's refutation, a demonstration that something does not work other than by chance. The example Philip used in the same show was of voodoo dolls: three dolls, three subjects, six places to put a pin. The subjects mark where they think the pin goes, and only if all three match is the stunt a success. But the only way for that to happen is by sheer chance, no force can transmit the pin to the person, even if the person's face is on the doll. Philip Escoffey is an illusionist, not a peddler of bunkum like on Most Haunted. There's a 1-in-6 chance of any one person getting their pin right, and (trust us) a 1-in-216 chance of all three getting it right. It's four times less likely than winning a tenner on any given lottery. If the trick works once, there's still only that very small chance of it working again the next time, and that's what makes it Impossible.

Impossible? "I want you to choose Wrong."

Having spent 45 minutes educating the nation about logic, and proving that Brian Dowling's intuition is generally right even when he asks the audience, we reach the endgame. Each prediction – written on a paper, guarded by the independent adjudicator, revealed after the stunt – has been for money. The total prize is put into one of two sealed cases. The adjudicator knows which case contains the money. Philip Escoffey knows which case contains the money, and he'll do all he can to persuade the team to pick the one without the money. Label one case "right" and the other "wrong", and say he wants them to pick the wrong case. The players will, inevitably, choose one or other case, and win the contents – it may be thousands of pounds, it may be fresh air.

We really enjoyed this programme. As we've noted in the past, we enjoy watching magic done well. Perhaps that's paid off because we can take a decent guess at where the stunt's going, is it the sort of thing Penn and Teller could explain, because if it is, then it's going to be Possible. But we enjoy butting our heads against a master of his craft, and we appreciate how Philip Escoffey uses an uncompromising rationality.

Impossible? A host looking better with shoulder pads: possible, or impossible?

More logic, less woo. Bad news for Yvette Fielding, good for us.

University Challenge

Repechage 1: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine v Homerton Cambridge

"University Challenge time. Let's get some answers wrong." Thorneultimatum, good evening. We've reached the repechage, a second bite of the cherry for the four highest-scoring losers in the first round. They'll compete for two places in the final sixteen. Homerton Cambridge lost to Balliol Oxford by the odd five points in 405 on 1 August, in a match made famous by a non-standard standard. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM from here) were defeated 215-155 by Nottingham as far back as last week. We didn't notice that LSHTM is entirely a team of postgraduate students.

We begin with input from KullyMinogue: "Watching Steps Reunion for giggles. Sorry University Challenge, will catch up with you later." "Soft" is the response from Homerton, that also happens to be the answer to the first starter. Questions about the river Thames, and then on Vikings, are good for the Cambridge side, and are appreciated by the Sweyn Forkbeard fan club. It's about the same size as the Lembit Öpik fan club, but considerably cooler.

Thumper is shocked – shocked! – when no-one knows Lines on a Grecian Urn. What's a Grecian urn? About 20% less than in 2008. Thanks, Goldman and Sachs. Economics – and curves therein – completely defeat the teams, and Homerton leads by 65-15. GreyPea has a scene of domestic bliss for us. "Watching University Challenge, answer was 'Inflation'. Me & MrsPea broke into the Fast Show sketch. Sons looked on puzzled :)" We could give explanations of why these economic curves are a load of nonsense, or we could quote Hollielees: "Eating jelly tots and watching University Challenge, I party too hard." Nineteenth-century politics for Homerton, annoyance for our Dutch viewer GFsquare when the teams don't know a university there: "Leuk, een vraag over universiteit Leiden in University Challenge. Ze wisten het antwoord niet, die Britten. ;-)"

Knows how to say "Guerre-illa". And what's in a pot pourri.

Where's Angela Rippon when we need her, because Thumper can't pronounce "guerilla" so as to distinguish it from the large ape. LSHTM have some bonuses on words that end similarly but sound different, like "sesame" and "defame". Name That Opera for the audio round, it's works by Mozart this week, and Homerton's lead stands at 95-60. Currybet notes the show's contribution to the Daily Hell's latest, and least, campaign against the corporation. "OMG Paxman just said BC on University Challenge! Quick! Call the Mail! BBC PC is in retreat! Jesus is back!"

Honesty as Homerton says "carbolic" when the answer is "carbonic", and the captain confirms he gave the incorrect answer. Caps off for good sportsmanship. Caps off to Steven_stringer, "Wahay, got my 1st answer correct on university challenge". Film directors in the second visual round, where no-one knows Francois Truffault. Homerton's lead stands at 140-60. HarrietsOfFire has us worried. "Thank goodness for University Challenge for keeping my mind off zombies". They're not out on the streets again, are they? They were all locked up in out-of-the-way halls in northern England a week or so back.

The Isle of Wight is Homerton's latest set of bonuses, and we're leaning towards the phrase "game over". LSHTM are perfect on a question about medical procedures, and their contestant from the US gets the question about US presidents. It could have been about Northern Ireland, favouring Homerton. "Boron" is Thumper's summary of this week's edition. A bit harsh, LSHTM are certainly having a good attempt at a comeback, shame it's a bit late. At the gong, Homerton have won, 190-115.

Another strong performance from Homerton, it looks like they can drag out 200 point performances to order, and that might take them a long way in the contest. 27/59 right there; LSHTM were right in 19/45 and had three missignals. Overall accuracy was 46/80. Random Punter of the Week is Emrais. "I got 3 questions right in University Challenge. Big up myself."

Next match: St Andrews v Worcester Oxford

Only Connect

Quarter-final 1: Social Networkers v Antiquarians

The Vegetarians and Fantasy Footballers have fallen by the wayside, Victoria's suggested we have a teapot full of brandy, and we'll thank Robin Chapman. He sent an email to remind us that Beth Webster of the Social Networkers reached the final of Pointless in the week she won her first round match on this show. Could she name a pointless film featuring Colin Firth? Is there any other sort?

"They're names backwards" says the Antiquarians of the first set. It's good, but it's not right: the Networkers get that they're company names made from reversing the founder's name, and a bonus. The Wick o'Twisted Flax o'Doom is hiding a flock of swans in its audio clue, good enough for a couple to the Networkers' pile. Probably helps that they listened to last week's edition of Round Britain Quiz. At least, we assume they listened to last week's RBQ.

Pictures for the Antiquarians, who wonder what links Joseph Mengele and a computer error screen. Two points ... of death! Richardosman says it's "Good to see one of the Pointless question setters aceing tonights show" That's Sean Carey. Prussian blue and amyl nitrate and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue? That's a pointless question, as neither side knows they're all antidotes. Are there other uses for amyl nitrate than as an antidote to cyanide poisoning? Really? It's an education, this show.

Antiquarians get elephant and hippopotamus, mississippi and one-thousand. "Is it mud?" "Is it M?" It's placeholder words when counting seconds, apparently. Nasty. And lovely. Lights out on round one with "The Sun" of 9/4/92 and Earth Hour and Edward Grey on the eve of World War I. That's a bonus point for the Antiquarians, who are level on 3-3.

A very London question to open round 2, artworks in the Turbine Hall of the Modern Tat art space; sunflower seeds give two to the Antiquarians. The next list looks like a set of Popes, for the odd reason that it really is a set of Popes, ordered by the commonality of their papal names. Most popular? Pope John, but neither side can be that ordinary. They're not doing Pointless now.

A very New York question: bridges over the East River gives a pair to the Antiquarians. The Unified Theory of Creep has its outing in the picture clue, of dancing and milking, so it's actions in the "Twelve Days of Christmas", heading towards laying, and heading towards three points to the Networkers. Christmas questions on Only Connect, and it's still 20°C out there.

We'll pause for Micronetworker's Poetry Corner. Claytonhickman: "Tick-tock goes the clock/they always choose the Eye/Tick-tock goes the clock/their team name is a lie..." Do either team know their railway signals? They don't, so it's another dropped question. Layers of the Earth are the final clue, the Networkers are a little unlucky to say "molten iron" when the answer's "solid iron". Enough to give the Antiquarians the lead, 7-6.

Grid number 100? Oh, it's a link to play online, for people who are in front of a computer and want to test themselves against the contestants. There's clearly a set of weather things, but then the Social Networkers get hopelessly bogged down in wedding paraphernalia, and don't even get started on the famous Vinces. Characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, types of knitting stiches (no, not colours – purple cable?), and – yes – things thrown at weddings. Three points!

Grid 101 for the Antiquarians, they begin with Camilla and Cherie. We'd rather have the rats. Lots of jabbing on courtesy titles, and then they realise there's a set of professional dancers on Strictly Come Dancing. That comes out, and they're left thinking for foreign equivalents of "count" and types of boot. Time expires, and they're left with -gate scandals. Does anyone remember Cherie-gate, apparently the time she did a wife swap with George off of Rainbow. Types of aircraft evade the team, and if they'd said "noble titles" they'd have got another point. But they said, "count", and probably said it again off-screen. Three points!

10-9 to the Antiquarians going into the Missing Vowels round. Newmel is "feeling smug. Beat both teams on the wall" Showoff. Well done. Rival factions is the opening set, and neither side knows about Team Edward and Team Jacob. We repeat our cry from last year: does no-one have a teenage girl on their teams? That ended 1-1, and mathematical curves was 1-0 to the Networkers, bringing the sides level. Does no-one know an equiangular spiral when they don't see one? The one entry in things one can insure against goes to the Antiquarians.

Which means they've won the game by 12-11. Rap stars staging an airport hijacking in next week's show, though probably on a different channel.

Only Connect (2) Never mind, there's always Antiques Master.

Next match: Rowers v Listeners

This Week And Next

One of the branches of the University of London tried to get itself into the press this week, by claiming that Simon Cowell was a "high priest" and "an intermediary between the world of dead-end jobs and the sacred space of superstardom". The game show gods chuckled, put their omnipitent heads together, and plotted a revenge that was wonderful in its simplicity. They sent down a bucket of rain over Detroit. That's all. Rain over Detroit. Nothing difficult, nothing beyond the power of even the most out-of-practice minor-level deity. And then they sat back and watched the humans do the rest.

The upshot of the rain over Detroit was that the baseball match between the Detroit Pussycats and the Texas Cokeheads would be delayed by two hours. The late start, and length of the match (the Cokeheads won by 7 points to 3, but only after 11 ends), caused broadcaster Fox Television to delay The X Factor Us by a night, otherwise it would go on after kiddie's bedtimes. Over in Blighty, not even ITV2 can really broadcast a show that hasn't aired in its home country, and filled with Piers Moron Talks At Simon Cowell. Dead-end jobs and superstardom, eh?

In other news, ITV controller Peter Fincham said he "hadn't decided" whether to commission a new series of Red or Black?. The hyper-budget programme attracted very average audiences when it aired in September, and Mr. Fincham indicated that he'd need to see some significant changes before agreeing to a new run.

Ratings for the week to 2 October, and the on-again, off-again ITV ratings are off this week. Strictly Come Dancing was BBC1's biggest game show, 9.15m saw Friday's performances. The Great British Bake Off continued to dominate BBC2, 4.4m for the final, with 2.95m for University Challenge, 2.7m for QI, and a year's-best 1.75m for Have I Got Old News. Big Brother peaked on Monday with 1.75m viewers, and Channel 4's biggest game was teatime Come Dine With Me (1.65m on Monday).

Both of those are beaten by the top digital programme: Celebrity Juice was seen by 1.93m viewers. ITV2's The X Factor Us had 1.1m glued to their seats, thanks to the ITV glueing department there. A smidge over 1m for Xtra Factor, and 675,000 for Hell's Kitchen Us. There was 585,000 for Only Connect, and 525,000 for Britain's Next Top Model. There were 2011 highs for Would I Lie to You on BBC-HD (90,000), Pointless on Challenge (115,000), and Ballroom With the B-List (33,000 on Watch+1).

We're a bit short of new thrills this week. Let the Peoples Sing (Radio 3, 6.30 Sunday) is coverage of an international competition for amateur choirs. All-Ireland School Choir of the Year (RTE1, 5.10 Sunday) is slightly more parochial. A new spot for the Saturday repeat of Have I Got News for You (BBC1, 10.25 Sunday), and if you're wondering what happened to last year's finalists, The Great British Bake Off Revisited (BBC2, 8pm) has some answers. Next week's Strictly is 6.25 to 8.15, and The X Factor runs from 8 to 9.55.

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