Weaver's Week 2013-10-27

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"I'm just gonna come out and say it. What was the point in that series?"


Who Wanted to be a Millionaire?

ITV, 1998 – 2013

A lot of things have come to an end this week. The biggest news of all: Chris Tarrant has said that he wants to stop doing Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The producers can't think of a suitable host to replace him, and the programme will come to an end later this year.

Millionaire first crossed our radar in late summer 1998. Chris Tarrant was promoting Win A Wok, a prime-time programme that promised to give away a cooking implement. (This isn't to be confused with Win A Sky Wok, a real promotion in the Daily Tabloid that gave away satellite dishes every day for two years.) Quickly, it emerged that this wasn't a real show, and Tarrant was actually going to try and give away One Million Pounds, Cash.

Fifteen to One. Million. Pounds. Cash.

The original run was a calculated risk at ITV: Millionaire would go out every night for a week and a bit in early September. If it bombed, then they'd only lost a week and it was a failure they could recover from. Should the programme put on a decent performance, six million viewers, then it might be a format they could come back to. And if it did really well, eight million viewers and prizes covered by the phone-in fund, then ITV would be off to a really good start to its autumn season.

The first programme, on Friday 4 September 1998, had 9.5 million viewers. Sunday's edition had 12.35 million. Five of the following week's editions had ten million or more viewers. By any definition, that was a monster hit. Part of the success was the show's utter simplicity. Here's how the UKGameshows write-up describes it:

"The contestant must answer 15 multiple-choice questions correctly in a row to win the jackpot. The contestant may quit at any time and keep their earnings. For each question, they are shown the question and four possible answers in advance before deciding whether to play on or not. If they do decide to offer an answer, it must be correct to stay in the game."

That's it. Fifteen questions, fifteen multiple-choice questions, and fifteen right answers to one million pounds. Oh, there were lifelines, and each of them has become a common phrase. "Phone-a-friend", the cry to anyone who seems unsure of themselves. "Ask the audience", rely on the wisdom of crowds; that one directly inspired Channel 4 factual series The Audience (2012), where strangers advised on a moral conundrum. And "50:50" helped to name a leading game show podcast.

Image:Millionaire chrisandlogo.jpg

All of this success lay in the future. Even in the first week, it became clear that Chris Tarrant was utterly brilliant at his job. Upbeat when he needed to be, warm and engaging when talking to the contestants, but always utterly solid at the difficult bits. He could gently encourage the contestant without influencing them. "Here's a cheque for £64,000. But we don't want to give you that." And he had some novel ways of stringing out the tension. "If you'd told me 'beans', {pause}, you'd be wrong." The habit of leaving the correct answer hanging over the commercial break began here.

After the opening week, Millionaire came back for a Christmas-themed special on Christmas Day, and then a new run of programmes for the first ten days of 1999. These included the first hour-long episodes, in which three or four new contestants would be picked, and ratings rose to dizzy heights: 17.57 million on 3 January, 18.09 million on the 10th. The all-time peak audience of 19.21 million was recorded on 7 March, but throughout the year Millionaire could be relied on to deliver 10 million viewers. Two more series followed in early 2000, followed by a celebrity special for ITV's Day of Promise telethon.

By now, there was a lot of Millionaire merchandise: official quiz book, board game, even a CD of the show's music. The show had been used sparingly through the schedules, coming out only when ITV had a good reason. For autumn 2000, Millionaire was at the heart of ITV's schedules. Not one, not two, but three episodes a week; initially on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, evolving over the autumn to be on Saturday, Monday, and Thursday. This was a lot of work, especially for Chris Tarrant, who was combining this job with his breakfast programme on London radio station Capital FM, his performance visibly flagged as the series went on.

For many people, the end of Millionaire as event television came on 20 November 2000, when Judith Keppel became the first person to give an answer to the Million Pound Question. It was the right answer, of course, the end of an epic chase that had spanned 122 episodes. How could they top that? They couldn't. A short run of couples games followed in early 2001, there was a playalong game on ITV's digital channel ITV2 (but only for subscribers to OnDigital), and by the time David Edwards scooped the top prize around Easter 2001, viewing figures were returning to normal, a "mere" eight million.

Millionaire returned to the screen in September 2001, and made the headlines before the month was out. On 10 September, army major Charles Ingram had left the studio with a cheque for a million. That cheque was stopped before it could be cashed, the programme-makers Celador accused Ingram of cheating, assisted by Tecwen Whittock. A criminal case went to trial in spring 2003, resulting in the conviction of Whittock, Ingram, and his wife Diana. There are those who claim that it was all a stitch-up, hoping to boost ratings for Millionaire. Our view remains that ITV gloated in their victory, putting out an evening-long "Major Fraud" special.


ITV and Celador were somewhat less voluble about the Phone-a-Friend Ring, a syndicate of people who would take calls from contestants, look up the answers on the internet, and report back, all within 30 seconds, and all for a cut of the winnings. To the best of our knowledge, no-one has ever been arrested for illegal play here, still less charged, prosecuted, or convicted.

In the intervening year-and-a-half, Robert Brydges had won the top prize, and Millionaire was airing once a week, on Saturday nights. Pat Gibson (2004) and Ingram Wilcox (2006) won the top prize, and not many people cared. There were special editions: newlyweds, mothers and children, professors and students, cops and robbers, and increasingly regular celebrity shows. ITV threw in additional enticements to watch: a viewer game played when a contestant chose to walk away and not answer a question, then one played during the commercial breaks. And still the viewers tuned away, Millionaire was on most Saturday nights, it had become television wallpaper, and only a hardcore 4 million saw the programmes.

Image:Wwtbamtree2.jpg A pruned money tree.

The biggest changes began in 2006, when Celador sold the format to Two Way Television. The new owners made their mark in summer 2007. Out went the familiar theme tune, in came a rave remix. Out went fifteen questions, in came the "Fast Track to a Million" – just twelve correct answers would now scoop the top prize, three of the easiest questions had been removed so that only the most useless contestant could leave with nothing, and the second safe point was increased from £32,000 to a full £50,000. But there were stings: the later questions were that bit more difficult, and the correct answer to the free shot would only be worth £25,000. Even so, we reckoned that the revised money tree wasn't all bad, and that it made for acceptable Saturday night viewing. Or, from early 2008, acceptable Tuesday night viewing.

The point where even this column thought "why bother" came in 2010, when a clock was imposed on the programme, but only on the lower-value questions up to £50,000. It didn't serve any purpose: there was no criticism that the contestants were stalling for time at this level, any dithering could be edited down in post-production. Worse, the host was hemmed in by the format's new requirements, shouting out "Start the clock" and "Stop the clock" as though he was a mixture of Anneka Rice and Richard O'Brien. We don't think Chris Tarrant was ever really comfortable with this nonsense, and his waning enthusiasm was visible on screen.

Ticking us off.

To add insult to injury, the questions started to get really tough at £50,000, losing the gradual ramp-up and replacing it with a ginormous cliff-face. Where Millionaire had been about difficult decisions at £16,000 or £64,000, now every contestant had a dilemma at £20,000, and a ticking clock and Tarrant screaming at them to make a decision quickly pronto now. And the questions felt samey, there would be something about ITV in the early stages, a football poser in the next few questions, and we never got to see more than one or two at the higher level.

Since 2011, Millionaire has almost entirely been celebrity specials and viewer competitions. The last two big winners have come from the 0898 contest, calling in from the comfort of their home and never appearing on television. It's a sad and tawdry end to the programme.

Image:Who wants to be a millionaire postage stamp.jpg Millionaire received the Royal Mail's stamp of approval.

ITV has promised us a few more specials to see out the programme. We'd like to see someone ask questions of Chris Tarrant, see how good he is without the little red dot giving him the answer. And we'd like to see those other ITV stars The Chasers take on the Millionaire challenge, together or apart or in a relay. The annual Text Santa appeal could be an appropriate night to bring down the curtain.

Ultimately, the producers have made one correct decision: don't replace the host. Chris Tarrant made Millionaire his own, so that no other host could possibly take over. However good they were, they'd always pale in comparison against Tarrant at his best. We said that eighteen months ago, about Anne Robinson and The Weakest Link. And, like Link, it could have gone off air at any time in the past few years and it wouldn't have obviously been too soon.

Unlike Link, Millionaire has passed its ask-by date. Big-money successors have fallen by the wayside – Greed lasted less than a month, Poker Face and Duel a little longer. Only a few shows are still giving away six-figure prizes – Deal or No Deal and Who Dares Wins twice a year, and The Chase With Celebrities from time to time. Quiz programmes are out of fashion as event television, and it's hard to think of a time when they'll recapture that position.

Game shows, though, remain event television – just this week, The Great British Bake Off recorded overnight audiences of 9 million viewers. One Brit in seven saw the final live. There is yet hope for the shows we call game.

Only Connect

Series 8, Match R: Pilots v Globetrotters

Wall season: 363 and 364. Not only is it transfer season, it's repêchage season. The Pilots and Globetrotters have both troubled us in the past. The Globetrotters lost to the Board Gamers, the Pilots fell to the Lasletts. Flames and whips for the after-party, so that's where the BBC2 budget has gone.

Globetrotters are batting first, with Colonial Goose, Scotch Woodcock, and the team thinks it's a bunch of comestible misnomers. Biloxi Bacon and Rocky Mountain Oysters confirm their thought: one point, they could have had three. Over to the Pilots: Nimrod, 'Bites yer legs', buzz, hunter. Nimrod's from the Bible, there's a reference to Norman Hunter, Orion would have been the giveaway. 3-1 to the Pilots.

The Globetrotters try to name the day. Towel: May 25th. Wifi: August 2nd 2011. Pi: March 14th. Star Wars: May 4th. Named days is the answer they're circling around; "unofficial geek celebration days" is the caption. No recognition for International Rachel Stevens Day, sadly. Music for the Pilots: "Brick", "If ya gettin' down", "Glad all over", and "Moves like Jagger". Five is right for a point: that's the Ben Folds Five, 5ive, the Dave Clark Five, and Maroon 5. 4-2 to the Pilots.

Sour tasting. Tray planted. Divine wind. That'll be English translations of Japanese words: sushi, bonsai, kamikaze. Two points. Paul Judge of the Pilots warns us that his karaoke of George Michael and Billy Idol is on the interwebs. We haven't tracked it down, and we'll let readers judge whether that's because our search-fu has failed or because we respect Only Connect contestants. Pictures: Some bloke from Pop Idle Us, Wallace and Gromit, Roland Garros, clay pigeon shooting. Clay the answer: Clay Aiken the first clue. The Pilots lead, 5-4.

Sequences comes second. Cater, Trey, Deuce, which the Globetrotters think is nicknames for playing cards, so Ace is a one. Old French to Middle English to Two Points. "Halt! Who comes there?" "The keys" Ah, commands at the Tower of London, but what's the fourth. "Whose keys?" "The Queen's keys!" OK, Queen Elizabeth's Keys, good for two points. 7-6.

Image:Celebritysquares gameinprogress1.jpg Crosses are not cross.

For the Globetrotters: the smallest hardest crossword, Celebrity Squares board, a slice of Battenberg, so it's squares of diminishing sizes, and we finish with a square crisp. The host thinks the panel is too young to remember Celebrity Squares. "Due a comeback", thinks Victoria. Hmm. There's one we've not reviewed. Onwards! Pilots are at Report Stage, then Third Reading and they're going for "passed into law". No. "Royal Assent" is the specific wording, and the Globetrotters take the lead, 9-7.

They have pictures: grey washing, grubby knees, two ducklings, but it's not bingo slang for 33. The pictures are droopy drawers, dirty knees, two little ducks, and the Pilots pick up legs eleven for a bonus. Turkana and Malawi and Tanganyika is the list, the Pilots go for Ghana. The Globetrotters correctly answer Victoria, largest lakes in Africa. The Globetrotters take a 10-8 lead.

Into the Walls! Pilots have some characters from Grange Hill, and there are members of the Velvet Underground. Would the setters be cruel enough to include a set of hieroglyphs into the grid? There looks like a bunch of places lacking a ____field, and the last set are marsh plants, reeds and grasses. Ten points!

For the Globetrotters, a group of German authors comes out in no time, and some Quiddich equipment follows in short order. There's a bunch of words prefixed with photo, and ways of telling someone else has sinned. In discussion, it emerges Victoria has never seen Star Wars, but she has read the Harry Potter books. More than we've done. Ten points!

So the Globetrotters still lead, 20-18. Missing Vowels begins with Actors who have played Dracula, a 2-2 draw. World-famous ports is a home question for both sides, it's the Globetrotters who win 3-1. UK Christmas Number Ones is more to the Pilots' taste, winning 3-1. Places of entertainment goes to the Globetrotters 3-1, and plant diseases starts and stops in no time.

All of which means the Pilots are grounded on 25, the Globetrotters progress on 28 points.

The Pilots were Simon Morgan, Paul Judge, and Neil Morgan.

This Week And Next

We were planning to review Sweat the Small Stuff this week, but events overtook us. We'll squeeze it in before the end of the year; that Celebrity Squares review might have to wait.

Repêchage season continued on University Challenge, with Durham meeting Christ Church Oxford. Durham lost to Queen's Cambridge on 5 August, Trinity Cambridge had overpowered CCO the previous week. Not until the third time of asking did Thumper manage to complete a starter; he'd already jumped in with some snark when Durham proved unable to provide the first five digits of the binary expansion of pi. Thumper went on to ask about the wettest place in the world, and helpfully pointed out that it gets ten times as much rain as Manchester. After the last fortnight, we suspect that may not be true.

After twice pulling level, Christ Church Oxford took the lead just before the music round, and Thumper invited Durham to take a punt on a question asking after a Nobel laureate's novel. "Kissinger", offered a player. "Kissinger?!" interrobanged the host. "That wasn't worth saying." Hogwash: the only way to be sure of a result is not to answer a question. The audio round was on top Canadian female singers, confusing Avril with Shania and knowing the more pointless parts of Céline Dion's career. How do we know it's Pointless? "Tu m'aimes encore" was such an answer on the show. But so was Green Day's album "Nimrod", that had us dropping our jaws so they heard it in western Australia.

Back to the game! Durham's challenge ended when they were on the rough end of a decision – the player answered "ant", which was correct, but then added "no, I was going to say Antwerp." A stickler for the must-accept-your-first-answer school would have taken "ant" and awarded the marks. Thumper doesn't, CCO picked it up, and what might have been a 60-point gap turned into a 120-point one. With five minutes to go, Durham were hoping something would turn up. Something did turn up, a quotation from Mr. Micawber, but it wasn't going to be enough, particularly after missing the middle word from The Junior Anti-Sex League. Or OFCOM, as this column knows them. Christ Church pulled further away to win by 245-140.

The transfer window remains open at the BBC, and two shows have come up from the junior ranks. In comes Your Home in Their Hands, a competitive re-decoration programme. Let's Get Ready to Tumble will have celebrities given a crash-mat course in basic gymnastics before flipping a pike on network telly.

Some shows enter, some shows leave: That Puppet Game Show will not have its contract renewed after the last two episodes air in December, and I Love My Country won't be recommissioned. As we think this show is sold with The Voice UK, it may be that the BBC finds it cheaper to buy the rights and not make the show. Maybe ITV would be interested, they've a slot in the schedules as Your Face Sounds Familiar has been let go. To the surprise of everyone who's seen it, and the millions more who haven't, Break the Safe has been recommissioned.

Never mind, there's always a Blankety Blank revival.

Nominations for the BAFTA Children's awards are out. Game shows nominated include Gory Games in the Entertainment category, and an utterly inevitable nomination for Y Lifft in the Multiplatform category. (Multi-platform? Lift? Geddit?! Please yourselves.) Sam Nixon and Mark Rhodes are nominated for Best Presenter for their Big Friday Wind-Up, their opposition includes the legend that is Barney Harwood. The awards will be presented next month by Jake Humphrey of Bamzooki and other shows.

Another week, another episode of Mastermind.

  • Amanda Roy (Queen of the South FC) started well on the Dumfries men's football side, but sadly fell into a pass spiral, finishing on 4 (6). It was a similar story in the second phase, closing on 13 (12). We're entirely sure that there will be no critics, and we'll only care about carping from people who have also taken part on Mastermind.
  • Simon Marshall (REM) took a subject we reckoned we could have a crack at, and we reckon we would have got about six right. The contender scored 11 (1). The contender is great on geography and history, but less strong on popular culture, missing questions on Rita Ora and The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Still, he gets a lot of other questions right, and gives the other contenders some work to do: 23 (5).
  • Ian Welham (Elizabeth Fry) answered on the prison reformer, and we sensed a slightly dodgy question edit at one point. The contender didn't let this bother him, also ending on 11 (1). And in spite of an early error in his general knowledge round, he keeps the scoreboard ticking over in the early minute, but then rather slows down, finishing on 22 (5).
  • Tim Allison (Fiction of CS Lewis) had another subject we'd have a go at; as we expected, the round was almost, but not entirely, about the Chronicles of Narnia, and we claimed ten correct answers. Again, we're behind the contender, he made 14 (1). And that's under studio pressure! Ten to win allows the contender to think, and answer calmly and strongly, but halfway through the round he has a long think and then a pass. That could have been fatal, but wasn't: forward motion was quickly resumed, he even has the misfortune to remember Melvyn Bragg. That's the only blot on a comfortable win, 27 (4).

So Tim Allison books his place in the next phase. There's no Mastermind next week, it's making way for the Autumnwatch series. Normal service resumes on 8 November.

BARB ratings for the week to 13 October, with Strictly Come Dancing remaining on top, with 10.9m viewers. Its results show (8.95m) beat The X Factor (8.8m), while X-Fac performances (7.7m) beat The Great British Bake Off (7.4m). It's then a long way to HIGNFY and Pointless Celebrities, around 4.5m, and Big Star's Little Star, The Chase With and Without Celebrities, and University Challenge, all around 3.2m

ITV2 was led by Celebrity Juice (1.4m), Channel 4's top game was 8 Out of 10 Cats (1.3m), and the Coren Mitchell battle was resolved in David's favour: Was It Something I Said? led Only Connect by 1.19m to 1.03m. Third on the digital channels was Xtra Factor Result, 645,000. Spare a thought for A League Of Their Own, up against the England men's football team, reduced to 440,000 viewers, and beaten by the 465,000 infants watching Swashbuckle on Cbeebies.

Next week, the Week expects to review Release the Hounds (ITV2, 10pm Monday). Before then, Prize Island finally emerges from the cupboard (ITV, 5.40 Sunday), and One Man and His Dog makes its BBC1 debut (6.20 Sunday). Radio 2 marks Hallowe'en with Young Chorister of the Year (10pm Thursday). No Pointless Celebrities next week, but we do have trope-namer Gyles Brandreth on The Chase. Spooks, ghosts, ghouls, the undead on Strictly, and that's just the host's jokes; The X Factor goes disco with a performance from Nile Rogers.

And if you want to run for your life in the Stratford shopping centre car park, the Week is still accepting offers for 2.8 Hours Later this Friday.

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