Weaver's Week 2004-12-28
28 December 2004
'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'
Weaver's Year, 2004
As is traditional at this time of year, we can look back at the previous twelve months in game show. It's traditional, it's cheap, and it allows us to write this bit in mid-October before swanning off to somewhere warmer.
2004 was the year of existing celebrities doing silly things. Whether eating ants or prancing about, minor celebs ruled the roost. Even general knowledge quizzes required some minor celeb input, from the input to Test the Nation to the round on Beat the Nation. The big hits of the year were ITV's I'm A Celeb and the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing - even Simon Cowell's X Factor failed to capture the public's imagination, and the contestants from Big Brother have largely fallen out of the spotlight...
Bruce Forsyth came back to the BBC this year, and began with Didn't They Do Well!, a quiz that combined archive quiz questions with modern contestants. The archive tapes were handled superbly, but we were severely unimpressed with the all-or-nothing nature of the final round. People don't leave Brucey shows with their tails between their legs.
Strictly Come Dancing was the surprise breakout hit of the year. Bruce had worked on the ballroom dancing competition many years ago, but bringing celebrities into the fray was a novel idea. Adding a public phone vote was nothing new, but Bruce worked his magic, ably assisted by Tess Daly and Natasha Kaplinsky. Two series have aired already, and they've been the biggest things the BBC have put out on a Saturday night since the heyday of Noel Edmunds.
BBC3 has been a hotbed of great little ideas - Hercules asked its competitors to do twelve amazing feats of endurance in twelve days, and we have the utmost respect for all the contestants. Spy invited people to take two months out of their regular lives and train to be spies. The show was as unpredictable as real espionage. While Spy aired in a trimmed format on BBC2, Hercules has yet to make the jump to the terrestrial service. The Interrogators invited two people to hide ten grand around Glasgow, and let them keep it, but only if they could spend eight hours convincing a panel of expert investigators that they'd left it elsewhere.
The Eurovision Song Contest expanded its remit somewhat this year. Jemini's legacy was a prime-time slot for the selection programme, featuring such comedy geniuses as Harry Hill, Carrie Grant, Lorraine Kelly, and (for no obvious reason) Peter Schmiechal International. Paddy O'Connell started to explain how the qualification process for the contest proper worked, and by the time he'd finished, he was into the commentary booth for the first semi-final.
Both the semi and the grand final were marred by poor sound quality, and the songs themselves were less attention-grabbing than in 2003. Thanks to the rather rushed conclusion to the semi, we didn't get much chance to note that Switzerland's had failed to score a single point from 35 voting juries, thus making it worse than Jemini by a factor of about 1000. That's slightly unfair, as the Swiss were able to get into the right key. At the top end, Ukraine's event television won at a canter from Greece and Serbia & Montenegro. Loser of the night was Terry Wogan, whose tired hickery about "friendly voting" has emerged for seven years running. The new voting system, with countries voting in alphabetical order, didn't help, and could usefully be revised.
Junior Eurovision took place in November, and may only have aired on ITV2, but uncovered a great new talent. Commentator Matt Brown was the model of restraint, didn't talk over the songs, and provided an example for other commentators to emulate.
Without Prejudice? came back for a second series, and while it was still very good television, it seemed to lose a certain something between series. The panel was clearly influenced by having to confront the people who aren't getting the prize, and some of the production values obscured the interaction between viewer and panel that made the show tick.
Both BBC and ITV have had a number of national interactive tests this year. The BBC's Test the Nation brand had a National Test in March, during which Rosie Boycott and Piers Morgan staged a sit-down demonstration of intellectual conversation, only to be slapped down by Anne Robinson. May's annual IQ test was followed in September by a music test, during which David Mellor didn't sing. By the time of the 2004 test, we were beginning to wonder if the show was becoming a glitzier 100%, with celebrities and panelists. The questions tended to reward obscure knowledge for no other end than knowing it, and that might bore the viewer in time.
ITV's competitor - The Great British Test - began with a driving edition in the spring; quizzes on spelling and grammar, and on pop music followed before the end of the year. It's a clear spoiler for the BBC effort, and Foxy and Gabby - stuck behind lecterns like priests - lack the charisma of Philip "Gopherman" Schofield and Robinson, who bounce all over the studio with energy and verve. Both shows are blighted by a lack of statistical knowledge - Gopherman spends five minutes each time spouting a load of numbers that boil down to "This tells us nothing significant," while Gabby can average 60 and 62 and somehow get 68.
The BBC experimented with interactive television in the spring. Nicky Campbell's Come and Have a Go If You Think You're Smart Enough suffered from an overlong title, sensibly truncated to It Could Be You for the Australian series. It attempted to harness the latest internet-linked flash-whizzy multimedia technology to quiz the entire nation at once. Two problems limited the show's success - the latest internet-linked flash-whizzy multimedia technology is still relatively rare, so only about a third of the country could enter without buying expensive new kit. And, er, the show wasn't too hot, using a last-mistake-loses format to decide the winner. The execution, though, proved that video phones are almost of mainstream broadcast quality, and we expect something using this technology over the coming years.
No need for high-tech on topical news quiz Have I Got News for You, where Robert Kilroy-Silk has become a running joke. In fairness, it wasn't entirely HIGNFY's work that turned Mr Kilroy-Silk into a running joke; his dismissal from the BBC for racist comments, his grab for the leadership of a fringe political party and his close encounter with a bucket of manure all helped to that end. Before his return to the political sphere, Mr Kilroy-Silk had appeared on HIGNFY, and underwent one of the most merciless ribbings in the programme's history, culminating in Ian Hislop disassociating himself from his team-mate with the words "Don't 'we' me," and Paul Merton suggesting "a new game, where I get to complete a sentence." Later in the year, HIGNFY followed up this column's continued references to Mr Kilroy-Silk's previous running joke, his 2001 ITV quiz Shafted, which inexplicably fell off air after just four of 20 episodes had aired. A clip of him saying "Will they share [spreads hands] or will they shaft [makes a fist-pumping gesture that's almost obscene]?" ran on many of this autumn's episodes.
Speaking of shows axed by ITV, Simply the Best ran earlier and earlier in the schedules. The show, based on the format that begat It's a Knockout, started at 7:30 on a Saturday night, and finished its run at 3:30. The Vault also lost two episodes from the end of its run, and seems to have run completely out of steam, but did provide us with the eerie sight of someone winning a million pounds from the comfort of their armchair. Pat Gibson had already scooped the top prize on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, while former Millionaire contestant Charles Ingram ended a miserable three years by declaring his bankruptcy last month.
Bognor or Bust marked Angus Deayton's return to the world of topical news quiz hosting, with more emphasis on laughs than on winning a prize to somewhere lovely. Another long running show, Scrapheap Challenge, suffered from running very similar challenges all year.
In the after-prime-time slots, ITV's Blank Screen turned out to be a non-blank screen, and Win, Lose Or Draw Late made us wish that the show was late. They hope for better from Trish Kinane and Stephen Leahy's Vote for Me, a show that attempts to find a candidate for the next general election, and isn't at all a Pop Idle rip-off. That'll debut in early January.
Challenge has had a good year, overall. Totally Top Trumps had the germ of a winning format, and House of Games was well-produced if rather a one-joke wonder. We're not convinced by the channel's growing reliance on poker games, but they do seem to draw in the viewers. More to our taste is the slew of revival shows, including Bullseye, Blockbusters, 3-2-1, and The Krypton Factor. It's a major shame that they've not been able to screen any further shows from Bob Monkhouse, apart from two episodes of The Golden Shot.
Daytime And Teatime Television
With Fifteen-to-One put out to TV Heaven (not Challenge), C4 had a 30 minute hole in its schedules. The only one we've seen was yet another Endemol co-production, in the shape of Beat the Nation. Tim Brook-Taylor and Graeme Garden managed to be even more laidback than Richard Whiteley in the continuing Countdown slot, and that takes some doing. One series was all it got; one series was about all it was worth.
ITV tried the 24 Hour Quiz in February, inviting people to spend their lives locked away in a studio in London, answering questions for (er) seventeen hours a day. It was even less successful than something very unsuccessful, the rules changed each day, and the programme was quietly shunted off air as soon as possible.
BBC2 has been trying all year to find something to fill the schedule gap at 6pm, as The Simpsons moved to C4. In February, Traitor filled three-quarters of an hour with people telling the truth and lying to each other. It was a good show, and Tony Livesey was a revelation as host, but it aired in completely the wrong slot. In a vain effort to fill the slot, daytime staple The Weakest Link moved into the slot over the summer, but that was the only facelift associated with the programme this year. Er. Daily news quiz The Cram would probably have worked better as a weekly programme, but the reasonably light-hearted Headjam and Beg, Borrow or Steal did work as daily shows and provide a platform for the channel to build.
Channel 5 shuffled Brainteaser all about the schedules, and ran Memory Bank for six months of the year. Both shows paid their way by inviting viewers to call in and answer a screamingly easy observation question. Screamingly difficult questions were the forte for 9 Live Quiz TV, which booked four otherwise empty hours on E4.
In children's television. Beat the Cyborgs crossed Gladiators with computer games, and what the show lacked in gameplay, it more than made up for in spectacle. Starfinder returned for a second series in the summer, and Scary Sleepover was loudness on the television - too loud for 10am Sunday morning, surely. Play the Game combined video games with cute bunnies, and didn't really hit either target. Hitting its target - being completely silly on national television - was Tiny and Mr Duk's Huge Show, the best thing Joe Pasquale did all year, and which comes to BBC1 next month. Hard Spell Abbey was far more uplifting and watchable than its prime-time spin-off Hard Spell. Let's be honest, would you rather watch Eamonn Holmes being nasty, or Simon Hickson dressing up as a monk and playing Spell-ebrity Squares?
Reality Television Watch
- "There is a limit to how much reality television British audiences can take." - The Independent, February.
The year began with Shattered, in which Dermot O'Leary did his best to keep people awake for a whole week, without once bursting into song. Though derided by many as tedious and banal, it would begin to look like quality television by the end of the year.
The slide downhill started in February, with the third series of Celebrity Torture And Bickering. Pre-tournament favourite John Lydon walked out of camp, allowing former singer Kerry McFadden to win the viewer's vote. Showing all his flair for self-publicity, Peter Andre revived his pop career on the back of the show, helped by dating the surgically-enhanced Jordan. A fourth series of CT&B went out in November and December, and was more notable for the early exit of Vic Reeves and his wife Nancy Sorrell, and for Natalie Appleton flouncing out after being nominated for a fifth torture in seven days.
Channel 5 tried to run their own take on the reality genre with February's Back to Reality, but it followed too soon after CT&B, and rather left us wondering why they couldn't spend that sort of money on reviving The Mole. Another attempt at a reality show, October's The Farm, fell on similarly stony ground. Perhaps Back to Reality came just one week too early.
In March, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre cancelled its production of Big Brother just two weeks into a ten-week run, following widespread criticism of the show's "cheap imitation of immoral western programmes in pursuit of profit." Germany's year-long programme suffered from viewing figures approximating zero, and the Romanian version got hit with a big fine after showing two contestants, um, doing it.
Channel 4's The Games came back for a second run in April, and everyone threw themselves in with gusto, verve, and took it incredibly seriously. A third series will air in the new year.
ITV's other contribution was Hell's Kitchen, in which celebrities tried to make tasty dishes while being shouted at by Gordon Ramsay. A huge success with the viewers, but not with Mr Ramsay, who will be absent when the show returns in the new year.
- "It wasn't a game show, it was appalling" - Dan Bryan, June.
The domestic Big Brother ran for ten weeks between May and August, and was billed as "evil" television. An anagram of those letters quickly became more appropriate. Following a mad plan to stage a spoof eviction, then re-introduce the evictees to the house, there was a massive flare-up of fighting, which led to one of the evictees being removed from the show, though arguably not the one most responsible for the violence. New television regulator OFCOM spurned the opportunity to decide whether or not continuing the show was in any way rewarding the night's violence.
The public service element of the show was absent this year - the chance to show that those granted asylum and who change gender are normal people was squandered in favour of tawdry thrills and easy ratings. As the show continued, it became obvious to even the most open-minded observer than Endemol was engineering the situations they wanted, slanting coverage to its pre-determined agenda, and all but barred any actual thought from contestant or viewer. This process reached its nadir just over half-way through the run, when Endemol completely re-wrote history - and parts of the official website - to ensure a six-person eviction vote, rather than the two-person vote that should have occurred. By the time the show limped to its conclusion, we'd completely lost all interest. Carrot sticks all round, then.
Perhaps the most interesting contribution to reality television has come from Dean O'Loughlin. He finished third in the 2001 run of Big Brother, and this year published a book about his experiences. He laid bare the reality behind the constructed reality show, suggesting that Endemol was only ever interested in press coverage and not the contestant's best interests. To our knowledge, Endemol has never replied to the claims made in this book. Instead, the company attacked its critics for being old and past it, a response that rather missed the point.
UK Gameshows.com Hits
Contributors to the UKGS mailing list often come up with good ideas to tweak game shows, and occasionally do a little better than the national press. In the past, we've discussed these ideas, and they've come to the screen:
- Without Prejudice? invited previous winners onto its discussion panel.
- Wasn't the idea of a day-long silent protest on Big Brother one of ours? That particular farce culminated in Endemol's staff taking petty retaliation by refusing to talk to the contestants, and with the series descending into anarchy, an attempt to burn the diary room camera using (non-flammable) straw.
- Still with BB, we remember rumours that the penultimate week's all-up vote was staged to stop one contestant from walking out and forcing the vote to be cancelled, another spoiler strategies suggested on this list in the past.
- We're taking some credit for the clip of Shafted turning up on every episode of HIGNY in November.
- The big scoop for UK Gameshows came in May, when sterling detective work from Thomas Scott exposed a fake game show at the offices of a national tabloid newspaper. Mr Scott spoke to the newspaper reporter concerned, who assured him that the show was real. Four days later, that same newspaper reporter wrote a big piece in that same national newspaper, describing the lengths that people would go to to appear on television. Curiously, the fact that he'd been rumbled didn't appear in the article.
Missing In Action
At least these shows took to the air. Cilla Black was linked with a celeb panel game about celebrities in the spring, but that's rather vanished into the ether. Also vanishing into the ether was Doctor "Neil" Fox's The Big Call; at one time, this was offering zillions of pounds in prizes, then it was thousands of lottery tickets that could win zillions of pounds, and now it's just vanished without trace.
Also missing: Blank Cheque, a Tony Dortie (off of Top Of The Pops circa 1992) vehicle with three couples answering true or false questions, and trusting each other's judgements. Press Ganged, aka Survivor On A Ship, which ITV announced to great fanfare in June. Since then, we've seen absolutely nothing. And the new Knightmare - a ten-minute video was floating around the internet a few months ago, but nothing concrete's in the schedules. We're still hopeful of seeing a daytime game based on adding letters to a word but not completing it, and The Pyramid, featuring fast-talking couples.
Currently advertising for contestants: Know All (do you know what's been in the news over the past four hours?) You Be The Judge (let the public resolve squabbles) and Fool Around (youngsters pretending to be single.) Details on the Contestant Calls page.
Already inked in on the schedules is Dealing Duel, a collectables game show, whatever one of those is. We'll find out on 7 Jan.
What is our tip for airing this year? That's The Question, already airing in Switzerland and the Netherlands, featuring two people attempting to gather enough seconds to win something completely ordinary. If cheap and cheerful is the new fashion, this will be filling ITV's daytime before the end of the year.
Even though the reality bubble is about to burst, no-one has told ITV (Stars On Thin Ice is the Come Dancing clone) or C5 (So You Think You Can Teach and Extreme Health Farm should be self-explanatory.)
The Roll Of Honour
Raven series II: Grema
Series III: Jaddo
Masterteam 2003: Manchester
Hercules: Mike Dixon
Round Britain Quiz: Midlands
University Challenge: Magdalen Oxford
Who Wants to be a Millionaire: Pat Gibson
Eurovision Song Contest: Ruslana, performing "Wild Dances", representing Ukraine.
Junior Eurovision: Maria Isabel, performing "Antes Muerta Que Sencilla", representing Spain.
The Cram: Nick Corrigan
Countdown: Stewart Holden (June) and Mark Tournoff (December)
Counterpoint: Paul Steeples
Big Brother: Nadia Almada (viewer's vote) and Victor Ebuwa (press coverage)
Junior Mastermind: Daniel
Mastermind: Shaun Wallace
Just A Minute: Paul Merton
Brain of Britain: Alan Bennett Brain of Brains: Alan Bennett Honourable mention: Emma Schlesinger, who had the highest score for a decade in her semi-final.
Scrapheap Challenge: The Anoraks
Hard Spell: Gayathri
Hard Spell Abbey: Catherine
Picks Of The Year
Until next year's Weeks chronicle the development of the game show, we leave you with these highlights of the year gone by.
Most dubious fashion idea - Dale Winton's beard.
Best breakthrough talent - Matt Brown, host of Junior Eurovision.
Best talent in a new role - Russell Davies. Very few people could possibly replace Robert Robinson on Radio 4's long-running Brain Of Britain. At short notice, Russell Davies had exactly that task; after a nervy opening episode, he really grew into the role. By the end of the series, we had difficulty in remembering he wasn't the presenter at the start.
Show That Should Have Worked, But Didn't - Passport to Paradise. Johnny Vaughan and Denise van Outen were reunited after five years apart, and presented an action-packed show. On paper, it worked wonderfully; in practice, it went out in the middle of summer, used so much technology that it excluded most viewers, and just didn't gel well. The thought "Antan Dec does this so much better" springs to mind, and the BBC has decided to find alternative vehicles for both presenters.
Best schedule fixture - Countdown. Three years after expanding to 45 minutes, and a year and a half after being shifted to 3:15 in the afternoon, the veteran numbers and letters game has finally hit a rich vein of form. The guests are still as much hit (Richard Digance, Jeremy Beadle) as miss (Victoria Mather, Daniel O'Donnell), but Carol Vorderman, Richard Whiteley and semi-permanent dictionary queen Susie Dent are able to cover up their weaknesses and keep the show cooking on gas. Three superlative contestants in the December finals meant we finished with two cracking matches, both going down to a crucial conundrum, as did June's final. Tension doesn't come any higher.
Best returning show - Raven. We've been shouting this show's praises from the rooftops for the past two years, and the third series has maintained the high standards. Such is the scoring system that contestants can rise from the bottom to the top - or vice versa - in one day, and the final result is in doubt until the very last moment. The production values have been consistently high, and this year's crop of new games add a certain house style to the series. Ten years from now, we'll be petitioning Challenge to show episodes. Heck, ten years from now, whoever's writing this column will hold up Raven as cult television from the 21st century.
It would be unfair not to give a very honourable mention to Jungle Run, which got a little bit nastier this year, and improved as a result.
Best new show - Crisis Command: Could You Run The Country. The BBC doesn't much like people calling this one a game show. We say it is because the basic situation is constructed for the programme, rather than occurring independently of the broadcaster; and there is a modicum of a scoring system. Who needs prizes, as William G Stewart always said.
This realistic programme invites three "successful" people to become cabinet ministers, and deal with an unfolding crisis in real time. This programme worked on many levels. At its most basic, CC gave an insight into the real workings of the executive, and the difficult decisions they have to make when things get difficult. There's an interactive level - would the viewer make the same decision as the contestants; and there's the level at which we see the contestants being influenced by their advisors. And there's the level at which we want to shout "Amanda, shut up!" every time Ms Platell opened her mouth. Add into this some high production values, and the show should have been a rip-roaring success.
Instead, it was buried in the darkest depths of the BBC2 and BBC4 schedule, taken off air when one of the planned scenarios came close to real news, and clearly doesn't have the support of the Beeb. This is a crying shame, because this show could easily combine with Have A Go and next year's Vote for Me to make interactive government. Four episodes have been filmed, scheduled, and pulled. We wait for them to air.
Happy new year, everyone.
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