Weaver's Week 2005-07-24
'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'
Wizard spelling - 24 July 2005
"The original quiz show, and still the best" - John Humphrys
(Initial / Endemol for ITV, 1716 July 10)
The first book in the Harry Potter series crept out in 1997, almost completely un-noticed. There was no fanfare, no advertising, no publicity machine at all. Indeed, it wasn't until the third part of the septology came out in June 1999 that J K Rowling's work made the national news, and then only as an "And finally" item. Shortly afterwards, the merchandising machine went into over-drive - Radio 4 dedicated eight hours of its schedule to a reading of the first book in the series, there were cinematic adaptations, board games, a round on Mastermind, the whole gamut.
Somewhere along the line, the original books rather got lost. Though scheduled for one-book-a-year, and completion in 2003, only six books have yet appeared. Two years ago, the release of the fifth volume came with a level of hype and expectation that some suggested would never be matched, let alone exceeded. The promotional activity for this year's work was almost impossible to ignore.
One new development is competing television programmes. The BBC, which one might expect to make the running in this department, has had to make do with speed-readers giving their review into the self-important Today programme on the radio, and a more considered review on the television flagship Blue Peter. Never ones to miss a big event when it's flashing "Big Event Here" in fifty-foot high neon pink letters, ITV scooped the rights to televise Mrs Rowling giving a short reading from her new book, at midnight on a Saturday morning. They also get to conduct a television interview, but that has to be done by a young reader. And that's "young" as in someone under 16.
Which brings us to this event. After thousands applied for a prize money can't buy, submitting one of their questions in advance, four budding interviewers - and a parent each - have made it through to the televised final. An unseen process has sorted each contestant into one of four "houses," and host Ben Shephard will ask them questions. Whoever emerges the winner will, well, win. It really is that simple.
The quiz itself was no great shakes - each young contestant was asked 45 seconds of questions on general Harry Potter trivia; each parent got 45 seconds on an agreed sub-section of the canon. A short round of Potter and general knowledge questions open for both players followed, with an observation round as well. Finally, the top two contestants had a penalty shoot-out. Usually, this denotes a pretty banal format (see The Big Call, and far too many 12-Yard productions), but this was the only weak point in an otherwise strong show.
It's clear that the quiz was a low-budget affair, but Initial's design staff deserve a lot of credit for making it look expensive. The audience was perhaps more integral to the success of this show than many, and the cheering crowd were bathed in the same colour as the contestant they were supporting. Behind each contestant was a cardboard model of a castle tower, and the house crest was visible on the dais where each pair sat. Many of the details were just right - from the slightly fusty typeface used throughout the show, to the old bell tolling for the end of the time. The observation round required the contestants to use a slate and chalk, perhaps the first time they've been used on a game show since the first series of Raven.
Most interestingly, the show didn't feature a single buzzer, bleeper, random selector, nomination of other players, or other signalling device. Every question went in strict rotation to one of the players, and if they got it wrong, they got it wrong. The last quiz to be similarly buzzer-free was Hard Spell.
The comparisons don't stop there. While Eamonn Holmes imbued the spelling competition with the constant threat and pressure of elimination, Ben Shephard ensured that this quiz ran smoothly, and people left with the maximum amount of grace possible. It was well past half-way before the contestants started to leave, and they all left to genuine applause.
This Harry Potter quiz was only ever going to be a one-off, and there's probably no point in expecting a full series. It does show that ITV is capable of making good quizzes that test and reward properly. The underlying format could, perhaps, provide an outline template for a future series of The Big Call.
A tip of the hat to winner Owen Jones, whose friendly, no-nonsense interviewing style has impressed the great (Phillip Schofield), the good (J K Rowling), and mere mortals (this column.)
(Granada for ITV, 2100 July 14)
Spellbound, the 2002 documentary about a national spelling competition in the US, has a lot to answer for. It was surely the inspiration for Hard Spell Abbey, which begat the painful Hard Spell, which in turn begat Celebrity Hard Spell, which gave us another welcome memory of Richard Whiteley.
But it's also given us this show, originally called Celebrity Spelling Bee, before someone in ITV control realised that this would be the zillionth show entitled "Celebrity Something" to air this year. Ninety minutes of watching celebrities spell long words, with only the occasional Chris Tarrant quip - and the inevitable commercial breaks - to enliven proceedings.
The format is confusing enough. Twelve celebrities have been split into teams of four, captained by Edwina Currie, Patrick Mower, and Fiona Phillips. It's probable - though not made clear - that each player has also been given a Spelling Bee Spellbook, containing all the words they could possibly be asked to spell on the show. One thing that is made clear is which charity the players are competing on behalf of, because celebrities doing silly things for charity automatically makes for better television than celebrities doing silly things for their own self-aggrandisement.
In the opening round, contestants select a level of difficulty, and have to spell one word, the number of points available varying in relation to the difficulty of the word. The second round sees each team nominate someone to take a moderate word, someone else to take a difficult word, and someone else to spell a really obnoxious word. A rapid-fire round followed rapidly, with contestants challenged to work out if the words ended in (say) -ant or -ent. One team left here. Then the first round repeated with the easy words removed, then there was a speed drill - spelling the words within ten seconds.
By now, something over an hour had elapsed, and we were finally down to our winning team. But this was a game for individuals, so three of them had to go. Two were eliminated on a chain spelling - each member had to give the next letter in a long and tortuous word. Finally, the show came down to The Penalty Shoot Out Of Banal Formats Everywhere. We'd almost given up by this time.
Expert advice was provided by Samir Khan, an eleven-year-old spelling prodigy from the US. Each team could call upon his help twice during the show, usually to spell a word they didn't know. It's a slight shame that Spelling Bee couldn't find any British youngsters who could spell just as well - were Hard Spell champions Guyathri and Catherine otherwise engaged during the recording?
Hard Spell could never be accused of making spelling boring. The daily heats were, if anything, a little too rushed for the good of the show, while the final had just about the right pace. Spelling Bee, though, went for the dramatic pauses, and some rounds had the pace of a snail. There was also a lot of movement for no obvious reason - the contestants answered their questions on a podium in front of their team, which meant three people would move up and down the stage every few minutes. It felt messy.
It is possible for television to make spelling compelling - Hard Spell Abbey made its serious educational message all the more palatable by copious lashings of humour. Elements of that format - five correct spellings in a short time, the first-mistake-loses final from spin-off Hard Spell - would have brought some light relief to a painfully tedious show.
We're also drawn to compare this show with The Great British Spelling Test last year, which did at least make an attempt to explain why the English language is so difficult and full of unusual spellings. Nothing so educational here, just the prospect of celebs succeeding, and failing, to spell strange words. It's too slow for a 90-minute show, and would perhaps have done better compressed to an hour.
But wait. Isn't it mandatory for every prime-time ITV quiz to have a viewer competition shoe-horned in somewhere? Giving the viewers an excuse to have fifteen seconds of fame, and ITV's shareholders a chance to double their money? Evidently not - there was no premium-rate telephony here.
First round, heat fifteen
John, don't over-egg your little show by claiming it's been around longer than Stonehenge. Spelling Bee (the original) was first, and even University Challenge has been around for longer than the black chair. We're not going to comment on his claim that Mastermind is the best quiz, for quality is in the eye of the viewer.
Myra Marsh is offering the Novels of Jane Austen. She has a competent round, making good goes at many questions, and making 9 (3).
Ed Brims will talk about naked eye astronomy in Britain. This isn't to be confused with the recent Sky at Night special starring Patrick Moore and Lauren Laverne. It's clear that Mr Brims knows his stars and constellations, as he finishes on 15 (1).
Brian McTaggart has been researching the American Civil War, which is a rather large subject. He finishes on a score of 7 (2).
Gillian Mann will tell us about the Life and Musical Films of Fred Astaire. She dances her way through these questions almost as easily as Ginger Rogers, and finishes on a remarkable 15 (2).
Mr McTaggart takes the opportunity to nail the myth that the war was all about slavery, before taking his score to 14 (6).
Mrs Marsh rhapsodises about the way a good book can change one's life. She has a very good crack at the general knowledge set, finishing on 21 (6).
As we suspected, Mr Brims is the same person who was on the rather successful St John's Oxford team in the 2004 University Challenge tournament. He guesses at almost all the questions, which is a good strategy, and on this show, the host doesn't sneer for suggesting the dog in Peter Pan is called Rover. Thanks to a very fast delivery - as if he cleans his teeth with electricity - his score is 28 (2).
Mrs Mann has her work cut out, but could yet work her magic again. Very sadly, her round falls almost directly into Pass Hell, and she finishes on 18 (8).
Big Brother 6
Controversy has hit the staging of the US version, as Phil Proctor (their version of Marcus Bentley) was replaced on the day before the big launch. No such problems in the UK, where the show continues to stumble along, regularly being beaten by Celebrity Love Island and Celebrity Spelling Bee.
It's interesting to compare the publicity machines for Big Brother and Harry Potter. Both campaigns include some carefully-sown public adverts, but rely on word-of-mouth to do most of the selling work. Both works are scripted, at least up to a point, and one can draw a parallel between the presentation of trainee wizards and the editing of house contestants. Potter would still be a ginormous publishing event if it had no more publicity than "The next book is out on this date" - indeed, this year's campaign was little more than "The next book is out on this date." Big Brother requires huge amounts of publicity to survive, and has quite clearly courted the press - this concept underpins our thesis that the winning contestant is the one who gets the best paper coverage.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that Big Brother is happy to reveal elements of the plot to the papers in advance. You wouldn't find police in Telford rushing to take down a banner thrown over a main road revealing a key plot point on Big Brother, as they did this week for Ms Rowling's work.
Here's the Celebdaq scores for the seventeen (count 'em!) BB contestants. An investment of 100 Celebdaq pounds in one of these people when they were first listed, with dividends re-invested, would give the following return (accurate to three significant figures):
17 (nc) Kinga 175
16 (-2) Mary 902
15 (-2) Lesley 1070
14 (+1) Eugene 1170
13 (+3) Doctor 1330
12 (-1) Roberto 8130
11 (+1) Orlaith 9270
10 (nc) Sam 9870
9 (nc) Vanessa 26900
8 (nc) Derek 29500
7 (nc) Kemal 91800
6 (-3) Saskia 173000
5 (nc) Craig 208000
4 (-3) Maxwell 257000
3 (+1) Anthony 273000
2 (+4) Science 281000
1 (+1) Makosi 433000
So, long-term leader Maxwell falls off his perch, to be replaced by a resurgent Makosi. Who will win? We'll find out in about four weeks, or whenever the last viewer switches off.
This Week And Next
ITV's confirmed the shows for a one-off revival hosted by Antan Dec. They'll try to twirl their fingers in time to 3-2-1, hope that Mary Brown really will come on down for The Price is Right, and aim to hit on The Golden Shot. Don't confuse this with the autumn's Carol Vorderman which-antique-is-most-expensive show The Golden Lot. There'll also be a pub quiz hosted by Al Murray, and a second series of The X Factor. Over on the BBC, another run of Strictly Come Dancing will be the fourth dance-related show in eighteen months.
All that's in the future. Next week sees Natural Born Dealers arrive on Channel 4, in no way is it to be confused with Bargain Hunt. ITV cashes in on the poker craze that's sweeping the nation, with an All Star Poker Challenge running all week.
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