Weaver's Week 2005-09-04
'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'
Would Like To Find - 4 September 2005
We continue our review of ITV's game show history.
Would Like To Find...
It's fair to say that quizzes and game shows for children have never been particularly attractive to ITV, though that doesn't explain their complete absence from Melvyn Bragg's recent television history series. Children don't have the disposable income of their parents, and the concept of "pester power" wasn't really invented until the consumer boom of the 1980s. As a result, ITV's programming tended to be cartoons, drama, or imported. Not that there's anything wrong with a diet of Dangermouse, Dramarama, and Fraggle Rock, it's just not going to set this column's pulse racing.
There were game shows for children before 1980, you just had to look very hard to find them. Junior Criss-Cross Quiz (Granada) was a version of the adults' show, tailored to the 12-14 age group, with hosts including Bob Holness, Bill Grundy, and Danny Blanchflower. It's fair to say that none of these people are best remembered for their role here. Granada also made Anything You Can Do, which pitted teams from the ITV regions against each other. To be honest, that's pretty much all we know about the show.
It wasn't until the Saturday Banana (LWT) slipped onto the screen in the late 70s that children got a proper game show of their own. Runaround was hosted by Mike Reid, who would later go on to greater obscurity in some BBC drama or other. While it looked like a standard "A B or C" quiz, it hid a secret. If the contestants wanted to confuse their opponents, they'd go to a wrong answer, then head to the right one when Mike told them to "Runaround ... now!" All very high-octane stuff.
Slightly more sedate was What's Happening? (Central), a news quiz between teams representing their local independent radio station. This was a low-budget programme, but looked impressive. Tommy Boyd - known from the Magpie programme - hosted the quiz, with real newsreader Leonard Parkin giving a newscast with (horror!) some deliberate errors, and with the grand prize of nothing more than a certificate presented by the Managing Director of Central Television. Worldwise (TVS) was a slightly higher-budget show, famed for David "Kid" Jensen's floating pod and a logical set of flight plans for the world, all displayed by the mighty BBC Model B microcomputer. One series winner, we seem to recall, won through four rounds to take home the top prize of a tent. The zenith of making a Small Budget go a Long Way must surely go to the jaw-droppingly impressive Mousetrap game from Motormouth (TVS) in the early 90s - the set consisted of the traditional board game reconstructed at real-life size. Prize inflation had set in by now, and mountain bikes were regularly given away.
Maybe it's this column's age talking, but the children's programmes of the late 1980s were just as good as adult television these days. Press Gang remains one of the best dramas ITV has ever produced, the aforementioned Dangermouse is still on rotation on a cartoon channel, and Knightmare (Broadsword / Anglia) still holds people spellbound on the Challenge channel. The adventures had their own internal logic, and were very well written.
Kiddies' versions of grown-up programmes continue to appear on the schedules, such as Junior Win, Lose Or Draw (Scottish) from the opening weeks of GMTV, and Gladiators: Train to Win (LWT) challenged the nation's youth to keep fit. By this time, ITV's consolidation had begun, and children's programmes suffered cut budgets, reduced airtime, and a lack of original thought.
One thread has run through almost all the ITV game shows for youngsters - it's always been about the experience, about playing the game rather than the prizes. Recent reality shows Starfinder (Carlton) and Splash Camp (Televisionary / Wised Up) have been true to this tradition, combining learning new skills with some very watchable reality programming. Jungle Run (Granada) has also been all about the game, even though an excellent team will win some seriously desirable prizes. Perhaps Play the Game (Darrall Macqueen) tilts too far towards glorifying prizes over the experience, but this is an arguable position, and it's the only example we can think of.
While game shows for children have seen peaks and troughs, ITV has always had a strong penchant for shows about the audience, or starring the audience. Shows where, if you will, the prize is being a star, even just for one day. A part, it's true, of this popularity stemmed from the IBA not treating talent search contests as game shows, but much of the success stemmed from the simple fact that people like to be entertained, and love the thrill of finding something new.
In the beginning, Radio Luxembourg supplied ready-made talent show formats, as well as the prize shows we discussed last week. Hughie Green's Opportunity Knocks (Associated-Rediffusion / ABC / Thames), the perpetual New Faces (ATV / Central) programme, and other similar shows brought that heady combination of something novel and something entertaining to the screens. And, with both shows adopting a variety format, if you didn't like one act, there would be another along in five minutes.
Talent formats quietly left the screens in the late 80s, but not before The Fame Game (Granada) had introduced a novel idea - having the public decide the winner. In those days, they actually gathered juries to sit in each ITV region, and cast their votes according to which acts they preferred. By the time competitive talent shows returned, the premium-rate phone-in vote was an accepted part of the landscape. Pop Idol (Fremantle), Popstars: The Rivals (LWT), and The X Factor (Syco) all used a broadly similar system, allowing the public to wheedle down a selected shortlist to an appropriate number of winners, usually two (Simon Cowell and someone else.)
ITV hasn't always been about the talent shows, though. There's a long and reasonably proud tradition of making game shows starring ordinary people. Perhaps the best example of this is the very long-running Mr and Mrs (variously HTV / Border / LWT), in which the avuncular Derek Batey talked to some married couples, and gently enquired how much they knew about each other. The stars of the show were always the contestants, at least until Julian Clary's ill-fated version aired for exactly two weeks in March 1999.
Another fondly-remembered people show that had a bit of a game about it was Blind Date (LWT). Remembered more for the groaningly-awful puns, and for the way each of Cilla Black's envelopes contained the same holiday, the Date was a Saturday evening institution for almost two decades.
There's often been an element of ITV that likes to see people suffer a little, so long as they'll laugh at it later. People are Funny (ATV) was part of the 1950s lineup, and the programme's stunts would inspire Candid Camera and it's British offspring, Game for a Laugh (LWT). In turn, that - and some wonderfully inventive script-writing - ensured the success of Beadle's About (LWT), and then You've Been Framed! (Granada) brought us footage of people hitting themselves over the head with their own cuckoo clocks. And still does!
Still in this category, Survivor (Carlton) was ITV's great hope for summer 2001. In retrospect, it's not entirely obvious why the British Public preferred that year's Big Brother to Survivor. Perhaps it was the comfort of the familiar, as we knew roughly what to expect from BB, while Survivor had an unfamiliar cycle. Perhaps it was the level of hype that ITV had wheeled out ahead of the show. Most probably, the problem was the irritatingly slow pace of the early programmes in general, and of the first show in particular. Survivor was a better show than this column gave credit at the time.
As the channel of The People, it's fair to say that ITV has always been slightly obsessed with celebrity, with regular celebrity editions of whatever game shows there were. An early example of the channel's reliance on familiar faces in unfamiliar settings was the late-80s You Bet! (LWT); this re-working of a German show challenged celebrities to back people doing daredevil or amazing stunts. Elements of this show, albeit without the celebrity, would turn up in Don't Try This at Home! (LWT?) in the late 90s, which must have influenced Survivor in some way.
By 2002, someone at Granada had put two and two together and come up with the phenomenally successful I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! (Granada) In this programme, a memory of minor celebs (that's the collective noun, it says here) is stranded in the middle of the Australian jungle. They're given silly things to do by the Grate British Public, who also vote on who they would like to win, and the last person remaining is the winner. A very similar mechanic applies on more recent programmes, such as Hell's Kitchen (Endemol) and Celebrity Love Island (Granada).
The law of diminishing returns suggests that, sooner rather than later, one of these series will flop completely. Three months ago, it looked as though Celeb Love Island would be that high-profile failure, but ITV showed courage - a very rare quality these days - and managed to gain some respect for their work. It is notable, though, that ITV currently doesn't seem to have that many shows for people who can't quiz and can't sing. This will change, as the fashions of the television industry move round in cycles.
Next week, this retrospective series concludes with some of the programmes where the star of the show was the game itself.
Robin Segal is taking the Life and Works of Tom Stoppard, a subject it's clear he's swotted up on very well. 16 (1) is a challenging score.
Nick Spokes offers the Life and Reign of King Louis XI of France, 1423-83. In many other weeks, this would be a strong score; this week, 13 (0) is a little off the pace.
David Wilson will tell us about The Prisoner. Well, that made spectacularly little sense, the score is 13 (0).
Godfrey Newham will review the Life and Works of Frederick Delius. It's another fantastic score, 16 (1).
A certain symmetry to the scores this week. Nick reckons that Louis XI, "the universal spider", was the best-documented mediaeval monarch. It's a week when a good general knowledge round will win, and Nick's 18 (0) won't do the trick.
David explains "The Prisoner" in fifteen seconds, but we've read the Wikipedia entry, and it still makes no sense. Sorry. A slightly dodgy question about the Swiss cantons sees him finish on 21 (2).
Robin is a professional puzzle compiler, and explains how to compile a word search. Tom Stoppard always comes up with something interesting, but can Robin fit together a winning score? Perhaps not - he confuses "a little learning" with "a little knowledge", and falls away badly in the middle. He finishes on 23 (5), so is still in there.
Godfrey would put Delius high in the second division of composers, perhaps a little lacking in the range of emotions on the page, if not in real life. He has no particular difficulty in winning the round and the contest, finishing on 25 (6).
This Week And Next
Dan Chambers is the programming director for Channel Five. He speaks a lot of sense, telling the Edinburgh Television Festival that Big Brother is now a spent force. "Every year they try to up the ante and make it more outrageous. It's reached the point where viewers turn off. I don't think Channel 4 can go much further with it and still call itself a public service broadcasting channel... Viewers are now turning away from it. We may see the Big Brother ratings going down 15% or 20% next year. It could become a spent force, the way Millionaire is."
Is Millionaire a spent force? It's not attracting the zillions of viewers from 1999, but is popular enough to be back for a seventh year, and regularly provides Challenge with its highest viewing figures. If ITV tried to axe Millionaire, this column reckons there would be a groundswell of opposition.
Red tape threatens to interfere in the experiences of two Big Brother contests. In the Netherlands, one of the participants in the new series is pregnant, and is due to give birth within a month. Under strict rules covering children on the television, this youngest-ever contestant will only be allowed to appear under strict supervision, and many people are wondering if Endemol has really thought this through properly.
Not even Endemol can be blamed for the bizarre turn of fortune for the winner of the recent British competition. Makosi Musambasi was pulled over last weekend, apparently for not wearing a seatbelt while in a car. Ms Musambasi, originally from Zimbabwe, was in the process of applying for a change of visa status, from "cardiac nurse" to "famous for being famous." This is the normal course of events for someone wishing to regularise their status with the authorities, and nothing worthy of making the papers. However, the police officers called in the Home Office, who pre-empted the application, and told Ms Musambasi to sling her hook. Her lawyers, Penningtons, say that they will be lodging an appeal within the next few days. It is also a matter of record that the UK will not remove anyone to Zimbabwe, pending a separate legal challenge. This is all going to end up in a revival of NICKED!, isn't it.
Before we get there, we have new series of The Amazing Race (Living2) and Jungle Run (ITV) to watch, plus ITV's three-and-a-bit-hour special charting its own Fifty Greatest Shows. Bet they won't include Shafted.
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