Weaver's Week 2005-11-27

Weaver's Week Index

'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'


Strictly Weekly - 27 November 2005

In the original plan, this week's column was going to be a double-headed review, pitting the main BBC and ITV Saturday night shows against each other. However, we reckoned without the court case where Simon Fuller claimed that Simon Cowell stole his Pop Idol programme idea. It would have been inappropriate to review Mr Cowell's X Factor while court proceedings were in session and eagle-eyed lawyers were about. Just to add further irritation, the Simons reached out-of-court settlement on Friday, whereby Mr Fuller claimed 20% of Mr Cowell's show. The review will follow next week.

Strictly Come Dancing

(BBC1, Saturday evenings; review based on the 12 November episode)

Many antique formats are currently gracing the BBC's airwaves. Hard Spell is a simple development of the nation's first television game show, Spelling Bee, from 1938. Radio programme Brain of Britain has been running each year since the Roman invasion, and Round Britain Quiz (which returns in the new year) came on air shortly after the war. University Challenge, a 1962 invention, is a babe in arms by comparison.

Another very old idea is Come Dancing, a show in which couples competed to be the best ballroom dancers in the nation. Created by Eric Morley in 1950, a new series was made each year until 1995. Two years ago, the BBC brought the format out of retirement, and back to the screens. Somewhere between the Associated-Rediffusion Retirement Home for Remembered Programmes and the screen, the show was mugged.

Out went the members of the public, and in came professional dancers, people who make their living by knowing how to waltz, to cha-cha-cha, and to tango. Joining these seasoned pros were celebrities, major and minor. Not everyone could commit to the show - the weekly show ensures the talent has to keep Saturday, and probably three other days a week, free for almost three months. A certain level of physical fitness is required, as is the ability to make oneself look a fool on national television. Oh, and an appearance on this show will rule a celeb out of other celebrity reality shows for the foreseeable future.

Speaking before the launch of the initial series in spring 2004, host Bruce Forsyth told the press, "Although all we get at the moment is reality TV in different forms and guises, this is an entertainment show. They're all professional people... Strictly Come Dancing is another Generation Game. It's a lovely package because it's an entertaining show." (As quoted in Off The Telly's "Glory Game" series.)

Now, rightly or wrongly, this column usually has something else to do of a Saturday night, so hasn't actually caught a complete show, and followed it from beginning to end. Until now.

So, we begin with the grand master of light entertainment, Bruce Forsyth, and his glamorous co-host Tess Daly, descending a flight of stairs around the orchestra. They're followed by each of the eight couples competing on this programme. It's a grand showbiz entrance, the sort one would associate with Brucie, but that's rarely seen on a modern television show.

Instantly, though, Bruce makes a terrible faux pas, insinuating that one of the professional dancers is "a bat". She's visibly rattled by this insult, and does well to maintain her professionalism. Before the performances begin, we viewers are given a very brief explanation of what to look for, but without going into any particular detail. There are two styles of dance on offer tonight - the waltz and the samba - but each couple will only dance once.

There are a lot of people to meet on the programme - the dancers, the orchestra, the judges, and we meet them as we go through the show. This feels slightly messy, but the alternative is to bamboozle the viewer with zillions of introductions in the first two minutes. It's the lesser of two evils.

Before each dance, there's a catch-up on what the couple's been doing during the week. This tends to tell a worthwhile story, though it could be difficult not to edit down a week into a minute and still be dull. After each couple dances, there's a brief interview, and an explanation from the judges of what they're marking on and why - though this doesn't always translate directly into scores. There's loud and vociferous booing for anyone who dares to give criticism, or a "merely adequate" score, even when it's justified. There are times when Bruce Forsyth and Craig Revel Horwood threaten to turn into the new Dogsby and Kielty, but most of the discussion is civilised, if not polite.

The direction of the show could be improved. There are too many cute camera angles, lots of panning and zooming about, as if it's a contest to find the best segment director and not the best dancer. For the viewer, it can be very difficult to see what the competitors are doing, whether their feet and arms are in just the right places, when they're about the size of a pin on screen. Though dance is relatively difficult to shoot well when compared with singing, it's easier than live sport, and deserves better treatment than this.

During the show there are two "still to come" clip-reels. This is the BBC's closest equivalent to a commercial break, and feels more than a little out of place. Throughout the show, Bruce refers to "strictly this" and "strictly that", and will finish the programme by saying, "Keep strictly." That doesn't even begin to make sense!

Musical accompaniment on the programme is provided by the Laurie Holloway orchestra, and they play live. They provide a modern popular tune, complete with vocals, to help time the steps. It could be possible to use something that's been specifically written for dancing, rather than performing. However, there is a need to attract younger viewers, and using songs they know helps to that end. There may be more legitimate questions about the quality of the vocals.

The results show adds very little to Every Reality Show's Results Bit Ever, with the possible exception of dimming the lights on those safe from elimination.

The question we need to ask: why has Strictly Come Dancing proven so popular? Tricky. Some of it is clear affection from the British public towards Bruce Forsyth, and the enduring popularity of the Come Dancing concept. Some of it will be the hope that celebrities will be made to look foolish, some will watch because they are interested in the celebs, and some people will watch to take tips on their own dancing. On their own, none of these reasons is sufficient to explain the show's success; combined, they add up to a winning formula.

There is also a public service element to Strictly Come Dancing - it tends to attract relatively old viewers, those who would be put off by the pop 'n' prattle of ITV's rival X Factor. It may also be responsible for more people trying out these formal dances, with benefits for fitness and the arts.

But we can't take this analogy too far, for there is no room for expression in the format. Formal dance shows - Strictly Come Dancing and Graham Norton's Strictly Dance Fever - have been the cornerstone of BBC1's Saturday schedule for much of the last two years. The BBC appears only to be interested in formal dancing that can involve some form of viewer vote, and does not bother with dance as a form of personal statement.

How else can we explain the treatment of the Eurovision Young Dancer competition? How many readers could honestly say that they knew this was happening, still less name the British entrant? Artistic dance - whether it be the formal ballet of our rep Alex Jones, or the expressive work of Dutch winner Milou Nuyens - can't be turned into a phone vote. The BBC took the easy way out, and shoved the Young Dancer contest in a dark room for three months hoping it would vanish, then finally deigned to air it on arts channel BBC4.

Strictly Come Dancing is a valid work of art, let's take nothing away from that. But it's the only chance to show dance on prime-time analogue television, and it's a shame that the art is stripped away until only the formality is left.

However, let's not run the show down too far. When one's suggesting how the show could become more adventurous, more artsy, it's a form of praise. Ultimately, there's a clue in the title, Come Dancing is done, strictly. And well enough to make an eminently watchable programme.

University Challenge

First round, match ten: St John's Oxford v Trinity Cambridge

Image:University-challenge-zeus.jpg The Greek deity Bobholness. Or "Zeus", as he's generally known.

St John's were last with us two years ago, coming through a tough repechage before losing to Gonville and Caius in the quarters. Their best run was in 2001, when they came through the repechage to make the final. Losing tonight will not be a disaster. Trinity lost to Corpus Christi Oxford last year, their best result was a series win in 1995.

Is it significant that a chirpy St John's introduce themselves by name and subject, but not location? Three scientists on each team, and no-one to do with linguistics. Though both sides drop the first opener, it's the Oxford side who shade the opening exchanges, though Trinity comes back to lead 40-30 at the first visual round, Name That Helmet.

Quickly, the sides tie at 45, only for Trinity to pull ahead again. They're helped by a starter on obscure mediaeval history, answered by their history student. And not by this interlude:

Q: Broadcast on BBC1 at about 10.30pm on October 6 2004, what was the particular significance of the words, "staying bright and dry in the more northern parts of the country"?
Alistair Currie, Trinity: Part of the first Newsnight weather forecast?
(Thumper laughs)
(Audience laughs)
Dale Burrow, St John's: The total opposite happened?
Thumper: That, I grant you, is very likely, but they were in fact the closing words of the final weather forecast by Michael Fish.

The audio round is on pieces by Gershwin, and Trinity has pulled out a clear lead, 100-55. There's a sense that Trinity aren't making the most of their opportunities, and they might yet be made to pay. Indeed, St John's get the next starter, but Trinity get the next two, and pass the 130 points that will surely be enough to come back through the repechage. The team doesn't know of the Dead Kennedys, which isn't so much a Hidden Student Indicator as a Hidden Commentator's Age Indicator.

A long, long run of dropped starters finally ends with Trinity getting a "ring torus", or doughnut. The second picture round is on sculptures of gods, and is another panel-beater, apart from a picture of the Greek god Bobholness (right), but Trinity's lead is a surely unbeatable 165-90.

Though St John's misses a question about Oxford architecture, their rivals don't pick it up. They do suggest the Black Country includes the well-known Midlands town of Middlesbrough. A fingers-on-buzzers question about telephone dial-pads puts the Oxford side into repechage contention, and then it begins to feel as though an upset is possible. Just as St John's are really getting going, so does the gong, and Trinity has the win, 165-130.

The repechage teams could yet change completely:
1) St Hugh's Oxford 190
2=) Durham 130
2=) St John's Oxford 130
4) Exeter 125

Dale Burrow (45) and Leo Boyd (43) were the leading scorers for St John's; the team made 10/24 bonuses and two missignals. Thomas Cochrane buzzed for Trinity, the team had 15/30 bonuses and two missignals.

This Week And Next

Official viewing figures for the week ending 13 November tell an interesting story. Strictly Come Dancing (the episode reviewed above, 9.45 million, 2nd on BBC1) proved more popular than X-Factor (9.09m, 3rd on ITV). Both beat Jet Set (7.15m, 6th on BBC1) and Millionaire (6.66m, 8th on ITV).

On BBC2, the Mastermind final pulled in 3.08m, coming in the fourth most popular programme, but behind Weakest Link (3.49m). University Challenge's audience was hit by almost half-a-million defections to a Shakespeare play on BBC1, falling to 2.35m (11th on the channel). QI finished on 2.56m (7th), Eggheads made 2.50m (9th).

Deal Or No Deal continues to ascend the ratings, 2.25m tuning in for the Friday episode - the one after the quarter-million could have been won. It's the 11th most popular programme on the channel, and only trails Scrapheap Challenge (2.33m, 9th) by a whisker. Countdown failed to beat 1.8m viewers all week.

The Variety Club Showbiz awards last weekend, and the best television presenter award went to Richard Whiteley. It's a shame he didn't get this recognition while he was still able to accept it. Simon Cowell picked up the Showbiz Personality award. The multichannel television presenter was Gail Porter, and not (as one might expect from all his channel-hopping) Eamonn Holmes.

British winners were in short supply at the International Emmys this week, Top Gear won Best Non-Scripted Entertainment, and ITV picked up a special award on its half-century.

This year's Big Brother winner, Makosi Musambasi, has won her fight to stay in the UK. Ms Musambasi ran into problems after leaving her job to appear on Channel 4's cash cow over the summer; this broke the rules under which she had entered the country. Last week, an asylum and immigration tribunal ruled that she should remain here, as she has a reasonable fear of reprisals following her on-screen antics. The Home Office, the government department responsible for admission to the UK, is "disappointed" by the ruling, and grumbles that it might appeal.

It's been an interesting time on the BBC's venerable political discussion programme Question Time. Two weeks ago, one of the guests was IBES 1 survivor Rhona Cameron, who was a bit rubbish all told. Last week, Derek Laud from Big Brother 6 joined the panel, had a pop at Makosi Mumbasi, told Charlie Falconer that just because the police supported him didn't mean they were right, and made some salient points about fox-hunting. Overall, better than Rhona, but there must be someone from the realms of reality television who will be able to do better.

Highlight of the next week will be Millionaire Manor (7.40 Saturday BBC1), the first new lottery tie-in show since 2003's Wright Around the World.

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