Weaver's Week 2006-08-20

Weaver's Week Index

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


Marlow and Maria

Thanks to all the readers who have been in contact with the UKGameshows page this week. One item, beyond all others, has dominated the postbag, and we shall deal with it first.

University Challenge

First Round, Match 2: University College London v Pembroke College Cambridge

UCL have been playing in pub teams, and have won a chocolate bar. Pembroke students are encouraged to avoid disreputable houses, which makes us wonder if they'll get into trouble for visiting Granada studios. Welcome to heat two.

After the high standard of last week's show, this week almost has to drop the standard a little. We're not entirely convinced that the drop goes so far as to suggest a land frontier between China and the island of Taiwan, but that's an excuse for Thumperite smugness. No one can remember one of the various boxing heavyweight champions, which should not be a surprise. The first visual round is of famous buildings in European microstates, and UCL has the lead, 50-35.

Pembroke briefly draws level, but UCL's extensive knowledge of insulating materials ensures they remain ahead.

Our reader response mailbag has been full to overflowing this week, all from this starter:

Q: Identify the author of these lines.
"Come live with me and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove...
Pembroke, Hubart: Marlowe?
"Of golden sands and crystal brooks,
With silken lines and silver hooks"
(UCL, Dwyer): W. B. Yeats?
Thumper sneers. "No, it's John Donne."

"Oh no it's not," cries the well-read UKGS readership, "it is Marlowe. From his work The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, if we're not very much mistaken. And, being the well-read UKGS readership, we're not very much mistaken."

Pembroke certainly deserves to have the five points back for the missignal, plus the ten points for the correct answer. This rather large gaffe is swiftly followed by the question of the week:

Q: Taking into account differences between GMT and BST, what is the longest month of the year in the UK?

Answer later. Back in the game, we're discussing the Estonian astronomer Ernst Opik, which inevitably leads to his grandson Lembit. The audio round is on songs from British comedy films, and mercifully cuts Wet Wet Wet down to two chords. UCL's lead is up to 105-60.

Pembroke gets a good starter, on people sharing a name that leads to a scale of earthquakes, but miss a bonus on Robert Fitzroy. Were they not watching Mastermind a couple of weeks ago? Thumper is not impressed with a question about "energy equals milk chocolate squared." Or, as they'd put it on Love Island, "milk chocolate squares equal something far more attractive than this nonsense." The second visual round is Name That Drum, and UCL's lead is up to 145-90.

Three starters will win it for the London side, perhaps fewer if they knew anything about Pascal's triangle. Pembroke also needs to convert their starters into bonuses, but getting starters will allow them to pull within five. UCL's medic misses a medical starter, Pembroke gets the next question, and a slender lead - their first since the opening minutes. No bonuses means that the London side can take the lead with the next starter, but there are no bonuses. The next starter, on the site of a telescope, evades both sides, and the gong sounds, so UCL has the win, 165-160.

The stats: UCL made 13/30 bonuses, captain Joe Murray answered four starters for a total score of 57. Pembroke made 12/33 bonuses and had two missignals. David Tite picked up seven starters for a final score of 85. The side's score of 160 would have been enough to return in the repechage for most series this century.

But wait. Didn't we say that Pembroke is owed 15 points from the Marlow mistake earlier? Indeed we did, and a final score based on accurate answers would be 175-165 to Pembroke. It would be highly surprising if UCL's score wasn't enough for the repechage. Honour would be served by putting Pembroke College into the main draw for first-round winners, and UCL into the slot for high-scoring losers, where they'll meet the dangerous Bristol side sooner or later. Either way, both deserve to come back. The whole matter becomes of academic interest if the loser goes on to win the repechage.

Next match: York v Harris Manchester Oxford

(Discussion of the poem continued in the following Week)

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

BBC, Saturday evenings

It is a fact almost completely forgotten that The Sound of Music was a massive cultural phenomenon during the second half of the 1960s. The soundtrack album was the number one best-seller for 70 weeks, and toddled about in the top ten for almost five years. Seasons came and went, the Beatles conquered America, went off to India, and split up, and still the sound of The Sound of Music was amongst the most popular recordings around. These days, the best-known version is the motion picture, starring one of the greatest Scandinavian sopranos ever, Dane Julie Andrews. It is her role that the series winner will re-create on the London stage.

In this era, a young composer was learning his craft. The former Westminster schoolboy and Magdalen Oxford drop-out Andrew Lloyd Webber (for it was he) began his career by writing a twenty-minute school musical, entitled Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which would swiftly grow into a full-scale musical. Many more successes followed - Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita with Tim Rice of Countdown; Starlight Express with Richard Stilgoe of Countdown; The Beautiful Game with Ben Elton, who surprisingly hasn't been booked for Countdown. Yet.

Through his career, Mr Lloyd Webber has been a bit of a figure of fun, and he's taken the ribbing with good grace. On the debit side, we can point out that he has been influential in the careers of Sarah Brightman, Elaine Paige, and all his music sounds exactly the same. On the credit side, he has been influential in the career of Tim Rice, almost single-handedly continued interest in musical theatre, and has resisted the temptation to work with fellow parliamentarian (and Countdown irregular) Gyles Brandreth.

The final piece in the show's jigsaw is the host, Graham Norton. Since joining the BBC from Channel 4 some years back, Mr Norton has not had a tremendous amount to do. His late-night chat show rather fell on deaf ears, though he did make a success out of Strictly Dance Fever. He's not had another high-profile success. Could this be the BBC's answer to the question: how do you solve a problem like Graham Norton's career?

If this is the chosen answer, it may well be the right one. The scene is set with the opening titles, featuring a hillside full of potential Marias. It's in keeping with what's to come - a show that never forgets it's there to entertain. Of course, some nods are made to the conventions of Mega Phone-In talent contests - two weeks of filmed auditions before the live studio performances. There's a nasty judge (David Ian, the stage show's producer), a nice judge (John Barrowman, of CBBC's Live and Kicking), and a third wheel (Zoe Tyler, voice coach). Set a little way apart from the other critics is Mr Lloyd Webber; he will voice his opinions.

The similarities continue. Voting begins after everyone has sung, yes. Voting ends during a transmission later that evening, yes. The inevitable strung-out reveal of who has qualified, yes. A second performance by the bottom two, yes. Mr Lloyd Webber choosing which one to keep in, and which one to ditch, yes. So far, so humdrum.

There was one interesting difference in the opening show, as two performers segued directly into each other, with the judges commenting on both. It's a novel turn of events, and perhaps started because two performers were working with the song Over the Rainbow, albeit in two contrasting arrangements. Whether by accident or design, it breaks the show up into fewer segments, so that it feels a lot less choppy than the perform-critique-reaction routine that's become standard.

The choice of material was crucial - none of the candidates was allowed to sing a song from a musical, but some picked songs from the screen (Nobody Does it Better) or that are influenced by the musical theatre tradition (It's Oh so Quiet). These performances were more convincing than the people who chose pop standards, as any show will feature renditions of Torn and Runaway. We're not entirely sure how the screening process let through the bloke who delivered a bad karaoke version of Iris on the second show. Not only would Mr Ronan Bleating look strange in a nun's habit, but he cannot sing to save his life.

The second show was a little strange, as the bottom two in the voting perform a song from a Lloyd Webber musical. This week, the choice was taken from Whistle Down the Wind, the oft-forgotten 1996 musical. Our last two performed No Matter What, written by Jim Steinmann, a selection that presented a problem for our solution-seekers. Mr Steinmann wrote the song for a tenor singer, two full vocal ranges below the soprano of the Maria character. If we wanted a male singer, the show would be named after the song's regular performer, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Meat Loaf.

After Mr Lloyd Webber had decided the loser, the remaining contestants performed their favourite song from The Sound of Music - the one that goes "So long, farewell!" This is television to divide people - it's either sheer genius or utter cruelty. This column tends to the former interpretation - so bad, and so far off the wall, as to be good.

Graham Norton is in his element on this show, a little cheeky without being disparaging, a little racy without once threatening to go tumbling over the edge faster than one can say "Julian Clary". Mr Norton is good here, perhaps more at home than he's been on any BBC show. Not entirely sure that it's enough to renew his contract for two more years, but we're not running the Beeb. It would, perhaps, be good to have a co-host who isn't screamingly camp, because the structure does slightly play to the myth than one has to be a stereotypical homosexual to present musical theatre. Was Edward Seckerson of Radio 3's Stage and Screen programme completely unavailable?

However, that is a minor carping. The main thrust of ...Maria is to entertain, and a piece just after the voting lines opened, asking the performers who they would eject, felt badly out of place. "Who is not going to be Maria?" asked the producers. No one answered, "It's not going to be ... Andrew!" thus depriving us all of a comedy moment.

The main rival for this slot is going to be ITV's returning The X Factor programme, which will eat up huge amounts of airtime until they finally come up with a winner on 16 December. By then, the new version of The Sound of Music will have opened, and we will probably be nearing the end of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing season. Contrasted against the angular, negative grind of the other side's offering, the Beeb is right to go for a fluffy, cuddly format, and ...Maria is going to be a sizable hit.

Just like everything else Andrew Lloyd Webber does.


First round, episode 20

Peter Morgan will tackle the Political and Physical Geography of Continental Europe. Last year, this column spent much energy arguing against the inclusion of very small subjects, like "Anagrams of the word 'it'". This may be the largest subject we've ever seen. The result is a very, very creditable 11 (2).

Something smaller for Zahid Fayyez, the band Ash. They're a jolly good modern pop-rock act, he's a jolly good advocate, scoring 12 (3). This column reckons it might have got eight or nine.

Peter Gaskell has Lorenzo de Medici. This round is a little weaker than the other two, 9 (4) is enough to keep him in contention.

Janet Carr will offer the Life and Career of John Lowe. This is the darts player, and not (as we first thought) the Dad's Army star Arthur Lowe. A little slip in the middle, but it's another good round, 13 (3) gives this contender the lead.

Mr Gaskell advances to 13 (9). Mr Morgan's round loses steam when he says "Tchaikovsky" when he means "Prokofiev", and finishes on 18 (5).

Mr Fayyez picks his way through the questions, missing more than he hits, and finishing on 15 (10). We note that one of his questions asked about a "high-definition" television service in 1936. This would not be the modern definition of "hi-def".

Mrs Carr also has a lot of passes, but gets two late answers, on the theme from that bread commercial, and on an actress. She finishes with 9 passes, and 19 points. The last answer won!

Twenty heats down, and with a heat airing on the bank holiday Monday, we're on course for a grand final on 30 October. The longest series ends in the longest month.

This Week And Next

Last week's guest on Desert Island Discs was Simon Cowell. His choices of music included Mack the knife, Danke schoen, and Mr Bojangles. Most surprising was the inclusion of Unchained melody, a song with which Mr Cowell has had two million-selling singles. His choice of luxury: a mirror.

After a nervous Disney Corp. pulled Star Academy:US from the airwaves just as it was beginning to get interesting, it looks like the CBC's version will not even make it to air. Star Academy:Canada was due to take pride of place on the broadcaster's schedules this autumn, but has now vanished into the ether, possibly never to air.

At this point, we would usually give the latest BARB ratings, in this case for the week ending 6 August. However, these statistics have not been released for reasons that are not entirely clear. So, no way of telling if Big Brother has moved ahead of Jet Set, or if anyone is watching Love Island.

Highlights for next week include the All Star Cup - Antan Dec presenting a celebrity golf tournament across the weekend. Brian Conley hosts Let Me Entertain You (weekdays, 4.30 BBC2), a sort of interactive talent show. Next week's Week will review this year's oh-so-interesting Big Brother.

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