Weaver's Week 2006-10-15
'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'
Those New Lottery Shows
BBC1, 23 September
It's seven and a half years, to the week, since Noel Edmonds last hosted a prime-time entertainment programme on the BBC. Actually, no, can we start this again...
It's seven and a half years, to the week, since Noel Edmonds last tried to host a prime-time entertainment programme on the BBC. If we're being fair, it's more like ten and a half years since Noel's House Party was actually entertaining, some time around its 100th episode. Since then, the beast of Bodmin has been the subject of a sniggering documentary on Channel 5, popped up on a country rights march, and spent a couple of months standing in for Johnnie Walker on Radio 2.
Now, after rehabilitating himself in the eyes of the Great British Public, Noel has been given the task of selling The Lottery Corporation's lottery product to the self-same Great British Public. If this man can take a simple guessing game and help to turn it into one of the most popular programmes on television, then maybe he can persuade the people of the UK to put their faith in a game predicated on guessing which small rubber spheres will emerge first from rotating plastic drums.
To cut to the chase, this was a 90-minute commercial for The Lottery Corporation, giving airtime to organisations that had been the recipients of lottery-funded largesse. There's a question about editorial independence here, we rather thought that the Beeb didn't take commercials. Indeed, we remember that - at one point - the BBC actually paid The Lottery Corporation for the right to screen their adverts. Does this arrangement still exist, we idly wonder.
And there's plenty of room for idle wondering during this show, for there's an awful lot of time when there's nothing much happening. However, there was a quiz in the mix. It was a reasonably simple mechanism, three contestants are shown an aerial photograph of somewhere in the world, and then asked some questions about the location. £100 for a correct answer, errors aren't thrown across, winner of each round comes back for the final, winner there picks up £50,000.
The first round of questioning was all done in the studio. Round two, though, involved various minor celebs (Carol Smillie the example) introducing members of the public who could buzz in from their location in the UK. It is a remarkable feat of technology to determine who has buzzed in first from three remote sites. The illusion of technical excellence and wonderfulness was rather punctured by the reliance on satellite links, which introduced a noticeable delay between the person pressing the button and giving their answer. A similar problem plagued the third segment, of viewers in their homes. By the time of the final, after 9pm, the contestants outside the studio appeared to have taken a little something to calm their nerves.
We should also mention that this show was the first to include live draws from The Lottery Corporation's headquarters somewhere in the Thames Valley. Though they're not saying so in as few words, this change has come about following May's invasion of the Jet Set studio by political campaigners intent on getting their message across to the viewing millions, or at least causing enough nuisance to cause the draw to take place off-camera during the Eurovision Song Contest. It does now mean that there's only canned crowd and no studio audience for the main draw, which remains 98% win-free.
Did Noel Edmonds bring anything to this show that couldn't have been provided by someone else? We didn't see him bring his unique talents to the fore, so we'll have to chalk this one up as a bit of a wasted opportunity for him. Though technically competent, this show was rather run-of-the-mill, forgettable, and certainly won't be winning him any ERICs.
Initial Productions for BBC1, since 30 September
Four years ago, this column saw Een Tegen Een Hondred in its original Dutch version. After taking an awful long time to get across the channel, has the format retained its charm?
The game itself remains very much as it's played elsewhere. A single player (the titular One) is pitted against a century of players (yes, the titular One Hundred). The One is asked questions, and is given £1000 for each member of the One Hundred who gets the question wrong. Defeat all of the One Hundred, and the One takes their winnings home, plus an extra £50,000 bonus. But get just a single question wrong, and the One will leave with nothing, and will be replaced by a new One, drawn from the remaining players from the One Hundred.
The One has a few other weapons in their arsenal. They can Dodge three questions, but it will cost them 50% of their accumulated winnings so far. The One can also play their Double on any question they do answer, and each member of the One Hundred who got the question wrong will add £2000 to The One's total. It's also possible for The One to earn an additional Dodge once they've eliminated 75% of the One Hundred.
There is a fifth escape - if The One has answered a question to eliminate all of The Hundred, they can take their winnings so far, forego the £50,000 bonus for defeating The Hundred, and leave. If they stick with their answer and it's right, they take everything; if they insist on their answer and it is wrong, then they leave with nothing. The game looks a little complex on paper, but it's an awful lot more simple when played in real life.
How does the British version shape up? We must start with the colour scheme, for One Against One Hundred uses a bright yellow and a moderate red. Not for this show the oh-so-predictable yellow-and/or-blue colour scheme of every other programme under the sun; the main graphics are in a very distinctive shade. This column also found the graphics to be more readable than some, though this will be a personal preference. We do recall that Countdown briefly used a starker red-on-yellow set of letter tiles, but had to change them on medical advice.
The studio layout is moderately imaginative - the One Hundred are in a multi-tiered bank, which spans about 120 degrees of a circle running the size of the studio, and is almost symmetrical about a gap in the middle, where there's a huge and curved display monitor. There's a studio audience down both sides of the studio, a smaller circle on the floor, and at the opposite side stands host Dermot O'Leary. The set is somewhat redeemed by an elevator that lifts The One up to the playing platform. It's not groundbreaking, but the set is well-executed, and gives the sense of isolation that the game requires.
The show's host is Dermot O'Leary. We've mixed feelings about this choice. Make no mistake, he does his usual professional job, ticks all the right buttons, doesn't put a foot wrong. But he's a terribly safe choice, he's not pushing the boat out at all. When we originally saw the show, we suggested Richard Littlejohn to host, and we stand by that call today. One Against One Hundred needs a host who is a little dangerous, who will perhaps make The One feel a little uncomfortable. Dermot, for his many skills, just isn't that edgy host.
Elsewhere in the game show fandom, many people have criticised this programme for its particularly slow pace. First the contestant must choose a subject from two on offer, and will often explain why they've made that choice. Then we get to see the question, and three possible answers. Then we wait just six seconds while the members of the One Hundred key in their answers. Only now, perhaps a full minute into the question, does The One begin to discuss their answer and their strategy. It's not uncommon for there to be a couple of minutes of discussion, with Dermot chipping in to remind of dodges and bonuses. Finally, the answer is keyed in, and the correct answer is revealed. The amount of money won is calculated, by turning The Hundred's individual lights from blue to red, and the board updates to show the number of contestants remaining. All of this will take upwards of three minutes per question, sometimes more.
If viewers are going to treat this programme as a straightforward quiz, then it will fall flat - in a typical 37-minute show (excluding commercials), Dermot is only going to ask about ten questions, while William G would have asked something like 120. Yet this column doesn't find the show boring in the slightest. Maybe that's because the show is executed as a drama with which the viewer can play along, and - perhaps - root for The One.
However, that's not to say that there isn't room for improvement. The choice of category may stay - the Dutch original provides the category, but asks the contestant to choose an Easy or a Hard question in that category, and there's just as much chatter over that decision as we get. Nor should we lose the elaborate scoring mechanism, as it helps to ratchet up the tension just a little bit.
No, the obvious point of improvement is the executive decision that each episode must be self-contained. There are no carry-over players, no one will start their run one Saturday and come back the next week. If someone starts on a night, they're going to finish on the same night. The first two episodes we've seen would certainly have benefited from some judicious editing to pick up the pace, and could perhaps have gone out as about one-and-a-half transmitted episodes. Millionaire had it exactly right, let people run from show to show. In the ultra-competitive cut-throat world of Saturday night television, any hook to keep people interested should be used, and it's a mite surprising that the BBC has decided against this one. There were sound reasons not to adopt this strategy - One Against One Hundred was an untested format, and while it would be embarrassing to pull a series part way through, it would be impossible to end a game early.
The other way to improve One Against One Hundred is to divorce it entirely from the advertisements for The Lottery Corporation. Or, at least, to reduce the number of interruptions to the game proper from two to one. A single break, properly taken, serves to increase the tension just a little more. Two breaks within ten minutes of each other are too much of a distraction, especially as we don't much care for The Lottery Corporation's guessing games. Every ticket a losing ticket, or your money back.
Other points of credit include the neo-classical music, by Endemol house composer Augustin Bousfield. The six-second sting played while The Hundred are answering is particularly good, as it's not a stinging sting. We're not quite so impressed by the way Endemol seems to be recycling contestants between its shows - we've already seen a One from Deal or No Deal, and Neil from the second programme is familiar from somewhere, but we can't recall where. Nor do we like Dermot consistently calling the programme "One Against A Hundred", as this loses a symmetry that should be retained in translation.
In the final analysis, we have to pose a question. Do viewers want another series of Wright Around the World? Do we want a second series of Millionaire Manor when we didn't actually want the first? Or do we want a decent format that could be done better, but is clearly the BBC's best Saturday night game show since the invention of the Wonderwall?
This Week And Next
Our dodgy questions department has received a letter about the final question in last week's One Against One Hundred. Is the hippopotamus most closely related to the pig, the whale, or the horse? The answer, which surprised this column as much as the next person, is the whale. A little research shows that the question was correct. See, for instance, Science Daily.
Thumbs-up to the BBC1 continuity team, who had eight new channel identifiers to play with on Saturday. Immediately after this question came the prime-time debut of an identifier containing - hippos. We thoroughly approve of such self-referential programming.
Terry Wogan, the irascible British commentator for Eurovision, has ruled out applying for the host of Countdown. "It is simply impossible to follow in the footsteps of Richard Whiteley," said the Irishman at a dinner in Leeds this week.
Once again, BARB has failed to put the latest ratings on the web site, so we can't précis them here.
What we can do is preview the coming week's programmes. University Challenge and Mastermind return, so that's our Monday night sorted. Obscure west London channel Sky Onc has a couple of new shows we should note. Cirque de Celebrité (sic) invites various people from the area to appear in a big top, such as the jeweller who moved all the way from east London. Ruby Wax hosts, we remember that she was booted out of Celebrity Star Academy after about ten seconds, and we hope she'll bring a couple of accents, because the title should be spelt "Célébrité". That begins at 7pm.
Two hours later, the channel goes in search of The Big Idea, with assistance from a friend of Mr The Duck, Ruth The Badger. This is an invention competition, and will finish with a who-cares-calls-in.
We've also got the return of The Price is Right (ITV, 2pm weekdays), a fibbing radio show called The Unbelievable Truth (Radio 4, 6.30 Thursday), and yet another series of 8 Out of 10 Cats (C4, 10pm Friday).
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