Weaver's Week 2008-04-13
This week, we're looking at two quizzes that have new hosts. Are they as good as the old ones?
- "Our aspirations are wrapped up in books. More on that story later."
Granada for BBC4, 8.30 Monday, 24 March – 12 May
In its original incarnation, The Book Quiz was a light-hearted yet cerebral little game. Heck, it was chaired by comedian David Baddiel, who impressed us with his ability to make literacy interesting. There were rounds of spoof books, a "guess what they were reading" round, and the entertainment all came down to the final round. Even having such lake-fodder as Jon Ronson on the show didn't stop it from being a merry jape.
For the second series, out goes the humourist, and in comes the latest graduate of Newsnight's School of Tough Quizzing. The founder was Jeremy Paxman, he's schooled Peter Snow, Emily Maitliss, and Jeremy Vine. Now, out steps Kirsty Wark, previously best-known for sprouting lyrics from popular songs on Dead Ringers. She's a tough, combative individual, perhaps the sort of person you'd care to meet on a dark night for she would stride out with confidence and walk at a faster pace than traffic on the M25.
As before, there are two teams of two; rather than being sat on armchairs (as they weren't last year, but should have been), the teams are stuck behind desks. They're briefly introduced by Kirsty Wark, who moves briskly on to the first round.
- "This paper trail leads right back to you. More on that story later."
Round one is a pair of opening lines from books or poems, read by BBC4's resident voice-over man. Points for naming the author, and bonus points for determining the links between the two authors. Most of these links are very difficult, if not absurdly so: how on earth is the casual viewer to know that Author X and Author Y were both turkey farmers?
We briskly move on to round two, where poets and authors are reading from their own work: identify the author, and there are subsidiary questions about their career or that particular work. Quickly, quickly now, no time to dally, got to pass it over to the other side.
- "Change is on the cards. More on that story later."
Round three already, and it's a series of visual clues to a book. A wolf, some garlic, Whitby Abbey, and a For Sale sign are, of course, all elements in Dracula. (A "For Sale" sign? Apparently, Harker went to Transylvania to sell some properties, and kick-start the nascent Romanian property bubble. Or something.) Can the team get it in ten seconds flat? No? Over to the other side, with barely time to catch our breath.
Onwards, ever on. Round four is the specialised subjects round. The producers have prepared four rounds of questions, and the team that's trailing will pick one of them for the leaders, then the team leading will pick one for their opponents. As ever, there are two points for a correct answer, with one point for questions passed across. Kirsty makes a big play of the opportunity to steal the questions back, but as the specialist subject round contains just three questions each, her spiel seems somewhat out of place.
- "Signs in the air we breathe. More on that story later."
Bells and buzzers out for round five: clues to the book title. Our brisk host reads out things like "Away with the zephyr!" for Gone With the Wind. She says that these are crossword-style clues, but we're not sure that these are anything like cryptic enough to be good crossword clues. They do move at quite a clip, which is useful, as it's a timed round.
Round six, another timed round: a 30-second drill where each team is invited to name books, poems, or works in a particular category. And round seven, the final round, is three minutes of rapid-fire questions. This round is perhaps the most blatant nod to game show history, as each question is linked to the previous answer, a technique previously seen on The Krypton Factor.
And that is the new-look Book Quiz. Winners come back for the semi-finals, and eventually the final; losers don't. We reckon that there are two things that this programme got right last year, and errs this time.
- "We can beat the sun as long as we keep moving. More on that story later."
First, the pacing. Kirsty Wark has only one gear: full steam ahead. The show begins at a zillion miles an hour, proceeds at a zillion miles an hour, and doesn't change pace until the time's up signal sounds. There's no sense of light and shade, no quickening of the pulse when we're nearing the climax. How can there be a quickening of the pulse when we've been going at full pelt since the beginning? Reading is something that can be done, probably should be done at one's own pace. While there are people who can start War and Peace at breakfast and finish it in time for lunch, we prefer to linger a little on the good bits.
Perhaps that influences our other criticism: the content. These questions are very erudite, as befits a transmission on The Fourth Programme. It's highbrow, it assumes a lot of knowledge, but the vam-vam-vam Gatling gun of questions leaves very little time for exposition, discussion, or debate. The first series was no less highbrow, but the discursive, lighter atmosphere allowed the time to explain what it was talking about to the viewer. This year, it feels more like an unconnected series of literary trivia, closer to 100% than either producer or viewer would like.
Is there anything good to be said? The questions are reliably accurate, well-researched, and Kirsty does manage to create some atmosphere with a little banter and chatter. And, perhaps most pleasantly of all, the guests are literate types who know the value of good competition. None of them are going to stop the game just because they've won. That's terribly unsporting behaviour.
- "This is the best of all possible quiz shows."
Radio 4, 1.30 Monday, 24 May – 16 June
How have we managed to be writing for over seven years without once turning our gaze upon Counterpoint, the general knowledge music quiz? In part, it's because Counterpoint has always been part of the audio furniture. The programme first took to the air in 1986, chaired by the raconteur, wit, and general entertainer Ned Sherrin. He was a great choice, bringing his trademark wit and life to what could have been a relatively dull show. Ill-health forced his replacement after the 20th Anniversary Special in 2006; Edward Seckerson handled the host's duties last year, but there was someone perhaps even more fitting in the wings.
Paul Gambaccini is one of the greatest authorities on music in the UK, possibly in the entire English-speaking world. Raised in New York, Gambo (as he's almost always known) has written for the magazine Rolling Stone, spent over a decade counting down the American charts for Radio 1, and co-authored and researched the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. Like fellow Hit Singles writer Tim Rice, Gambaccini's talents were not confined to popular music; while Rice was a dab hand at stage musicals, Gambo knew classical music like the back of his hand. He's presented on Classic FM and spent a year on Radio 3, from where he was hounded by the station's most vocal and reactionary listeners. He now broadcasts weekly on Radio 2, and makes occasional appearances on television.
One of those television appearances showed that Gambo had become a figure of great authority. ITV's monsoon-season filler Sing It Back: Lyric Champion 2007 may have been hosted by two interchangeable Radio 1 jocks, but Gambo's role as the show's tough-but-fair judge was the star attraction. Perhaps it's his accent – Gambaccini has kept his New York buzz – or perhaps it's the tone of hushed reverence in his voice whenever he speaks, but there's something about Paul's delivery that brings about a sense of occasion to even the most mundane show. Such as Sing it Back: Lyric Champion 2007.
Counterpoint is not, and has never been, a mundane show. It's a quiz about music, classical and popular and jazz and folk, and everything in between. Applications from professional musicians and teachers of music are politely declined, but anyone else is welcome to test their knowledge in three rounds over half-an-hour. Three contestants appear in each programme, and only the winner progresses to the three semi-finals, from where the winner progresses to the final, from where the winner wins.
After each contestant introduces him- or herself, we move into the opening round. Back in the nineties, this first set of questions was called "Moderato questionable", but Sherrin's titles for the rounds were quietly dropped somewhere around 2000. In this gentle opening round, each contestant will hear a handful of questions, including two illustrated by a musical excerpt. There are two points for a correct answer, with one for questions offered to the others on the buzzer.
Round two – the quondam "Theme and Variation" – occupies almost half of the programme's length. Four subjects are offered, and the host makes a great play of pointing out that the contestants have no advanced knowledge of these subjects. It's surprising to think that the fall-out from 0898-gate is so far reaching that it's affecting the chairman's script on a Radio 4 quiz, something that we thought would be completely beyond reproach. But then, we thought that Blue Peter was also safe...
Anyway, back at the quiz, the player in the lead gets first choice of the unseen subjects; the player in the middle has second pop; and the one coming last gets a choice of two, and has to play first. Though the rounds are quite lengthy – typically four and a bit minutes to ask eight questions, including two musical illustrations – the knowledge that there's something different coming along soon will help listeners to stick around. One subject will be rejected each week, and those will be offered again later in the series, sometimes even carrying over from series to series – a set on the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber seemed to be offered for three years before someone rid us of this beast.
The final round – "Questionable Accellorando", according to Sherrin – is entirely on the buzzers, and because there are about twenty questions packed into the final four minutes (the exact number varies depending on how well the show's running to time, and whether one contestant has established a lead) there's just one point for a correct answer. An incorrect answer will cost a point from the contestant's score, and the highest score after this round wins.
We noted last week that there were three critical – but fixable – flaws in The Garden Quiz. The host lacked authority; the questions were imprecise; and there was no sense of urgency to proceedings. All three qualities are present in Counterpoint, and are present in spades. Ned Sherrin clearly had music coursing through his veins, and Paul Gambaccini presents with the quiet authority that confirms the same. Indeed, though Counterpoint's listeners scarcely got to know Edward Seckerson last year, it was clear that he, too, knew his music.
The dramatic tension is well built-up – each contestant has a chance to shine on their own, and the pace of the game slowly ratchets up. Will the player in third do well? Will the runner-up take the lead? Can the leader extend their advantage? What will happen on the buzzers? It's a serious quiz, but the host always has time for a well-chosen anecdote or bad pun. And the questions on Counterpoint are precise, inviting an answer that is clearly right, or clearly wrong. It's a further advantage that not all of these questions are so difficult as to stump the casual listener. Unlike The Book Quiz, some of the questions are quite deliberately on music that is both populist and popular. Indeed, one of the specialist rounds has a simple title – for instance, this week's show served "A round of drinks". The questions aren't any easier, but it's not as obscure as "Conductors and Leaders of the London Symphony Orchestra".
Is this "the best of all possible quiz shows," as Gambo suggested this week? No, but it's a very good one. By our familiarity with the format, and its innate quality, Counterpoint has become the yardstick by which we measure themed quizzes. Many shows are measured, and we find that few are quite as good in their first series.
This Week And Next
Lyrics in The Book Quiz review were by Maximo Park and Belle and Sebastian.
Worrying news that Mark Speight has been missing all week. The presenter, best known for art series SMART, was last seen at Queen's Park in London on Monday. Mr. Speight was believed to be planning a tribute event in memory of his fiancée Natasha Collins, who was found dead in January. Our hope is that Mr. Speight is following the example of Stephen Fry, who went missing for a week in 1995 before being tracked down to a hotel in Belgium.
Channel 4 has given us warning: the next series of Big Brother will begin on 5 June, and is expected to bore the pants off us for three months, ending in early September, or when the last viewer turns off. Meanwhile, viewers in Poland will be learning contemporary English while watching Big Brother 2002 and 2003. Or, to be exact, English as it is spoken in Orkney and Bermondsey.
University Challenge the Professionals continued, and we're not entirely sure whether to be worried that the National Physical Laboratory didn't know parts of an engine cylinder, or that Thumper completely failed to snark at them. Is he going soft in his old age, or is he going soft because the teams are old? (Well, older than usual.) Interruption of the week came from the Lute Society, able to determine the definition of "Atoll" merely from a mention of the Maldives. Thoughts for the Royal Academy of Engineering, who came from 85-0 down to lose their match on the very last starter.
OFCOM has put out new proposals regarding the use of premium-rate telephone lines on television shows. In short, expensive numbers will only be allowed on programmes that are deemed "editorial", rather than "advertising". If the primary purpose of the broadcast is to educate, inform, or entertain, then it's "editorial", and any premium-rate commercial activity must be secondary. Shows where the prime aim is to raise money will become "advertising", and subject to further limits on broadcast. The proposed rules come in the wake of last year's 0898-gate scandals, when the public suddenly realised that not only were they most unlikely to win on call-and-lose programmes, but they were being defrauded by the broadcasters and producers.
The week to 30 March saw a new top-rated show, the return of The Apprentice was seen by 6.75m, beating the 6.35m who saw I'd Do Anything, and leaving Millionaire's 4.65m in the dust. Duel had 3.4m to see their second jackpot winner, Deal Or No Deal 2.85m. BBC2's top game show was The Apprentice &Ndash; We Have No Idea Who You Are, But You're Fired Anyway with 2.65m, just beating the 2.55m tuning into the Mastermind final.
Come Dine With Me continued to lead the digital tier, 545,000 spent their Sunday night being cooked for. America's Next Top Model had 500,000; both that show and QI on Dave (460,000) move ahead of Pop Idle Us, seen by just 425,000. BBC4 has its first successful game show of the year, a repeat of The Top Of The Form Story seen by 215,000.
In a change to the advertised schedule, Bingolotto: A Commercial Presentation will not be occupying an hour of Virgin1 and Challenge on Friday evening. We will see a new series of Shipwrecked (Channel 4, from 11.55 today), and a new run of Have I Got News for You (BBC1, 9pm Friday in England, other times elsewhere). We've also the return of One Versus One Hundred next Saturday (BBC1, 8.05).
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