Weaver's Week 2008-08-31

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Conductor School – 31 August 2008

DLT: What instrument does the leader of an orchestra play?
Caller: A baton
(DLT collapses into fits of laughter for the rest of the show)

— Treble Top, circa 1989


BBC2, 9pm Tuesdays

Good grief, is that live classical music on prime-time BBC2? Have we slipped through a timewarp and ended up in 1978? They'll be showing The Good Life next. Or is there some oh-so-blatant BBC self-promotion at work here? This is the new BBC, never knowingly missing an opportunity to big up its successes. Or failing that, to promote its lost causes. Or to show a 30-year-old series.

Maestro invites eight BBC celebrities to hone their skills as a musical conductor. The first programme took these eight people and followed them through the early part of their training. We saw their first attempt at conducting, and an explanation of what it is a conductor does. It's not just waving that little white stick thing about, you know. No, the conductor must keep time (that's what the baton is for), cue in each section of the orchestra when it's their time to begin, control the loudness and softness of the group as a whole, glare in a way that will dissuade host Clive Anderson from asking any obvious questions, and whip up a seven-course banquet from some ingredients left lying around the concert hall.

Anyway, the conductor's job is not an easy one. We were privy to the celebrities' first, stuttering, attempts at conducting an orchestra. Some of them worked. Most of them didn't. The Critics gave advice and suggested areas for improvement, and The Mentors helped put these into practice. We reckon that the producers missed at least one trick by not putting The Critics up in a theatre box, a la Statler and Waldorf on The Muppet Show. On the other hand, would they have had the close-up view they get from the orchestra pit? Do they need that? Probably.

Image:Maestro judges.jpg Why are viola jokes so short? So drummers can remember them.

Conducting, we learn, is about movement. Big movements to whip the orchestra's sound up. Small movements to quieten them down, or cue an individual instrument. Wiggling of the hips is bad, staring like a starched school mistress is bad. Failure to keep time, or to bring any expression to the piece, is fatal. It's all about liveliness, about making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

The opening show ran for 90 minutes, which we found to be a trifle long. The last third was a conduct-off, with all eight celebrities putting their newly-found knowledge into practice. As is traditional, the show ran on the musical chairs principle, with the person at the back of the field losing their place on the show. Or dropping the baton, as it were.

Rather than ask the viewing public to call in for the most popular person, The Critics determine the two people they believe to have put in the worst performances, and the performers in the orchestra vote to save one of them. The person with the fewer votes leaves the show. After their performances, it was no surprise to find basso profundo Peter Snow hanging up his stick thing to concentrate on hosting Radio 4 quizzes. Mr. Snow's performance had his tutor covering his eyes with his hands, as though he were expecting CBBC's famous The Daleks to come bounding up from the orchestra pit.

To our surprise, the remaining programmes in this series have been live transmissions. That's "live" in the rather elastic Radio 3 sense of the word – the broadcast on 19 August was a direct relay as the events happened. The broadcast on 26 August was a direct relay of events that happened a night earlier, and the same will hold for next Tuesday's broadcast.

The elimination process, mercifully, doesn't ask the viewing public to televote, for that swiftly degenerates into a popularity contest. Yes, a musical chairs contest that doesn't invite the viewers to televote! Hurrah! That's until the live final on 9 September, where the last two people will be separated by ... a televote. How depressing. How tedious. How utterly predictable. This is a test of fine arts, not popularity.

But we digress. The first episode had familiar pieces from the classical repertoire – they may be the equivalent of "Angels" or "'Unchained' Melody" in the pop canon, but such familiarity enables the casual viewer to make comparisons. Episode 2 was still on relative home territory, featuring music from film and television. A remarkable performance of Elfman's "Theme from 'The Simpsons'" that put Sue Perkins far and away at the top of the class. Had he survived, Snow would have performed Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries". Episode 3 was choral music; episode 4 will be opera; and episode 5 a concerto and versions of Beethoven V.

Image:Maestro participants 2.jpg The contenders and host, and a very nice velvet curtain

At this point, we must compare and contrast against last autumn's Classical Star programme. That show suffered greatly from being entirely self-contained, from showing only the briefest snippets of the performances, and from being far more reality show than performance. All of these criticisms have been rectified for Maestro. There's even some cross-promotion within the BBC, with the leading performers popping up on daytime shows. (That said, there was no link to Last Choir Standing, which was a bit of a miss.)

Clive Anderson brings his usual bonhomie and erudition to proceedings, topping and tailing the show in short order. The Critics make valid points, and in the few seconds available to them, attempt to give constructive feedback. And it's clear that this matters to the performers, that David Soul and Bradley Walsh were really gutted to be out of the running. This passion comes through the screen, and makes the show compelling viewing. Next week's episode looks like a foregone conclusion, but the final on the 9th should be one to watch.

The last RBQ-style question in the current run: There's a school at 15.84, and a Helvetic building at 49.53. The football club at 35.04 might find itself six feet under by 52.33. Why does 40.40 mark the end of the game? Answer later.

University Challenge

Match 8: London School of Economics v Bath

We begin with this week's Test That Fails To Recognise People With Disabilities As Human.

Q: A blue plaque in Warrington Crescent in London, a granite bench in Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, and several statues including ones in Sackville Park Manchester, the University of Surrey, and Betchley Park, all commemorate which British computer scientist?
LSE, Rajan Patel: Alan Turing

The LSE was founded late in the 19th century by Fabians including George Bernard Shaw. The college was famously radical in 1968, but is now so much part of the establishment that figures including Michael Jagger, Monica Lewinsky, and That Bloke Who Invented The Third Way (Oh, Ask Your Dad) have graced its hallowed doors. The side contains just one student of Economics, but in fairness he racks up three starters before anyone else has had a chance to push their buzzer. The LSE side knows only one museum in Florence, and it's not the one they were thinking of. The first picture round shows that none of the panel can recognise the Champs Elysees from a map, even though it ends in that small arch at the centre of a star of a zillion roads. Baron Hausmann's planning at its finest, as Mr. Ingram will remember. LSE leads by 50-0.

Though Bath's James Wilson suddenly shouts out the most revolting word in the known universe (Belguim!), we'll let him have it, because it's the right answer to a starter. Bath is somewhat newer, founded after the second world war by lobbing some large concrete blocks into a field near the city and building wherever they fell. We're told that the university has a lot of specialists in physical sciences; with two engineers, one mathematician, and a Dutch politics student, it's almost forgivable not to recognise some lines from Shakespeare. Well, we reckon it can be forgiven; Thumper prefers to disagree.

The Daft Answers file is overflowing this week. Thumper penalises LSE after they suggest that Alfred Nobel refused to have his ailments treated by dynamite. Then someone from Bath suggests that people were nicknamed "Dribble". We're sharing the host's flummox. Bath tries to be clever, buzzing in on a version of "Somethin' stupid", but attributing it to Williams / Kidman's note-for-note cover of Sinatra / Sinatra. Even though we have to suffer Ally McCoist and Gabby Yorath singing that song, the LSE is running away with this, 105-25.

Though young Patel started the show as though there was no other buzzer, every member of the LSE side has managed to answer at least one starter correctly. Bath does get its third starter of the night. The second visual round is on Constable's landscapes, and we can't help but feel a twinge of familiarity: have they run a round very much like this before? The pen is beginning to scratch out the words "game over": LSE leads 160-40.

And the lead is only getting bigger. They know that the Library of Wales is in Aberystwyth, but Bath comes back with sterling work on confusable words. LSE responds by recalling that the indefinite and definite articles are at the start of a broadcaster's name; Thumper doesn't even get to identify him as a cricketer before Nikhil Shah replies "Atherton". In a high-quality show, that must be Answer of the Week.

With two minutes to go, Bath requires 60 to merely make the repechage board. Let's be honest, they're not going to manage it. Though they do manage to get most of the remaining starters, it's never going to be enough. LSE has won, convincingly, 220-85.

To be absolutely fair, Bath gave us a fabulous game, they played in a grand spirit, and it is a shame to see them leave; we can't help but feel they'd have given some other sides a run for their money. James Wilson was the best buzzer, three questions correct; the side made 7/18 bonuses with two missignals. LSE are always a force to be reckoned with, and Rajan Patel finished with seven starters (and two missignals); the LSE was correct in 18/36 bonuses.

The repechage board: Surrey 170 Pembroke Oxford 150 Hull 140 St Anne's Oxford 115

Next match: St John's Cambridge v Lincoln Oxford

This Week And Next

Image:Superstars S.jpg

The last in the current series of Superstars saw a win for the White team of Steve Redgrave, Alain Baxter, Lee Sharpe, and Shelly Rudman. The final programme was a strange affair – Mr. Redgrave and Graham Thorpe of the opposing team were taken injured in the opening event, returned for the archery round part-way through, but took no further part in proceedings. The show just ended with the scoreboard, and no presentation of a trophy, which feels a bit odd. Indeed, the whole series has felt a little odd. We did like the idea of the relay for the gym tests, and if they're going to do another The Superteams show next year, maybe they might like to consider something along the lines of the modern pentathlon, perhaps with the gym tests replacing horse riding.

Viewing figures for the week to 17 August, in which The X Factor returned, stomping its boots all over the schedule. 10.8m saw the series debut, and 6.5m hung around for Millionaire just afterwards. Last Choir Standing hit a new peak of 5.1m. Big Brother just beat Dragons' Den, 3.8m to 3.75m, and Maestro debuted with 1.8m. X Factor also ruled the digital channels, 1.32m saw the first ITV2 programme, and 815,000 the narrative repeat on Sunday night. America's Got Talent came to an end on Friday, its figure of 785,000 was down by over 200,000 on the season's opening figure.

The RBQ-style question related to the London tube network, and the system distances of various stations. To be precise, their distance in kilometres from the system's zero point at Ongar. 15.84 is the location of Grange Hill, which lent its name to a long-running BBC drama series. Swiss Cottage stands at 49.53, and Arsenal at 35.04. They're also known as the Gunners, and Gunnersbury is at 52.33. The station at 40.40 is Mornington Crescent, the objective of the game Mornington Crescent.

Image:Square bw geoffrey perkins.jpg

We regret to report the death of Geoffrey Perkins. The BBC comedy guru started out in the producer's seat, working on The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and producing I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue from 1978 to 1981. He played up-and-coming disk jockey Mike Flex on Radio Active, where the station's chateau in the Loire remains unwon after 26 years. Perkins will be remembered for such television greats as The Royle Family, Spitting Image, and Father Ted. He won't be remembered for his 1990 game show, but Don't Quote Me. Geoffrey Perkins was killed in a road accident on Friday, aged 55.

It's the first week of September, so a lot of new shows begin. New series of Britain's Best Dish (ITV, 5pm weekdays but check regional listings) and Pen Campau (S4C, 6.30) will brighten up Monday, as will Robert Llewellyn's new machine show Top Trumps (C5, 7.30). ITV2's big promotional push is CelebAir (9pm Tuesday), and Channel 5 are back with The What in the World? Quiz (C5, 7.30 Friday), a science-based quiz hosted by Marcus Brigstocke. It's the end for Big Brother (C4, 8pm Friday), and the first of a million Masterminds (BBC2, 8pm Friday). Saturday has the return of Fighting Talk (Radio 5, 11am) and the annual Eurovision Dance Contest (BBC1, 8pm), now strictly to the rules of Strictly.

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