Weaver's Week 2011-07-24
It's the middle of July, which can only mean it's time for people to leave their homes and go on travels. This column's been away recently, and has come back with a mug and a new record for the smallest event ever to get a review in the Week. First, something you might have seen.
STV for Channel 4, 11-15 July
Like most good shows, the concept of Quiz Trippers can be explained in a few lines. Take some pub quiz players, and put them in a motor home. Each day, they'll travel to a new town, visit a new pub, and play in a pub quiz. Whatever prize they win, they keep, and it goes to the strongest player as selected by the team through the week.
The finished programme is only slightly more complex than this description. The team – Alan and Jen from Scotland, Audrey from England, Kevin from Northern Ireland, and Lauren from Overseas – is perhaps more well-rounded than a typical group of quizzers. There are three women, when the serious quiz player is perhaps 80% likely to be male. And it's quickly apparent that the producers have cast the players as much for their personality as for their general knowledge. There's the wise old boffin, the strong-and-silent type, the vibrant young thing, and the slightly eccentric one. All of these are characters, perhaps caricatures, and that's the way of modern television. If you present three dimensions, the television set might show two-and-a-half.
The campavan holds five people; it's not the lap of luxury, but nor is it unreasonably poky. One problem is how it doesn't have a large enough table for all five players to be sat at: one has to be on the opposite wall, and that really restricts the shots available on screen. We don't think there was a single shot of all five players facing the camera from inside the moving home, only when they were outside or in the pubs.
Shows divide fairly neatly into three parts – the first third explains how they got from yesterday's quiz to tonight's, the middle 60% is footage from the night's quiz, and the final moments reflect what happened afterwards. All of which means that we've reached an analysis of the quizzes themselves, and what a strange beast they were.
For starters, all of them adopted the same format – short themed rounds of five questions. Sometimes one or more of the questions was for double points, occasionally two answers were required for the mark, but all the quizzes followed a similar routine. Five questions, about five rounds, highest score at the end of the night won the prize.
The prizes? Oh, there were prizes. Cash for first place, typically £100 for the winning team. Something entertaining for second place, such as tickets for a snow dome. Some nights had a trinket for third place, your traditional cuddly toy. Most games featured a booby prize for the team in last place, such as a sack of potatoes.
We're not going to make the obvious and slightly xenophobic joke about how "a sack of potatoes would be first prize in an Irish pub quiz." Nor is that the sort of line we'd expect to come out of the script of Christopher Biggins, whose script was camp and cheeky without ever quite crossing the line into rudery. Sadly, it never quite crossed the line from "say what we're seeing on screen" to providing an insight of something we'd missed. The great narrator knows when to keep quiet, that less is sometimes more, and this wasn't a great narration. The show's music was a Paul Farrer composition, mercifully from his Jaunty Upbeat section, and it worked well with the cartoon titles on the show.
The theory was that the team would win some money, or sell their prizes for cash, and have to decide whether to spend some of that money on food to augment their basic rations, or drink to flavour their water. This idea only fell entirely flat as the team didn't win a cash prize until the final day.
But let's discuss the quizzes some more. It's apparent that the various quiz compilers had really worked on their televised questions, and they'd been pitched at just the right level – somewhere around the daily finals of Fifteen-to-One, or easy questions in the opening round of University Challenge. It's also apparent that much of this effort has been wasted – of 25 or 30 questions in each show, we'll see about 10 played out. These will be the ones where something interesting happened for the team – they had a discussion, or a difference of opinion, or one of the characters did something interesting. It could be as simple as getting a question wrong – the editors showed Jen getting nothing right in the first two shows, building up to a big pay-off when she did provide a correct answer. Was this fair? Well, the facts are all there, but we never quite know if something useful happened in one of the questions we didn't see.
This is a 5 o'clock show, it's meant to be light and fluffy. If viewers wanted something serious, they would be watching Newsround or listening to PM With Mair. The comparisons are meant to be with Coach Trip and The Chase, and we don't think Quiz Trippers quite stacks up against either. There was little light and shade on Quiz Trippers, none of the team was particularly unlikeable, none was outstandingly lovely. As a travelogue, this show didn't work; five minutes of the A9 or the M8, then brief footage of a Scottish town, and lots of the inside of a pub. And that's about it.
We'd certainly question whether Christopher Biggins' script was the best available, perhaps a less recognisable voice, with a sparser script, could improve the show. What's Paul Coia doing these days, we wonder. Less predictable editing would also improve the show – if a question was shown, we'd expect the team to conflab about it, and for Biggins to put in his three penn'orth.
But these are slight criticisms. Taken as a light and fluffy show, it was entirely watchable. And, yes, Biggins had much to do with that achievement. We watched all five episodes, mostly on 4+1, so can't vouch for how easy it was to miss one or two shows; our suspicion is that the first and last were the only must-sees of the week.
- This column went on a trip of its own last week, to see some of the shows at the Manchester International Festival. What can we review; headliner Björk?
- (No, not a game show. - column's internal editor)
- Extreme violinist Alina Ibragimova?
- (She been on Eurovision Young Musicians? No? Not interested.)
- Art installation Eleven Rooms?
- (Does that have two-and-three quarter Emma Hawkinses? No? Move on!)
- This'll be on-topic:
Manchester International Festival Pavilion, 12 July
Back in the middle part of the last decade, Mr. Spam Fritturz and Miss Lizzy Beans (known to their respective parents as Sam Curtis and Elizabeth Bassham) met at drama college in Manchester. They became firm friends, sharing a love of great popular music, and of adding something to the common-or-garden pub quiz. Actually, a pub quiz held in a garden, that would be fun. Though it would require some decent weather, and we've not really seen that in the UK since about 2006. Anyway, the Spam and Beans double-act took their entertainment-with-questions to pubs in Manchester, and then in London. Now, they're performing in Albert Square, alongside M Boyard and that bloke off of Run the Risk.
Ah. That's Albert Square in Manchester, which has been converted into a cafe and bar and box office for the biennial Manchester International Festival. There's also a large theatre in a tent, where two bands we've never heard of are playing at 8pm. Next to that theatre is a smaller marquee with a bar, and that's where we find Spam and Beans, handing out papers for their quiz. We're slightly cajoled into entering by someone else in the bar, intrigued by the dark figure on our t-shirt.
The preamble may have been quiet, but we certainly know when the show begins. The sound of Chaka Khan's 1984 hit "I feel for you" comes over the PA system, and Spam and Beans step forward to perform a remarkable dance, one that is almost as good as the routine featured in the song's video. After that entrance, it's quickly into the quiz, and the tone is set by the first question: "What was Céline Dion's last number one single?"
There's a lot in that question. On the surface, it's a simple teaser with a clear answer. But the subject isn't just any singer, it's Céline Dion, perhaps the least cool performer to have released a record lately. Her appearance in the Eurovision Song Contest during its ultra-naff years, that's about as fashionable as she ever got. And we're being asked to dredge our brains: we all know she did That Song From Titanic, but wasn't there another big hit somewhere? Was that before, or after? And what's the title of That Song From Titanic, anyway? One simple question, so many matters arising.
This column gets the answer in a heartbeat, and writes it down. "Shoot us now," we remark to our compatriot. He's here to see cooler-than-thou bands. This column knows all about Céline Dion. If we'd gained any from the t-shirt, our credibility is now officially shot.
The round continues. Spam reads out questions. Some are snappy and to the point. Others are prefixed by musical stabs, while one or two begin with a long ramble to test the audience's comprehension before reaching the question – a discussion of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal covers various bases (and we're almost itching to write down 1843) before branching off into the personal life of former editor Rebekah Brooks (crazy name, crazy lady!)
There's even a live video link-up with Dale Winton, who asks a question. OK, it's not live, being clearly pre-recorded. And it's not Dale, being Spam Fritturz holding a picture of Dale on a stick in front of his face. The budget for this quiz must have run into, literally, pence. And already, it's the best quiz of this type since the heyday of It's a Shame! (catchphrase: What have we got? No budget!)
Trev and Simon may have asked some searching questions of their guests, but they never got them to perform a limbo dance. Still less perform a limbo dance under a bar coated with sticky sticky tape. And never, ever, limbo dance under a bar coated with sticky sticky tape while wearing a very dodgy and ill-fitting wig. Our comrade-in-quiz has left the tent in search of other facilities, and this column ends up demonstrating why this column is a column. We're there to stand up, to do things in an approximately vertical manner. If you try to limbo with us, we will quickly topple over, fall flat on our backside, and rise from the floor giving a round of applause to disguise our complete ineptitude.
Spot prizes for the winners of the limbo dancing contest, being some Manchester International Festival tat that they managed to pick up for approximately nowt. More spot prizes from correct answers to the question on almost the whole city's lips, "What's in Lizzy Beans' kebab bag?" We now know, but to tell would be a spoiler, oh. After all this, the quiz continues with an audio round. Ten snatches of popular music, performer and title for each, purlease. And try not to look at the video screen, because the answers might just be appearing there.
We always appreciate a show that includes some poetry, and Lizzy Beans calms down the crowd by reading some verse that she composed herself, with her fair hand. A final general knowledge round concludes the quizzing. Again, Spam Fritturz entertains the crowd with some riffing, this time on the subjects of Debbie McGee and the Ed Miller Band, and we're joined live via satellite by Jane McDonald off of The Cruise, and Sheryl Cole off of the telly.
Then it's into the routine of marking the papers, a slight chore that is done as quickly and efficiently as possible. And after that, the prizegiving. This column and its co-quizzers (we were augmented to four during the music round) is somewhat surprised and delighted to emerge in third place. Dr Death & the Apocalypse Club was named after the character on this column's t-shirt and its designers. The prize was a pair of tickets for the Saturday night's hip and happening credible new music performance, a mug promoting Johnny Vegas and Kevin Eldon's show And Another Thing..., and the remnants of a tub of champagne truffles swiped from the dressing room of a show the weekend before. All three chocolates. Thank you, on behalf of us all.
Readers who are after a slick and polished performance won't find it here. Nor will they find it outside the fantasy world of television. This is live theatre, people push the wrong buttons. This is interactivity in its rawest form, not even the performers know how the night will progress. Will the limbo dance contest fizzle out through general uselessness? Will some maroon holler out answers from the other side of the wall? Will the show be graced by Greater Manchester Radio's stand-in breakfast host Andy Crane?
"No" is the short answer to those questions. It's also the answer to the question, will this be the most intellectually-demanding quiz this side of University Challenge, which is only two streets away? Spam and Beans are exactly the right choice for this festival, they take the audience away on a little bubble of celebrity, and on a little bubble of nostalgia. They write inclusive questions, ones that we should know the answer to, or at least be able to guess.
At one point, they remark that 1994 was the best year ever for pop music. This is, of course, absolutely correct. It also serves to mark them effortlessly as being of a particular vintage, appealing primarily to thirtysomethings. We were reminded of this when reading a review of Victoria Wood's That Day We Sang, being performed just down the road. Newspaper critic Tom Sutcliffe said, "How much of Wood's comedy, I wonder, is date-stamped? This isn't a criticism, incidentally. The exactness of her social references is part of her genius. But I can't help feeling sad that younger generations will eventually need footnotes to get it."
Spam and Beans don't need footnotes, because their routine is ephemeral. It's of the moment, to be performed, to be enjoyed, and they'll do something entirely different when we see them next.
Manchester's got other attractions, and one of them is YTV's long-running letters and numbers game. Finals Week at the start of June interrupted Liam Herringshaw's run, and he managed to win five games (scoring 513 pts) before coming up against Graeme Cole. Graeme had to be on top form to win their match, 112-93, and completed an octochamp run with a total of 813 points. Liam's play clearly improved on his second recording day, Graeme's might have dipped a little on his final two games.
Matt Croy took over the champions' chair, winning five matches (538) before losing to Andrew Halliburton, 91-90. Ouch. Andrew went on to win four games (446), but suffered a dip in form to lose to Gareth Lee. He began a run of solid but not really outstanding champions, winning three games (310). John Symonds had two wins (232), and Jon Elmer three victories (349). Then along came Mark Deeks, who played four-large numbers as part of a very solid game. He wasn't really threatened in his octochamp run, amassing 824 points. There was one game before the summer break, won on Friday by Peter Staniland.
Heat 3: Worcester Oxford v Clare Cambridge
And there's another show coming from Manchester. This week, we'll mostly be following SittingByTheSea's guide to bluffing. "If unsure shout:
0.3 to maths Qs
Wilfred Owen to poetry Qs
AC Grayling to philosophy Qs
Ted Heath to politics Qs"
Poverty and oysters go together, report Worcester, who have seen the Transport for London fare guide. The Worcester side go on and on, doing rather well on the first dozen questions. Then Clare Cambridge get off the mark with the highly-specific answer "Er, the 1971 extra Booker ... thing". The first visual round is upon us already, it's a diagram of an industrial process, but neither side can identify "brewing". Do they not know how their beer is made? Worcester lead 55-25.
EduVulture writes, 'watching University Challenge, wife just said, "Is this a repeat from 1985? Look at them!"' No, Mrs. Vulture, we're convinced this is a 2011 show, though looking at those fashions... After a slow start, Clare are picking up speed, with knowledge of the right to silence, and answering this week's questions about the World Toe Wrestling Championships. It's early, but Worcester have all got at least one starter.
Mystic Mug is tapping on our table, to say that AliBonce has made a prediction. "Metzer might be this year's Clemo." Andrew Clemo led York to the final in last year's series; can Jonathan Metzer do the same for Worcester Oxford? There's some music from a ballet, which means it's the audio round, music from "Fantasia". Not the most difficult of questions, and IamBekki reports "Ha, my dad knows his ballets :|". Worcester has maintained its lead, now 105-85.
How did Blackfriars get its name? From the monastery, of course. Plate tectonics bring the side level, and Eddington takes Clare ahead for the first time in the match. Interruption of the week follows:
- Q: Tenniel's Punch cartoon 'Dropping the pilot'...
- Clare, Daniel Janes: Bismark
Worcester have this week's tricksy question, on literary calculations: Orwell's Big Brother divided by Eliot's Quartets has us doffing our hats, and the answer 496. Jill_Luke is feeling good, "When you answer a question on University Challenge and feel you should be automatically awarded a 1st from Cambridge." No-one can recognise Marlene Dietrich on the screen, still less on the wall, and Clare leads by 135-125.
It's Founder's Day, with questions on Middlesbrough – how it got its name from being half-way between Durham and Whitby, the famous Transporter Bridge, and its export the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Little Billy Shakespeare question of the week is on Cordelia, and we learn that the tuning fork is 300 years old this year. Worcester also get questions on what happens if you go west from various capital cities – west from Kyiv gets you to Poland, and the gap is down to ten points.
Make that nothing, the sides are level at 170. Ah, the philosophy answer was "AC Grayling", and the maths answer was 186. Worcester didn't do well on their bonuses, and Clare's next starter brings the sides level. And they get two bonuses, and then the gong goes. That was close: Clare have the win, 190-180.
It's almost certain that Worcester will return in the repechage, they were correct in 26/49 questions they faced – counting both bonuses and starters. Clare were right in 28/52 questions, and there wasn't a missignal all night. Clare were particularly strong on the bonuses, only two of ten sets were more wrong than right. Overall accuracy was 54/82, and our Random Viewer of the Week is Sunshine_Cazz: "I got 8 which means I looked smug 8 times in total & took 8 smug sips of water."
Next match: Queens' University Belfast v Newcastle
This Week And Next
A couple of matters arising from the microbloggers. Martgro said, "Ironically, University Challenge is probably the best ITV programme there is." No love for Come Dine with Me? And Simon Gold asks, "Has anyone made it after being on University Challenge?" We refer him to our Before They Were Famous page, documenting such forgotten flowers as Stephen Fry and Clive James. Whatever happened to them, eh?
This fortnight's Moaning Minnies report from OFCOM has a few points related to game shows. A broadcast of Hell's Kitchen Us on ITV2 featured the f-word (no, not "food") at least 47 times. Yes, it went out after the 9pm watershed, but only just, and the first segment of the programme had a use every 37 seconds. ITV said that this was "on the borderline of acceptability", and OFCOM decided that it was a bit too strong for 9 o'clock on the dot.
SKY Television also came in for criticism, after broadcasting an episode of Take It or Leave It with the viewer competition still included. The viewer competition that closed in 2008, there.
One to watch. OFCOM has decreed that televoting via smartphone applications is legitimate, so long as it's all done with the usual independent verification. Because this technology is immature, OFCOM insists that at least one other regular method – phone or SMS – is available. We've already heard that Big Brother 12 plans to have voting via The Facebook, using that site's proprietory scrip, and it wouldn't surprise us if The X Factor had something similar in mind.
The latest show to transfer from the UK to Yankeeland is The X Factor Court Case. Back in 2005, a young Simon Fuller settled with a young Simon Cowell over the similarities between Pop Idol and The X Factor. According to the court judgement, Mr. Fuller is responsible for precisely one-fifth of The X Factor, and he's paid an annual fee for use of his format. This money hasn't been paid for the new US series, and Mr. Fuller's put his case before a court. The XUS Factor's makers, Fremantle (prop: German company RTL, former owners of Channel 5) and Fox (prop: Rupert Murdoch, former wearer of a custard pie) say the whole thing is "without merit". Sorry, they say the lawsuit is "without merit".
Rumour mill: Channel 4 to make Come Date With Me. Fact-o-rama: Brian Dowling to host Big Brother, and we think he'll do a good job. Emma Willis to host Big Brother's Bit on the Side, which sounds like it's going to be the equivalent of a burned piece of bacon that still tastes horrid no matter how much baked bean juice you put on it.
Ratings in the week to 10 July. The Apprentice rules, with 9.4m seeing the weekly show, 3.9m the You're Fired interview (plus 275,000 on BBC-HD), and 5.3m tuning in the next night for profiles of the final five. In It to Win It was the only show to challenge this hegemony, 5.35m saw Dale doing what Dale does. Popstar to Operastar finished on 4.2m, Tonight's the Night had 4.05m, Mock the Week 2.6m, and University Challenge returned to 2.5m. 8 Out of 10 Cats had a year's best 1.95m, and Antiques Master had 1.75m.
Come Dine on More4 topped the digital lists, with 805,000 on Sunday evening. Britain's Got Talent Us had 510,000, that's 30,000 fewer than Horrible Histories, and CBBC's Splatalot took third place on 360,000 viewers. Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model flopped, a mere 335,000 tuned in to see the opening episode. Look, what you've got to do is have people falling into the water.
Can we tell it's the middle of summer? The most exciting new show of next week is Celebrity Head Chef (TV3, from 9.30 Monday), and that goes out in Ireland only. Otherwise, it's repeats of Celebrity Eggheads (BBC2, 6.30 weekdays), and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (Radio 4, 6.30 Monday) visits Grassington. Wonder if they'll donate jokes to Love Thy Neighbour?
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