Weaver's Week 2011-09-18
Coming soon to a television set near you, the game where venomous reptiles are hidden in cylindrical cans, disguised as crunchy crisps. Darren Brunette asks the difficult question: "Snacks or Snakes"
Syco / ITV Studios for ITV, 3-10 September
The basic plan here is terribly simple. Find someone lucky, and give them the chance to win One Million Pounds, Cash. That lucky man is a Mr. Cowell of London. And of New York. And of Paris, Munich, Tokyo, Singapore, Sydney, Rio de Janiero, Abuja, Azerbaijan, and just about every place in between.
According to the show's official publicity, Simon Cowell (for it is he) invented Red or black after seeing some bloke sell off everything he owned and gamble the lot on one spin of the roulette wheel. Perhaps he's trying to tell us something here, for fate has often intervened in Mr. Cowell's career. Without a stroke of luck – Sinitta's ditty "So macho", for instance – we might only know Simon Cowell from his appearance on Sale of the Century.
Perhaps he's trying to be a bit lucky in re-writing ITV's official history, especially the chapter that says "2000s: Light entertainment revolves around the twin peaks of Simon Cowell and Antan Dec". Back in 2003, this column reported a pilot show called "Roulette", which described itself as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire with a twist". It was meant to be the next big thing for Brian Conley, but the channel's director of programmes thought it was a bit rubbish, and twisted it only into the reject pile, where it was shortly to be joined by Mr. Conley's Judgement Day.
So, no, this isn't new. Nor is the show's contents particularly new. Ant and Dec, dressed in remarkably similar smart suits, start off with 1000 people gathered at Wembley Building Site. That's for values of "Wembley" that equate to "The Red or black Arena", and values of "1000" that are perhaps on the large side; 1000 tickets have been issued, but not everyone's turned up.
So, the 900-or-so people there are told that there will be some sort of Amazing Madcap Stunt, because this is going to be a television game, and if it's on television, it's probably got to be mildly entertaining. Probably. For instance, the 800 competitors are told that there will be an event called "Grand Slam".
Brilliant! Defending superbrain Clive Spate is going to be challenged by reigning Mastermind champion Ian Bayley in a battle of swift thinking and factual recall. Who will win? Will it be the Nottingham master, or the Oxford wizard? Red or black? The 700 people who have turned up and stuck around are told to go to the appropriate side of the arena, and runaround now!
Except it's not the 2003 television quiz Grand Slam, it's some stunt involving trampolines and basketballs, and if we wanted to see this sort of thing, we'd be watching Blue Peter where the presenters are far more mature. Eventually, one of the sides wins, and whichever half of the 600 players has guessed correctly is invited to go down to the Red or black foyer, where they'll be given the first prize along the route, a Red or black fortune cookie. 256 of these cookies have coloured strips inside, half red, half black, and only one of the colours will progress to the next round.
Already, we're 15 minutes into the show, and down to 128 people. We see them get on the coaches, they wave to the cameras, drive off down the Red or black road into the Red or black distance, then come across a Red or black light, stop, and disgorge their passengers. It's all a bit of television trickery, really; 128 (or so) players will be assembled at one of the seven Red or black regional heats, taking place at various locations around the country. That's for values of "the country" roughly equivalent to "the M25". ITV is a national television channel, yet everything it showed would be local to the Thames Television region.
There are some more spectacular stunts, after which half of the players have incorrectly guessed whether the result will be Red or black, and been eliminated from the contest. Some of these stunts are as spectacular as the bets are banal. A man is about to jump to earth from the top of a rollercoaster; never mind the question of whether he'll survive in one piece, all we need to know is what colour his parachute will be. Some of them are silly: a pair of wakeboarders will carry round a tray of drinks, which of them will return the more liquid?
For some games, the players are able to choose their option. For others, it is thrust upon them. It's perhaps possible to predict the better wakeboarder from skilful observation and knowledge of the challenges. No one can tell what colour their draw straw will be, still less whether it will match the one concealed in the white Red or black box.
Eventually, the final eight are selected. They've been lucky six times, and their prize is a day out at the Red or black studios on London's south bank, paid for by the production company. Even though it had a budget of over £10 million, Red or black didn't pay for contestants to come down to Wembley Building Site for the original game. It's something like £100 to come down from Leeds, more if overnight accommodation is needed. Is that worth a one-in-700 chance to play for a million quid, and the certainty of seeing a moderately spectacular stunt?
Except, on the show we took pictures from, the Elite Eight was using a small value of Eight, namely Seven. One of the contestants was unable to make the studio date "due to unexpected circumstances". The unexpected circumstance was a blast of publicity from the tabloid press, bewailing random chance. On the first show in the series, someone won the million pounds. It emerged that he had spent a couple of years in prison, and had spent those couple of years in prison for beating up his ex-girlfriend.
The tabloids got on the moral high ground, and fulminated in the remarkably self-important way that only the British tabloid press can do. "We want our winners to be the deserving poor", was the tenor of their coverage. "We don't want to see a million quid going to someone already rich, like happened to Judith Keppell way back when. We want to interfere with fate, ensure that it only rewards the people we think are spotless, who actually deserve the largesse of luck."
We know that the great British public doesn't understand chance, how it operates completely blind to human emotion. And we know that the tabloid press loves to extol its particular brand of morality. It's a morality that turns a blind eye to hacking mobile telephones, that ignores bribing the police. But so much as look at a child the wrong way, and the press will unleash the Furies and Harpies and Sirens. If there's one person in the UK with enough stature to look the press in the eye and tell them where to get off, it's Simon Cowell. It would be a gamble, but if he's brave, he could yet win our admiration.
Simon Cowell blinked first. He introduced a new rule, one to exclude anyone with a criminal record. Instantly, he's disqualified the hosts: we remember "Let's get ready to rhumble". And he's disqualified the 2.5 million people who bought the albums of his proteges Robson and Jerome in the mid-1990s (here's their greatest hits.)
Back on the show, the Elite Seven are given two more tasks, half of them choosing Red, half of them choosing Black, and half of them sent back each time. Around this time, there's a performance by a popular musician. Or Leona Lewis's new single, shamelessly nicked from someone else's dance track. Eventually, two contestants remain, and the show pauses for an ITV cross-promotional break. It could be The X Factor (prop: S Cowell), it could be Coronation Street.
The show resumes, with Ant (or is it Dec?) doing his impression of Davina McCall's Speaking Clock from The Million Pound Drop Live. And then, we're playing Duel. Brilliant! Ant and Dec are a double-headed Nick Hancock, helping the contestants through questions of general knowledge, and only one can win through to the final.
Except it's not the 2009 primetime show, it's yet another guessing game. A wheel has been split into eight segments (neatly heading off plagiarism claims from Trivial Pursuit, there). Behind four are red colours, behind the other four are black. Players take it in turns to remove segments, and whichever colour is the first revealed in full, that's the winner. The Duel round is played on a computer-generated wheel, which strikes us as very unsatisfactory. Would it be beyond the wit of man to bring on a Big ITV prop, a circle with eight lights in a neutral blue, but that will turn either red or black (but not both) on command?
Any connection between this round and the final round of RTÉ's Winning Streak is entirely coincidental. In fact, any connection between this entire show and RTÉ's Winning Streak is entirely coincidental: the Irish programme makes a lot of people comfortably better off, and a few people very rich indeed. The British show appeals to the social extremists, it's all or nothing, win or bust, death or glory.
So we're down to one player, and the big moment is almost upon us. Everyone turns around, the stage where The JLS (or whoever) performed is pulled back to reveal the wheel. Thirty-six spaces, half of them red, half of them black. One ball, to bounce in and out and eventually come to rest in one of those spaces. And only one question: why is Dec standing to the left of Ant? It's like the bride standing to the groom's right, or the debits being on the other side of the ledger. It's just wrong.
The million-pound spin is milked for all it's worth, something like five minutes to determine the result. And then, if the contestant does win, we miss seeing their reaction, because the director doesn't do a split-screen shot of wheel and player.
And the winner gets a million quid for – what, exactly? Being lucky nine times in a row, in a format that ensured someone would have to be lucky eight times in a row. Of the original 600 players, a few will have discussed what they might do with the million quid. The Elite Seven invited to the studio will have had a minute of airtime to tell their story – that's how we know Angel McKenzie wanted a million quid to make a movie about boxing. Big Brother contestants making movies about their real lives? Never catch on. But for everyone with a plan, there are more people who have nebulous ideas – pay off the mortgage, retire earlier, that sort of thing.
With there being no actual skill in the game (other than being lucky), the programme stands or falls on the quality of the stunts. Many of them are just dull television. Thirty-two people picking an explosives plunger is not gripping television. Sixteen people choosing a gift box, dull. Pixie Lott deciding upon a CGI image, yawnsome.
Even the spectacular stunts are directed in a very matter-of-fact way: the action is there, but there's no drama. The French have this down to a fine art, just watch an episode of Fort Boyard, or their sports coverage, to see audacious intercutting: tennis court lines bleeding into the Eiffel Tower, that kind of thing. Even here, Big Brother can tell a story with one lingering shot. But here? Ant (or Dec) looking worried, a shot of a tiny figure atop a rollercoaster, then an aerial shot of the fairground.
It's predictable. It's conventional. It's safe. It's the perfect summary of Red or black.
- We also reviewed Red or Black's very different second series.
Heat 11: King's Cambridge v The Queen's Oxford
One of these institutions hasn't been on the show in many years, so here's a potted bio. The Queen's College Oxford was founded in 1341 by the court of Queen Philippa of Hainault. The college has histoical links to Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Westmorland; alumni include Edmund Halley of the comet, Tim Berners-Lee of the web, and Rowan Atkinson of The Black Adder. They get the first set of bonuses, terms linked by the word "white". King's pull together quickly, not washed up by the Wash.
There's a woman on each of the teams this week, as welcome as it's rare. Englishcrumpett thinks they've found the most famous character on the show tonight. "Has Queen's Oxford got Jess the cat as their mascot? Pat won't be happy, he went to a polytechnic." We're not entirely convinced that that is Jess, but we never quite know with cats.
The Queen's has answered four starters, including the first visual round on the location of volcanoes, and each member has one correct. There's equality for you. But not in the scores, where The Queen's lead by 75-15. King's finally kick back with their old fellow John Maynard Keynes, the advocate of Keynesianism, a system by which one can reliably win the football pools.
The Cambridge side pulls to within 40 points, but then there's a missignal and The Queen's do well on dimensions of a vector space, which it's clear they understand. In a neat reversal of a round on Only Connect, King's have a set of words containing all five vowels. The audio round is "Ave Maria" in versions by pop singers, in which Charlotte Church and Barbra Streisand are confused, as are Beyonce and Eva Cassidy. And copyright campaigner Cliff Richard is confused with grunge god Chris Cornell. The Queen's still lead, 135-80.
Anthropology is more The Queen's thing, picking up two bonuses there. Byzantine knowledge comes next, with a suggestion that one of their kings was called Julian. "Wuff", said Timmy. "You know that feeling you get when the side you support on University Challenge has under half the score of the opposing team?" said AndrewHavis.
The visual round is Name That Fruit. It's a KIWI fruit, and they're after the chemical elements that make up that name. So far, so good. Then they show a piece of AsPArAgUS, and we think we'll just go off and watch Only Connect. It'll be light relief after this! That's the most well-earned 15 points ever, and The Queen's lead by 220-80.
Six minutes to play, King's pick up a missignal, and that feels like it'll be the end of the game as a contest. Garretkeogh sums up the reaction to the last round: "Hardest question ever" How many protons in a molecule of water? Ten, and ten more points to the The Queen's side. Dolly the Sheep helps King's to a slightly higher score, as does knowledge that she came from another sheep's breasts. Dolly as in Parton, there.
And that's the gong! The Queen's are the winners, by 280-95. The Queen's got 42/65 questions they faced, King's had 16/40 right and two missignals. ColinWarhurst is our Random Punter o'the Week: "I got four! A new record for me! Hurrah!"
Next match: Leeds v Goldsmiths' London
Heat 5: Fantasy Footballers v Antiquarians
The Fantasy Footballers include the managers of Lincoln and West Bromwich Albion Nil. The Antiquarians include a member who has five (count 'em!) Blue Peter badges. Let's have a guess: that'll be the regular Blue, the Silver for doing two things, the Competition Winners, (er) the Green for eco-friendliness, and the oh-so-exclusive Factbyte Factory badge. Oh, another of the Antiquarians put a song about Only Connect on the interwebs.
Antiquarians are playing first, and wonder what links "Bob Hope impersonator" and "20 white kittens". No, not things people have done to themselves, especially when we see "M&Ms (no brown ones)". These are, as the Footballers know, things found on band rider clauses. Mariah Carey is the one who asks for a basket of kittens, and Iggy Pop wanted the impersonator. Crumbs. Wick o'Twisted Flax o'Doom hides "On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco", so it's things written by King James. Like "Shirley Valentine", then. The team are completely flummoxed, but the opposition know – one-actor shows.
Antiquarians have descriptions of martial arts, translated into English, a couple of points there. "Empty hand" is a bit of a giveaway, really. Audio for the Footballers, who think they're hearing songs about "prayer". Bocelli and Céline Dion get on the show, Madonna would have been the one-point clue had they needed it, and no sign of Marija Serifovic. Our grocer will be depressed.
Things represented by letters in a circle has three points for the Antiquarians, leaving the Footballers with some pictures. Things kissed for luck is lucky for the Footballers, two points there, but they still trail by 6-5.
Antiquarians go from Chuck and Ribs to cuts of beef, the next is Loin, but where do they go after that? Down to the Rump, it's worth a non-rumpy two points. Surrey begins the next sequence, so we're obviously near London. No! Tuk-tuk and Segway show it's vehicles, and a single-wheeled thing would be a unicycle. Two points there, and Victoria goes on a rant about respect to animals.
Respect to the Lion gives the Antiquarians two points, on Sundays in the church calendar leading up to Easter. Do the Footballers have a fruit machine question? Four strawberries and three plums and two pears, but it's not fruit machines, it's one apple, as eaten by the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Bonus for the Antiquarians, there.
US chat show hosts – specifically, the Tonight show, which has gone from Leno to O'Brien, and thence to Leno again. Bonus for the Footballers. Numbers for them, but they get it wrong! It's factorials! And a bonus for the Antiquarians! They lead, 12-8!
To the walls, where the Fantasy Footballers reckon they've got some South geographical terms. They don't come out, but there are four songs from West Side Story. Then the Souths emerge, and the group discuss skateboard moves. What's the fourth link? Axes. The geography is North and South, the team get that point; the athletic moves are actually in snowboarding, which they miss. Seven points!
We have no idea why Victoria's apologising to her mother, but she is. Comedians from some show or other form a quick group, then they get thinking about parts of a county. That doesn't come out, but types of school are a group. Then they think about things you might turn, and that solves the wall, perhaps sooner than they'd like. It's comedians in Gavin and Stacey apparently, and those really are divisions of counties. That's a perfect round. Ten points!
Lots of making up for the Footballers to do, they trail by 22-15 going into the Missing Vowels round. As we saw last week, that's not insurmountable, and cities purpose-built as capitals goes their way 2-1, marred by a late mistake. Can we have a P, please? Legumes is more to the Antiquarians' taste, winning 3-1. What about the tallest bird on their continent? 4-0 to the Footballers, and the answers do not include Naomi Campbell. So Footballer's Wives... that's got to be a home banker. 2-1 to the Footballers, the Antiquarians picked up a late point and win by 27-24.
And, to play us out, it's Will Howells asking why there aren't any dolphins on Only Connect.
Next match: Listeners v Steel City Singers
This Week And Next
Special thanks to Pixie Stiches.
A press release lands on our desk from Marks & Spencer, speechwriters to Gideon Osbourne – the shirts-to-sandwiches chain used the slogan "There is no plan B" back in 2007. If we're to believe the report, M&S is "delighted to be the exclusive fashion partner" for this year's run of The X Factor. Doubtless, all the contestants will be dressed in dowdy shirts, ill-fitting trousers (or skirts, for the ladies), and cardigans that even this column thinks are a bit naff.
OFCOM's latest Complainants Report has come out. Sky Television has been complained at for airing an episode of America’s Next Top Model in which a contestant was compared to someone with spina bifida. It's a derogatory insult to people with a disibility. Channel 5 was complained at for setting a call-and-lose question with two correct answers. These two complaints were marked "resolved" after the broadcasters took remedial action.
Channel 4's been complained at by someone featured in Love Thy Neighbour, someone whose face appeared on screen while someone else's voice discussed possible racism in Grassington. It's perhaps more interesting to read Channel 4's aims for the series:
- "Channel 4 said that the series provided a platform for contestants and villagers to come to understand other people's lives and explored notions of heritage and custom and, in a very broad way, examined the myths and truths about 'the ways' of rural British folk... By being asked to choose between [contestants] the villagers had to confront their personal prejudices as well as their notions of what Grassington could or would cope with or respond well to. Channel 4 indicated that the same was true for the contestants and that this juxtaposition gave the viewer an insight into the realities of rural life and the ways in which attitudes of urban folk did or did not differ with those of rural folk."
This column's initial summary, "Have city folk laugh at rural folk even though the evidence isn't there", seems to apply.
OFCOM's also rejected 103 complaints about sexual material on Britain's Got Talent, without formally investigating them.
Gary and Louis, Ant and Dec, Mel and Sue, Jedward. The great pairings were in charge for the week to 4 September. The X Factor remained the biggest game show in the UK, 10.95m saw Saturday's audition show. The first edition of Red or black was seen by 7.1m, and third place was taken by The Great British Bake Off, 3.8m. Family Fortunes pulled in 3.75m, and Dragons' Den 3.1m. Celebrity Big Brother peaked on Sunday with 2.75m seeing John and Edward do something entertaining. We can't remember what it was, but it was fun. The Million Pound Drop Live was Channel 4's biggest game show, 2.1m on Friday, and no BBC1 game show made the channel's top 30.
Celebrity Juice was the biggest show on digital television, its 1.44m viewers proved more popular than the Bulgarian men's football team. The X Factor on ITV-HD secured 1.005m viewers, and Xtra Factor on ITV2 was seen by 900,000. There were 700,000 for Hell's Kitchen Us, and 635,000 for Only Connect on BBC4. Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model had its highest viewing figure, 535,000 saw Monday's episode; can we conclude that the British Public prefers brain to beauty? Masterchef Australia on Watch had 170,000 wondering what's wrong with their picture.
BBC admits it: Dragons' Den is a game show. Why else would they make a show called How to Win in the Den (BBC2, 8pm Wednesday) if there wasn't a way to win? There's a new series of 8 Out of 10 Cats (C4, 10.30 Friday), The X Factor goes international (ITV2, 8pm Thursday), and A Question of Sport comes to Ireland with Put 'Em Under Pressure (RTE1, 7.30 Sunday). Also: The World Sheepdog Trials conclude on More4 (7pm Sunday), and Family Cook Off (C5, 7.30 Tuesday).
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