What the Dickens?



Sandi Toksvig


Team captains:
Tim Brooke-Taylor and Dave Gorman (Series 1)
Chris Addison and Sue Perkins (Series 2-3)


Liberty Bell for Sky Arts, 28 May 2008 to 1 July 2009 (22 episodes in 3 series)



Live! From a tent at the Hay Festival! It's Sandi Toksvig! Or, to put it another way, what would Have I Got News for You be like if the subject matter was centred on the arts, culture and literature, rather than topical new stories? What the Dickens? gives us a flavour of that.

Well-known literary buffs Tim Brooke-Taylor (uh...) and Dave Gorman (eh?) - replaced by Chris Addison and Sue Perkins from series 2 - are joined by two random guest panellists, as Toksvig fires the questions around the somewhat sparse set which can be explained by the filming on location at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival.


The first round is 'The Name Game'. Here each team is given a category, and they have to name as many things from that category as they can. Categories can be as varied as Cliff Richard number ones, and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The difference in the number of potential answers in each category does not present a problem due to the nature of the scoring as noted further down, although it is very confusing at first glance when one team is asked to name 7 Wonders of the World, and the other side has to name any 10 of the 31 Carry On Films.

The second round is 'Losing the Plot'. In what has a distinct stench of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue about it, the teams are read a much abridged overview of a well known film, play, book or piece of music. When the think they have worked out what work is being described they must buzz in. Several of these overviews are read out during the round.

In the third round, entitled 'Picture This', each team take turns to work out what film, play, etc is being depicted by a range of photographs. So for example, photos of Ed Miliband, a hospital ward, a pair of scissors, and a persons hands would be describing the film Edward Scissorhands. As the round progresses, the photos become harder to decipher - or should we say, half-baked. For example, a picture of Cherie Booth and a projector are supposed to represent The Blair Witch Project. What?

In 'Balance the Books', a team may be asked which film was the highest grossing out of three possible answers, or which author received the highest advance, or which artwork sold for the highest amount. Each team only receives one such question during the round.

The final round is 'What's My Line?' Here a well-known line from a song, films, book etc is read in part, and the teams must buzz in and complete the line.

Not much importance is placed on the scoring, indeed points are arbitrarily awarded, teams are allowed to chime in on some of their opponents questions, and at no point, not even at the end, is it revealed what each team has scored, just who is in the lead or who has won.


On the whole What the Dickens? is not a bad programme, but it's not perfect either. Some of the rounds are quite light-weight, and it would perhaps be better to drop a couple of rounds in favour of allowing other rounds to contain more than a handful of questions, in a quality over quantity kind of way. On a positive note however, like others of its type, What the Dickens? uses humour to reasonable effect. Throughout the course of the show, questions are routinely disregarded briefly in favour of an anecdote or other diversion from one of the panellists. These interruptions are welcome and help add to the light-hearted nature of the show.

Indeed, in view of this comical nature, Sandi Toksvig as host is a good choice, playing well off the regular team captains and guest panellists. However, despite a number of the scriptwriters' names that are very familiar from similar shows, the script contains too many cheap jibes that you'd think are below Toksvig's own standard of improvisation.

Overall, it's also good to see Sky Arts branching out into other programming genres, but still keeping within their remit, although it's unlikely to bother the compilers of TV ratings.

Tabula Rasa

The second series was reformatted rather drastically, with only the title sequence and Sandi being the common elements. The four rounds are now:

  • Three Steps to Heaven: three photos shown in turn are clues to the plot and characters of a famous work for 3, 2 or 1 point(s) - curiously like Only Connect which must have been recorded at around the same time.
  • Yes and I'm Mickey Mouse: teams have 90 seconds to identify a member of the public who happens to have the same name as a fictional character - curiously like The Name's the Same.
  • Love It or Loathe It: guests have to profess to both love and loathe something from the arts and the other team have to guess which extreme opinion is true. They reveal the answer by pulling out LOVE or LOATHE from an envelope - curiously like Call My Bluff.
  • Losing the Plot: curiously like the game played in the first series, except this is now a quickfire round where the captains give the clues.

Web links

Wikipedia entry

British Comedy Guide entry


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