LWT for ITV, 22 July to 9 December 2000 (20 episodes in 1 series)
Now here's something a bit different. A kid's adventure game show. And it's on a Saturday lunchtime? Bizarre. But actually, when you look at the show for the first time, it all becomes clear. This isn't your average children's Friday-afternoon fun bonanza, this is a bigger budget than usual show that presumably ITV wanted to "big up" in terms of audience, so it put it on around the fish-and-chips time of the week.
The somewhat ludicrous plot is set in the present day, although the setting is far more futuristic than that. On Millennium Eve, the evil Erik Von Hagenvaas stole all the world's Swap-Its, a currency that had been specially invented for children to exchange for the things they wanted to buy (translation: kids win points for prizes). So it's up to teams of three kids to go into the baron's tower block, "Gemini Towers", and steal them back. But we ask ourselves - will Jack Straw approve of teaching kids to take "an eye for an eye", hmmm?
Their mission co-ordinator, from the safety of a van parked in the basement of an NCP car park, tells the team that he has over-ridden the computer mainframe and what their tasks will be. There are three tasks per show. Each task wins a clue to a mystery anagram codeword that turns out to be the combination for a safe. They also win some of the letters of that anagram.
The tasks are varied and are very well built. They usually revolve around answering general-knowledge quiz questions or finding codewords which, when put together somehow, give an overall codeword for the task. The computer converts this into a number sequence which opens the safe containing some Swap-Its. So, how's about we describe some of the tasks, then?
In the Thunderdome, a rotating laser beam tracks around the room while the kids have to time their run and do a simple task such as blow open a box and line up the switches inside. One nice feature is that there's a camera that tracks round with the laser so that you can see when a kid is about to get caught. If three alarms are set off then they lose the task and have to exit via a ventilation shaft.
In the Packing Box game the children have to find a box with a certain serial number then open it to find various clue objects. However, some of the packing cases are not in easy-to-reach places, so a winch may have to be used. The clue word is something that connects all the objects found.
In the Office the kids get to do all sorts of crazy things like swing from desk to desk via lamp cords (great one for safety campaigners, that) and use mini-cams to delve into rubbish baskets. They can't step on the floor, you see, so they have to find the answers to the quiz questions posed by a terminal in other ways. The problem we have with this game is that the lamp of the relevant desk rather helpfully flashes away. How they explain how some common or garden desk lamps know where to find the answers in a room is beyond us.
Once the kids go onto the next task, we cut to various clips of VT which show the baron's henchmen tap into a computer or flash their torches around the complex, in search of the source of the security alerts.
If they don't win a task, the kids have to take some time scrambling over some "air vents" (although they look like electricity pylons to us - someone call COSHE, quick!) down to a basement where a grubby Scottish tramp called The Swapper King lives.
The Swapper king is an inside informant who can inform the kids of the password, but only at the expense of some precious Swap-Its. The tramp provides the light relief of the programme, and often plays a little practical joke on them before telling them the clue word.
Once all three tasks have been attempted, the team go to the safe where they have to solve the anagram using whatever clues and letters they've got so far. The safe then opens and then they now try to open the boxes inside the vault.
When inside the vault they play a surprisingly basic word game where the kids - now working against each other - race to be the first to solve a 3- or 4-letter anagram. Being the first to do so opens one of their safety deposit boxes which contain - you guessed it - Swap-Its. Rather stupidly, some of the anagrams have more than one answer so there's a bit of pot luck involved. Boo.
When time runs out, the kids have to leave the safe before it shuts. Then, for reasons that we're not entirely sure, the programme almost completely changes track. The show could have quite easily ended there, but oh no - that would be too easy. The kids have to place their collected Swap-Its into a suitcase which has four compartments.
The problem is (FLAW ALERT!) that the suitcases contain dye capsules. None, one or two of these will burst depending on their performance in the next part of the show (if you think this is complicated, pity your poor 10-year old viewer who's trying to do the same).
Once the Swap-Its are in the cases, they are scanned through a suitcase scanner. As far as we can tell, this is just a device used to count the currency collected so far.
Then the kids have to scramble through a maze of tunnels in order to get out. Now you may have noticed that tunnels aren't the best things in the world to get good camera shots. Therefore, in order to gauge how well each of the kids are doing, they have to add on a computer graphic at the bottom of the screen. All together now: "COP OUT!" We bet they probably fiddle this in the edit anyway.
So, after that downer, they get into the host's van and check how many of the dye capsules have burst. The child who comes out of the tunnels first gets all their credits. The child who comes second has one of their case's dye capsules burst on them, which reduces their score by the number of credits in the affected hole (this could be zero if there were no Swap-Its in that particular hole). And the poor soul who comes third has two of their capsules burst. All the remaining Swap-Its are counted and a OK/good/excellent prize is chosen depending on there being less than 2000/2000-3000/over 3000 Swap-Its left.
It has to be said that a lot of the cause and effect of all of this is extremely poor. Why don't the kids just keep the Swap-Its on them instead of in a case? Why do they have to crawl around tunnels rather than come back the same way they came? How do the dye capsules know when to burst? Why do they have dye capsules burst on them at all?
There is a lot to commend the show. Most of the production values are down to the original Norwegian programme, so we should really say "well done" to them rather than LWT (but, hey, "well done" to LWT for spotting a good show to convert over to the UK). First of all the set is wonderful, and takes in a lot of influences from James Bond-style movies.
OK, so we've seen nice sets before, but we've rarely seen such great computer graphics on any show - never mind a kids' show. A lot of these are just for show, rather than being very functional, but hey, we're partial to a bit of showiness from time to time.
There's also a lot of nice little spy-themed touches, such as voice-activated countdowns and digital clocks counting down. Gimmicks ahoy. And - amazingly - they've found an excellent host that manages to play the extremely difficult role of being "Mr. I'm in Charge" while maintaining a little tongue-in-cheek at the same time.
With so many things to get excited about, it's a shame that there's also quite a few bugs that need fixing. Firstly, the editing of the kids' actions and those of the goons that are supposedly chasing them isn't as tight as it could be - it just looks like two sets of VT bolted together (in fact, that's probably what it is).
Secondly, a lot of the explanation takes aaaaaaaaages. About 5% of the audience will have a birthday in the time it takes to explain some of the games. This means that we only get three 2-minute games per episode. We'd have preferred some of the explanation to take place on-the-job, leaving time for longer games. The games are - for the most part - really good, so we'd prefer to see more of them. (Just to make fools of us, later programmes seem to have done exactly this. Oh, well.)
But the biggest gripe we have is that the cause-and-effect throughout the show isn't quite right. Maybe if they'd get rid of the dye capsule nonsense and replace it with a fourth game, and if they'd think about some of the game logic a little deeper, this could be a really really great show. As it is, it's good but it's not right, as someone once said.
But let's end on a high. This was the most exciting show we'd seen in ages and we were watching every week. Who knows, if ITV had seen sense in giving this some longer-term backing, it could have built up a good following in no time at all. Unfortunately, it lasted just the one series.
Great graphics, nearly great games, and some close finishes.
Based on the Norwegian show The Perfect Crime invented by Henrik Hancke Nielsen.
One of the producers on the show is David Sankey, who also invented the execrable Move on Up. Seems there's hope for us all, then.
SwapitShop - A Granada-backed website based on the fictional currency of Swapits
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