Weaver's Week 2004-12-11

Weaver's Week Index

11 December 2004

Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.

Wait, isn't next week Finals Week? Two more names added to the Roll of Honour this week.


Hard Spell Abbey

(CBBC production, aired weekdays 0830 CBBC and 1605 BBC1)

Here's a really good way to get people interested in spelling and grammar. Make an entertaining programme about the subject, stick it across the week, and see what happens.

Six youngsters, probably all about ten years old, gather at an abbey somewhere in the country. Meeting them is the show host Simon Grant, a familiar face to viewers of BBC children's programming. He's joined by Jaz Ampaw-Farr, a television newcomer who knows her words, and brings an infectious enthusiasm to the show. Running the abbey is Brother Brendan, played by Simon Hickson. His inclusion is a nod to those viewers who remember him from Going Live about fifteen years ago, viewers who would now be settling down to watch with their own children.

Most of the week is taken up by some entertaining games, often with bad puns for titles. For instance, "Vowel Shift" involved some of the youngsters moving blocks containing vowels to build a wall. "Knight Vision" had the contestants guiding one of their number around a crypt to collect letters. There was also a game involving the players asking Brother Brendan to spell various difficult words, and if he failed to spell them correctly, they could throw a dessert pie at him. When this round ended drawn, we had the almost inevitable "pie-break."

Three such games were played each day, and those contestants who could correctly pass the Spell Bell played on the Walk of Words. Two of their number would spell words indicated by a clue, then shout out the letters to solve a rebus. Thanks to the majestic settings, this is a surprisingly gripping finale.

In between the games, Jaz attempted to educate through entertainment, briefly explaining some of the English language's strange ways without ever boring her audience. Simon Hickson added some silly puns to the lectures. He also hosted a version of Celebrity Squares - titled, almost inevitably, Spell-ebrity Squares - where some CBBC personalities (and Dermot Murnaghan, though all he did all week was wave from the bottom left corner) failed to spell words. There was also a running joke about Brother Brendan's audition for I'm A Spell-Ebrity...

On Friday, the rules rather changed. After four days of collaboration, it was now everyone for themselves. A round of spelling against the clock, a hands-on-bells round, a five correct spellings in little time, and a best-of-five finale reduced the six to one winner, Catherine. Though losing was disappointing, the blow was softened with a video of each player's "best bits," including heartfelt tributes from Simon and Jaz.

Overall, Hard Spell Abbey manages to be very good children's television. It entertains, it educates, and it's kind and polite about it.

Hard Spell

(BBC production, BBC1 1900 weekdays and 2000 Sunday)

Here's a really bad way to get people interested in spelling and grammar. Make a sequence of shows asking youngsters to show their limitations on national television, show it across the week, and see what happens.

Since the 1920s, the Americans have held spelling competitions in their schools. The national finals have occasionally attracted some interest in this country, but mostly of the "Look what these strange people are doing" variety. This column remembers one report from the mid 80s, which led to Gordon Clough and Valerie Singleton discussing whether CEROPLASTICS began with a Z or an S.

Fast forward to 1999, and motion picture director Jeffrey Blitz heads a team following eight youngsters on their way to one such national final. Three years later, their work is fashioned into a film, Spellbound, which becomes a hit in American cinemas, and earns itself some reasonably prestigious awards. Spellbound has earned itself more than a few copycats. A similar film, showing the francophone language championships, aired on TV5 over Easter 2004. Now the BBC has adopted the idea of the spelling competition and taken it on as their own.

Children between 11 and 14 auditioned in each of the BBC's ten regions, with five of the best from each region making it to the national final. Instantly, this puts youngsters from places like Northern Ireland and the South West at a great advantage - their small regions are sending through just as many people as the heavily-populated North West and Midlands.

The televised stages are hosted by Eamonn Holmes, who introduces a very quick compilation of audition footage from the region, then the five competitors. In turn, they each stand on a stage, while Nina Hossain reads out some context-free words. The competitors have to spell those words, as many as they can in 45 seconds. The top two competitors from each regional five move on to the next phase, with the number of wrong answers used as the first pie-break.

We repeat this for a second region. Then the top four come back to spell again, looking for the last two to remain error-free after everyone's had the same number of questions. Those top two spell off head-to-head, with the first to make a mistake when their opponent was correct being the loser.

Here's a short and incomplete list of things going wrong.

  • The contestants each face a different set of words, and some clearly get easier sets than others. GLADIOLI and ONOMATOPOEIA are not words of equal difficulty. This may be because they're of different ages, and the competitors of 11 years will have slightly smaller vocabularies than those of 14. However, we can rule out that possibility, as all the competitors have been given the Hard Spell Lexicon, a 100-page book (up on the Hard Spell website) containing all the words they'll ever be asked on the show. In effect, Hard Spell is a simple test of memory, and not of spelling. That's with the possible exception of one unfortunate contestant in the final heat, who was given CYCLAMEN (a plant) to spell. This is difficult, but it's also very obscure, and is nowhere to be found in the Lexicon.
  • Three-quarters of a minute is an awfully short time to test someone's knowledge of anything, especially when they've come all the way from Belfast or Aberdeen to London.
  • There's muzak playing in the background, there's a back projection screen displaying the face of Nina Hossain reading the words, and from the number of times she had to stop the child and say "The word is..." it's clear that the acoustics in the studio are far from optimal. The contestants can ask for a definition, but this does not stop the clock so eats up their time. Are the acoustics bad enough to influence the result? Given the short length of the test, quite possibly.
  • Unlike other shows involving children, where taking part is the important thing, Hard Spell is predicated around finding losers, not winners. Before the third contestant begins their round, Eamonn Holmes says we'll shortly know who will be first to be eliminated. Such negative attention on those who have been beaten continues throughout the programme, and it feels woefully out of place. No one says "well done," or thanks the contestants for being there. A simple "you're eliminated," and that's it. There's no greater contrast to the gracefulness in defeat, or the magnanimity from the winner, from Hard Spell Abbey.

After just one show, this column was wondering if the BBC was treating its contestants properly, as there was a certain "freak show at the end of the pier" smell hanging in the air. Certainly there are no attempts to educate the viewer on why English spelling is so very complex and difficult, nor very much in the way of humour or smiles on the programme.

Sunday's final began with a long round, interspersing footage of the five finalists with them spelling ten words with no time pressure. Perhaps the producers had seen the comments of other critics, as the music had been toned down. They hadn't taken note of our comments about the focus on elimination, as Eamonn mentioned the e-word less than 40 seconds after the opening credits finished.

The long opening round - almost as long as the weekday shows - was followed by a ladder of increasing length, progressing from 6 to 13 letters in length, and limited time, just a minute. Then came the expected head-to-head-to-head single-elimination round, followed by a head-to-head elimination round to produce our final champion.


Best bib and tucker, everyone, it's The Grand Final

Jim Cook has previously offered Manned Spaceflight and UK Prime Ministers of the 20th Century. Tonight, his specialist subject is US Presidents of the 20th Century. After announcing each subject, but before the questions begin, there's a short film of each contestant. Jim may have bitten off more than he can chew here, as the questioning is very esoteric indeed. A good recovery towards the end means he finishes on 9 (2).

Shaun Wallace has offered the Champions League and the England football side; this week it's FA Cup Finals since 1970. It's possible for the same people to feature in all three rounds, and it's surprising that the producers have allowed this through. His research serves him well, and Shaun finishes on 12 (0).

John Tweddle has had World Boxing and US Presidential Elections, and now offers the "Iliad." Not being classical scholars, we must assume that these questions require knowledge as deep as the other two subjects. John found it reasonably comfortable going, finishing on 11 (3).

Michael Kane was on Buddy Holly and Charles II, now it's British Pop Music of the 1960s. These were tricky questions, and it's impressive to finish on 7 (3).

Don Young has had the Odyssey and Ludwig of Bavaria, tonight the Life and Reign of Elizabeth I. This is a superlative piece of research, and Don only errs on the very last question. He's set the standard, and 14 (0) puts him in a very strong position.

Finally, Brent Peeling moves from Essex Cricket and the Zulu War of 1879 to English Test Cricket since 1877. This is another great performance, finishing on 12 (1).

Before the general knowledge round, we see a trip into Mastermind history, including some comedy sketches of Magnus with wild and frizzy hair, and Mr Blunkett saying "Pass" a lot. There's no mention of Peter Snow keeping the flame alive on Radio 4 after the television show went into its prolonged hiatus.

Michael Kane is first up, and rather sadly falls into Pass Hell, advancing to 9 (10). Jim Cook has another slow start, finishing on 17 (4). John Tweddle also slips into Pass Hell, ending on 15 (8).

Brent Peeling is next up, starts strongly, but fades towards the middle only to come back towards the end. 21 (3) becomes the target for the last two.

Shaun Wallace gives his round a good crack, making sensible guesses where he doesn't know. In this round, we find that "the opera ain't over till the fat lady sings" was coined as recently as 1978. Shaun finishes on 24 (0).

Don Young, therefore, needs a decent score of his own to win. He starts strongly, but takes a pass half way through, thus ensuring that he needs 11 from this round to win. The end of the round comes just too soon - Don gets the last question correct to finish on 24 (2), meaning that those two passes have cost him the title.

On such small matters do championships turn, and Shaun Wallace has become Mastermind 2004 by a whisker.

This Week And Next

Nicked! Part the goodness-knows-how-manyth. Charles Ingram has been declared bankrupt. The man famous for losing a million and losing a court case presented a Debtor's Petition at Bath County Court on November 25, declaring himself bankrupt. Despite bankruptcy, Mr Ingram could face a jail term if he fails to pay the £15,000 court fine from last year's Nicked! trial, as fines imposed by a criminal court are not written off when one declared bankrupt.

The Royal Television Society's craft and design awards were handed out a week ago. Crisis Command picked up a nomination in the Lighting, Photography, and Camera (Multicamera) category, but lost to a C4 documentary about fashion. Grant Buckerfield's music for D-List Celeb Torture And Bickering was similarly defeated by David Arnold's work on Little Britain. However, we can report one game show victory, Nick King's production design for Jungle Run is the best on British television.

Speaking of which, we're very cheered to see viewing figures of 180,000 for early episodes of Raven. Lest we forget, Channel 4 cancelled its breakfast show RI:SE last year for getting similar figures; for a programme on a children's channel available to barely half the homes to secure as many viewers is worth a feather on anyone's standard.

We've also been thoroughly enjoying the repeats of the 1989 Krypton Factor on Challenge. We vaguely remember the trickiness of the mental agility rounds, and the complex 3d building blocks. Less well remembered, the way each contestant wore something in their show colour, a little detail that really added to the show. And Steve Coogan appearing in the observation round - whatever happened to him? Also in there, Hinge and Bracket, and the very last Treasure Hunt with Annie and Kenneth. Anyway, this column agrees with regular correspondent Nick Gates that it's high time Krypton came back. It's an honourable show that finds winners, so is now completely unfashionable, but would be just right in BBC2's Mastermind slot. Hint.

Finals of Raven and Countdown next week, along with some more episodes of Eggheads. Pick of the week is probably Heist, in which some criminals are challenged to pull off the perfect crime. C4, Tuesday at 9.

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