Weaver's Week 2012-10-28

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"All satire is rubbish" – David Baddiel opening The Mary Whitehouse Experience, 1989.


Have I Got a Week's Mockable News Quiz For You, Jack!

A review of four programmes with ten footnotes

Mock the Week – Angst Productions for BBC2, 11 October

Newsjack – Radio 4 Extra, 11 October

The News Quiz – Radio 4, 12 October

Have I Got a Bit More News for You – Hat Trick for BBC1, 15 October

It's rare for all the topical comedy programmes to be on air at the same time, there's usually a gap of more than 23 hours between Mock the Week ending and Have I Got News for You beginning. And by "all the topical comedy programmes", we mean "all the BBC's topical comedy programmes" – ITV doesn't make any sniggersome shows in any week, and even this column baulks at the prospect of watching 168 hours of that spoof Sky News.

So we begin with Mock the Week. This week's line-up is The Head of Roundview College, The Milky-Milky Man, and Very Milton Jones; they're up against veteran Andy Hamilton, newcomer and token woman Katherine Ryan, and Mock irregular Josh Widdicombe.

The format of Mock the Week hasn't changed much since the original series. There's plenty of excuses for rapid-fire jokes, where the host gives a prompt and the panellists chime in with their answers. There's a Revolving Wheel of Misfortune, with the guests (Jones, Ryan, Josh) each taking a topic, and the all-in bearpit finale riffing off comedy ideas.

Mock the Week Josh Widdicombe performs, with Katherine Ryan and Milton Jones watching.

When Mock the Week is good, it's good. Some of the one-liners are properly funny – to the prompt "10 billion", one player suggested, "Days of the DFS sale!"1 There's some social commentary: when discussing David Blaine's magic suit, there was a suggestion that "his best trick is to stay relevant", or that "10 billion" could be "the odds against any jokes about Jimmy Savile."

But when Mock the Week is not so good, it's indistinguishable from any other panel game: lazy and predictable. We don't have a problem in the panellists being tipped off about the topics beforehand, it does help to make an entertainment. We do have problems with people crowbarring their existing material into the slot, without regard to the week's events.

A picture of Roy Hodgson (Celebrity Splash manager) on the London Underground led, with almost painful inevitability, to an extended discussion of why people don't talk to each other on the Tube. Not only is this only of minor relevance to the 90% of the viewers outside London, not only is it completely untopical, but it's terribly predictable and not actually funny. Similarly, a round on Abu Hamza could have been cut-and-pasted from the 2005 series, and just regurgitated the received stereotypes.

There's been much criticism of Mock the Week for rarely inviting on more than one woman, and for being tremendously sexist. We did see the regulars hogging the stage a bit, but we thoroughly enjoyed Katherine Ryan's contributions – we'd not seen her before, we've clearly missed out.

The Newsjack performers.

Onwards, in our review of topical comedy, to Radio 4 Extra's Newsjack programme. This doesn't dress itself as a game show, there are no points and no teams. It's a sketch show, hosted by Justin Edwards, and it's the sketch show anyone can write. Unlike certain other open-door projects we could mention, Newsjack has a proper editorial process, so the result is a fast-moving half-hour of actually topical comedy, and not 4X being deleted for half an hour, replaced by the message "Radio 3 sux".

"We've been cloning jokes here on Newsjack," goes one sketch, about how jokes about John Prescott can be re-used as one about Nicholas Soames (because they're both fat), and chickens that cross the road of their own volition. There's a running theme about The Ed Miller Band being a friendless nerdy geek, and a bunch of one-liners in the form of answerphone messages. "Now we're allowed to use disproportionate force against intruders to our home, can I invite round an executive from my bank?"

It's difficult to write good topical comedy: often, the best is slightly established comedy given a new twist. Things to do in a power cut could have been written at any time over the past year ("Cope without Twitter by inviting your friends round and reading old jokes at them"), and just needs an excuse to come out. Taken too far, this sort of thing descends into cheap repetition of received opinion, but Newsjack is sufficiently fleet of foot to avoid the sort of cliché that afflicted Mock the Week. No mention of Jimmy Savile, and it's only in retrospect that we noticed the absence.

The News Quiz Host Sandi Toksvig on the world's most hideous sofa.

To Friday, and Radio 4's The News Quiz. Here, host Sandi Toksvig is asking questions of Francis Wheen from Private Eye, Rebecca Front from The Thick of It, newcomer Nick Doody, and Jeremy Hardy. Oddly enough, he sounds just like Susan Calman, who (in turn) is a dead ringer for Ruth Davidson. You know, the leader of the Scottish Conservative party. The Tories' annual conference is the first topic for debate, followed quickly by the briefest of mentions for allegations against Jimmy Savile, but these are cut short in order to talk about Lance Armstrong.

Back in the day, The News Quiz was actually a quiz, with questions and answers and meaningful points and everything. Then it became a Radio 4 smugfest, with guests as tedious as they were interchangeable. We've not listened properly to an episode in about six years, and it's clear that the programme under Sandi Toksvig has changed format. Her questions are just an excuse to discuss topical matters, perhaps crack some jokes, but also make some serious points.

Rarely is this illustrated better than Susan Calman's heartfelt appreciation of Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and her quarter-hour blast against opposition leader Tony Abbott2. Calman's appreciation is both for the gripping from-the-heart rhetoric, and for rising above the spectacularly rubbish chorus work from Gillard's backbenchers. "If he wants to know what a misogynist looks like, [mirror] he should look [mirror] in a mirror." Thanks for spoiling the punchline, choir. Ah, but if he did look, would Mr. Abbott see a reflection?

We enjoyed The News Quiz far more than we thought we would; possibly far more than we have enjoyed any episode since last century. Oh, it still has the misprints and meaningless headlines, but the discussion is more relaxed and congenial than we expected.

Have I Got News For You Clare Balding gets this week's brown suit allowance.

And so to Have I Got News for You. With Ian Hislop and Paul Merton this week are Graham Linehan of Craggy Island and Ken Livingstone of HIGNFY. The role of Angus Deayton is played by Clare Balding. We were reading a review of this episode in Redbrick, the student newspaper of Birmingham University. (We get it for the luscious centrefold, where we can even see the mortar!) A thought struck us: HIGNFY has been going so long that most undergraduates weren't even born when it began.3

As always seems to be the way, the opening ten minutes is a dissection of the government's current woes. The spotlight was on Andrew Mitchell4, 5. He had been accused of telling policeman that "you're swearword plebs," in the words of ITN. Clare Balding used the original vernacular, and got bleeped out for her pains. There's also a bizarre extract from Newsnight, where Grant Shapps6, 7 gave a guided tour of various backstage rooms in the International Convention Centre. We've been backstage there, we can attest to the difficulty in finding a decent lavvy.

And then there's six minutes on the Jimmy Savile thing, in the week when it finally emerged that his name ended "vile" for a reason. There's a brief clip of his appearance on HIGNFY in June 1999, and a debunking of the internet rumour8 that young Mr. Merton had tried to expose all this but it had been left on the cutting room floor. Mr. Hislop made the valid points that the press were just as silent about this as the BBC, and that the Daily Mail's website is full of children wearing bikinis, with exhortations to look at their bodies.9

Paxman's so hot, water does not freeze in his presence.

In that twenty minutes is the essence of Have I Got News for You in its third decade. Amongst the silly clips, like Jeremy Paxman failing to do science live on Newsnight, there's a show with an actual point of view. And, unlike anything else on the BBC, a show that's not afraid to make its points, and make them clearly.

And there's more. Unlike Mock the Week, HIGNFY is able to supply new jokes about Abu Hamza: reflections that are topical and actually funny. The show reflects the constitutional problems of Elizabeth Battenburg10 passing judgement on cases before her own courts, and still finds time to show another silly video. The show closes with the Missing Words round, a tactic allowing the programme to run precisely to time.

Thus ends our grand tour of topical comedy. We were surprised by The News Quiz, depressed by Mock the Week, and still enjoy HIGNFY and Newsjack.

1 A revised version of Genesis might begin, "In the beginning, the Lord created heaven and earth. The earth was formless and void, and the DFS sale was begun."

2 That speech in full, via ABC News.

3 "Have I Got Some Awkward News For You" in Redbrick magazine.

4 At the time, the Conservative party chief whip in the Commons. He resigned on 19 October.

5 Not to be confused with David Mitchell, the comedian and future Mr. Victoria Coren. As young Mr. Hislop did.

6 At the time, the Chairman of the Conservative party. To the best of our knowledge, he hasn't resigned.

7 To be confused with Michael Green.

8 Further discussion of the Savile / HIGNFY hoax transcript.

9 For reasons of taste and decency, we're not going to show you a picture of this column all grown up in its bikini. Instead, here's a picture of someone far cooler, much easier on the eye, and somewhat more successful with the ladies.

Patrick Kielty Mr. Cat Deeley.

10 A queen from Windsor.

Only Connect

Quarter-final 1: Draughtsmen v Numerists

Victoria begins this week's show with a joke that goes over our head. This is not unusual, she has this effect on everyone. Such are the perils of being a modern-day Oscar Wilde, if Wilde were female, blonde, and hosted a hugely popular quiz on BBC4 rather than being dead for a hundred years and writing plays about leaving one's child in a railway station's left luggage office. She'd be even worse if she had five cans of a caffeine drink. The Draughtsmen can order a pint in any pub in Europe; the Numerists eat at a different restaurant each week.

The Draughtsmen are first, and on the second clue they reckon it's things designated the fourth. Three points there, and neither Andy Tucker nor Dorian Lidell have seen any of the Star Wars films. "Back to my hotel room to watch them all," offers the host. Let's not go there, Andrew Mitchell might call us plebs. There's a game to play: some pictures – is it things with two spots, or species that have invaded the UK. It's the latter, and the team explain it for a point. Victoria has a rant against the squirrels. Whatever will Sue Perkins say?

Back to the game, where the Draughtsmen see Swedish and French royal residences; the addition of Castel Gandolfo gives it away as summer residences of heads of state, for two points. Now, will the team get Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian from Hot Row Cod? Not quite: he was BBC Radio's Man in Black, as were two of the alien hunters from the 1997 film. Two points.

Audio for the Draughtsmen, who hear two songs covered by Amy Winehouse. Except it's not: Caro Emerald, Neil Diamond, Pearl Bailey, Ruby and the Romantics, and a scrambled point. There's something technological for the final clue, but it's not 404 nor the first ideas of internet millionaires. No, this is the invention of Craig's List, Ewe Tube, Eh-bay, and The Facebook. All of which leaves the Draughtsmen ahead, 6-3.

Into round two, and "4th Grant Fox" is enough to have the Draughtsmen thinking, and eventually go for it. Sound the one clue klaxon! Sound the one clue klaxon! "1st Jonny Wilkinson". It's right! It's FIVE POINTS!!!!!1!!!one!!! Victoria knows nothing about rugby union, still less scorers in the world cup finals tournament.

For the Numerists, it's tall ships, tan, a woman. Not a cos lettuce, but George Clooney, because he's lovely, to go with Kirsty Young in clue three. "The Girl from Ipanema" and a bonus for the Draughtsmen. The Millennium, Queen's Golden Jubilee, Ben Duncan's Birthday William and Kate's wedding, so it's the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, being extraordinary bank holidays and two points. 1: Cher, 2: Glenda Jackson, 3: Meryl Streep, so who is fourth? The Numerists will have to guess a name – Helen Mirren "because she's young and has won an Oscar". Victoria is speechless, does a good impression of a fish drawing water, and offers it across. 4: Katherine Hepburn gives the bonus, it's the number of Oscar wins by female actors.

New countries into the UN is the next list, and that ends up giving a bonus to the Numerists. On their own question, Hannah Twitchell gets that it's the opening steps of a 12-step programme, but can't quite remember that step one is admitting there's a problem. Neither can the Draughtsmen, the others reckon it's something to do with monks or Tony Blair. There's a difference? 15-4 the Draughtsmen's lead.

Hannah Twitchell, James Wilson, and Dorian Lidell look for the wall's end.

Walls 213 and 214 on the website, and straight away the Numerists spot there's four rabbits from Watership Down. Only Connect will eat itself: rabbits in Watership Down was a misleading group in a wonderwall circa series 2. The team then gets caught up in classic children's television hell, and chatter but don't buzz on anything. The missing links: children's television of the 1970s, cooking pots, and things that can be followed by "comb". Only the first group is known, so three points.

The Draughtsmen think they've got herbs, and hills in London, and famed generals, and characters from the Darling Buds of May. The team gives up on this, and try to anchor the herbs: "borage" has to be a herb, as "Mariette" has to be a Darling Bud. The hills and Field Marshals come out. "You swam around the red herrings," a lovely line from Victoria as the team mops up Ten Points!

Once again, Missing Vowels isn't close, the Draughtsmen lead by 25-7. Fictional roads is a 1-1 draw, types of aircraft does give the Numerists a point on one the producers hadn't thought of, 3-1. Words describing European citizens is another 3-1 to the Numerists. Previous teams on Only Connect gives a brief return for the Archers Admirers. In the studio this week, the Draughtsmen have won by 28-14.

A ratchet to up the tension is promised for next week, assuming Victoria's back from the DIY store.

This Week And Next

In this week's University Challenge, New College of Oxford took on Homerton College of Cambridge. New got the first three starters, but Homerton wowed everyone with national capitals worth 5 in Scrabble. New stretched the lead to almost 50 points, but then Homerton has a bit of a revival and cuts it to five. We wonder if the audio round (music from horror films, beginning with Hallowe'en) was a nod to the transmission date.

Homerton had another chance to draw level with the "Nobel" prize funded by the Bank of Sweden, but cannot remember that it's economics. That proved to be the turning point of the game: New increased their lead from 10 to 90 in the twinkling of an eye, and with a couple of dropped starters, Homerton didn't have enough time to mount a comeback. They remembered that old New York was once New Amsterdam, and gave a good account of why it changed its name. At the gong, New had emerged triumphant, 230-145. Homerton's bonus conversion rate – 14/24 – was good, but their buzzer work was not.

University Challenge New Oxford: Remi Beecroft, India Lenon, Andy Hood, Tom Cappleman.
Homerton Cambridge: Jack Hooper, Michael Angland, Luke Fitzgerald, Drew Miley.

Trenton! Trenton! Cripes, come back Trenton! Readers may recall how this year's edition of University Challenge: The Boat Race had to be abandoned after a pitch invasion. The protester, Trenton Oldfield, was last week sentenced to six months in jail. Handing down this harsh and disproportionate sentence, the judge said, "Prejudice in any form is wrong," a statement both trivial and not clearly supported by the rest of her decision. Six months in chokey for slightly disrupting a televised boondoggle; four weeks of unpaid labour for making your girlfriend's life a misery. English justice, there.

Is it just us, or is Mastermind's John Humphrys looking like a judge himself? It's just us: he tells us the show takes no prisoners.

  • Brian O'Donnell (Sir Nigel Gresley) was the designer of the Mallard locomotive. That's included in the first and last questions, where the contender scores 6 (3). He has a quality general knowledge round, but there's an awful lot of ground to make up. 19 (4).
  • Nick Maisonowicz ("Bernard Samson" novels of Len Deighton) knows his spies and intelligence agents, making 9 (3). His general knowledge round includes a question about Andrew Marr's Sunday programme. Originally called Sunday AM, a pun on his initials. We may be the only people awake enough to get the joke. 19 (10).
  • Mark Roberts (Lord Palmerston) only gets to cover the first two-thirds of his subject's career, closing the two minutes on 9 (1). He keeps the score ticking over, preferring to guess than pass, and ends on 20 (2).
  • Kathy Richards (The Waltons) enjoys the everyday story of prairie folk, and reaches 12 (1). Her general knowledge round includes a question about the song "I know him so well"; the contenders on Pointless Celebrities last week knew it was from Chess. The round isn't a classic, and ends on 19 (4).

Which means that Mark Roberts has won a tremendously close match. Not a high-scoring match, but only one point between the quartet.

Noting some new camera angles, and reading the credits, we note there's a new producer at Mastermind. We wonder if this might mean that high-scoring losers means just that, and it doesn't matter if one finishes third (or even fourth) in a heat – a high score will be a high score.

There's no Mastermind next week (2 November), as the BBC prefers to show Autumnwatch. We'll be using the space for a Repêchage Special and a Countdown Update.

OFCOM compliance news, and there's been a finding against Bauer Media. Five radio stations in Scotland ran a competition, but the fact that the prize was combined across all the stations wasn't made clear to the listener. OFCOM was particularly ticked off by the fact it cost £1 to enter. The regulator's also ticked off Channel 5. The call-and-lose contest one evening described the prize as "luxurious" and that the hotel's spa was "the largest in the Maldives". This, according to OFCOM, crossed the line from description to advertisement.

We noted in July how the trial of paid internet voting would continue. It's emerged that Got to Dance on The Satellite Channel also had an application, but this was withdrawn before the final following a technical attack against the computers. Refunds were available, and the matter resolved to the regulator's satisfaction. We're still to find a large-scale series where voting by app has worked flawlessly.

OFCOM's started formal investigations into a trailer for Celebrity Juice, The Satellite Living Channel's Styled to Rock programme, and the first performance show on The X Factor. It's rejected two complaints about sponsorship of Red or Black? 2.0, and a complaint about product placement in the 17 September edition of Only Connect. We assume that no-one connected with the show has received a truckload of Barbie dolls.

BARB ratings for the week to 14 October are compromised by a lack of data for ITV. Overnight reports suggested that The X Factor was about a million behind Strictly Come Dancing (which closed on 10.85m viewers), but we simply don't have the formal data. We do know that HIGNFY (5.73m) barely beat The Great British Bake Off (5.7m). University Challenge had precisely 3m, and Channel 4's top rated game was The Million Pound Drop with 1.5m. There were 1.35m viewers for Jewish Mum of the Year. Elsewhere, 2.1m for Celebrity Juice, 1.07m for Xtra Factor, 988,000 for Only Connect. QI XL on Dave had a year-best 600,000 viewers, but was still beaten by Journey Into Space (617,000), BBC News's coverage of Felix Baumgartner plummeting faster than a very fast thing. Don't try that at home, folks.

Next week's Week looks at the 84th worst show ever made. Before then, a Hallowe'en special of Come Dine with Me (C4, 8pm Wed), a new run of Young The Apprentice (BBC1, 9pm Thu), and Radio 2's BBC New Comedy Award is also new (9.30 Thu). Soapstars on Pointless Celebrities next Saturday (5.40), Strictly's at 6.30 and X at 8.20.

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