Weaver's Week 2021-09-26

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Back to the 1970s, and Joseph Whitehead is a journalist on a small newspaper in a rural part of the USA. He needs to find out the age of a leading Hollywood actress. And it's not listed in any of the reference books in the newspaper library.

He's interested in Mae West (left, with WC Fields).

Now, Joseph is working in the early 1970s. Journalists didn't use email, for the quite decent reason that it hadn't reached their office. They preferred not to use the telephone (too expensive, and you might not reach the person). They didn't use letter (too slow). In the 1970s, journalists did their research by telegram. A telegram would reach the recipient in an hour, but you had to pay through the nose, and pay by the word.

Joseph sends the telegram, "HOW OLD MAE WEST" And he sends it directly to the subject of his inquiry, on the perfectly reasonable presumtion that Mae West will know precisely how old she is. But when he receives a reply from Mae West, Joseph realises that he has cut a corner.



The Birthday Cake Game

Remarkable (part of Banijay) for Radio 4, from 31 August

The idea in The Birthday Cake Game is very simple. Richard Osman puts forward a bunch of famous people celebrating their birthday in the next week. The three panellists are asked to guess how old each person is. Three points for getting the answer exactly right, a single point for being one year out either way.

That's it. That's the format. Repeat for half an hour, and make sure to include a listener who has been called at home. Studio players can repeat a guess they've already heard, but it's frowned on, and it's not tremendous tactics.

Richard Osman, a birthday cake for anyone.

The Birthday Cake Game talks about famous people. Richard just throws a name out there, and assumes the celebrity panel will just know who they are. "Joe Wickes", was he the famous internet cook, or was he the founder of the DIY chain? Or is he famous for something else entirely? The panel talk about what they think he's famous for, and guess an age, but are they right?

To break the show up a little, there's a round with the listener calling in. They're asked to answer three of these six pre-written questions.

  • "Who was your fashion icon?"
  • "What was your favourite television show as a child?"
  • "What is your favourite film?"
  • "Which three famous faces would you invite to a dinner party?"
  • "Who is your favourite band?"
  • "Who was your childhood crush?"

Listeners at home might like to think about their responses, and whether the celebrity panel would guess their age from their answers.

Birthday boy Will Smith (left, with Lulu).

Age ain't nothing but a number, but it does help us to talk about different eras of popular culture. This week's show discussed pop star Jason Derulo. The actor and rapper Will Smith. The Eurovision singer Olivia Newton-John. Daughters and mothers and grandmothers, all united in trying to place their heroes in their place in history.

Richard is the master of building very slight tension from the most unlikely sources. "We have 72, 73, and 75. What do you think at home?" And then, just a moment later, "I'm giving points to two of you, is Bruce Springsteen 72 or 73?" And he's the master of taking a theme and letting it run through a show – Maisie Adams' failure to score a single point, and people being multiples of Joe Wickes' age. Being a pre-watershed show, there's no swearing allowed: this week's Taskmaster reminded us how leaving a blank, or an annoyed grunt, can be so much more expressive than a flying effbomb.

Does it feel like we're filling a bit? Of course we're filling a bit. The Birthday Cake Game is the most insubstantial and evanescent show we've tried to review since five-minute filler Blank Screen. Richard has about fifteen minutes of actual show, and manages to spin it out to fill the 27-and-a-half minute slot on Radio 4.

At the end of the show, whoever has the most points wins the prize of a Generic Birthday Cake. It's in the shape of an insect they can't mention, and it's bought from a supermarket they also can't mention.

A bit like this.

Many shows try to get into Radio 4's prized 6.30 comedy slot, and it's rare for a brand new show to come straight in there. Most comedy shows get a trial series at 11.30am, or 11pm, and only reach 6.30 if the audience loves it.

And that's because The Birthday Cake Game isn't a brand new show. It was piloted as The Birthday Game, self-published podcasts were released every week during autumn 2019. Moving from podcast to broadcast has allowed the show to be tightened up and trimmed down – the podcast ran for 40 minutes, and didn't include the listener interaction feature. It did have an opening where panellists said how old they are, and has also excised the closing bit where the guests plugged their forthcoming tours in spring 2020.

Most of Radio 4's 6.30 comedies are built for repeats – they are the backbone for a whole station of archive material, Radio 4 Extra. Just this Thursday, they had comedy shows from 1970, 1985, 1996, 2004, 2017, and (er) the previous night. Some topical programmes never get repeated – we'd love to hear vintage The News Quiz episodes – but are they going to repeat The Birthday Cake Game in a quarter of a century?

Fans of Richard Osman will enjoy this programme. His low-key and humble presenting skills help to extend the gossamer-thin format into a rewarding listen, if not a more substantial show. It's a gentle programme, with lots of polite joshing when Richard reveals everyone is Two! Years! Out! We've found it to be a perfectly entertaining pastime. Whether it's in the right slot is another question: we get a lot of Richard Osman on Pointless and House of Games (3). Another half hour in succession with the same host can be a bit too much of a good thing. Like eating a whole birthday cake in one sitting.

Under-rated game shows

A recent thread on social media asked for some under-rated game shows.

Lightning Zoe Lyons, host of an under-rated game show.

This column reckons on Lightning. The format is more than it has any right to be, "say it and spell it" the best idea we've seen in years. What totally surprised us was how well Zoe Lyons brought humanity to what could have been a cold and backstabby game. It could have been as nasty and soulless as The Weakest Link, but Lightning is so much better than that.

And we reckon on CBBC's Stake Out (2), the one where Pete Firman and a group of friends set up hidden camera stunts for their friend. Give it ten years, and a primetime budget, and the show becomes Sorry voor Alles and wins television's top Golden Rose award.

Other folk suggested:

  • In for a Penny, and daytime wonder Pick Me! Stephen Mulhern in general is an under-rated host.
  • Top Class, the University Challenge spin-off for primary schools. We'll know the health crisis is over when we hear of a new series.
  • Armchair Detectives, because nobody gets away with murder in Mortcliff. And because Susan Calman is rightly praised.

Armchair Detectives Susan Calman, an under-rated talent.

  • Grand Slam, sorting the best from the even greater. The format's unfair elements could be worked over.
  • The Button, lockdown fun before lockdown had been popularised. Seriously, you've got to stay indoors all day, and get given silly things to do. Unlike lockdown, silly *and fun* things to do.
  • Ejector Seat, which was about two tiny changes away from brilliance.
  • The Masterspy, an espionage thriller from the 1970s. We'll add it to our "to be reviewed" pile, now as tall as Richard Osman.
  • Talkabout, Andrew O'Connor adds a little creativity to a humdrum show.
  • Crosswits, gentle wordplay fun.

That Puppet Game Show Katherine Jenkins is missing some info.

Thanks to Jesse Whittock from Broadcast magazine for the original idea.

In other news

The death of Matthew Strachan, aged 50. Matthew secured his place in the game show hall of fame in September 1998, when he jointly wrote the soundtrack for Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Prior to this work, game show theme tunes tended to be library music, selected to be jaunty or loud, but always simple. Matthew Strachan, working with his father Keith Strachan, composed a theme with a familiar riff, and then innumerable tension beds, descends, arpeggios, drumrolls, and a zillion other little flourishes. It was a coherent and almost symphonic package, all branching off from a few basic ideas.

Within a year, the world of game show soundtracks had changed utterly. Winning Lines launched the following year with another coherent and almost symphonic music package, also composed by Keith and Matthew Strachan. The People Versus in 2000, another coherent and almost symphonic music package, also composed by Keith and Matthew Strachan. The Weakest Link later in 2000, coherent and almost symphonic music package, this time composed by Paul Farrer. These days, every show has to have its own coherent music package. Even when the theme is as jaunty as Pointless, the effects and incidental music hang off the theme and hang together.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire would have been gripping television with any soundtrack. With Matthew and Keith Strachan's music, Who Wants to be a Millionaire became compulsive television drama.

Matthew Strachan, 1970-2021.

The death of Magi Dodd, Radio Cymru presenter and occasional host of their Cwis Pop C2, a pop quiz for schools.

Quizzy Mondays continued. Remember how, on the Discothèques' first episode of Only Connect, Victoria Coren Mitchell wore rose-tinted heart-shaped glasses? And nobody noticed? She's done it again: on the Discothèques' second episode of Only Connect, Victoria Coren Mitchell wore an obvious red-haired wig. All of this distracted from a solid performance, as the Discothèques eliminated the Debuggers. Answer of the night was "my sister", a woman with one brother, thus completing a sequence of women with fewer frères.

University Challenge was won by St Catharine's Cambridge, beating University Oxford by 130-120. It ended up as a one-question shootout, sides absolutely level with just seconds on the clock. Catz will be in the last 16, Univ occupy the last spot in the repêchage for high-scoring losers. Mastermind was taken by Ro Dunn, a solid round on the Alnwick Garden, plus some intelligent guessing on the general knowledge round.

How old was Mae West? We never quite knew: the Encyclopaedia Britannica says she was born in 1893, but admit the likelihood that she shaved a year or two or few off her age. IMDB goes with 1892, while That Other Wiki asserts 1893 with all the arrogance and confidence of Gordon Brittas.

Great news for all wildlife fans, it's the annual BBC One Man and His Dog competition (BBC1, Sun). The Queen Bee for children is Maddie Moate, host of Show Me the Honey (CBBC, Thu), a beekeeping challenge.

Great news for all monarchists, RuPaul's Drag Race returns (BBC1, Mon) for all the queening you grown-ups could need. ITV2 hits back with Celebrity Karaoke Club Drag Edition (from Sun). Performances on Strictly Come Dancing mean It Takes Two is back (BBC2, weeknights).

New episodes of Winning Combination (ITV, weekdays). As well as Unbeatable, Rob Beckett hosts Undeniable (Comedy Central, Wed), competitive random facts. Outsiders (Dave, Wed) is completely unlike anything else seen on the channel, as David Mitchell gives other comedians silly things to achieve while outdoors. Next Saturday has the return of Blankety Blank (BBC1), and next week's Week intends to review Take a Hike (BBC2, weeknights).

Pictures: "Mae West & W.C. Fields" by twm1340 is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0; 12 Yard / Black Dog; Ginger Productions; Nice One Productions and Fizz (a Banijay company); Tiger Aspect; BBC and the Jim Henson Company, BBC.

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