Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lawson Attacks! Meowwwwwoof!

He Doesn't Like Wogan's Perfect Recall One Bit

Mark Lawson is the preeminent culture critic working on our sceptered and soggy isle, thanks to his domination of print, TV and the wireless with his preternaturally measured and insightful opinions on the whole goddamn arts spectrum; his 'TV matters' Guardian column being a delightful case in point. Usually that is.

But today's vicious tirade against Wogan's Perfect Recall not only misses the mark by a good few miles, but seems utterly bootless. His overriding problem is the reason why the show got probably commissioned in the first place: its format (well, that and a dash or two of the Togmeister's classic charm and marquee reputation). The format being that the same 20 answers are required in each of the four rounds, only the questions change. Thus, you get four questions in the same show that require the answer 'pig' or '1973'.

It seems that Lawson can't get his head round the fact that actually playing the game in the studio might be a bit harder than mouthing the answers at home and screams bloody murder in a passive-aggressive manner when he writes that this is "the first TV quiz show in which knowledge is optional". Hmmm, let me think about that one because it is a load of billy bullshine. The problem is that they have to display this thing called 'knowledge' in the first round to get the answers on the board and ensure their passage into the next round.

Due to his quite astonishing intellectual capabilities he describes the questions as "simple", but in yesterday's episode I saw one poor girl, a university student no less, get eliminated without answering a single quesition from the possible 20. It wasn't "simple" for her was it? Or, perhaps she took the no knowledge option and thought sod this for a game of soldiers and I'm outta here.

If you think about it every question asked, except for the last in each round, is a multiple choice question decreasing in choices from 20 to ... you know where I'm going. Except they have to remember all of them. Only they don't have to because it would be much easier to just use the knowledge that is knocking around in their heads, which is what most contestants do anyway.

He seems to overestimate the contestants' memory skills, thinking that once the answers in the first round have been given, it is an incredibly simple matter of remembering them the 20 answers and then slotting them in at the right places. Wrong. This isn't the Generation Game conveyor belt. People still have to connect them up with the questions. And though most of them are straightfoward, some are tricky enough in the later rounds to evince no answers at all, despite the glaring opportunities for guessing.

Lawson picks out the year and number answers as proof of how silly the concept is; targets as soft as melted marshmallow. Granted, these are the easiest ones to remember, but no more than four are asked every show. The other answers, many of which are generic nouns and names and have been deliberately chosen to sometimes confuse due to their smiliarity to each other, are a sight more difficult to conjure up in the few seconds allowed.

The massive grid stuck at the top of the screen is the real bugbear here. Viewers and dear old Mark can see it arrayed with the 20 options throughout the show, as well as see them disappear when a question has been answered correctly. It makes it so much more easier for them, him and I. However, the contestants can't see jack, which makes a hell of a difference, especially since they clearly aren't massive quiz nerds or memory masters. They are the kind of people who go for the likes of In It To Win It and most of the ongoing Saturday night Lotto gameshows, shows that are played at a relative snail's pace and often without the small matter of other contestants breathing down their necks and trying to buzz in before they do. They are Everyday People, as Arrested Development would say.

The fact of the matter is that if the King of Breakfast Radio was not presenting it, there wouldn't be a TV Matters piece tearing it to itty bitty shreds. Otherwise, it would be just another quiz show with a relatively non-descript host treading water in the harmless shallows of the televisual afternoon. But bring in a broadcasting legend and plug it relentessly in ad breaks, and a critical licence to crush it into a messy pulp is granted to all and sundry. If Lawson had also given his comparative opinion on every other current, forthcoming or recently departed quiz show (yes, Battle of the Brains, of course, of course, though I would have feared for Paddy's chances in face of the inevitably cruel invective), just like me, natch, I could at least try to begin to understand where exactly he was coming from, and possibly prostrate myself in homage to his omniscient knowledge of the British television quiz scene.

Expectations of the toppermost quiz elite - ooh look I'm all elitist like Barack - were never going to be as gravely damaged as Lawson's. We know how the system works and what sort of quiz shows - populist, nice ratings-grabbers that won't alienate the only demographics that matter - that TV companies want to put out. None of us (next I'll be adopting the royal-divine 'WE') have been let anywhere near it, but then again I don't even know anyone who even bothered to audition.

We have, to all intents and purposes, recognised that we're just not what they're looking for, and that's fine and dandy and they have every right to because after all, they are producing shows that cast and audition the protagonists, like actors expected to play their part to the best of their abilities, in order to best entertain the only folks that matter - the Great British Public. The likes of us (poor us! he cries with startling emotion) inhabit and scour a different world where quizzical satisfaction is derived from autodidacticism and besting or, preferably, in a fantasy realm of our own making, brutally beating our rivals in competitions with names like 'European' and 'World' attached to them.

And we sure as hell realised that Perfect Recall isn't Mastermind or University Challenge (which is probably Lawson's quiz show ideal, as it is with so many knowledge gourmands, but something that few programmes attempt to aspire to since that highbrow niche is, as they see it, very much taken ... though I wish the occasional production company would take a chance and let UC alumni and older and immensely talented quizzers go mano e mano in some sort of ultra-team series, though watch out for Only Connect, coming soon on BBC4). See it all before don't ya know

You have to accept it's daytime light entertainment that sets an amiable tone - funny anecdotes, gentle ribbing - and serves as a peppy television vehicle for Wogan that lets viewers enjoy the odd laugh (while I wonder if that is 20-year-old canned laughter constantly making its cacophonous way around my room), and allowing them to watch the players squirm and splutter as they attempt to unleash their hitherto hidden psychic powers. And, maybe answer some quiz questions too.

Many shows like it have come before and many will surely follow. Ripping into it and talking of embarrassment so acute it has induced "blushes that TV could have sunk to a quiz show this dumb" makes me think, ferchrissakes, that Lawson thought it made Blankety Blank look like Nobel Prize winners locked in fervent battle over the Millennium Maths Problems in comparison. With those finishing words you would have thought this was the most idiotic quiz programme in history. Which it is most certainly not. Abominations are ten a penny in this particular niche of televisionland. I have two words for you: NAKED ELVIS

Exploring his nascent 'Decline of the Quiz Show' thesis further, Lawson sounds out the allegation that "quiz shows have been simplified". Which ones? Or do the allegators think they are all the same? Personally, I think he thinks that the whole stinking lot of them have been dumbed down and are now wrestling in the effluence of their own stupidity.

The real problem, which he does not touch upon, is that they are becoming more and more complicated in search of the Next Big Quiz Thing. The dumbing down charge is a moot point: there will always be a mixture of the 'Difficult', 'Easy' and 'So downright insulting to my intelligence I want to throw a brick at my TV screen' quiz shows.

Every television company longs for a long-running cash cow like The Weakest Link. They would drown a sack full of the cutest kittens in the world if only they could have a 17-year run with a quiz show of their own design, just like FTO. So the vast majority of new quiz shows from the past few years have become increasingly handicapped by complex formats and inexplicable gimmicks introduced by people who think their amazing once-in-a-lifetime (or once-in-a-fag-break) idea will see them ruling late afternoon BBC2 for evermore, whilst shoving the main reason why people watch them - the questions! the questions! then the white heat of quasi-intellectual battle! - into a dark, secluded corner; the result being that very few newbies have survived beyond one series, which inevitably and depressingly gives them the chance to come up with another pile of steaming dog poo. Truth be told, they don't learn a bloody thing from all the failures that litter past television schedules, like queues of torched tanks on Georgian roads.

Real quiz show fans want the simplicity epitomised by Fifteen-to-One (Where are you when we need you! Save us. Save our weekday afternoons once more and for all eternity!), Mastermind (simple: specialist subject-general knowledge)and University Challenge (simple: starter-bonuses-starter-bonuses). Despite going on for decades and being cancelled by some crapheaded-donkey bollock who probably thought that some new programme would do much better than that old decrepit shit, the basic premise of MM and UC stayed so evergreen and excellent that they were resurrected and, especially in the case of the latter, get brilliant viewing figures for the supposedly throwaway genre that is quiz. And you know what? People take part in those shows for the love of the quiz. No cash incentive. Nada dinero. And maybe some sort of glassy or metally trophy at the end, if they're very, very good. Even Eggheads has built up a large, loyal viewership over the past five years and run for a darn sight longer than the vast majority of shows that have gone to quiz show hell. Its nice, simple format has done it a lot of favours.

But do commissioning editors want to stick on a quiz show that doesn't look down on its audience and concentrates on packing in good questions and challenging the best there is to duke it out with each other, or do they want to make a brand new gleaming shiney toy of a new programme that will bamboozle the whole damn world with loads of irrelevant twists, widgets, gadgets and novelty rounds and filthy cash prizes spraying everywhere, whilst telling the finest quizzers in the land to shove off? Sadly, they nearly always go for the latter because the former is so unfashionable.

People remember great quiz performances, they really do, because when quizzing is hard-fought, competitive and brimming with intelligence and interesting questions, it doesn't matter if there is a pot of gold when the show finishes. The audience don't get their entertainment from watching someone get handed a pile of cash; an assumption made by TV execs that is so blatantly stupid I can't even bring myself to create another outrageous and possibly insane metaphor, not forgetting that they don't actually have to give away that much money to get audiences watching(but do anyway). The audience gets it from the thrill of the game and the chance to play along at home, where they can prove they are the best in the whole ruddy world from the comfort of their armchair, as all quiz show fanatics do.

And, in light of what I've just written, ye gods, I went off on a tangent in the last third, looking beyond the format of Perfect Recall, it keeps everything relatively simple: each buzzer round eliminates one contestant and the last one standing goes for the endgame. It may not be perfect (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA) but it does not deserve the merciless kicking it got from Mr "Oooh look at me, widdling on my show Newsnight Review in my, ahhhh, sinister and slightly unctuous voice about some, ahhhh, lah-dee-dah Divisionists exhibition and, ahhhh, the new woodley-doodley Man On Wire docudrama" Lawson.

PS: I may have mildly vested interests in defending the show, which I may reveal in due course, but these views are forthright and honest. Disclaimer over.

PPS I tried not to use the phrase 'quiz show' so many times. God, it even annoyed the heck out of me, but it was inavoidable. Especially since I refused to lower my teetering standards and write 'g-g-g ... wait ... gggaaa ... ok ... gameshow'. I hate gameshows.


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