On Eat to Save Your Life the other night, Jamie Oliver demonstrated the historic decline of the great English sausage, from a product that was rarely less than 85 per cent meat to a debased sack of emulsified offcuts padded out with rusk and artificial flavourings. I often get the feeling that the same thing has happened to television programmes - and rarely more so than when watching a prime-time quiz. Once, the production budget for this scheduling staple would have been about seven shillings and sixpence, and at least 90 per cent of the on-screen time would have been given over to questions. Additives and artificial flavourings were minimal. These days, the quantity of lean interrogation in the things has dropped to well below 30 per cent and the weight has been made up with a string of propriety bulk fillers: orchestral fanfares, strained banter and ersatz tension.
Duel, a new Saturday-night quiz for ITV1, is a good example. The main ingredient here is a bought-in French TV format that adds a face-to-face, showdown element to a standard big-jackpot competition. Two players compete in answering multiple-choice questions, the gimmick being that they are allowed to back as many answers as they want to, drawing on a stash of 10 poker chips. If they're absolutely sure they know the answer, they can just cover one of the four alternatives offered; if they're not, they can make a bet on all of them. Losing answers drop into the pot and rack up the jackpot total, while winning stakes are returned. Players can also take thinking time away from their opponents by pushing a fast-countdown button, flustering the uncertain into expensively covering every option.
The first thing to say about this is that it is one of the better recent attempts to give a new twist to the television quiz. There is a certain amount of bluff and risk-taking involved, since it's a sudden-death deal. Fail to cover the right answer and you're out with nothing. What's more, since you only get to play for the big jackpot when you've won four duels in a row (having also turned down a tempting cash alternative at the half-way point), that jackpot may well to grow to quite a size. It would be a bit better if the bluff element was a little more potent, but essentially the machinery works.
The problem is the bulk filler, largely supplied by Nick Hancock, who has been obliged to spin out each question with spurious inquiries about the state of mind of the contestants. "How confident are you?" he asks repeatedly, a question that is pretty dull the first time you hear it, but corrosively tedious the fifth or sixth. And while there are some excuses for going at the pace of the slow-learners with a new show (there's no ability-streaming out there on the sofas of Britain), there can't really be that many viewers who need the precise implications of every stage spelling out: "A means you have won your first duel, B means Fran has won her first duel, C or D means you're both out," said Hancock at one point, carefully glossing what a six-year-old could have gathered from the screen alone. Is this a service for the blind? Or do they work on the assumption that a chunk of the audience is going to be functionally illiterate? Either way, a little flavour is made to go a long way.
More upmarket forms of programming aren't immune to such bulking out either; indeed, they often betray the pernicious influence of the own-label budget brands. Take Channel 4's Picture This, an enterprising series that has linked a broadcast elimination contest (six amateur photographers going for the prize of book publication and their own exhibition) with a website that allows viewers to share their photographs and improve their own technique. This week, the two finalists were challenged to produce an 18-photograph sequence on a theme of their own choosing, an interesting commission that offered plenty of opportunities for specific discussion about photo-essays and art-directed photography.
All too often, though, what you get instead is vague banalities about what it's like to take part in a television elimination contest. Here's Martin Parr, a man you'd love to hear talking in aesthetic detail about how a sequence of photographs differs from a one-off: "I'm very excited to see the work because I really want to see if the momentum these two photographers achieved in the first two weeks really has been carried through... and this is their chance to shine." Well, I think we might have guessed that for ourselves, Martin. Elsewhere, the same narrative bullet points - the risk one competitor had taken in opting for a confessional project, the prospectively life-changing nature of a win - were repeated again and again, just in case someone had joined during the last ad break and needed bringing up to speed. More lean meat and less filler, please.Reuse content