The new, nasty TV quiz show has arrived

Will Anne Robinson's 'theatre of cruelty' replace the old-school entertainers? Is Bruce Forsyth now the game show's weakest link?
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Could this be the end of the road for Brucie, Tarby and chums? No more shiny cars, billboard-sized cheques, grinning hosts and their beautiful assistants? No more excitable studio audiences screaming "Higher! Higher!"? Why ever not? What has gone wrong with the game show?

Could this be the end of the road for Brucie, Tarby and chums? No more shiny cars, billboard-sized cheques, grinning hosts and their beautiful assistants? No more excitable studio audiences screaming "Higher! Higher!"? Why ever not? What has gone wrong with the game show?

If television executives are to be believed, over-dressed presenters and glittering backdrops are not enough for viewers anymore. The game show has developed a ruthless streak - it is now a test of endurance, a game of psychological warfare with a boring old cash prize at the end. Tomorrow The Weakest Link, the infamous quiz show hosted by Anne Robinson which has been dubbed "mean TV" by BBC 2 controller Jane Root, moves from its tea-time slot on BBC 2 to prime-time BBC 1 at 8.00pm.

Earlier this month, Robinson was voted by TV Times readers as the rudest person on television. The presenter has grabbed headlines with her harsh treatment of contestants, berating them for wrong answers and ejecting them with a curt "Goodbye." "And you," she informs the loser at the end of every show, "you go home with nothing." Magnus Magnusson recently described the show as a "theatre of cruelty".

It certainly seems worlds away from the light entertainment championed by Bruce Forsyth. The veteran entertainer was moved to call a press conference last Thursday to complain at his treatment by ITV's director of programmes David Liddiment. He expressed fury that the channel appears to have axed his gameshow Play Your Cards Right, which has not been shown since June last year (Liddiment will neither confirm nor deny its abandonment) and the relegation of his other show Bruce's Price is Right to the undesirable tea-time slot of 5.20pm. Though Forsyth and Robinson aren't in direct competition, their changing fortunes reflect a radical clash of ideals surrounding the television quiz show.

A glib hybrid of Big Brother and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? though without the appeal of either, The Weakest Link exerts relentless pressure on contestants and pits groups of friends against one another. There are none of the niceties associated with old-fashioned game shows - no friendly what's-your-name-and-where-do-you-come-from banter. At the end of each round, contestants must write down the name of the person who they believe to have been the worst performer, or rather "the weakest link" (viewers are told statistically who ought to go) and the one with the most votes is made to take "the walk of shame". While they vote, Robinson barks things like "that was a dreadful performance" and "it's time to get rid of dead wood". An interview is then conducted with the spurned contestant where they generally confess feelings of humiliation, betrayal and/or relief.

We know that game show contestants are a long-suffering breed who valiantly put up with being patronised and manhandled by their hosts. Part of the joy of watching shows like Bruce's Price Is Right and Family Fortunes is to see exactly how much a person will put up with for a fortnight in the Bahamas (I can't be the only one who thinks that John Leslie deserves a slap). But on those shows the prizes are the thing. Gone are the days when all you could look forward to was a wok or a brand new sewing machine. On Wheel Of Fortune you can walk off with a microwave, a computer for the kids, a tool kit for Dad and a family holiday. What's more, contestants also have the added bonus of leaving with their self-esteem in tact. But The Weakest Link is far too high-minded for such silly incentives. Holiday, schmoliday. Here the objective is to amass large amounts of cash while stabbing your friends in the back.

Not only does the programme think itself more upmarket than the rest - it certainly attracts a posher class of contestant - it also fancies itself as being a lot brainier than the average quiz show. But since when has brain-power had anything to do with it? Sure, programmes like University Challenge, Mastermind or even Fifteen-1 are about testing your knowledge. We know this because there is no grand prize - the reward is simply knowing that you've won. Happily, The Price Is Right and Wheel Of Fortune have no illusions. The questions are astonishingly easy (mind you, having seen contestants on Catchphrase furrowing their brows with effort after being confronted with a picture of a needle, some thread and a flashing number nine is entertainment in itself) and on the whole, just getting on the programme is the challenge. The rest - the microwave, the fridge-freezer, the fistful of cash - is plain sailing.

Still, The Weakest Link has been wiping the floor with mild-mannered tea-time quizzes Countdown and Wheel Of Fortune. Since its debut in August on BBC 2, it has attracted an average of 3.5 million viewers and 90 more shows have already been commissioned. The deluge of complaints from viewers, accustomed to a daytime diet of chirpy cookery shows and Richard Whiteley, served only to boost ratings. And like the staggeringly successful Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? its influence has extended beyond the confines of the television set. During the recent petrol crisis, one trucker fan even draped his vehicle with a banner which read: "Tony Blair, you're the weakest link, goodbye."

In its new scheduled slot, the programme is surely destined to go from strength to strength. There has already been interest from television companies around the world wanting to produce their own version of the show. Television has seen the future - and it hurts.


'The Weakest Link' is on 31 October at 8pm, BBC 1