Spare a thought this Christmas for Helen Doble and Brian and Brenda Williams, the compilers who have the challenging task of thinking up questions for Strike It Rich (ITV), a vehicle for the spookily ordinary talents of Michael Barrymore. This might not seem, at first glance, to be the pinnacle of the compiler's profession. But next to it Mastermind is a mere foothill. The really testing nature of Strike It Rich is is the difficulty of finding questions easy enough for the competitors to answer. Take this for example: "this has a wobbly body and is found in the sea". Not exactly The Times crossword is it? And it isn't even assumed that the competitors might come up with the word jellyfish for themselves - they only have to choose correctly from a list of six words beginning with J (among the temptingly fishy alternatives - juggernaut, jackass and jurassic).
It must be soul-destroying, then, after you have created such gift-wrapped sitting ducks, to watch the players blasting away at everything in sight but the correct answer. Asked to complete the title of the children's story "The Princess and the...?" one competitor settled for "porker" ("It probably would have made a better story," noted Barrymore) while another, perhaps unsettled by the audience's hilarity, opted for "Turnip". Things got so bad at one point that it was clear that Barrymore had simply given the competitor the answer, an intervention that was then edited out to leave behind an odd little wrinkle in the continuity ("What would you be doing if you were whistling?" he had asked. "Carving wood" she replied instantly, the residues of unexplained laughter on her face - an exchange that only made sense if he had intended to say "whittling" and everything had stopped while he helped out).
Barrymore must be the point then. And there's still a mystery here, even if you admire his unstrenuous manner. In the little preamble chats, for example, conventionally the occasion for a gag at the competitor's expense, several exchanges petered out into bus-stop conversations. "You got any hobbies?" Barrymore asked a participant, before informing everyone that he himself likes to fish but he always throws them back. It sounded like the feed for a punch line - even the guests waited with an anticipatory smile on their lips - but that was it, just a bit of small talk. Nor does he exploit the natural comedy the guests offer - the Mancunian Sikh who proved unable to complete a sentence without adding the word "innit" was given a bit of time to demonstrate this unusual disability, but Barrymore left him alone from then on. This was perfectly courteous of him but it wasn't exactly host-like, not in the television understanding of the term. The secret of the show's appeal remains shrouded in mystery to me but it must come down to such elemental details - he's very nice and he gives things away.
The appeal of TV Dinners (C4) is not mysterious at all - it is a perfectly judged vinaigrette of vicarious gluttony and acidulous social observation. The vinegar, incidentally, does not come from the puckish Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall, who is far too sweet-natured to slip in sour comments when his subjects aren't looking. It comes, I'm afraid, from the almost insuppressible temptation that arises when you have spectator status at other people's parties. The fascinating pig roast in last night's programme, incidentally, will have tested all but the most carnivorous viewers. "This bit's like a rather macabre version of Come Dancing," said stockbroker Fred Carr, clasping an eviscerated sow to his bosom before depositing it in the bath. In an elegantly framed image, a pair of trotters poked up on either side of the bath taps, but the worst indignity was yet to come. "Wooerrr! Bet that hurt," said Fred inserting a metal spike through an orifice designed by nature for exit only. "Pick up the head, there's a bit of windpipe hole there it has to fit into." I like a bit of crackling, myself, but the grinding scrape of iron against teeth curbed even my appetite for a while.
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