It’s too soon to say where The Void will fit into the pantheon of British TV game shows. ITV’s new Saturday night extravaganza is presented by man-mountain Diversity leader Ashley Banjo and multifaceted entertainer Fleur East. Hoping to win £25,000, contestants complete a series of challenges, mostly walking across wobbly things, over “The Void”, the most ominously branded swimming pool in the UK. “Five hundred tons of unforgiving water,” is how Banjo describes it. I wonder what he says when he’s having a bath. If they fall into the water, they’re out. That’s about it.
We have to applaud the endeavour. It’s not easy, coming up with game show formats. Most of the low-hanging fruit was taken a long time ago. Spelling Bee debuted before the Second World War. The 1950s saw an outburst of quiz-mania not replicated until the depths of the lockdown Zoom days last year. By the end of the Sixties there was a full suite of game shows and quizzes. There’s not much in Deal or No Deal that wasn’t in the key segment on Take Your Pick. What’s My Line was basically “Guess What Job They Do?”. When you consider this saturated market, it’s less surprising that, by the new millennium, we ended up in a situation in 2001 where the ur-Brexiteer Robert Kilroy-Silk was asked to host Shafted, a kind of quizified Prisoner’s Dilemma in which contestants could betray each other. “To share, or to shaft?” That was the question, for four whole episodes.
Jeopardy is an elusive mistress. Whether the challenges are physical or mental, you need to find the right mix of luck and skill. There’s a fine line between gimmickry and innovation. As James Graham’s drama about Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Quiz, showed so elegantly, pure format is the Holy Grail for producers, because when it goes well it does the hard work for you. With Millionaire’s unprecedented stakes, trapdoor structure and countdown clock in place, all it needed was a vibrating chair, tense music and a bit of Chris Tarrant withholding his cheques. The simpler the format, the easier it is to sell abroad.
The Weakest Link was in the headlines because of Anne Robinson’s sneering presentation, but the real secret of its success was the “bank” mechanism, which let the contestants decide whether to save the money they had accumulated, or gamble on answering correctly. Pointless reinvigorated the “our survey said” dynamic that served Family Fortunes so well, and appealed to the British fondness for obscure trivia. Few would have guessed that The Chase would find glory by making a quiz into a race, but it’s now right in the pantheon. The Cube seemed to ape The Crystal Maze’s frisson of being “locked in a small room”, but it ran for 10 series. Task Master has elevated the celebrity panel show with relentless innovation and creativity, but that sounds like a lot of hard work.
For all of those titans, however, there are plenty that don’t make it. Through the canny deployment of Edmonds and The Banker, Deal or No Deal spun high drama out of “choosing a box”. You remember that, but do you remember Red or Black, the short-lived Ant & Dec show which thought it was using the same dynamic but in fact was pure luck. Jeopardy innovation departments must still be haunted by Don’t Scare the Hare, the BBC’s nightmarish and mercifully short-lived format in which contestants had to complete challenges under the watchful gaze of “The Hare”, a kind of four-foot animatronic security guard. A special mention for Keith Chegwin’s Naked Jungle, which put naturists through an assault course. I’m only sad I was too young to catch Three’s a Crowd, an American game show from the late Seventies – not to be confused with Davina McCall’s dating series – in which wives were pitted against secretaries on who knew a man best. Its creator, Chuck Barris, was apparently so haunted by his creation that he retired from TV altogether.
Where The Void undoubtedly succeeds is that it is the most openly existential game show we have yet seen in the UK. On the one hand, it is just an enormous paddling pool in a studio. The presenters are likeable, the voiceover jaunty. They keep the tone light. The contestants don’t take themselves too seriously, which is for the best when you find yourself trying to clamber over squishy foam planks. You know that there will be plenty of medical professionals on standby should anyone get into difficulty.
But there’s no escaping the language. There’s a dark genius in the naming. The Void is not just the name of the pool. At any rate, the void is not empty, it’s full of water. Properly, it ought to have been called The Pool. But there’s no philosophical jeopardy in falling into a pool. Really the void is a metaphor for the oblivion of defeat. Struggle with all your might against the void for a cash prize – succeed or fail, the void doesn’t care. Give into its wet cold embrace. When the contestants have fallen, they become “void”, too, in the adjectival form. They are disappointed to fall from the wobbly planks but there is also a release. Bobbing around in the dark water, they can do no more. They are powerless. Empty. Null. The more you think about the void, the larger it looms. The Void is Saturday night on ITV. The Void is your social life. The Void is all television, all entertainment, all culture. The void is your career, your dreams, your meaningless human toil. The Void is death, death is The Void. Tune in next week.
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