TV Cream

It's Saturday Night

112. I award the city state of Milton Keynes 100 credits!

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By the start of 1998, Saturday night television was in a state of stasis – no new hit programmes had come through for several years, and the ITC censured ITV for its “unsurprising” output. However, there were big changes being planned. At ITV Network Centre, Marcus Plantin, director of programmes since 1993, decided to leave. He was heading back to his previous employers, LWT, and his replacement was to be David Liddiment – an obvious choice given his experience as head of light entertainment at both Granada and the BBC.

Plantin had already spotted the problems at the weekend, though, and in an interview for the 1997 Edinburgh Television Festival admitted, “General entertainment, after a decade of hitting the ratings on BBC and ITV, is not enjoying the success rate of the past. I hope it’s only temporary and we don’t end up like the States where the genre is dead, other than ‘blooper’ and award shows … a concerted effort on new entertainment formats is, and has been, a priority at the Network Centre for the last couple of years.” As such, Liddiment could draw in his first few months on a number of new commissions from Plantin’s reign.

In the interview Plantin looked forward to what was expected to be the big new breakout hit for the commercial channel. Gladiators had been a success for the previous five years, yet there were signs of it running out of steam. The idea was to take the best bits of that show – the goodies vs. baddies motif, the over-the-top arena setting, the fantastical aspects – and apply them to a new format. So in January 1998, Ice Warriors arrived on our screens. A particularly ambitious commission, the show enjoyed an enormous budget. When one ITV executive arrived at the giant ice rink they’d set up at Manchester’s Nynex Arena, he exclaimed, “This looks like a million dollars,” only to be quietly informed that it had in fact cost substantially more than that.

The concept of Ice Warriors involved teams representing different cities battling against both the opposing teams and the ‘Warriors’ themselves, each with embarrassing names like Rax the Destroyer and Sharak the Avenger. Events were overseen by the Ice Master, who would sit in a throne and exclaim “I award the city state of Milton Keynes 100 credits!” Dani Behr was the host, apparently having lied about her skating prowess to get the gig, and while it may have sounded pretty ridiculous, the faux-sporting antics of Gladiators had proven to be a smash hit, and there was no reason to suggest Ice Warriors wouldn’t do the same.

However, there were major problems with the programme. The most notable was the complete absence of humour. On Gladiators, the fact that Wolf was clearly a balding, ageing ex-PE teacher was all part of the fun, and if it sometimes appeared more like pantomime than a serious sporting contest, then that was fine. On Ice Warriors, though, the Ice Master’s stupid announcements were meant to be taken completely seriously, something it was hard to do when he was referring to “The Island of Wight”. While there was some comic relief in the form of his short-arse sidekick Schnapps, his antics just came across as annoying. Behr added little personality to the show, not helped by the fact her script was identical each week, stuffed with crappy lines like “While Ice Warriors is a fantasy world, the prizes are very real.”

It was this lack of personality that most fundamentally hampered the series. While they’d tried hard to think up interesting names for the Warriors, in practice they all appeared interchangeable. The same could be said of the team members – we didn’t have the one-on-one aspect that had made Gladiators such a hit and made stars out of both the Gladiators and some of the contestants. Here there were too many people to get to know. Yet these were problems that could have been sorted out given time. There was a more fundamental reason for Ice Warriors’ failings – that being, you simply can’t do very much on ice, beyond skate around it really fast.  You could put obstacles on it to make it a bit harder, but there wasn’t enough that could justify an hour-long programme. In the end, all we got was a bunch of anonymous contestants being chased around the rink by a bunch of anonymous warriors, over and over again.

Unsurprisingly, the series soon found itself moved earlier and earlier in the schedules, with its peak slot being taken over by You’ve Been Framed and repeats of Catchphrase – not the sort of dynamic entertainment that was promised. When the series ended in March, it was suggested that it may be recommissioned but, in recognition of the audience profile of the series, scheduled on Saturday mornings. In the end, it wasn’t, and the 1998 tournament was the first and only outing.

“I am a programme maker, I never ever like to think of programmes being pulled.  Shift them into the graveyard slot, but don’t pull them,” says Nigel Lythgoe. “Somebody somewhere watches them. I mean I made a  particularly bad programme, called Ice Warriors. It was a good programme, but no one liked it and looking back on it I can totally understand why.  It only got about three million viewers and people were saying, ‘I don’t understand it, what’s going on?’ It was lavish, it looked great, it cost a lot of money. But it wasn’t pulled. They persevered with it – thank goodness.”

For all it’s critical derision, Ice Warriors wasn’t the most ridiculed light entertainment programme of 1998. That honour went to a BBC vehicle which also turned out to be one of the most controversial Saturday shows ever. The National Lottery’s appeal had continued to wane, not helped by the arrival of the midweek draw in March 1997 – the programme’s format was identical to the Saturday editions. It was obvious that the novelty of the lottery was going to wear off, and despite Bob Monkhouse and Dale Winton’s best efforts, the show itself was quite repetitive. A change of name from The National Lottery Live to The National Lottery Draw had little effect. However it was still reaching a decent sized audience, and later in 1997 weekly guest hosts such as Bruce Forsyth and Shirley Bassey added interest. Terry Wogan took charge at the beginning of 1998, and the show’s high ratings made for something of a coup when Madonna made her first live British TV appearance for over a decade. However March 1998 saw a complete overhaul of the lottery show.

The idea was to try and prop up sales of lottery scratchcards and add a bit of personality to the show by featuring winners in the studio – one of the major flaws of the lottery draw as it stood. In the new format, those who revealed TV-shaped symbols were guaranteed a big cash prize, but could also appear on the show to increase those winnings to a possible £100,000.  This new TV lottery show was to be a major, hour-long event. However, there was a mass of legal problems that had to be worked through: links between the show and the scratchcards had to be played down, lest it seem too much like advertising – so there was no mention of the show on the cards. A more pressing issue, though, was that Camelot’s contract only allowed the company to run games of chance; a condition that extended to any TV tie-ins. As such, it was illegal to get the players to do anything that might involve skill. The fact that the contestants could therefore only cross their fingers to win prizes may have been considered enough of a hurdle to convince the BBC and Camelot not to bother with a game show in the first place, but they tried their best to create a programme that didn’t break any regulations.

In fact a recent game show had involved contestants winning prizes by purely random means – Fluke was created and presented by the stand-up comedian Tim Vine and ran on Channel Four in summer 1997. In it contestants succeed by avoiding completely unfair penalties, selecting answers without hearing the questions and betting on impossible-to-predict outcomes. It was an entertaining format, but played completely for laughs. Clearly with the amounts of cash being played for on the new scratchcard show, it was decided to take things a bit more seriously.

Hence The National Lottery Big Ticket tried to get round the “no skill” restriction by getting other people to play the games on the contestants’ behalf. Eight scratchcard winners were split into four teams, each of which included two ‘champions’ – a celebrity of the calibre of Bobby Davro and a representative of a charity that was benefiting from lottery money. It was the latter two who would actually play the conventional games of skill, while the scratchcard winners would do nothing except sit down and root for ‘their’ team. As they went through the rounds, three teams would be eliminated – the members of the public getting a couple of thousand pounds for their trouble – and the lucky final pair would spin the wheel to decide which of the two would go for the really big prize. This would involve selecting boxes at random to explode, each including a cash sum. It was, in reality, a conventional game show but one where the prizes went to people who weren’t involved. Anthea Turner was lured back to the BBC to host, after she had been considered one of the reasons for the draw’s initial success, and she was joined by Patrick Kielty – who had ironically presented Last Chance Lottery 12 months previously.

What did these ‘games of skill’ involve, then?  It was promised that the rounds would be ‘spectacular’, and they clearly were if you were playing them. Take the weekly ‘Catapult Cars’ game, for example, which, claimed Radio Times, “has been developed by eccentric Belgian millionaire Hans Hollick. His degree in the Psychology of Fun is put to good use when it comes to devising and designing the many games that his factory produces for theme parks all over Europe”. However what worked in a theme park didn’t necessarily work on television. ‘Catapult Cars’ were a case in point – the celebrities were asked a question and then placed in a car on the end of a bungee rope heading towards a ‘car wash’. If they got the question right, they stayed dry, and if they didn’t, they wouldn’t. But what did we care at home?

This was the major problem – it didn’t seem to matter who won. When you saw a contestant win thousands of pounds for simply sitting there, it couldn’t help but fall flat. In fact, the original plan was to have 10 contestants on each team instead of two, but this had to be changed at the last minute when not enough scratchcard winners came forward – probably a good thing, as having 40 contestants in an hour-long programme was surely too much for anyone to get to grips with and would have made it even tougher to generate interest. In the end, so few winners volunteered to go on the programme that the rules had to be changed to let virtually anyone who’d bought a card appear. In the end, Big Ticket proved that there has to be some sort of link between contestants and the audience, and a game like this was doomed to failure by breaking that. After 13 weeks the show was replaced by a more traditional format with Bradley Walsh taking the draw to seaside theatres, and then back to the guest presenters for the rest of the year.

Next Monday: There’s nothing that makes people scream, ‘Did you see that?’

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