ITV1 has a new game show. I can tell from the tone of your eyes that this shocks and surprises you. It’s called The Cube and broadcasts to a supine nation on Saturday evenings at 8.30. The premise is simple: a contestant enters a glass cube to perform a task and win some money; repeat, increasing the cash. The show ratchets up the tension by employing a man off-stage able to play only the low notes of a synthesiser, some super slomo, and various other items of visual trickery – including “bullet-time” sequences. Ten years to get from cutting edge SF movies to an ITV1 game show. The host is former cupboard inhabitant and TV’s Mr Smiley Daytime, Phillip Schofield.
I can imagine the pitch: Crystal Maze meets Who Wants to be a Millionaire: tasks minus quirky host plus neon. Complete one task for a grand; work through all seven tasks for £250,000. Between tasks you can take the money and run, but once you start a task you can’t bail out. You have nine lives in total: lose them all and you go home with nothing.
Like the questions in Millionaire, the puzzles start out simple enough. While writing this I’ve seen a lady catch a ball and win a thousand pounds. Earlier I watched a man carry a box – containing a precariously balanced ball – a distance of about six feet to win £10,000. A few moments later he threw another ball through a hole and doubled his winnings.
But it’s not about the puzzles – though they do play a rather obvious part, and aren’t always as easy as I’ve made them sound – it’s about the people and the tension. This is a game show for the Deal or No Deal crowd. The ball-catching lady has just used up eight of her lives trying and eventually succeeding to throw a box into another box for £2000, and for the watching millions she might as well have been tightrope walking across the Atlantic carrying a wet ferret: you get caught up in the moment, despite yourself and your cynical, ivory tower ways.
The £20,000 ball-throwing man next had to step over two barriers blindfolded without dislodging them. The prize: £50,000. Harder than it looks. He lost a couple of lives before our genial host told him he could remove his trousers if he wanted – probably a first for both Schofield and for Saturday night ITV1. The contestant did – nice Y-fronts – and promptly won the cash. Cue bullet-time groin-o-vision and a great deal of whooping, and a trip home with “fifty large” as he called it. The contestant, not Schofield. I can’t imagine Schofield saying anything like that outside of a Going Live Panto, and even that would make Gordon the Gopher shudder.
I suspect ITV1 has a winner here. It’s a format like Millionaire that you can imagine being sold around the world with increasingly greasy hosts. As Millionaire reaches the end of its natural, along with I’m a Celebrity and the newly incarcerated death row inmate Big Brother, producers are scrambling for replacement ideas. I’d be surprised if Channel 4 replaces Big Brother with another long-running daily highlights reality show. But they have a year to think about it: they’re still committed to next year’s run.
I know what show I’d like to see.
In the early 1980s, nestled amongst the likes of Terry and June and That’s Life, was Now Get Out Of That. A simple idea: two teams, solving puzzles on the same course (at different times) against the clock. Outdoors, with both physical and mental puzzles. In the wind and rain. While finding and cooking their own food, and sleeping on the course. All narrated by journalist Bernard Falk.
There don’t seem to be many clips of Now Get Out Of That online, but here’s one. Be warned: old-fashioned telly was slow.
Aside from quickening the pace there’d have to be certain changes to account for today’s tastes, but I’d draw the line at the overly formulaic approach taken by any show involving the high-trousered panto villain Simon Cowell. Each series would have eight teams in a knock-out competition including semi-final and final. Each contest would take place over two days and spit out two shows: so seven contests, fourteen hour-long shows.
Each team would consist of members of the public plus a celebrity leader. The teams would meet for the first time on the day their contest begins and we learn about them as the rest of the team does – as the show progresses. Plenty of scope for human drama there; no cutaways to teary background interviews required or in fact desired.
Each contest would have a plot: not just a sequence of puzzles, but a mission. This mission would not be explained. The contestants would work things out as they went along, and – this is crucial – as the viewers do too. The missions would be different for each contest, and increasingly difficult for later rounds.
The puzzles would be challenging and cunning, and not always what they seem. As in the original, unseen judges would penalise contestants for violations. And an extra twist: kidnapping. If you don’t cover your tracks or you don’t keep watch, you might find yourself short by one or two team members.
One hallmark of the original show was Bernard Falk’s sardonic narration. I’d take it up a notch and narrate it like Come Dine With Me, full of sarcasm. The narrator should say what everyone at home is saying: “No, don’t do that you fool – use the milk bottle!”
There we go. That’s my pitch for fourteen hours of prime-time TV. Look out for the Avaragado Pictures logo on a screen near you on Channel 4 in 2011.