Monthly Archives: August 2009

One cube, one pitch

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.


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Number 3’s a sure-fire hit

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies seems to have taken the world by storm, much like zombies themselves. These days I keep a trusty pike by my bed at all times, waiting for the inevitable gurgling moan from a differently alive gentleman or lady scratching at my front door to be let in. I quickly despatch them, my proficiency in the weapon greatly enhanced after the Siege of Magdalene back in ought-seven. A costly victory; many punts were sacrificed, resting now amongst the weeds, discarded bicycles and tourist fingers at the bottom of the Cam.

I wonder now whether people truly understand the trigger for the conflict. It took just one infected person, one poor soul whose mind was emptied by X Factor Xtra on ITV4, who passed on the infection through drool and poorly timed whooping, and suddenly the streets were full of wailing, marauding half-humans leaving a trail of bodily fluids and mayhem behind them. Or was that just Saturday night up the Regal? I forget now.

With what passes for civilisation now restored, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies appears. I feel eminently qualified to condemn it out of hand since I haven’t read it and have absolutely no intention of doing so. Apparently it really is just Pride and Prejudice with additional zombie-related scenes. Like a director’s cut of the book using the wrong offcuts. But it’s successful, and that’s all that matters for publishers – so expect a brown, noxious stream of similarly cut-and-shut novels to be hosed by the tankerload onto bookshelves in time for Christmas (next week then?). Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is one; I wonder whether they’ll subvert the subgenre and create Frankenstein’s Kitten, or Dracula and his Amazing Friends. I doubt it.

I started idly thinking of other inevitable, possible and unlikely combos, and the execrable films that would surely result. Here, then, are Avaragado’s top ten. By top ten, I mean the only ten I’ve thought of so far.

10. You’ve Got Fail

Sequel to 1998’s You’ve Got Mail. Thriller in which our two lovers attempt to communicate through a blizzard of viruses and spam. Sponsored by Microsoft.

9. Fahrenheit 404

A worldwide DDOS brings down all web servers. There is panic and looting and much product placement. Will Smith vehicle. He saves the day by turning the Internet off and on again.

8. The Postman Always Pings Twice

“The year’s best comedy about port knocking” — Empire.

7. The Tweeting of the Shrew

Teen romcom set in Silicon Valley with a highly original plot in which a dowdy, bespectacled swot removes said specs to transform into the prom queen. Along the way there are various High Jinks with a knowing voice-over, typed on-screen as spoken in 140-character chunks. Promoted with a URL shortening service,, that’s turned off immediately after the film’s release in a blatant do-not-get-it by the movie business.

6. Carry On Up The Broadband

A farcical knockabout starring digitally recreated avatars of Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sim, Bernard Bresslaw, Barbara Windsor et al in a series of MMORPGs. Watch astounded as Hawtrey leads a platoon of camp elves on an assault against Windsor’s exploding boob-monsters.

5. Lolcat on a Hot Tin Roof

A Disney 3D animated musical involving many, many cheeseburgers.

4. From Nigeria With Love

One man (George Clooney) takes on the might of the Nigerian spam empire. Lots of long shots of African scenery with no relevance to the story whatsoever. Clooney eventually beats the spammers by implausibly playing them at their own game, all to the incessant cacophony compulsory in any movie scene containing a computer.

3. True Git

Two groups of long-separated cowboys and their herds come together using a three-way merge algorithm.

2. Bourne for Dummies

An ill-advised collaboration between the not-Bond Bond franchise and the publishers of the * For Dummies books. Bourne (Matt Damon) agrees to write Identity Concealment for Dummies but rival publishers get wind and try to kill him for no adequately explained reason. Fourteen explosive set pieces later, it’s revealed to be a complete misunderstanding: the rival publishers thought he was Stephen Bourne, writer of the UNIX Bourne shell. They were all superfans of the C shell.

1. The Facebook of Dorian Gray

In which the 20,000 tagged photos of the titular Gray – taken at various frat parties by himself at arm’s length hugging anyone with teeth – are all commented on by progressively older and older pervs. In the dramatic climax he detags himself only to find that his likeness is replaced in every photo by a zombie, pirate, farm implement, or carefully targeted advert.

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A for ‘orses

I’ve been awarded the first A-level in Twitter Studies. Grade A, naturally. It was a tough course: modules in Signing Up, Following Stephen Fry, Publishing Tedious Tweets About Your Life, Tweeting and Retweeting Just The More Interesting Things, and finally the most advanced module, Getting On Channel 4 News.

It’s a relatively new subject, I’d be surprised if you’d heard of it. The only accredited qualfications agency is Avaragado’s A-levels and Argentinian Aardvark Acupuncture Analysis and Associates, more commonly known as A7. It’s based somewhere between Edinburgh and Carlisle. Frankly I suspect most of its business currently comes from the aardvark acupuncture side, which is very big in South America – outpacing the much lamer Lima llama loom industry.

Like thousands of 18-year-olds across the nation, I waited in front of TV cameras and local newspaper reporters for the letter telling me my grades. But they just took pictures of screeching girls called Jocasta, as usual. I screeched alone, hugging myself and sending myself excited texts. I didn’t tweet myself; what do you think I am, some kind of nerd?

One whiskered-and-whiskeyed old hack belched me a question: did I think A-levels were getting easier? I threw the question back at him: did he think A-levels were easier? Yes, he said. Congratulations, I replied: have an A-level. 98% of students can’t be wrong. Apparently.

It’s no surprise I received an A in Twitter Studies: one in four entries gets an A. And grades are up for the 27th glorious year in a row! That proves students are getting more intelligent. Don’t listen to the doom-mongers and wishy-washy so-called “scientists” at Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring who have spent the last twenty years looking at this question and have so-called “data” to indicate that D-grade students of the late 80s would now get Bs, and probably As in Maths subjects. Don’t stop this so-called “evidence” from piling more and more students into universities.

Next year some clevers clogs will do especially well and get one of the new-fangled A* grades, and no doubt more students will get As overall. And in a few years I imagine there’ll be an A**, then an A***, and then everyone will receive an A for every exam and Her Majesty’s Media will be overjoyed at how successful our students are. Meanwhile the universities will cross out A*** and write A, cross out A** and write B, cross out A* and write C, and cross out A and write D, and we can start all over again.

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Ten questions from children

Apparently “four out of five parents have been left vexed by science questions asked by their children”. This doesn’t surprise me: children of a certain age are miniature Herr Flicks, constantly interrogating any handy adult on the bizarre workings of the world around them, unaware that in a few short years all they’ll care about is painting their entire lives black and living in a dustbin. (Not me, though. I was a nice boy.) And the grown-ups they ultimately become are generally too preoccupied with jobs, mortgages and the neverending questions of their own children to have any sense of wonder about the world.

Some do, though, and we call them scientists.

Oh, I’m exaggerating. But there’s a grain of truth there, I think. Many artists prattle on about the amazing world in which we live, but too often they go on to thank their invisible friend or friends for creating it (when the evidence suggests the truth is far more interesting). Or they’re so far up their own… arts they’re barely aware that anyone except themselves exist. I discount these people with a wave of my hand: bah!

The BBC Magazine article includes ten questions from children that flummoxed their parents. These questions are, you’ll note, not from the survey they’re reporting on. Some of them aren’t even science questions. But here they are, with Avaragado-approved answers to provide to any probing child.

1) Why don’t all the fish die when lightning hits the sea?

Because electric eels absorb all the energy. It’s like charging up their batteries. You remember on Doctor Who when the Doctor just redirected all his regeneration energy into his severed arm in a bucket? It’s a similar principle.

2) How much does the sky weigh?

As much as Rupert Murdoch thinks he can get away with. The BBC is much better value for money.

3) Why can’t people leave other people alone?

I’ll tell you when you’re older.

4) Why are birds not electrocuted when they land on electricity wires?

You have a thing about electricity, don’t you? Because all birds are made of rubber. They don’t actually fly, they just bounce where you can’t see them.

5) What is time?

About eleven o’clock. Shouldn’t you be in bed?

6) Why is the Moon sometimes out in the day and sometimes at night?

It’s on shift work like your Auntie Doreen.

7) Why did God let my kitten die?

THAT’S NOTHING. You should read the Old Testament, it’d give you nightmares.

8) Why do I like pink?

Because you’re conforming to the heteronormative hegemony of western civilisation (if a girl).

It’s just a phase (if a boy).

9) Why is water wet?

To alllow it to go through pipes easily. Dry water just clogs everything up.

10) Why does my best friend have two dads?

Have you been at the sherry again? How many fingers am I holding up?

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Lunar rambling

On the phone to dearest mater a week ago, I was blahing endlessly about Apollo 11 in that tedious nobody’s-interested-but-I’m-saying-it-anyway way I have. She said she’d been thinking back to the day of the landing and now remembers that the three-month-old me was unwell at the time. She’s absolutely convinced I was on the settee with her and pater as they watched events at Tranquility Base unfold in the company of Patrick Moore and James Burke and 600 million others.

Take that, kids of today! You might have your youth and your hair and your stupid 80s throwback fashions, but you never saw the first moon landing while wearing a nappy.

The further that milestone recedes into history, the more amazed I become that they succeeded. It’s almost as if Jules Verne’s space cannon in From the Earth to the Moon actually happened. For this anniversary, sites such as replayed events from launch to landing with as-live comms recordings, and I fully confess to listening to hours of it. A great deal of it was static and Capcom relaying coordinates to Apollo, but it was nerdily exciting nevertheless.

Naturally I listened throughout the descent and landing. The greatly condensed replays shown on TV don’t convey the drama, instead boiling it all down to the standard soundbites. What struck me was how much time they spent simply trying to keep communications up: moving antennae around, that sort of thing. And the coolness of Armstrong, overriding the system (that tried to land them in a boulder field) and scooting around a couple of hundred feet above the surface hunting for a flat bit, with less than a minute’s fuel remaining.

I just cannot imagine the tension of everyone listening in at the time. So many unknowns. The whole enterprise a teetering tower of risk upon risk.

Space nerd that I am, I’ve also been looking at various transcripts of the mission, with commentaries by knowledgable parties such as the crew. Which led to a surprising discovery: that, as well as the radio transmissions we’ve all heard a million times, there are audio recordings from inside Eagle as Armstrong and Aldrin took her down to the surface. These I hadn’t heard. But, of course, they’re now on the web (albeit only in a stupid streaming format as far as I can see) – see the transcript for details.

Now, 40 years on, we of course have permanently crewed bases on the Moon and Mars and we’re mining the asteroids. How vividly I remember that day in 1988 when Michael Jackson actually moonwalked across the lunar surface.

Ah well. Perhaps in another ten years or so we might actually get out of Earth orbit again. As it happens I strongly suspect the Chinese will reach the moon before the Americans return.

Which leads me to Moon, the new film starring Sam Rockwell as a solitary moon-based employee of a mining company scraping Helium-3 from the lunar regolith. Not exactly the setup you’d expect for a science-fiction thriller, but it works. Without giving anything away, Things Are Not What They Seem.

The film toys with your expectations somewhat. Don’t expect a blockbuster, an effects extravaganza: it’s not that sort of movie. Some people have compared it to 2001, but that’s a lazy and obvious comparison and entirely misplaced.

Much has been made of the retro model effects – no CGI here. There’s a definite dusting of Gerry Anderson over the proceedings, with the gentlest aroma of Michael Bentine. But if you come out of the film moaning about the models (or the odd scientific inaccuracy), you’ve rather missed the point. The lunar setting enables the story to be told.

And it’s an interesting story, original and thought-provoking, and in the tradition of good science fiction all too contemporary in many respects. I liked it a lot.

I don’t expect it’ll be a contender for the next Oscars, but I’d like to think it would get a nod for Original Screenplay. Sam Rockwell deserves something simply for the number of scenes he’s in.

Avaragado’s rating: opal fruits

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