Of panel games and innovation

Inventing new panel games, like changing the welfare system or redesigning the wrap dress, is so much harder than it looks. It’s all very well whinging that Quote Unquote is tired or Round Britain Quiz too anoraky, but thinking of a variant is like dreaming up alternative sources of energy. You imagine there will be millions of possibilities. You end up with biofuel.

So Game Theory, BBC-style, is all about fine-tuning. The basic template – two teams, a captain, a quiz, varying levels of intelligence and narcissism – tends to stay the same. The challenge is to tinker with one of the components. Make it Funny, (I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue) less funny (Quote Unquote) clever (The Write Stuff) or geeky (Brain of Britain).

In The Third Degree, one of two new offerings on Radio 4 this week, the twist was that the teams were made up of professors and undergraduates, pitted against each other in an age-old generation gap way. The problem with this premise is that if teachers won everything and students proved clueless, it would be just as maddening as when wrinkly post-grads cruise to victory on University Challenge. Fortunately, someone thought of that. The first episode, which came from Southampton University, contained a round called High Brow/Low Brow, in which given a “theme word” such as twilight, or pain, contestants could choose which way they wanted to go. Dons got extra points for choosing lowbrow questions, students for highbrow ones. This was a good ruse and although the questions themselves barely justified the tuition fees, (“Who was the father of JFK?” for example, or “Who is Charles Pooter?”) Steve Punt made an amiable host and the students were not entirely humiliated. Though of course the dons won.

It’s too early to tell with The Third Degree, but get the format right, and a quiz game can literally last a lifetime. Just A Minute, the Methusalah of panel games, has been going since 1967 with plenty of hesitation and repetition, but still no sight of the final whistle. Preserved like an intact fossil in the sedimentary layer of radio history, its formula remains perfect, its host Nicholas Parsons unchanged, despite sixty years on radio, and new talent accretes like barnacles on its venerable frame. The latest guests who are likely to stay the distance are Terry Wogan, who should be fabulous if he can cope with the hesitation rule, and Rick Wakeman, rock star and anarchic thinker who turns out to be an amusing and quick-witted addition to the ranks of Radio 4 comedians.

Wakeman is also to appear on another new game premiered last week called It’s Your Round – marking a radio comeback for Angus Deayton. Deayton, like Parsons, is a born host, an arch, deadpan foil to contestants’ excesses. The twist in this format is that guests invent their own round, and in the first episode Rufus Hound devised “Them Next Door” in which contestants had to guess famous neighbours from a sound recording. Sex Pistols and a sewing machine made Vivienne Westwood, Nessun Dorma and weeping meant Gazza, and the sound of complete silence suggested Charlie Chaplin. Miles Jupp dreamt up “What Does My Dad know?” in which contestants guessed whether his father, a church minister, would have seen Titanic, or understand what an Emo was.

It was jolly and high spirited, but the threat to this game, apart from the cruel 11pm scheduling, is that it may have inbuilt obsolescence. It’s Your Round promises something different each week, whereas everything we know about radio tells us that audiences like continuity. Just A Minute is Britain’s longest running quiz show for a reason. People like to know what’s coming and then to have it repeated. Again and again for several years. In radio, as in other arts, no-one ever got poor underestimating the public taste for innovation.