The National Lottery: Winning Lines

Saturday, August 18, 2001 by

For an evening that was supposed to mark the beginning of a revolution in television programming and strategy this Saturday night on BBC and ITV felt stubbornly conventional. Aside from the obvious, and frankly bizarre, novelty of having a huge 75 minutes of hastily-edited football highlights shoved out at peak audience and advertiser grazing time, here were a selection of shows reeking of yesteryear. The end of decades of tradition, eh? On ITV This Is My Moment recycled the worst bits of The Big Big Talent Show, i.e. all of it, before giving way to an eight-year old episode of Poirot; while over on BBC1 Terry Wogan boosted his pension by brazenly fronting another package of Corporation bloopers.

“Summer season” has always meant “out of season” for British telly, of course. A knacker’s yard of weary formats and choice displays of eccentric scheduling. ITV landing the rights to the Premiership highlights and their subsequent decision to run not one but two round-up packages on Saturday nights could have precipitated major reforms all round. Maybe here was where the Beeb would run the fourth episode of EastEnders. Perhaps Ant and Dec really were about to succeed Cilla to the honorary title of commercial TV Saturday night cash cow. But no such dramatic developments came to pass; and although the launch of The Premiershipw as always going to be necessarily controversial and deafeningly-publicised, ITV still decided there was room for a repeat of TV’s Naughtiest Blunders before shoving out their second football round-up at the hugely lucrative hour of 11.45pm – a time even good old Match of the Day rarely found the need to patronise. So much for innovation: let’s run the footy highlights even later than the BBC!

Back at 7.30pm on BBC1 Phillip Schofield remained ever-calm and composed – just another normal Saturday gig, no point playing up the drama of going head-to-head with Des. Since returning to regular BBC employment Phil has made the business of fronting the Lottery draws all his own and, really for the first time ever, genuinely worth watching. Winning Lines has always been a enjoyable format, though original host Simon Mayo never seemed to be totally at ease with proceedings. The way he forever appeared alternatively on the edge of either breaking down or stuttering a stream of profanities rarely made for comfortable television.

It’s a completely different story with Phil. On this particular night he was on top form, perfectly at ease with his surroundings, unflappable, good-natured, utterly likeable. His show ran concurrent with the last 45 minutes of The Premiership, and it’s a safe bet the ratings will show if not a small victory for Phil then at least a draw, especially at those points when the actual Lottery draws were taking place. Clumsy scheduling meant he had to follow on the heels of another quiz show – and, worse, a “celebrity” edition at that. The Weakest Link returned to British screens with a contest featuring personnel from “reality” shows past and present – and had itself been preceded with yet another “celebrity” special of The Other Half. Phil had the misfortune to form the last in a trio of sequential quizzes – a breathtakingly bad example of programming.

Yet he wasn’t letting it bother him, the same way as he simply made no reference to his ITV opposition. This was a well-paced, breezy performance from Phillip that came over as completely sincere – and in a sight unusual for TV shows today he did genuinely want his contestants to succeed. He promised them the chance to win “more holiday destinations than the Blair family,” and the opportunity to visit places “with a more colourful history than Jeffrey Archer”. Never mind the patently obvious dubbed laughter and applause, Phil’s gags and fine sense of timing (carefully, subtlely cranking up the tension through the rounds) made a for pleasant 45 minutes that didn’t overstay their welcome. No sense of hurry-get-to-the-Draws here, and mercifully no guest entertainers or singers.

It’s a little unfortunate that Phillip’s grand return to the BBC has been with a semi-interactive viewer-based quiz which relies on events in the studio generating a six digit telephone number. Comparisons between this and Phil’s big ITV debut Talking Telephone Numbers are all too easy to make, especially given the rather clumsy awkward end segment of Winning Lines where he “talks” to some of the viewers who’ve already bagged their place on next week’s show. On previous weeks Phil has sometimes had to pad out this section if the rest of the quiz has under-run, and though the banter with members of the public sometimes falls flat, the sight of him giving a detailed run-down of what’s coming up later on BBC1 evokes fine memories of Broom Cupboard afternoons. Indeed, at one point during this edition Phil imagined if the contestants are “thinking to themselves – should I mention Gordon the Gopher?” He politely asked them not to, and moved on.

While the show is undoubtedly a strong vehicle for combining the Lottery with another form of “entertainment” (thanks to format creators Celador) there remain flaws and frustrations. The excitement builds naturally as the 49 contestants are whittled down to just six, but proceedings are interrupted for the still overly-complicated Thunderball draw, and again later on for the two main Lottery draws. In all instances the corny music and hysterical audience sound effects can’t help but belittle what genuine drama Phil has been able to whip up, besides rendering his light-hearted banter with Alan Deddicoat a collection of garbled, often inaudible exchanges. Alan’s patter remains laughably fussy – all those intricate statistics he supplies after each new ball appears – and even he is unable to maintain an air of suspense all the way to the end of the three respective draws. Placing the final of the actual Winning Lines competition after the concluding Lottery invites audiences to switch off up to 10 minutes before the whole programme concludes – though Phil partly compensates for this with his chat to viewers ahead of the closing credits. The actual final round – “The Wonderwall” – also remains very badly realised on screen, less so in the studio itself.

It’s great having Phil back on the BBC – and twice a week at that, as he also fronts the mid-week draw. But though he does the business here, it’d be even better to see the Beeb find another vehicle for him, something reassuringly far away from telephones. Why not on Saturday nights, perhaps? Reunited with Sarah Greene, maybe, to host The Generation Game – which would exploit that show’s continuing durability, kick-start BBC1′s Saturday nights, rubbish ITV’s silly football scheduling, and best of all banish Jim Davidson from primetime television. Now that really would mark the beginning of a genuine TV revolution.


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