Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Room 101.3

I've always loved Room 101.  The Nick Hancock series on BBC2 in the mid-90s was often hysterically funny - I remember one edition in particular with Alan Davies that I must have re-watched the VHS of dozens of times. I don't remember the radio series that spawned it on the original Radio 5, mainly because I was only 7 when it first aired but partly because no-one listened to the original Radio 5 (there's a whole book in why the format for that station didn't work.  Sport, children's, school's, youth, comedy, World Service and Radio 3 simulcasts - WTF?).

After three series Hancock moved on and his replacement was Paul Merton.  Although his take on the show was consistently entertaining, I found it rather less so than the Hancock years, although perhaps that's only because of the high expectations that Merton encourages.  He seemed a lot less discerning on Room 101 than he does on Have I Got News For You, with a more laid-back style than Hancock had displayed.  The title sequence seemed to be assembled by someone who had no idea what the format of the show was about (a bucket and spade? some grapes? ice cream? really?) and Merton was far too easily swayed when deciding whether items would be let into the titular room, all too often changing his mind for no particular reason when his hand was on the lever.

That said the show seemed to be popular enough and somewhat incredibly lasted another eight series under Merton.  When he moved on in 2007, rather than return with a new host, the show simply disappeared.  Which was a shame.  It always seemed to have a lot of mileage in it for such a simple formula.  So I was quite excited to hear in the summer that it was coming back, this time presented by Frank Skinner, who is a very good choice indeed.  Less exciting was the news that the format had been changed to a (whisper) panel show, with (shudder) audience interaction, so with some trepidation last night the wife-to-be and I went to the recording of the first episode of the third incarnation of Room 101.  Surprisingly the show has been commissioned for BBC One, which is a bit of a risk considering the changes to the format and the fact it has been off-air for five years.

As we were sternly told not to take photographs at any point before we went in, I didn't, although that didn't stop other people, meaning I can link you to this picture of the new set.  Frank sits on the right of the set at a desk with three levers.  The three panellists, for want of a better word, sit opposite each next to a small cabinet out of which rises their choice for Room 101 when Frank pulls the appropriate lever.  When an item is chosen for entry to the room, Frank pulls their lever again, the item descends back into their cabinet and, er, that's it.  There's a slight contradiction in this set-up as it implies that the items were all inside Room 101 in the first place.  It's also a lot less satisfying conclusion that the Hancock years' conveyor belt and Merton's trapdoor.

In the new format, Frank kicks off the show with a couple of example choices of his own, and one will almost certainly be dropped or heavily re-edited from our session as it was captioned "The Seven Dwarfs" on-screen, to which Frank commented he would have used a "v" himself.  This was bad timing as a later choice, tattoos, was illustrated with a misspelt example.  Pot, kettle anyone?  There are then three rounds, in which each guest tries to get an item inducted into Room 101.  The first two are themed ("people" and "going out" were our two examples).  Each panellist has an item they'd like to put into the room, and makes their case to Frank (often with interaction from the other guests), and at the end of the sequence Frank decides which one he will put in.  Then there's some audience choices, which were solicited via email beforehand.  I'll be surprised if these make it in the final cut as Frank seemed too keen to banter with nervous audience members who clearly weren't expecting to have to say much.  Then there's a wildcard round where the guests can choose anything, and finally Frank chooses an overall winner who gets to put in an additional bonus item of their own choice.

Presumably it's only a new format as no-one wanted to commission the old one any more, so let's not be too harsh.  It certainly wasn't a disaster and it brought back elements of the original Hancock series, with more of a structure and a competitive element put into the reasoning because the guests were competing against others.  The part where Frank decides also allows him to make jokes about why items stay out and why they will go in, which wasn't possible before.  Also, having three guests means that there will normally be someone the viewer likes, and hopefully not making them switch off if the guest was someone who simply wasn't very funny as before (Ron Atkinson anyone?).  The title sequence is also reminiscent of the Hancock series, whizzing around a vault with lot of items already in Room 101 - including, which amused us greatly, a tweet containing the words "om nom nom".  The theme music, whilst new, is similar to that used in the Merton opening.

Although I can see the format working, the edition we saw being recorded wasn't vintage.  The panellists were Alistair McGowan (admittedly dropping too many impressions in but as they're so good and that's what he does, fine), singer Josh Groban (who as anyone who saw him on Buzzcocks will know is very good value) and Someone From Dragon's Den.  I'm reliable informed it's the new, plasticy looking one who looks like she should be stealing dalmatians, but I really can't be arsed looking her up because to be honest she was the problem with the whole show.  She didn't know when to shut up (interrupting a McGowan anecdote about not liking beer with the revelation "I grew up in a pub and didn't like the smell of beer"), crashed people's punchlines and came across as completely unlikeable.  At one point she managed to crow-bar a  random reference to her many homes into a segment about pets, and when Groban referred back to this later on ticked him off saying she'd worked very hard for her property.  Kudos to Skinner for commenting, when her weighty bracelet dropped off loudly mid-segment, said "thank god it was your bracelet, that could have been anything".

Hopefully they were just getting used to the new format because there were also a couple of blunders where Skinner forgot to introduce a guest standing backstage and moved straight onto the next item.  There was no reference to it being the first show so I expect they'll launch with a really good episode and put this one out later on, as there were clearly nerves.  There were also some unexplained elements - both Frank and the guests sat in front of giant safe/vault doors.  Frank's was naturally labelled "101" but the guests' door was labelled "104" - eh?  Full marks to our warm-up man Chris Martin (not that one) who effortlessly kept us entertained all night.  We often find that the quality of the warm-up is inverse proportion to how funny the show is.  We had a dire warm-up for Harry Hill's TV Burp, but a superb up-and coming comedian for BBC3's Grownups back in 2005.  His name was Jason Manford!

I really hope it works ultimately.  After all, for all that it is derivative of Orwell, Room 101's origin is at the BBC, bringing us full circle.  The series is due for transmission in January.


peezedtee said...

Greatly enjoyed the Stephen Fry episode, of which I was previously unaware. BTW I have *never* listened to Radio 5!

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