Yesterday, I went to the third audience screening of That Puppet Game Show – BBC One’s great Autumn Saturday night entertainment hope, co-produced with The Jim Henson Company. Official synopsis time:
“Each week two top name celebrities will be plunged into That Puppet Game Show – a unique world of puppet comedy and madcap games. As the only humans who appear on the show, the celeb contestants will be going head to head in a number of games, hoping to win £10,000 for their chosen charity. They’ll compete in subjects such as sport, science, celebrity, nature, music and mental agility. Each of the games is run and hosted by a different puppet character, who is an “expert” in their field. But that’s only half the story…
In a unique twist, That Puppet Game Show is the first gameshow to include a backstage sitcom. It features all the puppet characters that we’ve met onstage and more, like the producer Mancie and the bullish Show Executive, Udders McGhee. Combining the comedy traditions of The Jim Henson Company and a top celebrity based gameshow ensures that this will be an amazing event, not to be missed!”
Does the show live up to the breathless copy above? Here’s my lazy, bullet-point-ridden report.
- Just to be clear, then – yes this was an audience screening, at the BBC Radio Theatre – we all got to watch the shows on a big screen to record the audience track, with none of the actual show recorded in front of us. The Radio Theatre is an extremely odd place to try and get a Saturday night style audience reaction in, but bizarrely enough, they managed it. (I half expected to see William G. Stewart lurking in the corner handing free booze around.)
- Wouldn’t it have been nice to have the puppet host of the show be the warm-up at the audience screening? Yes, it would. No such luck, sadly. It would have helped me connect more with the show, I think – they would have got a better reaction out of me, at least.
- The actual show itself, incidentally, was shot at BBC Elstree Studio D – see Martin Kempton’s fantastic History of TV Studios in London for a wonderful detailed history of the studio. This was where many of ATV’s big entertainment shows were recorded – including, appropriately, The Muppet Show. This at least is one positive consequence of Television Centre’s re-development/massacring – BBC Studios & Post Production suddenly realised they had a large entertainment studio (larger than TC1!) sitting there virtually unused, perfect for these kind of shows.
- The fact that the show was recorded at Elstree didn’t stop them from recreating the famous TV Centre Studio 1 sign for the behind-the-scenes sections. Bit of a kick in the twat, really.
- Now, I know that at the beginning of audience recordings the warm-up always gets the audience to record applause and the like, sometimes dressed up as “checking for levels”, or a “practice run”. I know that this is often used in the edit to fix any issues with the genuine recorded audience reaction. This is perhaps stretched slightly when getting us to shout specific contestants names before the first show, but there’s still a bit of plausible deniability. Unfortunately however, we saw two episodes – and when we were told before the screening to shout the names of the second show’s contestants as well, any pretence that this is anything other than something to fix things in the edit has well and truly exploded.
- Incidentally, the two shows we watched already had what sounded like fake audience applause all over it. I’m presuming this was a placeholder for the unfinished edit, so they could get a rough sense of what the show would sound like.
- Yes, the name That Puppet Game Show was plastered all over the set. It’s definitely the final name for the show, not a working title. I think it’s fucking abominable, and the “That x” schtick for titles got old a long time ago. Could they really not think of anything better?
- The contestants for the first show: Gary Lineker and Freddie Flintoff. Second show: Ronan Keating and Tess Daley. What an absolutely atrociously dull set of contestants. Today’s celebrities are rubbish. It makes me wonder why I stand in the corner at parties worried about being horrendously dull. Even I’m more interesting than these gobshites.
- The format of the show is best described by its opening; the puppet host and two celebrities sit and do some vaguely forced chat, before the camera slides off to the side to show behind-the-scenes puppets running the show. (Yeah, it shows the puppets behind the cameras. Awesome.) The puppets come in two types – behind-the-scenes goons, and the characters in charge of the games themselves, of which more later.
- The puppet sketches feel like the meat of the programme, and let’s not beat around the bush: they feel very much like The Muppet Show. This may not work in the show’s favour, as it’s very easy to dismiss these sections as “The Muppet Show, but nowhere near as good”. Sadly, that’s not even inaccurate. There were some clever, lovely jokes in these sections – a joke about a clone being rich because the character’s credit card was also cloned I especially liked. But all too often, the sketches resorted to a weak, obvious punchline, and over-used situations. If you’re going to do the “Did I just say that out loud?” joke, you’d better have an original way of doing it. Time and again, the obvious, easy, unfunny route was taken – and it overpowered some excellent material.
- It’s worth noting that there is crossover between the behind-the-scenes sketches, and what happens on-stage – the show clearly made every effort to make this not feel like two shows stitched clumsily together. It largely works.
- One thing I really liked was that the puppets really were set up to be the stars of the show. Each character runs one of the game rounds – and the rounds are introduced with a big spinning graphic of the characters. They’re being sold as the real appeal of the programme, and you’re given a proper chance to get to know them – not shunted off to the sidelines to make more room for for Tess Daley’s wit. I very much approve.
- Watching the games themselves, I was struck how much of a shame it was that none of this was actually recorded in front of an audience. I understand they were too complex to be recorded in front of an audience in their entirety – and God knows, I’ve complained about recordings lasting far longer than an audience is comfortable sitting for – but it feels there could have been some kind of halfway house that would have been appropriate for this show. Maybe all the puppet sketches and a couple of the more complex games could have been pre-records, and the rest of the games and host/contestant stuff could have been done in front of an audience? I’m sure the audience reaction would have felt more naturalistic – and it would have improved the atmosphere of the show as well, with the puppet characters being able to respond to the audience. (And having seen Puppet Up!, I can vouch for Henson’s puppeteers being excellent at improvising.)
- Most of the games themselves were actually pretty damn good; I won’t ruin them all, but I’ll describe my favourite, which was also the most Muppet-esque. Three puppet birds sit high in three trees, and each have three calls. (Example: “Ooooh, cheeky!”) The celebs have to remember these calls, and then when they hear the call, they run underneath which they think is the right bird, imitate the call, and then get an egg dropped on high in their basket. Whoever catches the most eggs wins. Sounds simple, but the whole setup gave a real rhythm to the comedy and the game itself – bird call, celebrity bird call, bird call, *drop* – and was immensely charming. If the whole show was of this kind of quality, it would be incredible. Basically: more Henson puppet extras please.
- The show also engineered a situation where Ronan Keating revealed he’s rubbish at knowing facts about his own career, in a brilliant game where the celebs have to read a speech out and fill in the gaps. This felt genuinely subversive to me. I think he looked a fucking idiot.
- I don’t like Ronan Keating.
The show is an interesting mix. On one hand, it feels very modern; the graphics and main set are almost cliched in terms of Saturday Night Entertainment. Yet the behind-the-scenes sections feel extremely old-school – in the best possible way – in terms of their presentation. This blend of the old and the new automatically appeals to me; the programme is nothing like anything currently airing on Saturday night telly. Exactly what the BBC should be doing.
The weak points of the show are very obvious. It needs better celebrities, better scriptwriting for the behind-the-scenes sections, and the feeling of the show would be immeasurably improved if at least some of it could be shot in front of an audience. However, it’s a show I very much want to succeed. Moreover, once I’d left the recording, I started looking forward to when I’d see the next episode, which has to count for something. The format is lovely; the production just needs some refining and tweaking.
I hope they get the chance to do it. The flaws should, of course, be recognised – but I hope the show isn’t stamped down on and dismissed. It deserves better.