Old formulae are desperately re-worked in order to fill the endless hours of television time. (Did you know that the BBC broadcasts five hours of TV every hour, in this country alone?) The mathematician and code expert Simon Singh, whom I bumped into the other day, suggested I watch Beg, Borrow or Steal (BBC2, Tuesdays) because he felt it illustrated some interesting intellectual problems. It comes straight after The Weakest Link and is in many ways a knock-off, since participants not only need to know the answers, but are also encouraged to swindle each other.
There are five contestants. They are asked clutches of four questions, some moderately tough (‘Which is the fastest animal on two legs?’). Only people who get all four right win any money. If they don’t know all four, they can go off in a huddle with one or two others, and barter the correct answers. Or else cheat by giving the others wrong information (‘I think you’ll find that’s an emu’). The permutations are, of course, endless. Do you trade your credibility to stop someone who might not be as gormless as they look? Can you offer an answer that sounds right but isn’t? It is surprisingly amusing, even tantalising.
What it needs is sharpening up, fast. Twinkly Jamie Theakston spends too much time interviewing these rather dull people (unlike Anne Robinson’s victims, they are encouraged to demonstrate self-confidence and boast about themselves, which can be just as tedious). They need four rounds instead of three, with lots of crisp cutting. And the questions should be tougher. When I watched, they were asked ‘duh’ posers such as the city where you’d find Lime Street station and the century of the French Revolution. Why not ask in which town Mumps station is, or the decade of the Portuguese revolution? Then you’d have something to bargain with.