January 4, 2009
Richard Hammond's Blast Lab
Way back, I wrote a lengthy post tearing into the proposed format of the BBC’s first children’s science series in years, then titled Richard Hammond’s Lab Rats. My main charges were:
they’d already tried this, with the execrable Xperi-mental, and you end up with big flashy gosh-wow stuff that may or may not be faked, interspersed with kids playing with balloons. Ugh.
You end up testing knowledge, not problem-solving. Which doesn’t work with kids (see the full post for the fleshed-out argument).
A comment (thanks Malcolm!) has alerted me to the emergence of the show into the schedules. It started yesterday morning. Saturday morning? Huh. No wonder I didn’t notice it in the evening slots.
OK, I’m going to watch this on iPlayer, and write up my thoughts as it unfolds. Bear in mind that I will be all snarky, that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and that it’s much easier to snark than spot the things they’ve done right. If there are any. Also bear in mind that this will be a long post.
The short version? I quite like it. Flawed, but Hammond is good enough to make it watchable. A whole series of it, however? I’m less convinced. I think it’s an entertaining show, but not an inspiring one.
There’s always exposition and explanation and edifice in the first show of a series, but
4 56 minutes of it, before we get underway? Sheesh!
Nan! Hah! I laugh mostly because this is a gag we did in the ultra-cheap Discovery make & do show Scrap It!. Our nan wasn’t a ninja, but at least they’ve spotted the interplay possibilities. Much less constraining than ‘mum’ or ‘big sis’ or even ‘gran,’ oddly. I’ve no idea what their Nan is for, but doubtless we’ll find out. (edit: we don’t. She shows the prizes at the end, that’s it)
Why are the children shouting? Paranoia about them being meek is one thing, having them shout quite another. Sounds like the remnant of some early-format pseudo-military ‘Yes, sir! We’re the team, sir!’ construct.
The usual problem of the studio audience looking dead bored, and hence having to find a cutaway reaction. Whether to have studio audiences of children or not is something of a religious battle in kids’ TV. I’m on the ‘not’ side. I don’t think they add much, really.
I quite like the studio set. It’s a big dressed studio with lots of free space, which is a huge constraint and leads you to blandish solutions. The wall textures are good, though, and the lighting is excellent. There aren’t many lighting designers who can do this: excellent work.
Round One (6 minutes in). Fact quiz.
A fact quiz? Where did that come from? Unexpected.
Oliver the car is a character too far at this stage, unless it’s used later in the show. (edit: it isn’t)
Nicely-written explanation, well delivered by Richard: offhand but not dismissive. And hey, an explanation. It doesn’t work as well when the team get it right — feels like a downer after congratulating them. Again, Richard covers well, but it’s… very BBC, facts shoehorned in because they’re ‘good for you,’ not integrated with the show. There are better ways of doing this, I think.
“How many seconds in a year?” Leap year? Astonomical year? Oh, non-leap calendar year. Right. Fine.
Round Two (9 minutes in). ‘Mini Science’
Ah, this is the DIY bit. Oh crap, there’s a child actor. OK, she could be worse, but … you know, I’ve no idea how this game she’s describing works.
Hang on — another character?!
Wait — they’re hiding a home experiment behind a big studio constructed game? Confidence in their material, much?
Also: the first demo we see in the show — the first bit of practical science in the series — comes ten minutes in, and is… a balloon running along a string. The first make in all the lazy ‘Fun Science 4 Kids!’ activity books. Oh, crap.
They’ve handled a tricky script well, here. There’s too much to do — introducing this ‘my old school science teacher, only there was a time machine accident and she’s 12’ character, having her explain the make, and have the two of them share the explanation of the game — crazy complex, and it all gets a bit lost. However, they just about pull it off. Decent writing and Hammond’s talent save the day.
Explanation gets held over until afterwards, which is fair enough. Again, decently-written (paging Greg Foot: did you write these?), though sloppy not to see even a replay of the trick. If something’s surprising or impressive the viewer wants to see it more than once. If it’s not surprising or impressive, why is it in the show?
Wait, we have a 50-second lecture on Newton? With bored-looking kids looking on? What? Sorry, that’s a straight piece to camera about Newton’s Third Law. How the monkeys did they get that past the exec?
Suspicious-looking help going on in the first game. They’ve cut around it, but… eh?
If I was a kid watching this, I’d be wanting to know how they’re threading their straws onto their strings after they’ve put the strings up. As it happens I know how, because I’ve used the same trick myself. On telly. And I remember writing an explanation of it. If there’s something like this that’s crucial for repetition, in an experiment that’s intended to be repeated, don’t hide it from the viewer! Celebrate it!
“The reds look like they’re having problems” Do they? How can you tell?
firstsecond game thoughts:
- We’re 14 minutes in when it finishes. Blimey, that’s slow.
- Turning a basic make&do into a game is a good idea. Hell, we built a whole series around it, in The Big Bang.
- There’s one idea too many in the presentation, with some flannel about ‘saving your teammate’ when really, abstract challenges make more sense.
- I like the basic concept: my concern is that you normally put your best content in the first show. ‘Best content’ shouldn’t equate to ‘balloon on a string.’
Round Three (14 minutes in). Jetpacks.
Hah, nice gag with the crane lift and zoom-pull.
It’s Dick Strawbridge! Oh no, wait, it isn’t. Similar moustache, that’s all.
Hmm. OK, so not-Strawbridge has two fire extinguishers on his back, and he tries jumping. Only, we never really see the fire extinguishers (too cruddy a build to show in close-up?), and the effect is only seen from long distance. Which is never impressive. Fire extinguishers are violent, explosive things, making lots of noise — that they’re woefully inadequate for lifting a person would have helped frame the problem, but it’s thrown away here with a duff gag. Shame.
Nice graphics explanation of the (real) jet pack. Clear, satisfying, and very concise. That sort of stuff is hard to do.
This is a great idea for a stunt, too: get a jetpack man to dunk a basketball, with the ring at 30 metres. Funny, pointless, indulgent, impressive, and the sort of thing you can only do for TV. Great stuff.
Oh. We’re back in studio for ‘Will he succeed? Place your bets!’. This is XperiMENTAL, all over again. Nice way of allowing your stunts to fail, though — always a problem with straight factual shows. Impressive stunts involve some degree of risk, but TV execs usually insist on guarantees of success. Which perversely leads to less-impressive stunts.
OK, this is the first show because of the jetpack, isn’t it? This item is the bit they consider the strongest moment of the series. Hmm… that’s interesting.
Back outdoors… repeated footage? Unusual.
! Paraglider in the background, taking off, being distracting! Gaaaah! Oh, I’d be furious, if that was me directing. Poor sods.
OK, impressive stunt, but again, we’re very distant. No long-lens cameras at all, all the shots are the same size, and the sound is unimpressive — music is up in the mix, and the live sound is way down. Bad shooting this, folks. Sorry, but you’ve three cameras on the ground: two are on the same shot from opposite sides, and the third is a huge wide. Dreadful.
Really, this needed a bit of a candid ‘What do you reckon?’ moment with the jetpack guy. ‘Gee, I don’t know. I haven’t done this before. Control is quite precise, but flying with a ball on my feet? I might not be precise enough.’ Big ask, though — done right, it raises tension and gets you close to the action. Done wrong, it’s cheesy as hell. Scrapheap did this sort of thing very well: Robert Llewelyn was excellent at catching people off-guard.
OK, so the interview is once we’re back in the studio. And they’re gabbing away about having 800 horsepower strapped to your back, and how it’s easy to make a hash of it, and … gaaaah! They’ve shown the stunt as seemingly-effortless, then made it more impressive after the event? Isn’t that backwards?
Round Four (21 minutes in). ‘The Messy Messy Mess Test’
(catapult rugby balls across gunge tank, for prizes)
Richard’s really rather good at delivering straight-up gag lines. He’s uncannily similar to Will Andrews (Scrap It!, again), which is slightly surreal from where I’m sitting.
OK, this is a straightforward gunge-based kids’ game show game.
Nice live commentary moment from Richard. Brave of them to do that.
Oh, OK, no, they’re drop-ins. Still, nicely done — very hard to pull off, quick-thinking and lots of nerve involved.
Shame that one team basically can’t get the knack of the catapults.
Prizes, etc (24 minutes in)
Not at all clear how the points up to the last game work. Odd. Is this a game show, or a science show? If it’s both, it should work as both.
Prizes are ‘we went to the Science Museum shop, and bought stuff.’ Hmm, OK. They’re also clearly showing the packaging and naming the product, which I don’t think we’d have done so brazenly on CITV. Ah, compliance rule anomalies, don’t you love them?
Blow up the losing team’s prizes (25 minutes in)
‘Bidet goes bang’. Er… what? They’re going to gratuitously blow up the prizes the losing team would have won, had they not lost? What?!
Oh OK, we don’t see the prizes going in. Faked! Or at least, nil verisimilitude. My guess is that, off-camera, the losing team got to take their prizes home anyway. Again, there are religious wars about this in production offices. I know of at least one series where what the producer mandated should happen, and what the production team actually did, were quite different. Heh.
Oh. Blow up the losing team’s not-prizes, remind us of Newton’s third law, then roll the credits. That’s… odd. I’m not convinced by the tone of the teaching point recap, and Hammond doesn’t sound certain either. Unusually off-key writing for what’s mostly been a strong show in that regard.
Huge production team. Hard to know how many were really involved, though, these days.
OK, so: what do I think?
It’s a bit of a giggle, actually. You weren’t expecting that, were you, after all my snarks above?
At least two of the three characters (Nan, Miss, Oliver) are redundant and should never have made it out of the production office; it’s sloooooow, and feels like it needs another item/round; it’s an odd mix of gunge-tank and preachy/teachy, but thankfully there isn’t too much of the latter.
One of my biggest gripes lies with the direction of the big stunt. The unique selling point of kids’ TV is the ability to convene huge/daft/impressive set-pieces, and I’m delighted to see them do this. We struggled on The Big Bang: we never really had a budget line for it, after the first couple of series, so we gradually did fewer and fewer ‘lifting presenter with helium balloons’ or ‘dropping Land-Rover out of Hercules’ stunts, and the series suffered for their absence.
It’s excellent to see this sort of thing back on children’s TV, with decent explanations rather than merely ‘gosh wow look at that.’ However, merely doing the stunts isn’t enough. You need to make the audience feel involved, to feel privileged to be part of the effort — even though their role is simply to witness. They have to be involved emotionally, not standing behind the safety line looking on. This can be done much better than in this particular show.
However, in the show overall, Hammond is good enough that he mostrly manages to paper over the cracks. Explanations are present, concise, well written, and well delivered — enough that I could take a little more, actually (though not the bizarre ‘teaching point’ Newton lecture); the stunt is conceptually spot-on; and the whole thing moves surprisingly smoothly between demo and gunge tank. Only the make&do element feels shoehorned in.
Yet, oddly, it’s that make&do element that’s lacking. The balloon-on-a-string was one of the weakest moments, was early in the show, but was the only part I could repeat at home. If the show needs another round to take up the slack, it needs it late on, and it needs it to be make&do. The knock-on effects are pretty nasty, but a structure like:
- Intro package
- Make & do / demo round 1
- Set up big stunt — pose challenge, intro guest, etc.
- Quiz round
- Make & do / demo round 2
- Pay off stunt.
- Gunge round.
- Prizes/outro package
…feels like it would have much more pace, building momentum towards the end. It also uses the quiz round as a tense mood-change mid-way through the show.
Something like this is the sort of tweak you make after the first series, when you’ve had a while to reflect. No show gets it right first time out of the gate. Heck, The Big Bang evolved constantly, and arguably only got it right right in series — count ‘em — nine. Oof.
What’s worrying, then, is that as far as I’m aware they’ve made two series back-to-back. 26 episodes. Without a break. Ow ow ow ow ow.
…which also means that this show was, by their decision, the best of the bunch. You always lead with the best. I’ll be interested to see what an average show is like. Poor shows, well, we all have those — it’s the average ones you want to watch.
And I will be watching, willingly, and not merely for snarky professional interest. I’ll be watching skeptically, right enough, but I’ll be watching.
At the very least, I’m delighted CBBC have finally put decent money behind ‘science for children’. It’s the best attempt they’ve made in almost a decade, and the only such thing nine year-olds are going to get from ‘big media.’ Is it good enough? Is Hammond the new Johnny Ball we’ve been clamoring for? On the basis of this show, I’d say not. I think they’ve made an entertaining show, but not an inspiring one, and it’s inspiring kids with factual content that’s really lacking from children’s TV.
But we’ll see.