Saturday, August 29, 2009 by Graham Kibble-White
“The games they play are very simple – but when they play them inside the Cube… everything changes.”
Phillip Schofield’s summation, there, of ITV1’s umpteenth Saturday night, tension-ratcheting game show, which debuted last week. It’s a trope returned to constantly throughout the 60-minute run-time, either by Phil, or over-wrought ‘Voice of the Cube’ Colin MacFarlane (“How many times have you thrown a ball, Nicky? But in the Cube, and for £20,000, have you got what it takes?”).
And, clearly this is an issue. The production team build a perspex cube, tell Schofield to demonise the thing, the camera pervs all over it like its high-tech porn… and then, once inside its environs, people play games with red ping pong balls.
Tonight, it’s geezer-ish personal trainer Nicky Sanford who’s first up for the challenge. He’s a game show producer’s dream: ebullient, chatty, happy to vocalise every passing thought. And he’s a proper bloke too. We know this, because, when he bounds on to set, Phillip greets him as “mate”. In fact, throughout, our host seems positively smitten with Nicky, as though he’s happy to be hanging with the tough kids. Even when the South London boy talks over his “This is one of the pivotal moments of your life” speech, Phil can’t help but roar with laughter.
“Well it looks simple, dunnit?” opines Nicky, sizing up ‘Drift’. “Just blow the ball in the bucket. You’ve got to get the amount of blow right”. There’s certainly a lot of blow billowing around this show. The cameras crank into slo-mo at pivotal points – watch Nicky smash a pain of glass with a ball – while post-production graphics of great portent descend into the playing area to update everyone on cash won and challenges to meet. I’d love to know what Phillip and his contestants are really looking at during these points. In fact, this whole layer of movie-style pep distracts. Every time ‘The Body’ materialises inside the Cube, you’re left thinking, “I wonder what was really going on in the studio at that point”.
For the 10 years this website has been online (and, let’s face it, a long time before then), TV has always been looking for soap opera in other formats. Granted, not so much sport, anymore, but reality and game shows still try and seed this element into their narrative. “So, what would £10,000 do to your life, then?” asks Phillip, cuing in a spot of dull, dewy-eyed getting-to-know-you chat with Nicky.
But, in The Cube’s favour, it doesn’t dwell long here, and instead obsesses – quite pleasingly – over stats. “It takes,” counsels Phillip, “on average 3,8 lives to do this”. This is the sort of stuff we want. The game-playing elements. The big decisions: “You have £20,000. The minute you say you’re going for it, then that’s it. £50,000 or nothing”.
Plus, you can’t deny it – Phillip Schofield knows television. A throwaway remark from Nicky that it might be easier to tackle ‘Barrier’ sans his jeans prompts Phil to declare: “I’m going to say something Nicky that I cannot believe… it’s for £50,000, if you want, you may remove your trousers”. You can imagine how Justin Lee Collins (who hosted a pilot version of this, rejected by C4) would have crucified that moment.
Tonight’s episode, of course, is all about the, now debagged, fitness instructor. When he swaggers off with his winnings, support manager Fay enters at around two-thirds of the way through the show. “I’m going to take the ice out of the Cube and get the viewers watching the tube,” she raps hopelessly. Not for long, though, Fay. With the show all but over, it’s clear you’re never going to ascend far up the cash ladder. Like last week’s second contestant, she predictably leaves with comparatively little.
So what to make of The Cube? Things look different in there, certainly. But not different enough for some basic throwing, catching or balancing games to merit the weight of the full Who Wants to be a Millionaire? production values.
“Every time someone goes in it’s a different story!” squeaks Phillip. “What would your story be?”