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Hard Spell / Hard Spell Abbey

Spelling. Everyone's favourite subject from Bullseye's category board because it was the one where Bully would walk across the bottom of the screen holding a dictionary. Ah, great days. But since Bullseye's demise, spelling has become less cool. In fact it's much cooler to spell words and phrases in as few letters as possible thanks to mobile phones and laziness. Using logic therefore, we can ascertain that Bullseye was axed because of mobile phones.

Anyway. Spelling Bees are all the rage in America at the moment and this was encapsulated in surprise film megahit Spellbound. We haven't seen Spellbound, but we bet it involves posh American kids tearful under the pressure of words.

The BBC decided to tap into this rich seam of entertainment and came up with Hard Spell, a national spelling bee. And why shouldn't it work? After all, Britain's first gameshow was Spelling Bee hosted by Freddie Grisewood and according to the entry that started in 1938 and still might not have finished, we're not quite sure.

100,000 11-13 year old kids were whittled down to fifty regional heat winners, five contestants coming from one of ten regions of the UK. They got there by (yes) spelling things correctly. And not simple words either, words any self-respecting adult would be proud to know. Words like [throws darts into the word list] "connoisseur", "expostulate" and "gynaecology". Tough proper polysyllabic latinate words, and "exit".

In each of the five televised national heats the ten finalists from two regional heats battle it out for a place in the grand final.

For some reason the theme tune sounds suspiciously similar to the theme to the Nintendo game Metroid Prime. This isn't a bad thing, in fact we quite like it. It's very space age and choiry. It fits in with the set which seems to have been lifted directly from the film Tron, indeed the screens in the backdrop are made up with various combinations of futuristic code-like word and letter sequences falling on red and black backgrounds.

Eamonn Holmes (for it is he) introduces each kid and their parent. Each region finalist will battle out against each other in the first round and the top two from each region will progress to the next round. Each kid has to get up on stage and has 45 seconds to spell as many words as they can as pronounced by the frankly terrifying massive floating robotic head of newsreader Nana Houssain who appears on all the screens behind the contestant. The word must be repeated after she says it (to ensure that they've understood the word) and after the spelling (so that they know that you've finished). Each correctly spelt word is worth a point and ties are broken by the amount of mistakes. Slow and steady wins the race except you've got to be as fast as possible. Each contestant can ask for a definition of a word at any time but the clock doesn't stop for this.

This bit of the game actually is quite good fun and it can make for really impressive watching. We do have quite a few reservations though. First of all, we'd be intrigued to find out if there is any attempt to balance out the word lists that each contestant gets to ensure a fair contest or whether the words were picked at random. Secondly and we think rather more importantly, some of the words that came up don't really lend themselves to rapid comprehension which is vital in a timed round of this nature with people of this quality. It's difficult to blame Hossain for this who we think pronounces the words as clearly as possible but at the same time it seems rather overly unfair on the kid who has what seems like random phonemes thrown at him and is expected to make sense of it, the example we remember best was the kid who had "rapport" thrown at him. Not an overly tough word despite the double 'p' and the silent 't' but given without any sort of context is quite difficult to comprehend we reckon. He had to have the word repeated for him three times. Sure, he could have asked for a definition (which would have eaten up about the same amount of time) but the point we'd like to make is that surely this isn't the point of the exercise?

What we probably disagree with most though is the rather harsh way the kids (who are all a bit fragile under the pressure to succeed, and it is a lot of pressure) are eliminated. Obviously we don't mean it's a bad thing to eliminate contestants but we think that essentially naming and shaming a contestant when they've been knocked out of a qualifiying position and emphasising negative isn't the best way to go about things.

After both regions have had a go, the top two from each region battle against each other in the Spell-Off. Get the word right: stay in the game. Get it wrong: face elimination if someone else got their word correct. When there are two contestants left they face the sudden death final, whoever gets their word right when their opponent gets theirs wrong is the winner and is through to the final.

Interestingly, the first round in each of these half hour shows takes up about 23 minutes of screen time, the final eliminations tend to come thick and fast. As do the rather jarring jump cuts. Need a longer time slot, chaps? Actually we got slightly bored by the end of the timed rounds and by the end of the spell-off we were glad it coming to an end.

The show was stripped across the 7:00-7:30 time slot all week and each of the daily winners took part in the grand final in a bid to win the coveted Hard Spell trophy and the associated holiday prize and £5,000 worth of media equipment for their school. The game began with a straight ten word spelling test with the lowest scorer being eliminated. The next round was the Word Ladder, spell words against a sixty second clock. Getting a word right meant the next word would one letter longer, beginning at the bottom with six and ending at the top with a mega thirteen-letter word. Ties broken by mistakes, worst performer eliminated. Then there was a spell-off to eliminate someone else, then the final sudden death round to find the champion. Each round began with pieces of film following the kids and their lives, how they prepared, what their friends think and so on. Eliminations are handled rather better, with copious use of congratulation on getting that far although we are treated to the obligatory green room tears.

Hard Spell was... an OK idea hampered by some 'interesting' production decisions and instances that could be construed as being a bit lazy. We were rather saddened about the lack of any sort of lower-middle class hero to empathise with as all the finalists seemed terribly posh and public school but this is more to do with personal predjudice than anything else really.

More interestingly and attracting only a percentage of the attention on the CBBC Channel is a show called Hard Spell Abbey, clearly the world's first kids reality spelling show. Three boys and three girls (age 8-10 at a guess) spend the week in a mysterious abbey run by the even more mysterious Brother Brendan (played highly sillily by the ace Simon Hickson, half of the mighty Trevor and Simon off of Going Live). The kids complete various spelling based tasks over the day in order to earn an advantage in the day's final task, the Walk of Words (i.e. correctly spell words beginning with letters on a pathway to progress). Completing the Walk of Words and correctly solving the Riddle of the Ruins this gives rise to within three minutes means the kids get the keys to the party room for the night.

At the end of the week, the kids who have been working as a team take part in an elimination competition to find the week's best speller. They win a laptop for themselves and some stuff for their school. Like every other reality show, the losing kids got to see their best moments before leaving the show interspersed with highly positive comments from the other kids, host Simon Grant (off of The Saturday Show) and resident spelling teacher Jaz Ampaw-Farr.

There tended to be a lot of invention in the games used, whether it be putting on large pairs of pantaloons with letters on them to make words or stumbling round a pitch black crypt trying to find silent letters hanging from the ceiling to fill in words without waking the Silent Knight (DYSWTDT?). Despite this they weren't quite interesting enough to hold my attention for the three minute length that most of them went on for.

Much better was Hickson being silly hosting the game of Spellebrity Squares where various celebs (Dermot O' Leary, Dick 'n' Dom, Tracy Beaker, Jonathan Ross, Dermot Murnaghan et al) were challenged to spell tough words whilst bantering with the host. Impressively this all seemed to be done whilst having eight seperate pieces of film playing in such a way that it all comes together. We also liked the way that Brother Brendan got quite excited about the fact that the proper show each evening was hosted by Eamonn Holmes, in a way that few other people are.

Hard Spell Abbey manages to be educational and fun. We're baffled as to why they've kept the Metroid-esque theme tune for it though. It doesn't really fit the tone.

So, does Hard Spell make spelling compelling? Well the answer is a wishy-washy "not really". We had more fun watching Abbey than the proper version and for all it's impressive music and impressive mental talent, we felt that we couldn't be bothered really.

The ratings seemed to hold up against Emmerdale, so perhaps we'll be due a slightly better thought out version for 2005.