Monday, June 15, 2009

Challenging Anneka

Despite the hype, it seems that all that twitters is not gold. Last week researchers from Harvard Business School reported that most people who sign up to the social networking site Twitter tweet once and never again.

For those unfamiliar with the jargon, Twitter is a way of communicating with other people by sending little messages (called “tweets”) via mobile phone or internet. Theoretically it enables you to tell your friends what you’re doing at any moment, seek advice and generally stay in touch. However it turns out that 90% of all tweets are made by just 10% of the users. Which suggests that most tweets are either exchanges between twitter geeks (presumably called tweeks) or are one-way messages sent out by publicity seekers like Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross: missives to the masses.

It’s a shame, as someone suggested to me the other day that I should use Twitter to reinvent the old Challenge Anneka format. Just tweet the need, and thousands of volunteers would turn up with hammers and nails and do the job for you. If only life were so simple.

It’s exactly 20 years ago since I first produced that iconic series. “Making the impossible possible using the power of television”, I wrote in the publicity blurb for Radio Times. You may remember the concept: a charity or community gives a challenge to a blonde lady in a tight jumpsuit. Armed with just a mobile phone, a truck and a buggy, she has to complete the challenge with no money but loads of public goodwill (or so the blurb went on).

Our first task was set by the Mayor of Weymouth. The town’s most famous landmark was carved into the limestone hillside: a 300-foot tall white horse with King George III sitting on its back. However two centuries of Dorset rain had reduced it to a dull shade of grey. Our challenge was to restore it by sunset. Easy, we thought: just send out a call and hundreds of good citizens will show up with shovels.

We went first to BBC Radio Weymouth, and Anneka made an impassioned appeal. Researchers manned the phone lines, waiting for the deluge. The deluge came alright: torrential rain greeted us as we left the radio station with just seven names on the back of a BBC envelope, including the phone number of the local scout troupe. We hoped that a few more listeners were secretly putting on their wellies and overalls.

On top of Osmington Hill, we couldn’t see the horse through the driving sleet. Standing on the king’s head, you could just about make out his horse’s ears in the mist below. We decided to head for Portland to cadge some fresh limestone from the quarry; Anneka’s buggy roared out of the back of her truck, and promptly got stuck in the mud.

Two hours later the production team, 11 boy scouts and a few helpers from the local Lions Club were trying to shovel 200 tons of Portland Stone down the side of the hill. As if to taunt us, minutes before our deadline the skies cleared and a glorious sunset revealed a shiny white king sitting on a dirty brown horse – as if the animal, like us, was swimming in mud.

Our abject failure made the series a huge hit, of course: viewers assumed that every challenge was similarly vulnerable. But for every subsequent episode over the next six years we took no chances. Weeks before each “challenge” we lined up materials and workforces, helpfully donated by companies in exchange for a shot of their logo on a sweat-laden T-shirt during the show.

So, even if Twitter transforms itself into the social communications site it aims to be, I still doubt it could ever make the impossible possible. Unless, maybe, we Challenge Stephen Fry.

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