You have to feel sorry for Rylan Clark-Neal. Before his new game show Babushka has even aired its first episode, he’s faced a backlash for having the sheer gall to usurp Bradley Walsh from his 5pm throne, as well as having to deal with a barrage of abuse for the show apparently being dreadful, despite the fact that no-one’s actually seen it yet.
So with The Chase fans up in arms and Rylan making headline news for quitting Twitter over the furore, it’s now time to get down to the serious stuff (well, sort of). Is this new ITV daytime quiz show hosted by a former X Factor contestant featuring ten-foot Russian dolls any good?
Well the short answer is… yes. And certainly compared with some of the other shows ITV has tested out in the past while The Chase has been on its annual holiday.
Freeze Out, presented by Mark Durden-Smith (and for some inexplicable reason refereed by Uriah Rennie even though the show has nothing to do with football), is a prime example. Meanwhile, Andi Peter’s Ejector Seat was rightly flung out of ITV quicker than its contestants, and the less said about Pick Me!, the better.
OK, so Babushka isn’t destined to be a classic like (whisper it), The Chase – but it definitely ain’t half bad at all. It has the simplicity and jeopardy that made Deal or No Deal a success, and once you start watching, you don’t really want to look away. And not in a slowing-down-on-the-motorway-to-look-at-a-car-crash sense either. It’s genuinely compelling and entertaining.
“The rules are very simple”, begins Rylan before he garbles on about how “Sonya is now in play”, describes the ‘helps’ like Switch and Peek, and that if the pair have banked £5,000 or more by the halfway point in the game, they will automatically win the X-Ray option for the very end of the game to see into one of the remaining dolls that they might want to choose.
We know, we know. It’s starting to sound a bit like Bamboozled, but it is actually reasonably simple. We’ve done our best to explain it all here, but as with most game shows you’ll only properly get what the heck is going on after watching an episode or two.
In a nutshell (or should that be a Russian doll?), you need to open eight of the ten Babushkas. They have red hair and fixed, emotionless expressions but don’t worry – Anne Robinson hasn’t returned to the world of TV quizzes. These giant dolls aren’t the most charismatic or cute things in the world (so a little bit like Anne Robinson, then), but naming them and giving them silly little faces does give the show more personality and is a nice little touch.
Every time you pick one of these dolls to open, you have to answer a true or false question. Get it right and the contestants can open it as many times as they like, but get it wrong and they’ve lost any money they’ve banked so far.
If they open one of the big dolls and a £500 doll pops up, they have a decision to make. Do they bank that £500, or risk opening that smaller doll to see whether there’s a £1,000 doll hiding inside.
Rylan describes Babushka to us as a “beast. It’s brutal as well. I’d go so far as saying it’s this country’s most brutal game show because it can all change within one second, and it’s like the Hunger Games,” he continues. “Once you’re in, you’re in. You have to play to the end.”
He’s right – it is terribly brutal. The show is a rollercoaster of big wins and even bigger losses which can put quite a strain on the couples. In that sense, Babushka definitely has echoes of The Million Pound Drop. But like most brutal TV, that’s what makes it so compelling.
Although to be honest, Babushka is almost too tough and it seems incredibly difficult to actually win any money. Open an empty doll? You lose everything. Get one question wrong? You lose everything. Open one of the smaller dolls to discover it’s empty? No prizes for guessing this… yep, you lose everything there too.
It’s not that the calibre of the questions is too high, either. Basically, Babushka isn’t going to give Mastermind a scare. John Humphrys would probably refuse to ask whether Twirl is one of the sweets in a box of Celebrations or how many times Corrie’s Gail Platt has been married, but thankfully the questions aren’t what the show hinges on.
It’s just that when it comes to winning, Babushka does seem a bit too all or nothing. It would be better if instead of everything being whipped away, the contestants perhaps lost either half of their accumulated total, or maybe even divided the jackpot by ten – similar to how the finale of Goldenballs worked.
The catchphrase of the show is “It’s what inside that counts”, which is somewhat ironic when spoken through Rylan’s glistening veneers. But whether you’re a lover or a loather of the Big Brother’s Bit on the Side host, you can’t fail to be charmed by his self-deprecating demeanour on the programme.
With a question about sharks he quips that with his teeth he’s probably “part of the family”, and he’s the right mix of excitable and quick-witted – so often a winning combination for a popular game show host. Although he gets thoroughly stuck in and can gallop around the studio a bit, it’s definitely not enough to overpower or detract from the programme.
When we asked Rylan if he had taken any advice for hosting a game show he said: “I have to do it my way otherwise I’d feel like I’m trying to copy someone else.” There aren’t any worries about plagiarism – he is somewhat inimitable. Even if Babushka isn’t a success and the show produces barely any winners, after the final doll is opened Rylan will certainly be the real champion.