When you went to school, do you remember those obnoxious kids in the front row who cleaned the brushes for the teacher and shot up their hands with the right answer to every question, the kids who burst into tears at a mark under 99, grew penicillin in their home laboratories and underlined their history assignments in five different colors of ink? The Brains who played chess on Saturday nights? Teachers said they’d go far; I’ve always assumed they were murdered shortly after leaving school. Who would have believed that they would achieve fame and fortune as television personalities?
Reach For The Top, CBC’s highschool quiz show, is one of the Top Ten shows on Canadian television and one of the best quiz shows in North America. The idea is a brilliantly simple elaboration of the old spelling bee. Teams of four students from rival schools answer textbook questions fired at them by the quiz master and the first kid to press the buzzer with the right answer racks up points. The school with the most points wins. Parents are the show’s biggest fans; a child’s appearance on Reach For The Top is regarded as conclusive evidence of genius. As entertainment, Reach For The Top is slick and superb; as a test of education and intelligence, it is terrifying and destructive.
The show was invented in Vancouver in 1961, a product of the post-sputnik fear that Canadian children were intellectually softer than the Soviets. An attempt to give school intellectuals the same status and recognition as the football stars, Reach For The Top has turned them into brain jocks. “It’s a sport,” says one quiz kid veteran, “like pinball. Some people are just faster at the buzzer than others. It doesn’t take much intelligence or wit. I’d say it requires less skill than football.”
City schools take Reach For The Top very seriously. Several Winnipeg schools have mock-ups of the set complete with buzzer systems where the kids practise every day for months. They are coached by teachers who assign them specific areas to bone up on and try to anticipate the questions that will be asked on the show. Some schools work on a “farm system,” training a pool of students from which the four best are selected on the basis of right answers and quick reflexes. “It sounds like we’re training animals,” apologized one coach. “I don’t want them to seem like Pavlovian dogs.” The more fanatical schools mobilize their current events clubs to provide research for the Reach For The Top team. For many teachers and parents, victory is proof that their kids are smarter and their school is superior. One politician, whose son was going to be on, personally phoned the producer to suggest the
boy be treated gently because he was “very sensitive.”
The quiz kids are about as sensitive as meat grinders. They scratch and claw for every point, lips smacking and eyes glittering. “You use as much dirty pool as possible,” says an alumnus cheerfully. “The idea that these are polite, clean-cut kids is a bunch of garbage.” The losers swear into the microphones; producer Rudy Gijzen spent hours erasing a particularly lurid profanity from the tape of last year’s championship game. One boy was so hyper he fell off the set minutes before the game was to begin; he climbed back up and did the show with a broken wrist. “It’s an ego thing,” says one kid. “And you do it for the money.” (The students are not paid, but the regional championship team wins an encyclopedia, $1,000 and a trip to the finals. The prizes are put up by the sponsors.)
Reach For The Top presents an image of education which is maliciously antiquated. While schools are making an effort to develop creativity, imagination and individuality in children, Reach For The Top continues to ram home the
THIS MONTH’S SHOWS:
Watch: W5 (CTV — Sunday, 10 p.m.) Watch for: Wayne and Shuster Comedy Special — Feb. 18, 9 p.m.), “The Darien Gap,” Sunday at Nine (CBC—Jan. 28, 9 p.m.); Adieu Alouette — NFB series on contemporary French Canada, starting Jan. 3 (CBC — Wednesday, 10:30 p.m.). Beware: Lome Greene, Juliette, Jack Duffy — all on the comeback trail.
Heather Robertson is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster
most deadly kind of memory work and to encourage aggressiveness, egoism and snobbery; several of the stars are “idiot savants,” kids whose only intellectual skill is a capacity to memorize trivia. The show opens up rivalries between “smart” schools and “dumb” schools which are based on class distinctions. “Sure the show is biased,” says Gijzen. “Just watch who wins. It’s usually the kids from the upper middle-class areas. They’re awfully sophisticated. And they put on a better show.”
Thousands of Canadian students ancl teachers are committed to providing the CBC with a cheap and popular quiz show of very doubtful educational value. Should schools be in show biz? Reach For The Top is big business; the pressures on the kids who make it (and those who don’t) are extreme. There is a fine line between compétition and exploitation. The schools should get out of Reach For The Top; the kids, like other performers, should be hired and paid by the CBC. As a game, Reach For The Top is fun; as a symbol of intellectual excellence, it’s a dangerous fraud.
Kreskin, the magician (The Amazing World Of Kreskin — CTV, Sunday, 8:30 p.m.), is a child prodigy grown up, a strutting, fast-fingered prima donna. Kreskin’s sleight of hand, however impressive it may be to a live audience, is simply not convincing on television. Too much can be done with camera tricks. Kreskin likes to give the impression that he’s into ESP and spiritualism, but his stunts are as cheap and stagy as a church basement magician’s. Fortunately the show carries a disclaimer at the end which says that his feats are accomplished by “perfectly natural and scientific means,” whatever that means.
Lovers of The Hardy Boys will be pleased to know that the famous saga has come to TV disguised as The Beachcombers (CBC — Sunday, 7 p.m.), a Vancouver-produced serial starring Bruno Gerussi as Nick the Greek, a seaside scavenger. Fast and charming, the show is written in the breathless Holy Cow! style of Boys’ Own Annual, complete with Lone Ranger jokes and phrases like “They went thataway!” A high camp mellerdrama with stilted dialogue and wooden gestures, it’s full of improbable adventures involving wicked bandits and heroic Indians, but that’s the way things are supposed to be in the Hardy Boys’ world. The production, like the scenery, is splendid; it has a strange cheerful innocence which is never found in American shows. Much of The Beachcombers’ good humor comes from Pat John who plays the Indian boy, Jesse Jim. John has a wonderfully expressive face and a sly, relaxed manner.
It makes you wonder. Where are all the Indian kids on Reach For The Top?■
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