Words don't come easy

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Inspired by the success of the surprise hit documentary film 'Spellbound', the BBC has all this week been showing its own version of a spelling bee. In preparation for the national final on Sunday, Harvey McGavin reports from the set of 'Hard Spell'

Not so long ago, the English language was a closed book to Pierre Deschamps. When his father, Dominic, got a job in England, and the Deschamps family left France for Bolton, Lancashire, Pierre could not - in fact would not - speak a word. "He was unhappy because he was leaving his friends," Dominic recalls. "At first he didn't want to talk; he didn't open his mouth."

Six years later, Pierre is standing in the spotlight of a BBC studio, spelling out words many native speakers would find tricky.

The words - pronounced by newsreader Nina Hossain, whose face appears on a giant screen behind him - come thick and fast. "Visionary", "rivulet", "suave", "venomous", "goulash", "Judaism", "milliner", "scurrilous", "quarantine". But Pierre is unflustered. Quickly yet carefully he enunciates each letter in an accent that is part French and part Lancastrian, and with an accuracy that would put most native speakers to shame. When his 45 seconds are up, Pierre has spelled nine words correctly.

It's round one of the national heats of the new BBC game show Hard Spell, and he is in the lead.

As Pierre takes his seat alongside the four other finalists from his region, presenter Eamonn Holmes ushers another young hopeful on stage with the words "prepare to spell". If Hard Spell captures the imagination as much as Spellbound, the US documentary that inspired it, these three words could enter the pantheon of gameshow catchphrases alongside "I've started so I'll finish" and "Is that your final answer?"

The show's producer, Karen Smith, acknowledges that Spellbound was the inspiration for the series. "It made us realise that watching children compete in spelling bees could be compelling television," she says. Or, as the programme publicity puts it, "spelling just got compelling".

What made Spellbound such an engrossing film was not so much the nuts and bolts of lexicography, but its portrayal of the teenage contestants, who came from a variety of backgrounds but who were united in their ability to recall the structure of obscure words.

"We thought it was important to develop the characters of the children," says Ms Smith. "As a viewer you have to care about your favourite one."

Pierre's story - the non-native speaker beating all-comers in their own language - makes for great newspaper copy, but today he is up against nine other regional winners from north-west and south England. The producers are keen to stress that they are a cross-section of ordinary 11 to 14-year-olds and not just a bunch of boffins. So while one is a chorister, there's another who likes skateboarding. Reading is a favourite hobby and to have got this far (more than 100,000 children entered the competition) a high proportion are, as one contestant's mother described her daughter, "like a walking dictionary".

Ms Smith says that, like all good television quiz shows, you can play it at home. "As a grown-up you find yourself wanting to compete against them.

Part of you wants to beat a 12-year-old and part of you marvels at them." A part of you also wishes some of them would get out a bit more.

In the US, spelling bees have been an institution since 1925, when Frank Neuhauser became the first champion (his winning word was "gladiolus"); Spellbound tapped into this national obsession. In the UK, where word games have always been popular on television but spelling has never had a high profile, can Hard Spell draw in audiences?

"No one's done it before; we had no idea if British kids could spell," says Ms Smith. In fact, the first gameshow on British television, in 1938, was called Spelling Bee. Presenter Freddie Grisewood dressed as a schoolteacher and asked guests to spell words. One of the few happy consequences of the Second World War was that it took Spelling Bee off air, a critic later remarked.

But today, in an age when text messaging has squashed words into quirky amalgams of letters and numbers, perhaps such shows are making a stand for correct spelling. Ms Smith laughs off such suggestions. "I'm just making a television programme. It's entertainment. But it's no bad thing if people's spelling improves because of the show."

Schools were issued with a list of 3,000 words - from "aardvark" to "zoology" - that would be used in the show, most of them, if not in everyday usage, at least recognisable. The same cannot be said of the US spelling bees, which trawl technical dictionaries for ever more obscure verbal concoctions and where the approved list of the national championships contains 23,413 words.

Vivian Cook, professor of applied linguistics at Newcastle University and author of Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary (sic), which celebrates the quirks of English spelling, says one of the joys of the language is its flexibility; and as long as mistakes don't get in the way of meaning, they don't matter too much.

Spelling, he says, "is a bit like table manners; it's one of those arcane things you have to do to be a civilised person". Competitions such as Hard Spell are useful because they raise interest in spelling and give children something to compete for, but are little more than tests of memory, and "a bit of a show-off thing. It's like being able to remember all the Derby winners since 1890 or the numbers in a phone book; it's tricky, and only people with a certain kind of memory can do that."

Eamonn Holmes hopes Hard Spell can celebrate high standards. "At a time when our education system is often criticised, here is a chance to sit back in awe and see the quality of what some schools are doing," he says.

"The foundation of the English language is changing, so maybe what we're trying to do is stop the rot a bit; to create an interest in it and make this an attractive thing to do for youngsters."

The prizes up for grabs in Sunday's final - a trophy, a holiday anywhere in the world for the winner and his or her family, and thousands of pounds worth of media equipment for the winner's school - are incentive enough.

But wherever there are children competing, you'll find that annoying adjunct, the pushy parent, not far away. On the set of Hard Spell, a mum or dad sits behind each child to offer support and encouragement.

Ben, from Windsor, who wants to be a sports journalist, has just scored seven, but his dad's not happy. He says the one word Ben got wrong, "flamingo", was pronounced "flamengo" by Nina Hossain, causing him to slip up. Ben looks nonplussed but, after some discussion, his dad's complaint is upheld and he gets another chance to run through all the words, with "guttural" replacing the controversial bird. But Ben spells it "-ol" at the end and walks back to his seat dejected. Seven isn't enough to send him through to the next round and he's eliminated.

The tension is palpable as each child steps up to take a position in the centre of the set, which looks like a cross between The Matrix and The Weakest Link. It is too much for Daniel, the skateboarder from Northwich in Cheshire, who fluffs his first word, "executioner", loses concentration and ends up scoring just one point. He stands with his head in his hands as Nina Hossain reads out the correct spelling of those he got wrong. Eamonn Holmes attempts a cheerful remark but there's no consoling him. After weeks of anticipation, and travelling almost 200 miles to take part, he is eliminated after 45 seconds. Hard spell indeed.

The two children from each group of five who spelled the most words correctly in 45 seconds go through to a sudden death round - the spell-off.

As Eamonn Holmes has warned: "One wrong letter could spell disaster."

There's no time limit, so Jonny, the chorister from Winchester, has hit upon a canny tactic: asking for a definition of each word gives him extra thinking time.

Pierre mis-spells "palimony" and Siegfried, from Southsea, who seemed the most relaxed of all, slips up on "malarkey". That leaves just Jonny and Gayathri, from Ormskirk, whose favoured method of concentration is to imagine she is breathing in through her head and out through her toes.

Jonny's tactic seems to be paying off. He takes his time over "instantaneous" and sniffs out "eucalyptus", while Gayathri makes sense of "indecipherable" and pins down "gravitational". Then "grievance" is correctly aired by Gayathri. But Jonny is defeated by "musculature" and it's all over. Gayathri is through to Sunday's final. She doesn't punch the air or whoop with delight, just stands politely next to Eamonn, and smiles for the cameras.

At least the nine who were eliminated are in good company. Tony Blair once famously wished a fellow MP "good luck toomorrow" in a note, Ernest Hemingway wrote "professional" as "proffessional" and Keats made four spelling mistakes in the first 10 lines of his "Ode to Autumn". After all, as the 19th-century US president Andrew Jackson once remarked: "It is a damned poor mind indeed that can't think of at least two ways of spelling any word."

The Hard Spell final is on BBC1 on Sunday December 5 at 8pm

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