They came with names including Noah, Anirudh, Harriet, Jai, Tej, Faith, Anika, Harpita and Harpith.
Aged between 8-13 they were vying for 26 places in TEN’s new reality show, The Great Australian Spelling Bee.
This was the Blind Auditions of spelling, a MasterChef of the L-E-X-I-C-O-N in which little kids with big dreams and backstories put it all on the line for a shot at the series title. Up for grabs are a Macquarie Dictionary, a computer, $10,000 educational goods for the winner’s school, $50,000 towards their education and a shiny trophy.
With its stirring music and families with hearts in their mouths -and even an actual shiny floor- this opening gambit was here to connect viewer with talent before heading into its series gameplay. Unless I’m mistaken it even had the same bloke who voices MasterChef there for audience reassurance.
From the mouths of babes, the show delivered some heartwarming unscripted moments.
“Spell to your limits!” declared one kid.
“It’s not just the New South Wales spelling bee. It’s the Australian spelling bee!” beamed another.
“Grant was a lot shorter than I thought,” quipped one.
And Pronouncer Chris Edmund even reminded one of Dumbledore from Harry Potter. So much for those years running WAAPA’s Drama department.
But the kids were wonderfully multicultural and B-U-O-Y-A-N-T. Like the bright-eyed ankle-biters of Junior MasterChef and The Voice Kids (also produced by Shine Australia), they were bursting with optimism. Take that you cynical cooking show competitors.
One child, Jai, was born deaf and watches TV with subtitles. Tej eats, sleeps and breathes cricket. Drew had overcome hurdles of having spelled everything backwards.
The backstories did their job. Amongst these whiz-kids were aspiring pilots, chemical engineers, N-E-U-R-O-S-C-I-E-N-T-I-S-T-S, veterinarians -and a kid who loves his rubber chicken. Reality again proves it is the most diverse of our genres because it by-passes traditional casting routes.
Grant Denyer eased us through the moments of joy and the harsh realities of competition with some encouraging words for those who didn’t make the cut.
Backstage Chrissie Swan held the hands of parents as the fate of their offspring turned on a dime. That’s all well and good, but I hope these roles are swapped as the competition develops, given two hosts is probably a little excessive. There should be no problem in sharing the gender as the driver of the show, when we’re out to set positive messages.
Some kids saw their run end with the misspelling of a single word -ouch. Others proceeded to 10 rounds and still didn’t make the cut. Double ouch.
The words were invariably tricky: zealot, ambivalent, cynicism, aplomb, carafe. Not a spell-check in sight. It seemed to be the luck of the draw as to who landed easier words, or merely lies in the eye of the beholder. This show worked hard to drive the drama to commercial-break C-L-I-F-F-H-A-N-G-E-R-S.
We were largely spared the tears from losers (how well one remembers the headlines when a kid cried on The Voice Kids). The show underlined its group spirit as competitors expressed encouragement and competition in bite-size sentences.
“On the one hand I want to help Blake, but on the other hand I want to win,” said one. Parents sighed in adoration. Producers thanked their lucky stars.
At 90 minutes this was a little on the long side and isn’t fully evident of the gameplay and constructs that will roll out across its six weeks (promos suggest more challenges and visuals are in store). But I have faith there is more up the sleeve to keep adults entertained.
On its first outing, Spelling Bee displayed enough emotive touchstones to warrant closer inspection and is infinitely more entertaining than Todd McKenney’s brief Celebrity Spelling Bee on Seven.
At least it isn’t cooking or renovating. B-O-N-U-S.
The Great Australian Spelling Bee airs 7:30pm Mondays and Tuesdays on TEN.