Pop CultureOctober 10, 2016

Getting owned at spelling by the cool teens of Spellbound


The New Zealand Spelling Bee finals have made it to TVNZ 1’s Spellbound. It’s like a 3-hour long penalty shootout where you don’t want anyone to miss, writes Calum Henderson.

“Furlow. F-U-R-L-O-W.”

This is how I bow out of the finals of the 2016 New Zealand Spelling Bee. It is the third word of the first round.

Luckily I’m only spelling the words in my head, safe in the dark of the audience. Up on the stage, standing alone on a slightly-raised circular podium with bright studio lights beaming down on him, Christopher has nowhere to hide.

“May I have the definition please?” he politely asks pronouncer Owen Scott. Then “can you please use the word in a sentence?” He is 14 years old, a Year 10 student from Napier’s Taradale High School. He is somehow already taller and better dressed than me. And, it turns out, a more competent speller.

“Furlough,” he enunciates carefully. “F-U-R-L-O-U-G-H.”

There is an agonising pause as a trio of adjudicators, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the center of a large Celebrity Squares-style grid which looms over the stage, exchange a series of important-looking nods. Finally one of them hits a button and the whole thing lights up green. Christopher breathes a sigh of relief and allows himself a tiny smile before turning and walking back to his seat. He is through to the next round.

Spellbound host Toni Street (Photo TVNZ)
Spellbound host Toni Street (Photo TVNZ)

The gut-wrenching tension and drama feels similar to watching a penalty shootout in soccer. So simple, so unforgiving: get one letter wrong and you’re out. In the US the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals are broadcast live on ESPN and unfailingly provide some of the best sporting theatre of the year, even if spelling is probably not technically a sport.

The New Zealand Spelling Bee has been going since 2005. Founder Janet Lucas, one of the three adjudicators in the Celebrity Square, got the idea after seeing the documentary Spellbound, which followed several contestants through the 1999 Scripps competition.

Sponsored by the Wright Family Foundation, it is open to Year 9 and 10 students who first complete a written test before the top 200 advance to regional semifinals. The top 36 spellers from around the country then progress to the national finals.

This is the first year the finals will be broadcast on television. In a pleasing example of circularity – or maybe just lack of imagination – the show, like the documentary, is called Spellbound.

Host Toni Street suggests two main reasons why spelling makes such compelling television: “It’s the different characters,” she explains, “and the complete pressure cooker they’re under.” While the format and execution of the two competitions are quite different, these two ingredients are as evident at the New Zealand Spelling Bee as they are in its big American counterpart.

The characters in the first semifinal range from cool, half-asleep Vishva to nervous, perpetually-jiggling Peter. Luke bounds up to the podium like a Golden Retriever puppy; Amy approaches it as if entering room full of ghosts.

As each one spells out their words – juggernaut, concierge, kitsch, battalion – the room holds its breath. We’re all nodding along with each letter, waiting and hoping everything will go green.

Spellbound airs Sunday nights on TVNZ 1 at 7.30pm

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