Come and have a Go . . . was a BBC quiz show which was one of these quizzes they tend to use as the bread either side of the National Lottery show sandwich. Its little remembered now, but it wasn't actually a bad idea as far as quiz shows go. In the studio 4 teams would battle it out on a set of multiple choice questions. The team with the highest score would go through, and then the next three would battle it out to identify a mystery face. The team that won in the studio would go on to battle it out with the highest scoring team at home. At home ? Yes, you see the big gimmick of the show was that you could play along interactively. The team that won at home would be invited to play in the studio next week.
In 1998, the ITV show " Who Wants To Be A Millionaire " erupted onto our screens, and changed the world of TV quizzing, probably forever. It wasn't the first big quiz on TV. It wasn't even the first TV show to offer a £1million first prize, although the Chris Evans show that beat them to it had just been a one-off special. "Millionaire" had the right mix of winning ingredients to be just huge, if it was handled well. The team who made the show were very clever, as were the schedulers of the ITV network. They could see that this show was very different from anything else on TV at that time, and it had the potential to become event TV, and so for the first couple of series they put it on consecutive nights. The effortless ease and blokey charm of Chris Tarrant, the high production values on the show, and the even higher prize money on offer all combined to make it an absolute smash hit. And there's one thing you can guarantee about television nowadays. Competition for a share of the viewing audience is so fierce, that when someone has a hit, someone else is going to try to repeat the format, and replicate the success.
Many quiz shows have come and gone in the wake of WWTBAM, and few have even come close to achieving a fraction of its success. ITV themselves came up with The Vault, which , if I remember correctly, offered up to a quarter of a million pounds. It limped on for a couple of series, but when it was transferred from prime time Saturday night to midweek the writing was on the wall. The BBC themselves were not blasé to the success of the show either. Their most successful creation since WWTBAM first appeared is The Weakest Link, which uses similar production values, but sensibly has limited prize money. However even this show has only really managed to establish its audience in the tea time slot. A version with bigger prize money and a studio audience failed to deliver a mass audience.
Understandably, the BBC seemed to decide that the best time to air a big quiz would be when people are at their greediest , and so several different quiz shows have been slotted around the National Lottery. One of these was "Come and Have A Go if You Think You're Smart Enough ". The premise of the show was that four teams would battle it out in the studio, answering multiple choice general knowledge questions on keypads. The unique selling point of the show is that teams could register to play along online at home . In the second half of the show, one of the successful teams playing at home would get to play head to head against the team in the studio. Next week, the winners of this final would be in the studio again. Also, three other successful teams would be selected to come and take part in the studio quiz.
It sounds complicated , and it was. Also, for all of the hype and ballyhoo, the prize of about £30,000 was not actually that big by Millionaire standards. BBC are justifiably reluctant to hand out a fortune when the vast majority of its income is from the license fee. Still, we all have to start somewhere. For me, it began with a phonecall from my quiz friend, Alan. He told me that he'd just been speaking to an old acquaintance , called Jim. Years back Jim had known Alan as the best quizzer in town. His daughter, Lillian, had played along at home with "Come and Have A Go. . . " , and had been successful enough to be invited to take a team to the studio. So now all she actually needed was a team. Jim had remembered Alan. So with Jim, Alan, Lillian, and her mother, also called Lillian, they had a team of 4. All they needed was a reserve. Jim asked Alan , did he know any other good quizzers.
" Hello ? "
"Hello Dave, how are you ? Its Alan. Listen, I need to know if its alright to give your phone number to a man called Jim. . . No you've never met him before. Television quiz . . . £30,000. "
Alan explained everything. Then I put the phone down just in time to speak to Jim, who explained everything again. Then I put the phone down just in time to have my first ever conversation with a TV researcher. She explained, and explained, and explained everything. Perhaps she went on so much because I wasn't really listening to her. All that was going through my head, over and over , was the thought that I was going to be on telly.
In order to accommodate the interactive element of the show, it had to go out totally live on the Saturday evening, and so this meant us traveling together to London on the Friday evening. There was good news on the train. Alan had been working on Jim and the family behind the scenes, and as a result I was upgraded from traveling reserve to full team member, with mother Lillian graciously stepping aside . Alan I had no worries about. I threw out a few questions on the train, and Lillian, who had actually won the Weakest Link , seemed very sound on popular entertainment. This was a good thing, I thought. The couple of times that I had actually watched the show I had been struck by the number of crowd pleasing TV film and pop music questions were asked, and with Lillian that gave us a little bit of extra insurance.
What do you expect if you're ever in the position to make your first appearence on telly ? If anything, I would say that Come and Have A Go gave me a false expectation of the level of hospitality you would receive. We were met at Paddington Station in London by two chauffeur driven limousines, which whisked us away to the poshest hotel I have ever stayed in. That isn't saying that much, I admit,but the place was really impressive, just round the corner from the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington. Admittedly , the BBC did blot their copy book a little by only allocating us £5 each for an evening meal. A cursory glance revealed that this would buy each of us one third of a toasted sandwich in the hotel restaurant. Or it would have done if the restaurant hadn't stopped serving at the ungodly hour of 10 pm. Still , at least we didn't have much more than short walk from the hotel to McDonalds, where we could be refreshed and sustained by the seductive delights of a Happy Meal. To be truthful, a " Too tired to walk any further down the road and a bit cheesed off meal" would have been a little closer to the mark, although they'd have needed bigger bags to get the whole of the name on. Eventually we walked back, then retired to our rooms, each of us wondering what the next day would bring.
In my case, what it brought was the most expensive breakfast I have ever eaten, but since the license payer was picking up the tab this was not a cause of great concern to me. The cars were due at the hotel to pick us up and take us to Television Centre in Shepherds Bush at midday, so I had plenty enough time to go for a run in Kensington Gardens. Sorry, that's a typing error. I meant I had plenty of time to go for a bun in Kensington Gardens. I did take a copy of "The A to Z of Everything " with me for some last minute revision. This didn't mean that I actually opened it, though. Whenever I prepared for a quiz I tended to use the same revision technique which had served me so well during my A Levels, ie, keeping the closed book by my side, and hoping that its contents would seep into my brain through osmosis while I did something more interesting. It was with some regret that I finally abandoned this tried and trusted method for my resits. But then that hadn't been on television, and no one was offering me £30,000 if I passed.
When we arrived in TV Centre as we were waiting for Nisha, our production assistant , to take us inside, we saw Mark Lawrenson, Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen sitting in the courtyard. We resisted the temptation to wave at them, ask for autographs, or generally behave like the star struck idiots that we were, but I am afraid to say that one of our group made a complete fool of himself by making a scene until Nisha let him into the Blue Peter Garden. I did apologise to her for my behaviour afterwards.
I'm sorry to say that this was not the first time that I'd had to apologise in TV centre. As a student I had gained some much needed cash by working in the holidays for a temp agency in Ealing Broadway. Most of the time they would send me off to the various BBC establishments dotted throughout west London, including the TV centre. The kitchens in TV centre are quite simply the biggest I ever worked in. They occupy space on three seperate floors. When I arrived I was given over to the care of one of the permanent kitchen porters, Zephaniah by name, or Zeph for short, as indeed he was, coming up barely to my shoulder. He tutted disapprovingly at the sight of my ancient trainers, and my shoulder length hair, and I could almost see the words
" Great . . . another bleeding student " passing behind his eyes, like one of those scrolling message boards you get in Hospital waiting rooms which tell you that a doctor will be ready to see you some time in the next fortnight.
Zeph began by taking great pains to give me in depth training on the use of the lift.
" You press this button with the number 1 . . . " he paused for a second to build the dramatic tension, " if you want to go up. "
He waited to see if there were any questions. None were forthcoming so he continued.
" You press this button with the letter B - which is for the basement " again, the pause,
" if you want to go down. Then this button here - " he pointed to the middle button, engraved with the letter G , " - is for the ground floor, which is this floor. If you press this button you're gonna stay here, so don't press it. Its a bloody waste of time. Now, come with me, because you're going to be working on this floor anyway. "
Zeph led me through a door into a room, in the centre of which was what I could only describe as a huge metal green monster. This was the industrial dish washer. Leading out of it was a conveyor belt. Plates were piled onto it at the other end of the belt, in another room, and they passed through the washer on the belt, emerging glistening and pristine on the other side. Zeph kindly explained that it was my job to grab the plates as they emerged, and stack them onto metal trolleys, which would be periodically removed by another porter.
The speed of the belt would not , frankly, have impressed anyone, except, perhaps a tortoise whose other car was a Reliant Robin. So I was quite confident of my ability to keep up with the plates as they emerged through the maw of the dishwasher. And indeed, I might well have been able to do so had it not been for one thing that I had overlooked.
The fact is that I have always had fairly sensitive hands. I take no especial pride in this since its something I was gifted through the combination of my genes, and not through any hard work or dedication on my part , but the fact is that I have them, and I am pretty dexterous. I can sketch quite well, and I'm fairly practical. The downside of this is that I am a total wuss where these parts of my anatomy are concerned. Their pain threshold is virtually zero. Now, when the plates actually emerged from the dishwasher, they were hot. Excruciatingly, burningly, hot, so hot that I was afraid that my fingerprints would melt if I hung onto them for more than a nanosecond. Unable to grab the plates with my bare fingers, I looked around for something like a towel, or cloth to use to help me grab hold of them.
There was this crashing noise. No, actually, there were loads of little crashing noises. Within moments the floor was covered in little , white-hot pieces of white smashed crockery. Zeph reappeared from wherever he'd been, a smile cracking his face for the first time since we'd met. He'd clearly been enjoying the show. I noticed he was carrying a pair of gloves .Not that he needed them himself, though. He ambled over to the side of the machine , switched it off, then wordlessly handed me a broom. Once I'd swept up all the bits, he switched it on again, and proceeded to give a virtuoso display of plate picking with his bare hands.
" I guess they never taught you this in college " the sarky sod observed, before handing me the gloves. It turned out to be a long day.
So did the day of the show. Nisha took us to the dressing room that had been set aside specially for our use, and she began to brief us on the programme.
"Well, " she began , " the story of last week's programme was that we had a team of professional quizzers from Swindon, who were the baddies, and it was all about whether the other teams could beat them. "
Hang on a minute - I thought - what did she mean 'the story' of the programme ? I asked her to elucidate, and she explained,
" Every show we do, we need to have a story, you know, like. . . an angle which we think will appeal to the audience watching at home, you know, something which will heighten the drama ."
Heighten the drama ? I thought we were supposed to be appearing in a quiz show, not a soap opera . Lillian asked Nisha what the story was for the current show. Nisha didn't bat an eyelid as she replied,
" Plucky working class welsh underdogs try to beat the odds and take on last week's winners, and teams of smug middle class professionals from the Midlands and London. "
Alan asked why we were the underdogs.
" You scored 26 last week. All the other teams on tonight's show scored over 30. Obviously we'd like you to win, because that would be a better story. . . " at which she flashed us a smile that managed to be quite dazzling and totally insincere at the same time, " but the odds are against it, aren't they ?" I can't think why, but none of us were all that upset when Nisha had to leave us for half an hour to go to a production meeting.
When she returned the day began to pick up in pace. We had obligatory meetings with the wardrobe people to check our outfits. Alan had wanted to wear a shirt with red lines and small blue checks, but was told that this would have the effect of making the camera strobe. So wardrobe offered him one of their shirts. This one had small blue checks and red lines, and from a distance of more than two yards was virtually indistinguishable from the one he wanted to wear in the first place. That's the magic of television for you. Then we were taken to makeup, and had our hair sorted, which took longer for some of us than others. At last we were led into the studio for the dress rehearsal. If a quiz or game show has the luxury of a dress rehearsal its a sure fire sign that its a prestigious show, because a full dress rehearsal takes time, and in television time and money are so closely related as to make no practical difference between them. Once in the studio we were given vital instructions, most of which were all about how to walk. They must have been good instructions, since amazingly all four of us managed to negotiate the tricky 5 yards from the wings to our places on set without falling over. At last we got our first view of the opposition.
To be absolutely honest I don't remember much about two of the teams. The only one I really remember at all was the previous week's winners, from Hull. They were an oddly mismatched bunch, as I recall. Two callow youths, an older man, and a woman in her 40s with dark hair and an air about her that could have frozen flames at a distance of half a mile. Bearing in mind the fact that they had already won £30,000 at home the previous week they were not exactly a barrel of laughs. Not that we had much time to exchange pleasantries, since the host , Nicky Campbell was on set, and we were ready to go. To pay credit where it is due, Nicky Campbell is a gifted broadcaster with a proven track record on TV and on the radio, and he did work hard to put us at our ease. I can't help wondering what he thought about the show, and what he said when he heard that the second series was going to be presented by Julian Clary instead. Judging by some of the ripe language he used in the dress rehearsal I can guess. Or maybe he was offered the chance to present the second series and declined it. Sensible man , really, if he did.
The rehearsal went well. The questions were mainly entertainment based, with a smattering of others, and almost all of them were recent, about events or people either in the news, or in the news within the last couple of years. When two or more teams were tied, then the method of deciding was to gradually reveal the face of a celebrity. First team to buzz with the correct answer would go through. It turned out that Lillian was brilliant at this . At one stage it almost seemed like she was buzzing in before any of the face had been revealed, she was that quick. As a result, we won the rehearsal. We had all acquitted ourselves quite well, and the defending champions, from Hull, had come last, and shown neither form nor knowledge. Nisha may have been right that we'd scored less points last week than the other teams, but what she didn't know was that Lillian had played that quiz on her own. I'd never even met half of the team when the previous week's show had been transmitted !
Until you're put on the spot, you can't really know how you're going to react. Appearing on television affects different people in different ways, but it can be a very disconcerting experience. I think it probably helped that I'd only seen the show once before. When you go onto a show which you've watched many times, you get a strange sense of dislocation when you go into the studio. You see, parts of the set are so familiar to you, but your sense of proportion is put completely off balance. Everything looks so small. . . apart from the ceiling. When you watch a show at home you think the ceiling is just above the top of the screen. In fact, the ceiling of a TV studio is always much much higher than you think it is, and it has hundreds of lights hanging from it. The set walls just end and then there's nothing between them and the lights, suspended metres above them. The whole thing looks unfinished.
As I say , I found this aspect of the show a little disconcerting. However I can also say that the fact that there might be as many as several million people watching at home didn't affect me. I think it probably helped that this was a quiz, and when I play in a quiz, once the first few questions have been asked the adrenaline starts to flow and I get a sort of tunnel vision, where nothing else but answering the questions matters.
Not that I did a huge amount of that during this show. I had a couple of answers, but by and large it was Lillian who was hammering them home for us. At the end of the first round, the champions seemed to have woken up, though, since they scored a point more than we had, and went through. We were tied with the other two teams. Cue Lillian with her incredible tie break skills, and we were through. The two remaining teams played a second tie break, and the losing team were led off the set. Round two saw us make up the point we had lost to the champions. So did the other team as well, and so, for the second round running there was a three team tie break. Lillian proved that her previous successes were no fluke, and her lightning fast reactions propelled us through to the final. The champions won an edgy second tie break, and then there was a short break, while the BBC ran a trailer for a forthcoming programme of some sort .
" We're so glad , " sniffed one of the young blokes from Hull, " you're the team we want to beat in the final. "
- Sorry ? Did you say beat ? Have you not seen we have a superwoman on our team, who will shoot you down like a dog in the tie break ? -
No, I didn't say this to the arrogant git. For one thing, actions speak louder than words. For another thing, he had actually voiced exactly the thoughts that had been going though my head. This team from Hull were tricky. They had been hopeless during the rehearsal, but they'd obviously been playing their cards close to their chests, since they had answered a lot of questions very easily. But we had Lillian. All we had to do was make sure that we answered at least as many questions correctly as they did.
Before the final began, we were moved so that we were standing at the console next to the other team. This had an unseen effect. We were all square, and there were just three questions left until the end of the round and the inevitable tiebreak. We were asked on which racecourse Frankie Dettori had ridden the winners in all seven races on the card. We knew it. There was a sharp intake of breath from the Hull team. Then, as we were pushing the right button, there was an audible gasp from the audience. According to Mum Lillian, our reserve player, who was sitting in the audience with an excellent view of both teams, one of the other team had leant over and had a good look at us as we were touching the right button, and seen which button we were pushing, and told his team, who did the same. That was our chance gone. In the next question we made a guess, and got it wrong. That point was enough to give them the win. No chance to leave them for dead in the tie break. No tie break. No prize. No nothing.
Nisha was actually rather sweet as we got back to the changing room, saying that everyone had thought we were going to do it , and they wanted us to win. But we didn't win, and there was no disguising the fact that once you lose on one of these shows you are rather surplus to requirements. I wouldn't exactly say that they gave us the bum's rush, but there was a car waiting to take us back to the hotel within seconds of us coming off set, and we were asked if we wouldn't mind changing back at the hotel. No party afterwards, or anything like that. So we took the two bottles of wine from the fridge in the dressing room, and went back to the hotel to get nicely sloshed.
As a postscript , the second half of the show where the Hull team in the studio played against the new champions at home didn't start until after the National Lottery had been drawn, so we were able to watch it back at the hotel. I could tell you that we were noble enough to put our own feelings aside, and cheer on our conquerors. But that would be an utter lie. Our schadenfreude knew no bounds as we cheered on the team playing at home to a crushing victory. Not that we let on to this when the Hull team appeared back at the hotel. We saw them in the bar, and approached them with outstretched hands and sympathetic expressions on our faces, offering our commiserations, and as one they turned their backs on us and treated us to a very impressive display of synchronised ignorance.
I wasn't as upset by the defeat as you might have thought. On the Saturday night I was sloshed anyway from the two bottles of wine that Lillian and I polished off between us. On the Sunday once the hangover had eased up a bit, I could reflect on the fact that regardless of the outcome we'd had an exciting weekend in a fabulous hotel, and it hadn't cost us a bean. No doubt about it, I had enjoyed the whole experience. So this was what appearing on the tellybox was like. I wanted more. Lots of it.