By the time my I was in my 40th year I still had yet to make my first TV appearence. In a moment of weakness I once filled in an application for for "Bob's Full House" back in the late 80s, but never heard anything back. After my first ever experience of watching "The Weakest Link " I applied online, but again this came to nothing.
Finally, in 2002 or 2003, I got as far as my first ever audition. This was for a new team quiz called "Eggheads". At the time of writing Eggheads has found its niche, having been successfully moved from daytime to teatime, and it has a loyal , even dedicated following. I think that it was one of the first ever shows to recognise that there are quiz 'professionals' , and its novel concept was - if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Now, instead of teams coming on a show to play against each other, one team would come on each show, and spend the whole show trying, and lets be honest, failing to beat the team made up of the professionals.
The first I knew about the show was when my very best quiz friend and team mate John said that he had been asked to form a team by two casual acquaintances from his local pub, the Pheasant in Penyfai. He roped in our quiz friend Alan, and the two of them roped in me. Actually I say roped in, but persuasion was totally unneccesary. I think many people of my generation have a secret hankering to appear on the box, and here I was being seemingly handed it on a plate.
Basically the audition meant the 5 of us turning up to a hotel in Cardiff, and being shown into a conference room. To our surprise there were two other teams there waiting for us. Both of whom we knew. The quiz world in South Wales is fairly incestuous once you get to a certain level of ability, or once you start going to different quizzes more than a couple of nights a week. Actually, this filled us with confidence, since we had beaten both teams pretty much every time we played them. Before we went into the hotel, we'd had a team meeting. The only topic of discussion was - how were we going to play the audition ?
"What do you mean, how are we going to play it ? "
This was Sian, our team captain. I say team captain. Actually she was more like a recruiting sergeant, since she had approached John, and asked him to approach us.
" Do we play to our ability ? " replied John,
" Or do we play a little bit dumb, so as not to frighten them off having us one the show ? " Alan finished off John's train of thought.
" If we do play to our ability , " I added, " we'll probably thrash the other teams. Being as they say that the regular studio team is going to , and I quote, 'contain some of the finest quiz brains in Britain ' then they'll surely be looking for teams who can give them a game at least."
" Besides which, playing it dumb is a lot harder than you think . Unless you actually are. "
Unanimously we decided to play it straight. In my defence I think I should point out that the show had not been broadcast yet , in fact at the time of the audition they didn't even know for certain who the Eggheads were going to be. I'd like to think that this is some kind of excuse for being so spectacularly wrong about producers were going to be looking for.
As I recall, what happened was that we three teams played against each other in a team quiz which bore hardly any relation to the eventual format of the show as it now appears. We proved ourselves superior as a team to the opposition, and superior as individual players as well. This wasn't difficult. One of the other teams replied to the question
" What was the real christian name of Che Guevara ? " with a question of his own, " Is he the bloke from the T Shirts ? "
The other team were worse. Their star answer came when the captain was asked
" What was the name of Henry VIII's first wife ? " to which he replied, with a straight face,
" Anne of Cleavage "
Not that Anne of Cleeves , if he'd got the name right, would even have been the right answer. The ladies conducting the audition smiled at us, and assured us that we'd be hearing from them soon.
We didn't. Pretty soon it turned out that the other two teams' level of general ignorance was actually what they had been looking for all along.
Not that we realised this straightaway. The first inkling we had that we'd had an unsuccessful audition was when we saw the 'Che Guevara is the man from the T Shirts ' team appear in the first series of Eggheads. Then to add insult to injury, the 'Anne of Cleavage' team appeared on it a few days later. This provided a salutary lesson. TV companies have their own agenda, and ensuring that the best players get onto screen doesn't always have to feature very highly on this agenda. They want teams and individuals with a bit of colour or personality first and foremost. Especially in the earlier series of Eggheads, I don't think they were all that keen on having too many teams with the firepower to give the Eggheads much of a game, either.
Of course, what producers are looking for varies greatly from show to show. As a rule , though, a team or an individual that is immediately interesting, lets say because of an unusual profession, has far more appeal than one that just has ability. If you could put together a team of , lets say, taxidermists, or gynaecologists, I'm sure that you could walk onto any team quiz show you like. If you had a team comprising of taxidermists AND gynaecologists you could probably get your own series.
If At First You Don't Succeed -
Nine months down the line from my first ever TV appearence, and I still hadn't applied to appear on any other show. I'd talked a lot about it, and dined out on my highly exaggerated account of Come and Have a Go, but not actually done anything about getting onto another show, despite my constant avowals that I'd go back on the telly like a shot if I had the chance. Now bearing in mind that I'd already had several decades' proof that TV producers were unlikely to ring me up out of the blue and ask me to be on their show, you might have thought that my chances of getting back onto the box without doing anything to make it happen were strictly limited. Yet once again my quiz cred came to the rescue.
The quiz world along the M4 corridor in South Wales is an incestuous one. If you play regularly, you will know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone. And if you have any standing at all within this community of trivia, sooner or later one of these someones will try to recruit you for a team for an event, or a league, or in my case, another tilt at the Eggheads. Dai Rees had been part of the original team in the Pill Harrier's quiz on a Monday night in Newport. I hope that Dai wouldn't mind me saying this, but he was strictly an average general knowledge quizzer. However when it came to sport Dai had been a different class - a finalist in the much lamented Brain of Sport competition. He'd stopped coming to Newport regularly a year or two before, but out of the blue he rang me up and asked if I'd like to be a member of his team for an audition for Eggheads.
Perhaps I should explain that at this stage Dai probably had an unrealistic appreciation of my quiz talents. The first time I had ever been invited to make up the numbers for the quiz in Newport, I'd contributed two of the three answers that brought us the £250 rollover jackpot. Then a year or so later, with Dai as captain, I played in my first CIU national final, where I had THE NIGHT.
Let me explain about THE NIGHT . If you play in enough team quizzes, sooner or later you will have THE NIGHT. THE NIGHT is that occasion when it seems as if the question master has written the quiz with you specifically in mind. All the hardest questions seem to be about your special interests, and your team mates gaze at you with a respect that they have never felt before as you reel off a succession of seemingly impossible answers. Even your complete guesses find the back of the net. We have all had nights like this, and the better quizzer you are, and the harder you work at your quiz, the more of these you'll have, but there is no rhyme or reason as to when you'll have them, and no way of guaranteeing that you'll have one when it really matters. As it was, we didn't actually win the CIU national finals that night, since we had given away too many points in the first round, but we stormed back to come second, missing out on a tie break by a single point.
So as I say, Dai probably had an unrealistic view of my talents, which is the only explanation I can give for the fact that he invited me to take part in the quiz, and didn't invite Alan. Actually he should have invited both of us, and the fact that he didn't was a contributory factor in what actually happened to us on the show. The team actually consisted of Dai, Barry, myself, George from our Newport team, and Steve Williams, erstwhile captain of the Glanrhyd team from the old Sunday League. There was also Bob. Bob was a nice fellow, but as a quizzer he was strictly on the mediocre side of average. Just because you play in a social quiz every week, and make up the numbers in a league team on a Monday night , it doesn't have to follow that you actually know a great deal. I could play football a couple of nights a week, and maybe even blag my way into a pub team, but if I did it for 20 years it still wouldn't mean I could play as well as Maradona. In fact I doubt it would even mean that I could play as well as Madonna for that matter.
To be fair there was a rationale behind Bob's inclusion in the team for the audition. In the show Eggheads, five of you play the quiz, but there also has to be a reserve in case of any unforeseen circumstances on the day of the recording. When we met up in The Pheasant in Penyfai before the audition, it was clearly understood by the whole team that Bob was to be our reserve. However, as I felt duty bound to point out, being the only team member who'd ever auditioned for the show before, this was presuming that the producers would allow us to make the choice of who would be our reserve. And the fact was, they wouldn't. As I pointed out to the team as we drove up to Cardiff, the producers make it perfectly clear that the choice of who plays and who doesn't is theirs, and its not a matter for negotiation. So when Dai turned to me for advice, I explained to all of the team what had happened in my previous audition.
" Remember , " I said, searching for the phrase which would encapsulate all that I had learned from my previous experience,
" they're not looking for clever buggers. "
I went on to suggest that the best chance we had of getting on the show was not to show too much of our hand. It would be better to say that we were all mates who followed Bridgend RFC, and did a little Social Quizzing on the side. "Don't actually lie, " I added , " if they ask you a straight question, but don't volunteer any information about any quizzes you've played in, or things you've won. "
Actually this was an important point. On the application form that we'd all filled in we'd had to list any appearences we'd had on television or radio quizzes, but we hadn't been required to state how well we'd actually done. I'd actually watched the show quite often since the first series had been aired, and I'd been struck by the generally poor level of knowledge of the teams on the show. Granted, quiz ability is more thinly spread than you might think, but surely sooner or later you'd expect a team where all of them had a decent level of ability, and one of them was very good, to sneak through. The fact that this didn't seem to happen made me believe that the producers exercised fairly strict control over who they allowed onto the show, a suspicion which my first audition did nothing to counteract.
From the application forms there was nothing to mark us out as a team with a genuine chance. Yes, we'd appeared on several other shows between us, but then there a lot of people out there who will go apply to go on any show they can just for the sake of being on the box, appearing in countless shows while never having a realistic chance of winning any of them. As long as we didn't try too hard in the question and answer part of the audition, and as long as we didn't give too much away about ourselves, we had a chance.
It was George who cracked first. George is an incredibly good quizzer. However he does have two weaknesses. Firstly, if he doesn't know an answer, but has a guess, and someone else in the team also has a guess, George will always take his own answer, rather than his team mate, unless he is physically restrained from doing so. His second weakness is that he's as daft as brush. Its as if all of the useless quiz information he has crammed into his brain over the years has squeezed out almost all of his common sense. We had answered the questions well as we role played the game. All of us had pretended to be having to really think hard about them, and wonder of wonders, two of us had actually managed to get questions wrong. All that remained was the personal questions. As the interviewer moved down the line, we each trotted out the story we had rehearsed in the car. Dai prattled on about Bridgend rugby club. Steve told them a couple of stories about his experiences working in the hospital. I bored them rigid with my talk of genealogy and my quest to find out about my ancestors. Then she alighted on George.
The question was innocent enough.
"George - can you tell me a little about yourself, maybe about your job, or about your interests and hobbies ? "
" Yes, " began oblivious George, " My main interest is quizzes. I play in several quizzes a week, and I reached the semi finals in Mastermind in 1976. In fact I really hope that we do get onto the show, because I'd love to meet Kevin Ashman again. I came second to him in The Brain Of Britain, you know. . . "
I think the laser driven stares he was getting from the rest of us caused him to tail off like that. But the damage was already done. In the car on the way home I made the fateful prediction that we'd be invited to take part in the show. . . and George would definitely be selected by the Producers to be the reserve. And that, Gentle Reader, is exactly what happened. We received letters four days later, telling us that each of us was on the show, and George was expected to travel as the reserve.
You'll appreciate that this was something of a setback to our plans, but it did little to dampen our spirits on the journey to London. George tried to put a brave face on it, but he was gutted, and didn't take even take any comfort when I kindly reminded him that I had warned him what would happen if he went shooting his mouth off about his achievements.
This trip was very different from the one we'd made before " Come and Have A Go " . That had a very jolly, end-of-school-term-outing feel to it. This one was much more businesslike. the order of the day was serious revision, and discussion of strategy and tactics. If you've never seen the show Eggheads, the format is that four of the team select an Egghead to play an individual round against. The winner goes through to the final. So if the four challengers win their rounds, then the final consists of one Egghead against five contestants. Of course it never works out like that. More often its one poor contestant against five Eggheads. Had George been in the team, as the acknowledged best quizzer amongst us he would have been put through to the final without playing an individual round. Now that he was the reserve, I took his place as best quizzer, and therefore finalist.
The first inkling I had that this show was a whole different ball game from " Come and Have A Go " was when we arrived at Paddington, and had to get our own taxi to the hotel. Then there was the hotel, which was just around the corner from Gloucester Road tube Station. It would be unfair to describe the accomodation provided as spartan. The word spartan does imply a certain standard of order and cleanliness, albeit that the eponymous race of Ancient Greeks had a disconcerting habit of exposing sickly infants on hillsides. Come to think of it, the uncontrollable air conditioning system actually did give the room a certain resemblance to an exposed greek hillside. It was no hardship to leave the room to join the rest of the team to go in search of an evening meal. Once again, the producers had splashed out the princely sum of £5 each for our evening's sustenance.
Before we succumbed to fate, in the shape of McDonalds, we noticed a chinese restaurant which advertised a £5.50 all-you-can-eat-buffet in the basement. We descended into its stygian gloom, and found out that all-you-can-eat was actually very little indeed. It would be far more accurate to describe it as an all-you-can-stomach buffet. I have no doubt that all we could stomach came to considerably less than £5.50's worth each. Now, please don't brand me as some culinary racist. I normally love chinese food. If its got noodles, or fried rice, or bean sprouts and some kind of meat , chicken or prawns in some kind of sauce , with the obligatory MSG thrown in, them I'm up for it. The only problem was - there was nothing like this in the buffet at all. Nothing. No noodles, no beansprouts, and the only rice available was boiled, and sat in its bowl in an off white congealed mess, steadfastly refusing to separate into individual grains, or even small lumps before the invading presence of a serving spoon. We admitted defeat and repaired to the nearest pub to the hotel, and considered our options for the show again.
The favoured option we discussed was that Bob should 'pull a sickie' the next day, allowing us to play George in his place. This was put to the vote, and received five votes for, and only one against. Unfortunately the only dissenting voice was Bob's own. When he had originally been invited onto the team it had been with the express understanding that he would be the non playing reserve. However, as far as he was now concerned, the situation had changed. The producers wanted him on the show, not George, and that was good enough for Bob. He'd come a long way and he wanted to play. . . regardless of the fact that as a team George would give us an opportunity to win, and he probably wouldn't. We let the matter drop, and that was that. Or so I thought. As soon as we got back to the hotel the boys proposed repairing to the bar. I had an icipient headache, and not wanting to take part in what I figure could very easily become a late night session I went to seek solace in my arctic bedroom. Later on I was told that Barry, Dai, Steve and George had tried persuading Bob to change his mind again, but he was adamant.
There was a little excitement the following morning when we discovered that three of the Eggheads were staying in the same hotel as we were. Determined not to act like an awestruck bumpkin, or an ignorant ass a la the Hull team from Come and Have A Go, I went introduced myself to Daphne Fowler. Daphne looks a little like an identikit photo of your favourite Nan, but she's as sharp as a tack, and an unbelievably good quizzer. After confirming that it was actually Daphne Fowler, and not some nice lady having a night in London after seeing a show, I told her that we were today's opposition.
" Oh yes. Which show are you in , then ? " Silly question I thought. " Eggheads, of course. "
" No, I mean, which of the 4 shows we're filming today will you be in ? " They filmed four shows in a day ? This was news to me. So we were actually involved in sausage factory TV ! Right, that lot's beaten. Run the credits to seal it up, and get the next lot in.
Barry and Dai joined us, as did Chris Hughes and Kevin Ashman from the Eggheads team. It would have been wonderful if we had sat there, the Quiz professionals and the Quiz wannabees, swapping rib tickling quiz anecdotes, with tears of laughter running down our joyous faces, forging bonds of friendship that would last a lifetime. In reality, beyond asking us politely where we'd come from , Chris and Kevin didn't say much at all. Barry noticed that Daphne was reading something she had cut out from the Daily Express. On closer inspection it turned out to be the 10 to Tackle sports questions. These questions are set by Trevor Parry, one man quiz industry, and the question master in Newport on a Monday night. Barry told Daphne about this coincidence, and she replied,
" Really ? Well you can tell him that I do the questions every day. People always seem to pick me to go against in the Sports round. "
We all laughed a little self consciously, and I looked at Barry. Fact was that we had already decided that if Sport was on offer as a category, Barry would take on Daphne.
I did wonder if we were all going to be picked up together to be taken to TV Centre, but we weren't. The Eggheads made their own way. At 5 minutes to ten there was no sign of George , who hadn't joined us for breakfast, and we were beginning to worry. He made it, though he looked slightly disshevelled . To be fair though none of us was exactly shevelled. We all turned to Bob, but there was enough of a ' don't even think about it ' look in his eyes to persuade us that any attempt to make him change his mind at this stage would just be wasted breath.
Once in TV Centre we were met by a very nice production assistant whose name escapes me. He looked awfully young. At least Nisha in "Come and Have A Go " had looked like she was conceivably in the middle of her A Levels. This one didn't even look as if he'd reached puberty. What followed in the lead up to the show itself was very similar to what had happened in my previous show. We were reminded of the rules and format of the show, taken to wardrobe, checked out by costume, fitted with our mike, and then into the studio. The big differences were that there was no studio audience, and no dress rehearsal.
When you're doing 4 shows a day , that's a luxury you can't afford, I suppose. Dermot Murnaghan, the presenter, arrived. He'd probably been up since some ungodly hour, because he'd presented the BBC Breakfast TV show, but he looked fresh as a daisy, and was smooth and charming as he chatted shook hands and chatted to us for a couple of minutes. Then we were off. To be honest I felt that the Eggheads themselves projected a slightly world weary air as the show progressed, as if they'd seen it all before, which indeed they have. The Eggheads, for those who have never seen the show, were:-
Kevin Ashman -Daphne Fowler - Christopher Hughes - Judith Keppel - C.J. de Mooi.
Our original strategy was to try to knock out as many of the big 3 - Daphne, Kevin and Chris as we could, and if things went to plan, leave only CJ, or CJ and Judith for the final. Pie in the sky as it turned out.
Ironically the first category was Sport. Immediately Dai nominated Barry, and as planned he chose Daphne. I'm not saying that Daphne couldn't have answered any really difficult question on sport, but she didn't need to. To use a cricketing analogy she was fed three innocuous slow balls which she dispatched beyond the boundary rope with gusto. Barry , on the other hand, was given two fair questions, and then a question about American NBA basketball. He had to guess an answer which he didn't know, and he guessed wrongly. Barry was out of the final, and our strategy lay in tatters. Taking out Daphne on sport had been the foundation stone of the plan.
Playing it off the cuff, Dai now jettisoned our original strategy, as he decided that we now needed to concentrate on getting people through to the final. This meant playing either Judith or CJ. I can't remember the next category, but it may have been Geography. Dai nominated Steve, who elected to play CJ. Different category, different Egghead, but same result. CJ had three easy questions, which he answered correctly. Steve had two fair questions which he answered correctly, and one hard question which he didn't. Two nil to the Eggheads.
It was time for someone to play a captain's innings, and to his credit Dai stepped up to the plate. The category was Entertainment, and he elected to play Judith. This round provided a little incident. Judith's first question was ,
" In 2005, which group released the album "How to Dismantle a Nuclear Bomb ?" In true Egghead fashion, she began to waffle,
" Ah, yes, Dermot, well, the only reason I know the answer to this question is that I saw a poster for it on the back of a bus as I was driving to the studio this morning. Its U2"
At this point CJ piped up,
" Stop the show. Dermot, you can't ask that question. You asked it in the last show we did yesterday."
It may just have been my imagination, but Judith looked extremely sheepish, while they substituted another question. Now, gentle reader, if you have accompanied me this far into my ramblings you will know that your Dave is not a man to cast nasturtiums willy nilly. I do not say for one moment that Judith remembered the question had been asked in the previous show and was quite happy to accept the illicit windfall. . . but its a bit odd if someone billed by the show as 'one of the finest quiz brains in Britain' can't even remember a question being asked on a show she was in only the day before.
Dai rose to the challenge and gave her the thrashing she deserved. Well, he beat her on a sudden death question anyway. Now it was 2 - 1 to the Eggheads.
Cometh the man, cometh the hour. The last individual category was History, and since I was going straight through to the final round, it was down to Bob to try to even the score for us. If he could take out another of the Eggheads, then all of his intransigence of the previous evening would be forgotten. Redemption lay just three answers away. Faced with a choice between Kevin and Chris he chose the lesser of the two evils and opted to play Chris. Its fair to say that our hopes weren't high, but they managed to sink to new depths as Bob answered that he believed Brian Boru was the name of a semi mythical former king of Sweden, rather than Ireland, which was the answer that all the other members of our team, including George , would have given. 3-1 to the Eggheads, and 4 to play 2 in the final round.
As I remember, the 3 multiple choice questions were fairly standard for both sides, and we all sailed through them fairly easily. Then the first sudden death question to us was
" Which country launched its first manned space mission in 2004 "
Now I knew it had to be China. So why the hell I answered Japan I have no idea to this day. It was China. And then, - oh frabjous day - the Eggheads were given a stinking hard science question, and they were wrong. It struck me later that had I not cocked up the previous question, then we'd have won £7000 . But the trouble is that you only ever get one chance when you're playing the Eggheads. Our next sudden death question was
" In which London restaurant did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown make their alleged deal ". No idea. I looked at Dai, and he had no idea either. George knew it . Judith knew it. The other Eggheads said they didn't, but it didn't matter anyway, since they were given an easy question -
"Which newspaper began life as The Universal Daily Register ? "
and they supplied the correct answer " The Times " , keeping the boredom out of their voices only with difficulty.
Handshakes all round followed, and George had the presence of mind to get Kevin and Daphne's phone numbers, in case he ever got onto Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, so that he could use them as Phone-A-Friends. This almost brings me back to where I started the story, and so I will finish this section by saying that the aftermath of this show was far gloomier than the aftermath of Come and Have A Go. There was the same indecent haste to get us safely out of the studio, though this time there was no nice hotel to go back to , and no consoling bottles of wine to take from the dressing room. Instead, it was straight back to Paddington, and once on the train the inquest, and in a couple of cases, the drinking began.
I knew that Barry was going to take it badly. There's an old saying - show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser - Barry is a winner. He'd been on more TV shows than the rest of us in the past, as a competitor in Sportsmasters - Quiz Night, and most recently The Weakest Link. He'd got down to the last two in that, but had left with nothing. I think it was all getting him down. Barry is not someone who competed just for the joy of competition, although he undoubtedly did enjoy the competition. He was sick of having a good try, and desperately wanted to win something on TV. Anything. I knew how he felt. Also I don't think it helped the way that he lost. There's no shame in losing to Daphne Fowler, but its hard to take when there is absolutely no comparison between the level of difficulty of your questions, and the level of difficulty of your opponent's. So Barry got pissed.
George will deny that he did the same, but quite a lot of alcohol passed his lips, and not a drop passed mine on the journey, so I feel that I'm probably the more reliable witness. Now, we will never know for certain what would have happened if Bob had bowed to the pressure and pretended to be sick. Perhaps the BBC would have made a fuss, but why have traveling reserves if you can't use them when you need to ? I can't see that they would have said that either Bob played, or there wouldn't be a show. If George had played, we'd have put him through to the final. I might have played against Chris in History. Maybe I'd have lost. . . but then maybe I'd have won too. Who knows ? Certainly there was enough of a what - if about the whole thing to push George over the edge into what I recall as maudlin semi drunkenness. He may put his hand on his heart and swear that the whole thing didn't matter that much to him, but I know differently. I have seen the look he gets in his eyes whenever the name Brian Boru is mentioned.
Dai and Steve remained philosophical, and Bob, wisely didn't say a great deal. To be honest it probably wouldn't have made a great difference if he'd said
" D'you know what boys - you were right. I'm shit - sorry. " but maybe he might have made the effort. Actually , gentle reader, I'm being unfair again. I've played against Bob since in quizzes in the Pheasant in Penyfai, and he is at least average.
What about me ? you may ask. How did I take my second TV defeat ? Not very well, is the most honest answer. "Come and Have A Go " had been different. For one thing it was my first time on TV, and so everything had been that little bit more new and exciting. For another thing we'd had 2 nights in an excellent hotel, not one night in a cramped icebox. The third nagging thought was that for all that had gone before, if I'd answered the China question correctly, then we'd have been going home with the money. I believe that if you've watched a show, like Eggheads, for example, you know how it works and you still decide to go on it, then you can't moan about it afterwards. So I am grateful we got on the show. But looking back, I can't say that it was a particularly enjoyable experience. Not having a good time but winning a few quid is something you wouldn't mind putting up with. Having a bad time and losing is definitely overrated.