If I messed this one up I might just get one more chance, but it was by no means guaranteed. Chris Tarrant stood in front of the nine of us contestants who were left, poised and ready to ask the Fastest Finger first question.
It must have been about 9 o'clock in the evening at this point, and it had already been a very long day. " Who Wants to be A Millionaire " is a very big, prestigious show, and they don't skimp on the budget. It took a whole day, and most of the evening to make just the one show. In the afternoon, there had been a full rehearsal of the show. The big difference had been that Chris Tarrant's place had been taken by David Briggs, the show's producer, although Chris himself did put in an informal appearence towards the end of the proceedings. If I remember correctly we were given four goes at the fastest finger first.
If you've never watched the show, perhaps I should explain that "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is a TV quiz show, in which a contestant is given the opportunity to answer 16 questions, with the possibility of winning prize money of up to £1 million, hence the title. 10 contestants start each show, and each has to earn the right to sit in "The Chair" and attempt to answer questions for the prize money. There may also be a contestant from a previous show who is answering questions in 'the chair'. Once the Chair is vacant, then the ten contestants fight for the right to sit in the Chair. Thankfully, not physically. In front of each of you is an electronic panel with 4 big buttons, with letters A - B - C - D on them, and two small buttons, a red one and a green one. You are given a list, and then asked to put them in order, by pushing the big buttons in the right order. Then comes the tricky part. You have to push the green one after that, or your answers don't register with the computer. They drum it into you,
DON'T FORGET TO PUSH THE GREEN BUTTON !
If you think you've done it wrong, then you have to push the red instead of the green, and do it again. The contestant who enters the right answer in the fastest time gets to sit in the chair, and go for the money.
In the four goes we had in the rehearsal, I didn't win one of them, though I was second fastest once. To my right there was a huge guy with a Belfast accent and a face which only a mother could love . I couldn't help wondering whether his previous TV appearences included Crimewatch. He won twice. After the rehearsal we were all taken to the canteen for a meal, and the smug git couldn't keep the grin off his chops. I wasn't exactly suicidal at this point, but I wasn't finding it easy to keep up the conversation with my son, Mike, who was my 'audience friend' for the show. In my head I knew that when I'd been on a different TV show with a rehearsal, the outcome of the show itself had been completely different from the rehearsal. Still, this guy was very quick on easy questions. It didn't help either that there was another contestant in the canteen who we hadn't met earlier. He was the carry over contestant. Somehow in all of the excitement I had forgotten that very often a contestant comes back in the next show to finish off. This one had already answered his £32,000 question correctly. Once you've done this, then even if you answer a question wrong, you still get to take home £32,000. How long was he going to go on at the start of the show, I wondered. If he went all the way , then we might only get one chance at the fastest finger. The show was looking harder and harder all the time.
After the meal, events started to take on a greater momentum. Wardrobe brought back our show clothes, and we dressed, and then were taken to make up. Soon the audience were in, and we were led to our seats. Technical issues took up a good quarter of an hour, before Chris Tarrant was announced. Then we were off.
Now would be a good time to say that being on a television show, any show, is wierd, but being on a show which you are so familiar with from having watched it so many times is one of the strangest experiences you can imagine. For one thing, the set is so small ! When you see it on the television, you have the impression that you're only being shown a little bit of it. But that's all there is ! Honestly. Except for the ceiling. When you watch it at home you tend to think that the ceiling is just above where the picture ends. In fact it goes way on up, and there are literally hundreds of lights up there. So the combination of the set, which is so familiar to you, and then the lights which are not, is really disorientating. Then the music starts, and you gulp, and start to ask yourself whether this was really such a good idea at all. Of course, its far too late at this stage. Still, if it starts with a carry over contestant in the chair, you've at least got a bit of time to get your head together, and while it lasts you have got the best seat in the house to watch the show.
Carry Over Man answered the next question correctly. He must have been either totally oblivious, or maybe drunk, not to feel the waves of hatred emanating from the ten pairs of contestants' eyes boring into him. Still, at least he did the decent thing and bailed out on the £125,000 question. Time was on our side now. One really good, quick effort, and the chair would be mine. Tarrant announced the question :-
" Put these characters in Dad's Army into order of rank - highest first "
Yes ! - I loved Dad's Army ! He announced the names, and my fingers flew over the buttons :- -Mainwaring - Wilson - Jones - Pike ! Done it ! Oh bugger ! -
I'D FORGOTTEN TO PUSH THE GREEN BUTTON !
My hesitation , slight as it was, must have cost me about half to three quarters of a second. I looked over to the board. My name was there. In second place .
The guy who had been fastest, Barney, beat me by about half the time it had taken for me to push the green button. He was a nice fellow, who, to be honest, had looked a little bit vacant and out of his depth all day, but there we are. Good luck to him. I hoped he got a lot. Only so long as he did it quickly.
Fair play to Barney. He had a go, and seemed fairly confident racing up to £8,000. Then it happened. He had no idea of the answer to the £16,000 question. Sitting in the comfort of my chair, I knew the answer. From what he was saying, from the tone of his voice, and his body language, I could tell that he didn't. In fact, the only way he could have made it more obvious would have been to have worn a T-Shirt with the slogan - "I don't know the £16,000 question " emblazoned across his chest. But he went for it anyway. It was a little like watching a train crash from the window of a prison cell. You could see it all happening before your eyes, yet there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. Wrong answer given, and down to £1000 he went.
- Bloody hell ! - I thought - I would never take a risk like that on a question I didn't know ! - In a near catatonic state the poor man was ushered off the stage, the first able bodied man I had ever seen walking as if he had two broken legs. His audience friend was ushered down from her special seat.
Of course, really and truly this was no time for sympathy. It was the fastest finger again, and for all I knew this could be the last chance to get in the Chair on this show. Inwardly I began to pray for a slightly harder question. Cue Chris,
" Put these four famous germans in order of their birth, oldest first. . . "
YES ! Harder question. This has to be mine. The names appear and this time my fingers almost dance over the keys.
- Beethoven - Marlene Dietrich - Helmut Kohl - Boris Becker - Boom, boom, boom, boom - green button - bloody hell, that must be it .-
Time was up, and I looked up at the score board. There, flashing in confirmation, was my name. Chris announced it, and I shoved my keypad out of the way, and sprinted over to Chris before they changed their mind. That was it ! The hard part was done. Whatever happened, we were in the money !
The best laid plans . . .
At this point I'd better explain who 'we' were . We were a group of pub quizzers, mates, who had been competing with and against each other along the M4 corridor for the best part of two decades. Alan, Barry and I had first all played together in the quiz league in Port Talbot in 1988. I was the relative baby of the team. Alan and Barry had been quizzing for years before I arrived on the scene, as had George. The pair of them had known George for much longer than I had, but even I had known him for the best part of a decade by this time. Its fair to say that all of us were experienced and successful quizzers, guys who enjoyed each others' company on a Monday evening, but also competitive souls at heart. Why else would we undertake a 45 minute drive along the M4 to take part in a quiz in Newport every Monday night, and a 50 minute drive back again ? That is exactly what we were doing when the 'plan' came into being.
The Newport quiz had its attractions, chiefly the quality of the opposition. As far as we were concerned, some of the very best quizzers in South Wales were regulars, and as Alan said, " You achieve nothing and get nowhere by playing against mugs. "
This is of course bollocks. You can win an awful lot of quizzes, and win an awful lot of bottles of wine by playing against mugs. In fact, you can win a lot of awful bottles of wine by playing against mugs. However, you can't get the sense of achievement you get from competing against the best opposition, people who, lets face it, are as obsessed and competitive as you are yourself. There was also the little matter of the jackpot questions as well. The jackpot had been known to reach the dizzying sum of over £200 before being won in the past.
So, on a Monday evening, in the early spring of 2006, Barry announced the idea as we were speeding along the M4 past the Cardiff Gate turn off . Believe me , if you've ever been to Cardiff Gate you will appreciate just what a turn off it is.
"They reckon, " he announced, without ever explaining who 'they' were, " that if you spend about £200 on phone calls, or playing "Who Wants to be a Millionaire " online, that you're almost guaranteed to get phoned back . " We waited for the punchline.
"Well, " he continued , " I'd be willing to put a ton in the kitty, if you boys would as well. " Alan played his hand almost immediately, agreeing . George , too , after some moments of thought, agreed that he too would be willing to put the money in, as long as he got to make the calls, and to go on the show.
That left me, outnumbered three to one. Now, you must remember that these were my friends. In the quiz world we'd been through thick and thin together, triumphant victories, and ignominious failures. We'd seen the very worst depths of despair that a quiz can drive you to, and still managed to emerge smiling from the other side.
On the other hand a ton is a lot of money.
"Sorry boys, " I said, after concluding that there was no way of breaking it gently to them. "I haven't got it. You're going to have to count me out. Still, if you want me as a phone a friend, I'll do it for you gladly, no charge. " Alan and Barry took the news in silence, not knowing best how to reply to my desertion of the cause.
" Its alright , " replied Oblivious George " I don't need you. I've got Kevin Ashman and Daphne Fowler's phone numbers. "
It may have been my imagination, but I could have sworn that I saw a look pass between Alan and Barry, full of meaning, yet imperceptible to anyone who didn't know them both well. Whatever the case, they didn't broach the subject until George was dropped off after the quiz, and we were starting the last part of the journey home.
" I won't beat about the bush. " began Barry. " You know that I bow to no one in my admiration of George as a quizzer. He knows stuff nobody else in that quiz has ever even heard of. No. He's a bloody good quizzer is George. " Far from beating about the bush, he seemed to be determined to give it six of the best.
" He's potentially good enough to get the best part of a million pounds is George, and I'm not saying anything to the contrary. Especially if he's got that pair as two of his phone-a -friends. "
The bush, by this time, was thoroughly cowed into submission.
" I've no doubt that George is one of the best quizzers in South Wales. He's miles better than lots of people who've done well on that show. "
Then , just when the bush was taking a standing eight count, he cut to the chase,
" Thing is. . . he's too bloody slow. "
Alan picked up the conversational baton.
"He'll never get through the fastest finger. "
Suddenly the conversation became a quickfire double act.
"He goes to pieces under pressure. "
"Never win anything because he won't be good enough on the fastest finger. "
There was a long pause.
"Now you. . . "
" Different kettle of fish. . . "
" Can take the pressure. . . "
"You don't know as much as George. . . but . . . "
" Thing is Dave. . . you're quick. You'll be able to do fastest finger, and George won't. Simple as that. We want you on the team. "
" We want you to be the team. "
They wanted me on the team ! They wanted me to go on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire " They wanted me to win some cash for us all. They wanted me to pay £100. . . hang on !
"I'd love to guys. Honestly I would. But its the money. I just can't afford to gamble £100 on getting onto the show. "
Alan and Barry looked at each other again.
"We've already thought about that. " he grinned. " Listen . . . "
This was the plan they came up with. I would be drafted onto the team. I would not, however , be expected to put £100 in the kitty to start with. This had been my original objection to joining the team. Instead, we would play with the £300 that George, Barry and Alan had put in. Then, whatever was won, this would be paid back first out of that money, and then whatever was left divided in equal shares between the four of us. This sounded like a handsome gesture, and it really was. The boys were taking all the financial risk, and whatever happened I could not lose any money at all. This had a huge appeal to me. However, it was a hell of a lot of pressure. First of all there was no actual guarantee that I would even get onto the show in the first place. Then accepting that I actually got to the show, there was the problem of getting through the fastest finger.
The one thing I didn't worry about was being able to answer enough questions correctly to make a sizable chunk of money to take back. Playing along at home I had rarely , if ever, failed to answer a £32,000 question correctly. That wouldn't be too bad. Near enough £8,000 each. Maybe some more too. OK, it was putting a lot on my shoulders, but if the boys thought that I was the best chance of taking some money from the show, then did I have the right to refuse ?
So I didn't. Refuse that is. However, in a compromise, it was decided that I would put Alan and Barry's money into playing online, and George would put his own money into phonecalls on his own behalf, so we'd have a two pronged attack. If one of us failed, then the other would have a chance. In one manic evening I played 200 times , of which I think I had 2 wrong. 198 chances for the same show.
From then on events took on a manic tempo. I was called by the production team a few days later, and told that I was one of a hundred people they had phoned back with a chance of going on the show. The guy on the other end of the phone said that he was going to ask me a question, which I had 30 seconds to answer. If I was one of the closest, then they would ring me back within three days. If not, then I just would not hear from them. The question was something like this : -
In the year 2004, how many overseas students were there in the University of New South Wales in Australia ?
No pressure there then ! A pure guess was the order of the day. I reckoned that it could be anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000, so I guessed 7,500.The guy on the other end of the phone double checked my answer with me, but gave nothing away. Then once again he explained that if I was on the show they would ring me in three days, but if I wasn't then I wouldn't be hearing from them again.
This led to three days of living like a recluse. I didn't take one step out of the door, and hardly a step away from the phone either for three days. I screamed at the kids if they so much as looked at the phone . Friends of my wife, or the girls, got an incredibly frosty welcome if they rang, and as for cold callers, I even stopped doing the little routine which I've worked out to get rid of them, contenting myself with shouting " Go away !" very loudly as soon as they had announced their purpose.
The call came on Sunday afternoon. I was in. Department of Utter Joy. Arrangements were made for transport, accommodation, and all of the nitty gritty things which needed to be sorted out before the show. I phoned Barry and Alan, and Barry, it turned out, had news for me as well. George had been rung back too, and it turned out that he had got onto another show, a couple of days before mine. A hasty council of war was arranged. That evening we met in the Dynevor, a pub with a halfway decent Sunday Quiz which we had won on occasion. There we thrashed the other teams, and then we thrashed out who exactly were going to be the 5 phone-a-friends for both of us, and decided on tactics. Without going quite as far as writing them down, these were the iron cast rules we came up with.
1) We'd both do our best. If we didn't get through the fastest finger, and came home with no money, then there'd be no regrets and no recriminations.
2) If we did get in the Chair, then no bailing out on a question until all three lifelines had been used up.
3) If all lifelines were used up, and we didn't know the answer, then NO GUESSING. Take the money, not risks.
Good advice really.
Now, 120 hours later, Chris Tarrant had his arm around my shoulder, and he was leading me into the chair. My head was somewhere about 5 miles above my body. All that was going through my head was
- Wow ! This is amazing ! Its really happening -
and other thoughts to that effect. It was just the most wonderful feeling you can imagine. You see, all of my thoughts and fears and anxieties about coming on the show had been about getting through the fastest finger. The boys had put so much money into getting me on there, and however nice they were about it, if I came away with nothing to show from it, then I wouldn't be able to stand the guilt. As it was George had failed three times himself on fastest finger, and had a lovely time on the show, but come away empty handed. For this reason, once I had made it into the chair, that was it. I was already mentally counting out the money.
He's a nice guy, is Chris Tarrant. You genuinely feel that he wants you to do well, and walk away with a big cheque, which is not something you can say about all quiz masters. So the show was great fun, and the money began to climb - £100 - £200 - £400 . Soon I was into the thousands. Then, on the £8,000 question, I made a decision which would come back to bite me. I pretty much knew the answer to the question. It escapes me now exactly what the question was, but I knew the answer. However, at that moment, the Doubt Demon decided to put in an appearence.
I'll tell you about the Doubt Demon. When you are appearing in a television quiz programme, the Doubt Demon is never very far away. In the manner of the little Tom Devil which used to pop up on Tom the Cat's shoulder in some of the Tom and Jerry cartoons, the Doubt Demon can appear on your shoulder at any time. You can't see him, but he starts to whisper in your ear. Tarrant asks the question, and you're sure you know the answer, but then the Doubt Demon pops up onto your shoulder, and he whispers,
" Are you sure ? "
Of course you are sure, only . . .
"Are you sure ? "
he whispers again, and you are still fairly sure that you have the right answer, but . . .
" You're not sure , are you ? "
he whispers with an audible smirk, and his job is done. You are now not sure, not sure at all, so you tell Chris that you will use your 50/50, one of the two really effective lifelines which you have to use. The computer takes 2 answers away, leaving one obviously wrong answer, and the one you thought all along had to be the right one. So it is. No harm done. Except that you have now lost your 50/50, and you still have a very long way to go. You've not got £32,000 yet. You can't afford to gamble.
I smashed the £16,000 question out of the park. One more question . One more , and whatever happened we'd all get £8,000 . Come on Chris. Tell us the question.
" Right then. For £32,000, in which country was film director Milos Forman born ? "
Milos Forman ? I love his films ! Amadeus ! One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest ! Where's he from . . . Hungary.
Chris gives me the options.
" Is it - France. . . Italy. . . Czechoslovakia . . . Hungary ? "
The Doubt Demon whispers,
" Are you Sure ? " , and in my head I shout back,
" Yes ! I'm bloody sure ! Its Hungary !"
" Are you sure ? " he whispers again, and I think for a minute. This is the £32,000 question. I'm sure that I have the right answer. But would it hurt just to double check ? Phone-A-Friend time. I thought about who to ask, Trouble was, I reckoned that any of my phone a friends might well know this answer. So I said Rob. Rob would know, I felt.
He didn't, but to be fair to him he was honest enough to say that he didn't know, and not to lead me up the garden path. Oh well, without any great faith, I decided to Ask the Audience.
They didn't bloody know either.
Half of them plumped for Czechoslovakia, and half of them for Hungary. I was still pretty sure. It was Hungary, I'd thought it all along, even before he revealed the options. And if this was right, then we were guaranteed at least £8,000. I was a good quizzer, wasn't I ? What I knew, I knew.
" Final answer Chris, " I announced, " Hungary. "
The look on his face told me. He knew. Pretty soon, the audience knew, and worst of all, I knew, that I had thrown away £15,000 .
" Dave, " Chris confirmed, " its the wrong answer. You've just lost £15,000. I'm so sorry. "
Not as sorry as me, mate.
I was, well, dazed and shocked is probably the best way of explaining it. The boys were amazing. Really were. They had said no recriminations, and they meant it too. Lord knows, there was little enough consolation in it, but at least I had made all of their money back, and George's, with a couple of hundred pounds each on top, for I still got to take £1000 away. Nobody was harder on me than I was myself. I'd lost many many quizzes before. I'd lost on television before. But this was something of a whole different magnitude. I had not only lost, I had let down my best quiz mates. They had put their faith and trust in me to earn a sizeable chunk of cash - which I had done, and not to throw it all away, which I had done.
One thing you learn, when you appear on a TV quiz, is that everyone you ever have met, or ever will meet, knew the correct answer to the questions which you got wrong, and they will make a point of telling you this , not rudely, but more in a sort of, 'I'm doing you a favour and furthering your education ' kind of way. Bless 'em. Gradually you come to accept what has happened, and learn to come to terms with it. Its not all about the money. But what really got to me, was that I had done so well in getting through the fastest finger, had come away with my biggest ever prize in quizzing, and yet to everyone who watched it, it was my biggest failure on TV. That made 4 TV quizzes I had appeared on, and I hadn't won any of them. It wasn't like as if I could go on 'Millionaire' again. This was becoming a very bad habit. There was only one way I could see that I could ever prove to . . . well, to myself, that I wasn't just a useless choker and an also ran.