Working on the chain gang (part 1)
Following my less than stellar performance on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and my valiant effort on BrainTeaser, I finally faced up to the Queen of Mean herself when, on Friday, August 15, 2003, I made my way to Pinewood Studios to record the 579th UK episode of the global quiz show phenomenon that is the BBC’s Weakest Link.
This is the story of that day – and what led up to it.
Why Weakest Link?
In the last few years of the twentieth century, two shows redefined the concept of the general knowledge TV quiz: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Weakest Link. Having experienced what it’s like in the Millionaire studio, I was keen to follow it up with an appearance on its rival.
On the surface, there are some intriguing similarities between the two:
Behind the gloss, however, lurk some rather more fundamental differences. The million pound jackpot has been won several times on Millionaire, and winnings of £32,000, £64,000 and even £125,000 are fairly common. By contrast, not only is the maximum prize on the daytime version of Weakest Link a relatively modest £10,000, but the realities of the format mean that, in practice, the jackpot is highly unlikely ever to be achieved, or even approached. (Final prize money of £2,000-2,500 is typical.) Thus, while tension plays a major factor in both shows, on Millionaire this is generated by the high stakes, the lack of which on Weakest Link is made up for by its combative atmosphere and accelerating pace.
Another difference is that, because Millionaire contestants are drawn from a telephone selection process in which all those who participate have an equal chance of getting on the show, the first time the production team meet the contestants is when they turn up at the studio on the day of recording. Weakest Link follows the more traditional pattern, whereby prospective contestants must first submit an application form. Some applicants will be invited to attend an audition; some auditionees will be shortlisted as possible contestants; some of those on the shortlist will be placed in shows – a tortuous process that may take many months from initial application to recording date.
Having applied to be on the show in late 2002, I was invited to a regional audition in Birmingham in the spring of 2003. Along with a group of other hopefuls, I played a couple of dummy rounds of the quiz, with one of the researchers standing in for Anne Robinson and grilling us after each round as to why we’d chosen to vote off a particular person. We were then each asked to talk about ourselves for a couple of minutes to a video camera. Figuring that it makes better TV (and is more fun for Anne) when contestants stand up to her, I looked straight into camera and said, "Tell Anne Robinson I’m not scared of her – if she has a go at me, I’ll give as good as I get!"
Auditionees were also required to complete a paper-based general knowledge quiz. Pretty much every show I’ve auditioned for does this; I suspect the results are used to select contestants with similar levels of ability for each programme. For some shows, at least, there may be an advantage in playing down your ability and deliberately flunking a few questions, in the hope that you’ll be matched with players who present less of a threat. I’ve never been able to do this though; my competitive spirit takes over and it becomes a matter of pride to answer as many questions correctly as I can. In any case, for Weakest Link, the benefits of playing dumb are more dubious. You actually want your team mates on the show to be strong if you’re to stand a chance of banking a substantial amount of money.
The chosen few
Fairly shortly afterwards I received a letter telling me I’d been shortlisted. As they’d explained at the audition, this did not necessarily mean I’d be picked as a contestant. The production team have to choose a balanced selection of nine contestants for each show; to ensure that no two on any given programme have the same age, occupation, geographical location etc, they need a large pool of suitable potential contestants to work from – and it’s possible that some of those on the shortlist will never find a place in the jigsaw. However, I did eventually receive a phone call asking if I was available on August 15, followed up with a daunting information pack about the recording and what to expect on the day.
The most bizarre item of paperwork I had to return was a lengthy medical questionnaire. The production team advised complete honesty on this form since – as they somewhat ominously pointed out – appearing on Weakest Link is a potentially stressful experience and people with weak hearts or similar frailties might find it too much. Having ticked the box to say that I have high blood pressure, I got a call from a member of the production team to check what medication I was on and whether my condition was considered severe. Had I dropped dead in the studio, the producers would no doubt have been keen to demonstrate that they had taken all reasonable precautions in the event of any subsequent law suit...
The pre-show interview
Two days before I was due to travel to Pinewood, I had a phone call from one of the show’s contestant researchers. The conversation that followed proved, in retrospect, to be quite extraordinary.
The caller introduced himself as Emil and asked if we could chat for twenty minutes or so, the aim being to build up a profile of me so that Anne would have some idea of whom she was talking to (and, no doubt, to have some choice insults already prepared). He proceeded to ask me – in incredible detail – about every aspect of my life, starting with my childhood, upbringing and education, moving on through my job history, to my domestic circumstances, hobbies and interests. All of this took place at a snail’s pace while Emil laboriously typed up everything I said (on a computer system that apparently crashed every five minutes); in the end, far from the promised twenty minutes, the interview lasted nearly an hour and a half.
At the time, I was unemployed but trying to establish myself as a voice artist, and this is how I said I would declare my occupation on the programme (they don’t like contestants saying they are unemployed for some reason). Emil asked me about this in inordinate detail; when I explained that I’d recently done character voices for a computer game, he asked me to demonstrate some of these voices by reciting lines of dialogue down the phone, in what was probably the most embarrassing part of my whole Weakest Link experience.
Eventually the ordeal was over. I was left with the satisfaction of knowing exactly what Anne would know about me on the day, and with a pretty good idea of what areas she might challenge me about – or so I thought. In fact, absolutely nothing of what I’d said in the telephone conversation with Emil came up on the show at all. On the day, it was if the entire interview had simply not taken place.
But I’m getting ahead of myself...
Next: Welcome to Pinewood
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