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Working on the chain gang (part 2)



The entrance to Pinewood Studios The day of the recording: August 15, 2003. As it was a Friday, Michael had taken the day off work and come to London with me so we could make a weekend of it, staying with our friends Richard and John in Muswell Hill. We stopped for a coffee in Uxbridge; as guests are not allowed to accompany you to the recording, Michael then took the tube into central London to meet Richard for lunch while I drove the few miles to Iver Heath, home of Pinewood Studios.

Pinewood from the air The quaint entrance (shown above) to the studio complex has barely changed in decades, and was startlingly familiar from behind-the-scenes documentaries about the many movies that have been made here. Once through the gates, though, you quickly re-enter the modern world. In this aerial shot, the TV production area where Weakest Link is recorded is the cluster of buildings to the lower right – dwarfed by the huge white building to the upper left, which is the famous ‘007’ stage, home of the Bond movies and many other recent blockbusters.

I arrived at about 10:30 to be greeted by members of the production team including Emil, the researcher who had been my telephone inquisitor a couple of days before (see part 1), and shown to the green room where some of the other contestants were already waiting. (Weakest Link is probably unique among television game shows in having two green rooms: the real one, where we now gathered, and the fake one that you see on screen at the start of the show. More of that later.)

I had heard rumours that, unlike Chris Tarrant on Millionaire, Anne Robinson doesn’t mingle with contestants before or after recording, and this proved to be true. However, the reasons are not to do with snobbishness or maintaining her on-screen character so much as the logistical issues involved. The team record three shows a day, each one taking up to three hours in the studio, and Anne is obviously the one person who has to be there for all of that time. Ours was the second show to be recorded that day; all the time that we were being briefed and made up, Anne was in the studio recording show number one, and after we’d finished she would still be there recording show number three. It’s a punishing schedule, and one that gave me new respect for what might appear on screen like one of the easier jobs in television.

Meet the team

Besides me, the other eight contestants on the show would be:

  • Chris Earland (24), a used car salesman from Addlestone in Surrey
  • Claire Towler (28), a public relations officer from Blackburn
  • Gail McCallum (53), a retired British Rail catering manager from Little Horwood in Buckinghamshire
  • Jennifer Kennedy (33), a management consultant from Glasgow
  • Jimmy Butler (56), a director in the family business from Otley in West Yorkshire
  • Jo Wright (36), a sales manager from Windsor
  • Peter Hartshorn (46), a police officer from Matlock in Derbyshire
  • Tim Nash (18), a student from Billericay in Essex.

Once everyone had arrived, a couple of members of the production team gave us a runthrough of the day’s schedule and ensured we were all aware of the finer points of the rules (like the fact that, if the £1000 target is reached before the end of a round, it is not automatically banked – Anne will keep asking questions until someone banks the money or the time runs out). We were also briefed on the standard style for introducing ourselves at the start of the show: you must not say "Hello" or "Hi", but simply give your first name, your age, where you come from and your occupation – they suggest you think of the acronym NATO (Name, Age, Town, Occupation) to help you remember the sequence. We had a few practice runs at doing this; several people instinctively began speaking with "Hi, I’m..." at which point they would be shouted down with a firm "NO!!!" and we would have to start again. All this familiarisation takes place before going into the studio; the back to back schedule described above means that (unlike Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) there is no opportunity for a leisurely studio rehearsal prior to recording.

After a while we stopped for a break. Drinks and sandwiches were available, and a few people went outside the building for a smoke. I must admit that at this point I began to feel a little paranoid. It’s often apparent when watching the show that some contestants have formed alliances. So far, there had not really been much opportunity for small groups of contestants to talk alone; I found myself wondering if I should stay put in the green room or go outside and join the smokers in case plots were being hatched...

Smile – you’re on Candid Camera...

We changed into our outfits for the show in communal dressing rooms (one for the men, one for the women) – again a marked contrast to Millionaire where each contestant has their own private en suite room – and waited to be called into make-up one by one. As usual, for the men this was little more than a light dusting of powder to reduce shine under the studio lights; but one or two of the women returned from make-up with startling transformations. Gail, in particular, who had looked quite approachable until now, appeared to have had her hair lacquered to within an inch of its life and her mouth etched into a hard line that made her look like a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Joan Sanderson (the venerable British actress who guest-starred in an episode of Fawlty Towers as the selectively deaf Mrs Richards). Given the role Gail was to adopt as my would-be nemesis in later rounds of the game, this look suited her to a tee... but I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The fake green room Then we were led into the fake green room to shoot the familiar pre-title sequence ("Here are the nine contestants preparing for today’s show..."). In place of the baggage and detritus that fill the real green room, this one has its walls covered in neutral drapes, a few plants dotted artfully around and a coffee table with carefully placed magazines and a tray of food (which we were under strict instructions not to touch). We were also told where to sit: pity poor Chris and Jennifer, who had to try and look relaxed while perched uncomfortably on the high stools in the corner...

Chatting for the camera Weakest Link has two camera crews: the studio crew, who record the quiz itself, and a two-man mobile crew, who record the pre-show segment and the interviews after each contestant is voted off. We spent five minutes chatting amongst ourselves while the mobile crew moved around the room capturing everyone from various angles. Tim, whose hobby is archery, is here explaining some of the finer points (no pun intended) to Jo and me.

Once the pre-show was recorded, we returned to the real green room and remained on stand-by for a call to the studio. There was no set time for us to start; the first show of the day was winding to a close, and we’d be called as soon as Anne and the studio crew were ready to begin the next one. We’d been kept busy most of the morning; now, with nothing in particular to do except wait, the nerves really started to kick in. Fortunately it wasn’t too long before we were summoned to the studio. This was it...

Next: Enter Anne

This page last updated: 24 August 2009   Home | Performing | Travelling | Quizzing | Living  
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