10 things I’ve learned from appearing on TV quiz shows

The Mastermind chair

This Friday one small personal life goal will be achieved, as BBC2 airs my appearance as a competitor on Mastermind.

Ever since I realised at a relatively young age that I had the ability to absorb and regurgitate a large number of (mainly) useless facts, I’ve wanted to appear and sit in the big black chair.

However, this isn’t my first appearance on a TV quiz show – oh no. 

Since my fledgling outing on Blockbusters as a callow 17-year-old, I have bothered the schedules on a number of occasions, with varying degrees of success.

But rather than – boringly – relate those appearances, I thought I’d impart a bit of wisdom about life as a TV non-entity.

1. It doesn’t pay to draw attention to yourself

Ever more shows involve a nomination element where people effectively have to ‘pick’ on someone else to eliminate them.

Fifteen to One was the original instigator, while The Weakest Link also popularised this method. 

This means, when you’re in the Green Room beforehand, it helps to suppress any extrovert tendencies as it gets you noticed for the wrong reasons.

2. Many celebrities couldn’t give a stuff about the contestants

Over the years, I’ve encountered a whole host of presenters, including John Humphrys, Sandi Toksvig, Paul Ross, Fred Dinenage, to name but a few.

Easily the most genuine of all was Bob Holness, who hosted Blockbusters and Raise the Roof. 

He was a true gentleman and gave his time to the contestants in a way that a lot of the others basically couldn’t be arsed to.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, but it probably is.

3. There’s nothing glamorous about waiting backstage for hours

If you’ve ever been involved in a TV show being made, you’ll know there’s lots of waiting around. This is no different for quiz shows.

As companies often record multiple shows in a day, you become part of a sausage factory. You’re made to sit around in an airless room with curled-up sandwiches, vending machine coffee and not much other entertainment.

Your moment of stardom often arrives without fanfare and you can be quite unprepared, meaning you basically cock the thing up.

4. You won’t get rich by taking part

OK, so there are the Judith Keppels of the world who won Millionaire, or the people who walk off with £40k at the end of Fifteen to One (I’m looking at you, Huw).

However, those people who imagine they’ll become rich are sadly doomed. 

Yes, there are the likes of Catchphrase or In It To Win It, but they are game shows and a very different animal.

They tend to go out at prime time and don’t really focus on particularly challenging questions. 

Most quiz shows offer relatively minimal prize money (a few hundred quid) and very few walk away with the major spoils.

5. You only know what you know

In the heat of the moment on a recent episode of Fifteen to One, I replied to Sandi Toksvig’s question about my chances with the sentence: “As long as the right questions come up.”

It sounded stupid, but it’s a classic quiz show conundrum – you can be the smartest person in the room, but if you’re asked the wrong question at the wrong time, you’re toast.

That’s part of the reason Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was so popular, aside from the money: producers knew that contestants were more likely to win, if they were given lifelines.

Those of us who fancy our chances may know a lot of stuff, but we all have weak areas and will look gormless when we’re asked a question that thousands of viewers are s reaming the answer to.

6. It really IS harder under the TV lights

It’s an old cliché that how you do in the living room has no bearing on your performance on TV. Unlike actors, you don’t get a second take if you get a question wrong.

I remember my first TV quiz appearance back in 1989 on Blockbusters. I was in a pair with my schoolmate Mu and we lost our first game in the best of three spectacularly and were being roundly trounced by the single player.

Fortunately, because of the way the show worked, an episode finished midway through the second game, and we had to go and change clothes.

We gave ourselves a proper talking to in the interval between recording the two episodes and came out different people, going on to win all 3 gold runs. 

We were lucky, because we had a break, but the tension of being on the set can be hard to overcome.

7. You have to forget the questions you get wrong

There’s a famous part of the 1994 movie Quiz Show, in which John Turturro’s character gets a question wrong about the Alfred Hitchcock movie Marnie and remonstrates himself for years afterwards.

Reliving things you got wrong – especially if they cost you money/a place in the final – is somewhat inevitable, but speaks to point 5. Those wrong answers can eat you up if you let them.

After my recording of Mastermind, I genuinely couldn’t remember most of the questions – even those I got wrong. You see it time and time again when someone allows a previous wrong answer to affect their entire round.

That said, I’m still annoyed that Mickey Hutton couldn’t pronounce the word ‘dolcelatte’ properly back in 1996.

8. You’ve never heard of most of the TV quiz shows that air

For every Mastermind, there’s a King Of the Castle; for each Fifteen To One, there’s an It’s Anybody’s Guess.

Quiz shows are – relatively – as cheap as chips to make. It’s one studio, a flimsy set, no money to spend on ‘talent’ except the host and you can churn out episodes at a rate of knots.

For that reason, although I’ve appeared on around 14 shows, you’ve probably heard of barely half – if that. I struggle to remember most. No Win, No Fee, anyone?

9. The crew on these shows work like Trojans and make the experience

The runners, assistant producers and other assorted staff who work on the shows amd look after contestants backstage are run ragged for the duration of the recordings. 

Often it’s a 6-week recording schedule with minimal (if any) days off in between and long, gruelling hours.

They’re unsung, and they’re wonderful without exception.

10. It is genuinely good fun

If you can forget the fact you’re competing to win a (often sub-standard) prize, it’s a bit of a giggle.

You get a paid-for day out, the chance to show off to friends and family that you’re on the telly and no-one gets hurt in the making of them.

I’d encourage anyone to have a go – you never know, you might walk away with a nice little earner.

5 thoughts on “10 things I’ve learned from appearing on TV quiz shows”

  1. Ah, Rob, just seen you on Mastermind and it brought the memories flooding back… You are dead right about Blockbusters: we were very lucky to have a break at the end of the show. I remember us saying “we didn’t come all this way to go out like this”. You are also too kind about us winning three gold runs… luckily we agreed that you should take the first one and thank goodness you did, as I messed mine up royally :)) Good to see you on the TV again!

    1. Mu! When I was writing this, it brought back so many lovely memories, for example staying up still stupid o’clock the night before we ended up recording 🙂

      And you answered more questions during the rounds, if I remember. Lovely to hear from you – hope all’s well. R 🙂

      1. Have you got it on digital copy? I would love to show the family… All OK, Rob, I see you getting off the train sometimes, I think at a station near an old famous nightclub, so, if it is you, I’ll holler next time…

  2. Aha! Cheers for the hat-tip, Rob.

    I’d also add, ‘You only need to know the answer to the one you get asked’. So on 15 to 1, I tried not to get fazed when I didn’t know the answers to the questions previous contestants in the row got asked!

  3. Watching you gurn and flap around on Blockbusters is one of the most endearing, not to say erotic, experiences of my life.

    Playing that video for everyone at your wedding, comes a close second.

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