Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For our first edition of the feature, John Teti reviews the current slate of British game shows, once a week for the next five weeks.
One of my elementary school teachers once wrote on a year-end evaluation, “John will have a bright future, once he gets over this inane desire to become a game show host.” Reading this at the age of seven, I didn’t know exactly what “inane” meant, but I could tell it was not good, and this prompted two shocking realizations.
Realization one: Elementary school teachers can be dicks.
Realization two: There exist people who do not want to become game show hosts.
My classmates had professed their aspirations to other, impossibly dull professions. Race-car driver, astronaut, policeman, the usual. But I figured they were just settling for more achievable goals. After all, what right-minded person would want to waste their days fighting crime—instead of inviting contestants, with a ceremonious swoop of the hand, to take a look at the big board?
The 1980s were a swell time for a game-obsessed, TV-obsessed kid to grow up. Prolific producers like Mark Goodson and Bob Stewart used the daytime programming grid as their playground. Whenever a time slot opened up, some new game was there to fill the vacuum. The TV Guide listings for a typical weekday in fall 1985 had these shows on offer:
The $25,000 Pyramid
The $100,000 Pyramid
Break The Bank
The Joker’s Wild
Let’s Make A Deal
The New Newlywed Game
Press Your Luck
The Price Is Right
Sale Of The Century
Tic Tac Dough
Wheel Of Fortune
That doesn’t even include cable. But pity the American game show dorks of today, who have to make do with scraps. Sure, The Price Is Right is still around, and there are some syndicated options—like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Wheel Of Fortune, and a strange incarnation of Family Feud in which every question is somehow about penises. Once in a while, you get a treat like Million Dollar Mind Game. Yet the genre never recovered from the talk-show frenzy of the early 1990s.
There is hope, however: Hail Britannia. Thanks to the semi-underground groups that upload British game shows to the internet, the English-speaking world can get a proper game show fix. Our friends across the Atlantic never gave up on game shows like we did. That doesn’t mean that every British game is a gem. A few are pretty dire, in fact. As a whole, though, the U.K. game show industry possesses a vibrance and a sense of adventure that ours has lacked for quite a while.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing some of the most notable British games that are currently on the air. If you’d like to watch the shows yourself, it’s not that hard. A YouTube search will often turn up clips and full episodes. For a somewhat more reliable and higher-quality viewing experience, it’s said that some people try using BitTorrent to download shows. Because of that whole “legal gray area” deal, I won’t get into detail here, but if your web browser is equipped with Google, I bet you can figure it out.
Before we get to today’s featured programme, let’s look at a few themes that you’ll see through the U.K. game show universe.
The everyman. British producers are willing to put a pretty broad swath of humanity on their shows. Some of the contestants are poised and attractive, but on many shows, you’re also likely to find a shy accounts-payable type in the spotlight. The presence of a few awkward people in the mix is more appealing than the usual American approach, which is to parade an army of ultra-telegenic, sunny, sassy, “quirky” Stepford Contestants before the cameras. (Jeopardy! is a notable exception; it still takes pride in its egalitarianism.) When the player pool isn’t so overproduced, the games’ spontaneous moments come off as spontaneous, rather than made-for-YouTube bullshit that was pre-engineered by some contestant coordinator.
Look how smart! Though there are exceptions, British shows are generally smarter than ours, insofar as contestants are expected to be intelligent rather than forgiven for being dumb. The British version of Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? would be called Of Course You Are. (Edit: Turns out there IS a British version of the show, and it’s called Are You Smarter Than A Ten-Year-Old? So, yes, there are exceptions.) Hosts praise any flash of scholarliness that they might glimpse in a player, and the viewers are likewise complimented—“Well done if you got that one at home!”—for playing along.
Teams. Just as comedy duos are more common in the U.K. than in the U.S., game shows played by teams are more prevalent, too. There’s even a sub-theme here: teams of strangers. A few games force contestants to ally with people they’ve never met before. While this device can be used to sow conflict, the emphasis is more on cooperation. There’s a vague, amusing undercurrent of patriotism here, as if a random sampling of people can soldier through any challenge by virtue of their shared Britishness.
The systematic, premeditated murder of time. Okay, it’s not all roses and crumpets and Welsh corgis dancing down Penny Lane. There are some less delightful qualities to U.K. game shows, like a penchant for killing time. Hosts … slow … down … their … sentences, contestant interviews prattle on far too long, and you get a lot of “We’ll show you the answer—after this break!” business. (BBC programs don’t have breaks, but they find other ways to piss away the minutes.)
There’s a lot of British stuff. Now that I’ve written that, it looks kind of silly. It’s true, though. For whatever reason, those Brits like to talk about their own culture instead of talking about Americans all the time. Although to be fair, they do talk about us more than you’d think. The average contestant can name which U.S. state is The Golden State; would you be able to identify an English county by nickname? Hell, can you name the Golden State? (Trick question: It’s Mexico.) Anyway, a lot of the trivia is U.K.-centric, which can diminish the play-along value—that is, unless you’re well-schooled in the history of cricket championships, Hanoverian monarchs, and the shockingly complex comings and goings of British pop-music girl groups.
On to today’s show.
The Brits have their own Family Feud. They call it Family Fortunes because heavens, a “feud,” there’s no need for all that. The rules of Family Fortunes are the same as Feud, though: You win by thinking like the masses. Pointless is the opposite. This show rewards snooty obscurity.
Host Alexander Armstrong reads a question that has been polled beforehand—like “We gave 100 people 100 seconds to name words in the English language that end in D-G-E”—and then players try to come up with the least popular correct answer. Lower scores are better, and the pinnacle of achievement is to come up with a correct answer that wasn’t given by anyone in the survey, which scores zero points and is thus deemed a “pointless” answer. (Get it? Hope you like that little turn of phrase, because they work the “pointless” pun pretty hard on this show.) But if the contestants give a wrong answer (“sponge!”), they score the maximum 100 points.
This premise takes on a few different permutations over the course of an episode, but the calculus remains the same: Do you give an answer from the uncertain outer reaches of your knowledge and risk getting it wrong, or do you play it safe with a more obvious, potentially more popular response?
The game is played with four teams of two players each (usually friends or couples), with the highest-scoring team eliminated at the end of each round. In the early rounds, players can’t confer with each other. This allows us the pleasure of watching one teammate stew whenever the other one offers a particularly terrible guess. Watch contestant Eric’s sullen stare into the distance here as his girlfriend Margie, answering the aforementioned “words ending in D-G-E” question, decides that “windowledge” is definitely a word. (Bonus awkwardness: Co-host Richard Osman finds the most diplomatic way to tell Margie how very wrong she was.)
Family Feud and Pointless aren’t exactly opposites. Both shows rely on the backdrop of Joe and Jane Average, as represented by the vaunted poll of 100. The distinction is that Feud’s questions are open-ended, like “Name an occupation that wears a uniform.” Whatever the 100 people say, that’s the answer. (The crowd can even turn wrong answers into right ones, like the time “Name a president who appears on money” was a question and Benjamin Franklin made the list. Three people had said it, so it went up on the board.)
But Pointless’ questions have correct answers, so each question serves as something of a referendum on the nation’s intelligence. It’s like those surveys that pop up on cable news from time to time and proclaim, for instance, “only 10 percent of Americans could name at least one Supreme Court justice.” And of course there’s often the shame-on-you-America kicker: “…but 87 percent of Americans are able to name at least one variety of Chicken McNugget sauce.”
Pointless is more high-minded than those headline-grabbers, but there’s a similar undercurrent at work. This is a show of exceptionalism contrasted against populism. It’s a game in which players and viewers alike desire to be above average. More to the point, it’s a game that invites everyone to believe they are indeed above average.
This conflation of trivia and social status is interesting to watch, because American shows don’t typically commingle those things. We have a popular quiz show with an aspirational spirit, Jeopardy!, but while Merv Griffin’s brainchild celebrates excellence, it doesn’t do so in explicit contrast to the unwashed. Pointless does.
You can see that dynamic play out during the final elimination round of Pointless’ recent season premiere, in which Armstrong asks the contestants to name one of five facts about Nelson Mandela. The facts in question range from obvious (Mandela’s country of birth) to obscure (the name of the person with which Mandela founded a law firm in 1952). One team correctly names the prison where Mandela was held for two decades, while the other tries and fails to name the person that shared his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.
As the scores are revealed, we see where everyone stands. The first team earns 19 points for naming Robben Island Prison, implicitly placing them in the 80th percentile of British genius. The second team is shamed with the ceremonial 100 points—it’s better to be correct and banal than wrong and foolish.
Then assistant host Osman reveals the rest of the scores. The Nobel recipient is a four-point answer. “Well done if you said that at home,” Osman remarks. The number for Mandela’s birthplace is surprisingly low: Only 58 out of 100 people said South Africa. Osman scolds, “I don’t know where people think Mandela was born.” It’s telling that he directs his disapproval at those faceless dullards, the “people”—not the viewers he was praising a few seconds ago.
My favorite part of this sequence comes when the final answer, Mandela’s law partner, is revealed. It’s a one-point answer, and Osman asks Armstrong, “Do you know who it is?” Armstrong immediately replies, “Oliver Tambo.” Yet Osman doesn’t bother to commend Armstrong for this impressive display of knowledge. Instead, he turns to the camera and says, “Very, very well done if you got that at home.” With the quick-witted Armstrong acting as their proxy, every viewer is a vicarious genius.
The clip of the Mandela bit also gives you some idea of the often-frustrating pace of Pointless. Much of Armstrong’s energies are spent slowing the lazy trot of the game to a funereal walk, mostly by way of verbal casseroles like, “Let’s see if that’s correct, and if it is, let’s see how many of our 100 people said it.” Armstrong says this a couple dozen times per episode. There’s a reason Richard Dawson settled on, “Survey says!”
Aside from this, though, Armstrong is an excellent emcee. His smirking good humor and casually formidable intelligence make him a good foil for Osman, the clay-faced Encyclopedia Brown whose laptop has all the answers. With Ben Miller, Armstrong is one half of the comedy duo Armstrong And Miller, so he’s used to working with a partner. Osman, though, worked primarily as a producer prior to going in front of the camera on Pointless, which makes his natural patter all the more impressive. (In fact, Osman was the one who pitched the show to the Beeb in the first place.)
In spite of its pace, Pointless can be plenty exciting. Its bonus round—known as “the final” in Brit parlance—is no less dawdling than the rest of the show. A typically deliberate final is excerpted in the clip above, where the team’s jackpot challenge is to name words that begin and end with the letter “K.” You can practically see the stage director giving the “STRETCH!” signal as Armstrong asks, “What would you do with £11,750?” Has any viewer in the history of television game shows ever cared about the answer to this question?
The saving grace of the final is the show’s gorgeous production design, which centers around the tall game board near the center of the set. This display counts down from 100 as the value of each answer is revealed, sending points flying off the screen with a pizzicato sound effect. And when the score dips low enough, a swell of vocal anticipation comes into the soundtrack, as if all those anonymous hundreds of people are spontaneously rallying in awe of their new hero—the one who, should that big board count down to zero, will become the champion of naming words with the letter “K” in them. It is, by definition, a peerless achievement. Also a pointless one.
In future installments of Special Topics In Gameology: British Game Shows—The Chase, Mastermind, Countdown, The Bank Job, The Exit List, Cleverdicks, and more.