Special Topics In Gameology

The Chase

British Game Shows: The Chase

A clever David-and-Goliath format that thrives on the speed round.

By John Teti • May 14, 2012

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 surveys the current slate of British game shows. Last week’s entry introduced the series with a review of Pointless. This week: The Chase.

The Chase

The Chase
Elevator pitch: Trivia schmoes versus trivia pros.
Channel: ITV
Running time: 60 minutes (including commercials)
Host: Actor and comedian (and ex-pro soccer player) Bradley Walsh. The cast also includes a regular slate of four trivia-guru “Chasers”—one of whom faces off against the contestants in each episode. The Chaser’s ranks include golem-esque math teacher Mark Labbett, laconic barrister Shawn Wallace, prim and ruthless faux-governess Anne Hegerty, and chipmunk-cheeked wit Paul Sinha.

The concept of The Chase is simple. Four regular folks try to beat a quiz-circuit ringer in a trivia contest. Davids versus Goliath. Yet the simplicity of the idea is deceptive. It’s one thing to say that a team of “amateur” brains would match up well against one genius and quite another thing to strike that balance on a day-to-day basis. Over the course of its one-hour running time, The Chase manages to build to an exciting climax more often than not, and sometimes it’s downright exhilarating. It’s a case study in how to design a game for television.

The Chase is more complex than your typical daytime game show, but it wears that complexity well. A team of four strangers plays the game. In each round of the main game, one player breaks away from the team to play a 60-second speed round and build up a pot of cash—£1,000 for each correct answer. That pot is placed on a ladder, with “home” at the bottom and the Chaser at the top.

To add the pot to the team bank, the player must work their way down the ladder by answering multiple-choice questions—each correct answer gets them one step closer to home. Yet the Chaser is close behind, answering the same questions at the same time. If the Chaser catches up before the player gets home, the money is gone and the player is eliminated from the game for good.

The player gets a three-step head start, but there’s a twist. If the contestant agrees to a mere two-step head start, the pot grows much larger. On the other hand, an extra step can be had in exchange for a reduced pot. Taking the former option is considered the height of valor and/or greed; the latter is vaguely shameful.

The crowning glory of The Chase is its endgame, the Final Chase. The contestants who survived the main game play as a team in an extremely fast-paced two-minute speed round; each correct answer adds another step to their path. Once they’re done, the Chaser gets two minutes to catch the contestants. If they’re caught, the team leaves with nothing. If the Chaser falls short, the contestants win their bank at long last.

The on-air talent and direction on this show are fantastic. In a format that vacillates between frenzy and calm dozens of times in the course of an hour, host Bradley Walsh has a preternatural sense for how to set the tone. He seems to shift effortlessly from the warm, winking humor of the personal Chases to the staccato hypertension of the rapid-fire Q&A sections. (I haven’t seen anyone conduct a speed round with this type of earnest, focused excitement since Jim Perry on the American Sale Of The Century.)

Early on, the producers discovered that Walsh has a weakness for goofy humor, so every once in a while, they’ll toss in a question that’s obviously designed to make Walsh lose it in spite of his best efforts:

Walsh is a broadcaster by trade, but the Chasers are genuine nerds, having won “fame” on other game shows or in quiz-bowl championships. And while The Chase does play up the characters it has created for its ringers—Mark Labbett the hulking brute, Anne Hegerty the emasculating schoolmarm—the producers are wise enough not to push this conceit too far.

The Chasers come across as full-bodied human beings playing a game that they love (and they play with ferocity) rather than central-casting types collecting a paycheck. I find it hard to imagine many American producers who could exercise this same restraint, which requires an admission that it’s entertaining enough to watch people play a good game—that not every moment needs to be produced. That type of confidence is special enough on British TV; it’s downright rare among modern shows on these shores.

All of the Chasers are a pleasure to watch, but my personal favorite by a small margin is Paul Sinha, the cheerfully sarcastic man in the white suit. (Outside the Chase studio, he has a career as a stand-up comic, which figures.) Paul is the only one who’s enough of a smartass to, say, characterize the staff on his own show as lonely and weird, as seen in this clip:

(Note also that Walsh manages to resist the bait this time.)

Like most quiz shows, The Chase rewards contestants with a deep reservoir of general knowledge, but the main game is shrewdly designed to allow lesser minds a chance at success. Not every player runs the same race during their personal Chase. Because everyone is given a choice between a two-, three-, or four-step head start, the contestants are essentially allowed to set the difficulty of the game to suit their own confidence. The adjustable setup keeps more players in the mix.

Plus, the questions in the personal Chase rounds are multiple-choice, so merely average players can still bumble their way into the final. For instance, the college stoner on the team may not be great on politics or science, but if he catches a little luck, he might be able to survive the main game and contribute his knowledge of pop music in the Final Chase.

And there’s the implicit value judgment of The Chase’s team of strangers: Everyone has something to contribute. You don’t necessarily have to know all the answers, but to maximize your winnings, you do have to know yourself and play the game to the edge of your abilities—no further.

The final round is a masterful feat of rules engineering. Again, the premise appears simple on the screen: The contestants get two minutes, and then the Chaser gets the same. But the amateurs have a couple of advantages. They get a head start of one step for every player that survived the main game, and if the Chaser gets a question wrong, they have the opportunity to jump in with the correct answer and “push back” their pursuer.

The Chaser has a subtle advantage, too, though: The players have to buzz in to answer, and the Chaser does not. This ends up depriving the contestants of valuable seconds, especially in those deadly moments of group paralysis when none of them knows the answer but nobody wants to be presumptuous and pass the question. The team has to know itself to win.

One of the smartest touches of the Final Chase is the unusually long two-minute speed round afforded to both sides. The length of time allows small narrative arcs to develop: Players can falter in the first minute and rally in the second. It also reduces fluky rounds, and thanks to a ruleset that gives the contestants just enough of an edge, causes the Final Chase to come down to its last few seconds with amazing frequency.

It’s in these last few seconds that The Chase crystallizes into a elemental pursuit of knowledge. As Walsh’s voice speeds up, the game turns into a sort of experiment. Its objective: to find the purest exchange of question and answer two human beings can manage. How long does it take to request a piece of knowledge and receive it? Not as long as you think. I always find myself looking at the clock and doing the math. “Twenty seconds left,” I think. “A person couldn’t possibly answer six questions in that time.” I ALWAYS think something like this. And I’m repeatedly confounded.

That dilation of time might be The Chase’s greatest trick. Two minutes is a long time by game-show standards, but then again, it’s consistently amazing how much The Chase can accomplish in those 120 seconds. In high school, my cross-country running coach used to tell us to focus on the runner in front of us, because our minds perceive a chase differently than running a race course. It’s human nature, and it’s deep, the kind of programming that resides down in the brain stem. When we tap into that programming, we can accomplish things that defy the assumptions of our rational mind. The Chase has found a way to go there almost every day, and the fun of the resulting surprise never seems to wear off.

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  • Aaron Riccio

    ::sigh:: Meanwhile, here in the states, we get more and more shows that reward “physical” (though not really) prowess: i.e., the thankfully short-lived Cha$e. We did have “Beat the Geeks” and “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” though, which sound somewhat similar (though less gimmicky and not really team-oriented) and both preceded “The Chase.”

    • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

      There’s no way that The Chase could be considered more gimmicky than those two shows, as much as I enjoyed both of them.

    • 3FistedHumdinger

      Say what you will about physical game shows, but I thought Hole in the Wall was great TV.

      • CNightwing

        BRING ON THE WALL!

      • http://twitter.com/IsolaValentine Nat – DSQ ♥(。→‿←。)♥

        It wasn’t really a great show (The bookers were awful and the set was only okay) but a great performance by Dale Winton. He made that show, I can’t beleive it’s not on the air anymore!

    • The_Misanthrope

       I do miss “Beat the Geeks” but it is a good example of American game-show production:  wacky host, EXTREME camera angles, distracting cleavage, etc.  But I always thought that the core concept was a good one.

    • scott_m

      Channel 5 did bring Win Ben Stein’s Money over to the UK briefly, with Jeremy Beadle. http://www.ukgameshows.com/ukgs/Win_Beadle’s_Money

    • LimeadeYouth

      Don’t forget Stump the Schwab for the sports nerds.

    • sirslud

      Man, I did love Win Ben Stein’s Money, but it’s so tarnished by how much of a [crude words go here] he is.

    • antonspivack

      You know a British show that rewarded real mental and physical prowess? The Krypton Factor. It also had a quickfire round (although it could have been quicker) in which every correct answer linked to the next question. I’d like to see that redone in the States, although in a manner more faithful to the British version. The 1981 and 1990 US versions were just lacking.

  • CNightwing

    A great show that led to many debates about strategy amongst my friends. We tried to assess how many steps head-start was best to go for depending on your question hit-rate and the offers. The show got better after the first series when they realised they could really take the piss with the offers – actually going so far as to make the team lose money if the contestant selfishly made it through with a 4 step headstart.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Gray/100001013678999 David Gray

    Theres a much better video of Bradley Walsh breaking down due to a question, the “Fanny Chmelar” question

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmwGFX5pgXw 

    I understand that in America fanny is a term used for the butt, but over here in the UK its used to refer to a woman’s vagina. Either way, Bradley can’t keep it together.

    • Kip_Hackman

      I’m glad someone posted this! Even Trunchbull couldn’t help but laugh.

    • Afghamistam

      That’s glorious. Reminds me of my all time favourite obscene gameshow moment:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtM0-ZFwiNo

  • http://twitter.com/BothersBar Brig Bother

    Oh well here’s some good news for you, Fox is filming two US pilots episodes with Bradley Walsh in the UK this week.

  • Captain_Internet

    When The Chase first came on TV they really tried to push the Chasers as being cold, heartless, quizzing bastards who lived only to watch people squirm as they tried to intuit which of three choices was the capital of Angola. I think it’s softened since then, but there’s quite a few shows here in the UK that play on a similar, rather hostile theme of Joe Public versus The Sinister Guardian of The Knowledge. 

    At the amicable end there’s Eggheads, which is almost exactly the same idea as The Chase but without the live audience, giant set, dramatic quiz music or scripted threats. But at the other end you have The Weakest Link, which felt like it was created just so Anne Robinson could be nasty to people and force them to be nasty to each other. It’s only a short jump from that to Masterchef or The Apprentice. 

    Anyway, nice to see an outside take on these. It’s just a shame that The Crystal Maze and Knightmare aren’t on TV anymore.

    • apathymonger

      I loved The Crystal Maze. The final section, in the dome, always seemed odd though. None of what they had done for the rest of the hour seemed to matter that much to how they got on.

      • unicyclistperiscopes

        I loved how thick the people always seemed to be.
        “I can’t see what I’ve got to do!” was probably the closes thing to a catchphrase from that show.

        • Electric Dragon

          The early 90s comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience parodied the Crystal Maze brilliantly in this sketch.

        • unicyclistperiscopes

          @google-6108c5611fbc5b86af5df565c4b4b048:disqus  – I remember that well. Great show

        • Afghamistam

          Followed by a panicked “I’M COMING OOOOUT!!”

        • 21stCenturyPeon

           ”I wrote a hit West End musical, you know…”

      • EvelKareebel

         The catchphrase from Crystal Maze was of course “plenty of time, plenty of time, plenty of time getoutgetoutgetout”

    • unicyclistperiscopes

      I love Eggheads, mostly because there are one or two really smart members of the “pro” team, and there are some (looking at you, CJ and Judith!) who are obviously there to make up the numbers.

      • Electric Dragon

        I read that CJ had left to take up a career in acting – is he still in it?

    • Colman Bell

      The Chase only has a live audience for celebrity editions. Normal episodes used a canned audience.

    • http://twitter.com/IsolaValentine Nat – DSQ ♥(。→‿←。)♥

       I loved Crystal Maze! The final was magical~

  • EvelKareebel

    Incedentally, Paul Sinha’s stand up is truly excellent. 

  • Electric Dragon

    “How long does it take to request a piece of knowledge and receive it?”

    This brings to mind BBC2′s quiz workhorses – University Challenge (based on the US show College Bowl) and Mastermind. In the case of UC, it’s always exciting when the game is close in the latter stages, as host Jeremy Paxman increases the speed at which he reads each question, the announcer yells out the name of the contestant buzzing in more and more frantically and the trailing team are trying desperately to interrupt the question as early as possible and answer as quickly as possible before the gong signalling that time is up.

    In Mastermind, the contestant has a fixed period of time to answer questions – first on a specialist subject they’ve chosen themselves, then on general knowledge. If you get a question wrong, the host must read out the correct answer – you can pass and he moves straight to the next question, but passes count against you in case of a tie. Equally, pause for  too much thinking time and you’ve lost a question. This also means that your choice of subject has some tactical elements to it – how quickly can the questions be asked?

    A good example of this was in this year’s final – last Friday. One of the contestants chose The History of Azerbaijan 1919-present as his subject (he used to be the UK ambassador there) – but I think he was hampered by some long and difficult to pronounce questions and answers. The winner was helped a great deal by shorter questions but also his extremely rapid style of answering the questions. In 2 minutes of his Specialist subject (Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises) he got 19 correct answers, compared to 14 for the other chap – and he maintained the advantage through the GK round.

  • Bowen Kerins

    Great stuff.  Rumors say The Chase will be coming to the US, it’s a really good competition and I love what they do with that wall in the background being used like a scoreboard.  I actually wonder why they even have the scoreboard on the bottom of the screen — what, nobody can see the giant thing behind everyone?

    Also, this proves the rule that there must be exactly 5 members of a boy band.

  • large_marge_sent_me

    Really enjoying reading these and wasting away hours watching these shows on youtube. One thing – in the final chase video up there, what do you think the chances are the guy really didn’t know test cricket was 5 days? Makes you wonder if they purposely stall sometimes. Would make it more fun for them and more interesting for everyone else.

  • simon cooper

    Please tell me you’re going to cover Breakaway which has to be the most ridiculously complicated game show I’ve ever seen.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breakaway_%28game_show%29

  • http://twitter.com/fitchersbird Farah

    Just to let you know that Paul Sinha is on Twitter and linked to this article saying it made his day.

  • antonspivack

     Ever since he blamed the holocaust on Darwin, I don’t want Ben Stein’s stinking money anymore. And Beat the Geeks, well what it rewarded was pop culture knowledge, and I’m not so sure that’s the sort of thing that deserves the highest jackpot.

  • Greg Sheppard

    Paul Sinha is a fatastic stand up comedian (youtube him),often very political and always funny.