The title of world’s most bureaucratic quiz show will never be taken away from the BBC’s No Win, No Fee, a 2001 daytime programme in which neither contestants nor host (Paul Ross) knew where to stand at any time. The only thing I remember about it was that this matter of where participants stood was, somehow, of vital importance – as important as anything in a quiz show can be.
Trivial pursuit might as well be the name of the genre, but producers and presenters will never cease trying to convince us that quiz and game shows are actually Scandinavian thrillers and that their rules, like chess, are deceptively simple, or simply deceptive. ITV’s new (US imported) quiz 500 Questions purports to have only one key concept: don’t get three questions wrong in a row. This isn’t even catchy enough to be a tagline, let alone a catchphrase for its host, Giles ‘Bizarrely’ Coren.
In reality there are lots of other rules, including a byzantine colour-coding system detailing which questions have yet to be asked, which have been asked and got wrong, got right; which questions the current occupier of the ‘hot seat’ is too stupid to be asked, and which might be asked in parallel dimension next week. It might as well be that ridiculous: Why have this diagram at all? Why not just ask questions randomly, who needs to know this information? Because this is how they attempt to convince us there’s a strategic element to this extraordinary mess. This element also creates a rivalry between the assorted mouth-breathers who act as contestants, which is, it seems, another important feature of anything to do with general knowledge. (Though, in fairness, I’m sure we’d all like to have a street fight with the Eggheads.)
Another question: Why Giles Coren? There’s no mystery as to why he agreed to do it – no doubt his sister has told him that hosting a quiz is money for jam. But why would ITV choose him? He’s superior but no Jeremy Paxman. He’s a snarky critic, but he can’t treat the pensioners, day-release mentalists, and actual stupid people (‘I know nothing about films,’ they boast) who habitually appear on quizzes like inept chefs and arriviste restaurateurs. You can tell he’s itching to get back to the Duck & Rice, or wherever, like Faust outside of his cell, as he grits his teeth and pretends to smile when someone suggests Tennyson was a female US poet.
A final question: Will it get another series?
On Channel 4 quizzes only have one rule: they must be 8 out of 10 Cats, which not only ‘does’ Countdown, but infects Fifteen to One with mischief at Christmastime (though why this version isn’t also hosted by Sandi Toksvig is among the most crucial of all conundrums). Big Fat Quiz of the Year, another Christmas product, has been unleashed upon the docile late-summer schedules in its new guise as a quiz of ‘everything’. This is actually a good bet: the celebrity panel show must be almost as old as television, but this version somehow keeps working; which is presumably due to a combination of varied personalities and what might be called ‘competitive slacking’.
Whether you think these personalities should be variedly smothered, poisoned or shot, or whether you think the TV quiz is so stale it should be left to the birds, you can’t blame channels for putting them on. Cheap TV is cheap TV, and who doesn’t like a good question?