Last December I applied to be a contestant on the BBC quiz show, The Weakest Link. I'm not sure why I applied - probably a work displacement activity, knowing me. Appearing on television holds no great appeal for me, having been interviewed on various channels at various times. I was once interviewed live on Sky News while standing on one leg next to an open window while snow was blowing in from outside. Grud only knows if I made any sense that day.
The application procedure for The Weakest Link is simple enough. You email an address displayed at the end of the show, and they'll send you a form. Answer some questions about yourself, say when you might not be available to audition, attach a photo and stick it in the post. I'm told it can take months, even years, from that point until you get asked to audition - if you get asked at all. My form went off not long before Christmas last year.
Roughly four weeks later I got a phone call inviting me to an audition in Edinburgh near the end of January. Could I make it? Sure, anything for a day out the house. Working from home can foster cabin fever and it was the dead of winter, so I was happy to embrace the opportunity. The auditions were held in a hotel near Edinburgh Castle, with eight wannabe contestants from various parts of Scotland. I was one of the youngest - lots of self employed people.
We had to produce identification and fill in some forms. Two BBC researchers dealt with us, both chirpy and efficient. Next was a three-minute written quiz, 20 questions. I got 18 right [I think], but had an absolute brain spasm on two questions. One asked about a Mexican kind of break, for which I answered corn instead of tortilla. The other wanted to know which king commanded the sea to part? Good King Wenceslas, I wrote - bad spelling and all.
There are three kinds of questions I can never answer on most TV quiz shows. [On University Challenge there are 300 kinds of questions I can't answer.] Anything about nursery rhymes, British geography or kings and queens - I'm out of my depth. So the king parting the sea question utterly stumped me. [The answer's King Canute, right?] Having finished our written quiz, the researchers staged a mock round of The Weakest Link, with one of them as Anne Robinson.
I got all my questions right, but one of the other people auditioning got everything wrong. She was unemployed and having a bit of a 'mare, so when it came time to put the boot in about why we'd all voted her the weakest link, everyone else held back. Finally, we were interviewed on camera one by one for several minutes, with the researchers asking impertinent questions to test our responses. I did my best to be jovial and self-deprecating.
We were told the team in London would go through all those who'd auditioned and select people for the contestant pool. Even if we got into the pool, there were no guarantees when we might be called for recording of a show, if at all. Each individual episode of The Weakest Link requires a mix of contestants - different ages, backgrounds and occupations, all from different parts of the country. Can't be an easy job finding that mix in nine contestants.
A week or two later I got a letter saying I'd was under consideration, but no guarantees. Still, nice to get that far I thought, and put it out of my mind. A week or two later I got a phone call - would I be available for taping on February 27th? Err, blimey, yes! The Weakest Link is filmed at Pinewood, so it's mean an overnight stay at the BBC's expense, including flights and accommodation. At last, a chance to recoup my license fee.
Next came all the paperwork - rules and regulations, clearance forms, a lengthy health declaration form, etc. For me the most troubling thing were the wardrobe stipulations. I've spent the past 25 years wearing black or white. On The Weakest Link, black is reserved for the host, Queen of Mean Anne Robinson - so no black for me. And no white either. No stripes. Be careful about patterns. Basically, bring three different tops of not too bold primary colours.
In the end I had to go out shopping to find three tops that might fit the bill. I ended up in a nasty tomato-coloured polo neck shirt - bleurgh. Normally my hair is a close cropped number 1 cut, but I'd just started growing it out for a show, so it was looking particularly crap in February. Wonderful. I'd grown some Comedy Facial Hair for the Christmas pantomime, and decided to keep that for the taping. Give Anne an easy target for her sniping comments.
Fast forward to February 26. I flew down to Heathrow, checked into a BBC-approved Sheraton and raced into town for the screening of Jason Arnopp's film Look At Me. Meet loads of bloggers I'd never encountered before, including Jason himself. Schlepped back out to Heathrow and collapsed into bed, bemused a strange whirring and thumping noise. Woke up at three and realised my room was directly above the hotel front doors. Got another five minutes sleep.
Got up at seven feeling tired and grumpy. Got a safety razor from reception and sliced my face to pieces trying to shave. Nearly missed the people carrier transporting all the contestants out to Pinewood. Not a great start, no good omens here. Our show was the second of the day to be taped, so we had about four hours of hanging around. The researchers kept us diverted and stopped us wandering to the 007 stage next door, where the new Bond was shooting.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon, I couldn't help but sense the contestants sizing each other up. One guy had been on the ITV daytime quiz show Golden Balls, he seemed a likely winner. One woman talked like a machine gun. One woman wanted advice about getting her baby some modelling work. Everybody was friendly enough, but not too friendly. In a few hours we'd be voting each other off. No point making friendships that weren't going to last.
Eventually we were ushered into a green room where the production team went through the rules one last time. We were encouraged to banter with Anne, make it a good show. Nobody goes on The Weakest Link to win a lot of money. Maximum prize is £10,000 but most winners take home between one and three thousand pounds, usually towards the bottom end of that range. The Weakest Link is all about the interplay between the contestants and the host.
Before we could start the quiz, it was time to film the show's opening. We had to sit round in clusters, talking and looking interested while a camera crew filmed us. No wild hand movements, as this bit appears in slow motion on screen. Suddenly it's all getting very real. I do my best to look animated while my lower intestine ties itself in knots. I haven't eaten for hours but could swallow a raisin by this point. Then it's time to go into the studio...
If you want to see what happens next, watch The Weakest Link this Thursday [May 22] on BBC1 from 5.15pm. I'll post the second half of this blog entry afterwards.