Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pure jam: winning The Weakest Link

Well, the episode of The Weakest Link in which I was a contestant was broadcast last Friday, so I can blog about the experience. [It was meant to be screened last Thursday, but there was some cock-up that delayed it for a day. Apologies to anyone who tuned in last Thursday expecting to see me.] If you missed the show on Friday and live in the UK, you can still watch it online courtesy of BBC iPlayer [thanks to John Freeman at Down The Tubes for the screengrab].

Before going on the show, I had two goals: surviving the first round and not singing. Few people cover themselves in glory singing on The Weakest Link, so keeping my limited range and dubious tuning to myself was essential. Happily, one of the other contestants was a music teacher and only too happy to display her singing talents to the nation. Anyway, on to the show's recording.

You don't meet Anne beforehand, and you certainly don't mingle. They record three shows in a day, so time is precious. Our show was second into the studio on February 27, and recording was already running behind. A problem with the lighting pushed things back further, so it was hustle, hustle, hustle thereafter. The studio felt compared to other TV studios I'd visited, especially once you were on set. Black drapes hung behind the contestants in a semi-circle and the studio lights make the set feel like you're in a vacuum, ramping up the pressure.

One of the hardest parts of being a contestant comes first. You have to stand still for several minutes while cameras capture close-ups of each individual to show while Anne recites the rules. Then comes the moment when you have to recite NATO - your name, age, town of residence and occupation. All nine contestants must do this in sequence, without error or hesitation. It's captured by a camera on a swinging crane, sweeping from one person to the next. Wait until the camera faces you, don't speak before the red light comes on, recite.

To make sure everyone was roughly the same height, several of the contestants had to stand on mini-platforms. I was grateful to be tall enough to avoid that, as it would have been one more thing to distract the attention. Concentration is crucial to doing well on The Weakest Link. Anyway, we'd practised in the green room and, surprisingly, everyone get it right first time. That was about as good as we got as a group.

First round - nine contestants, three minutes on the clock, a thousand pounds up for grabs. We started well, everyone getting their first question right. That should have won us the grand, but Dana on my left banked before her question, breaking the chain. When the questions got round to a contestant called Jim, he blanked on an easy question to which the answer was locket, breaking the chain again.

Everyone else got their remaining questions right, so it didn't take a genius to know who was getting voted off. In the green room before Jim had talked about winning thousands of pounds on an ITV gameshow called Golden Balls. He was obviously a bright guy and serious contender to win our edition of The Weakest Link. Thanks to his lapse and some jump the gun banking, we only won eight hundred and fifty pounds.

It's strange, but you relax when somebody else gets a question wrong in a round. It costs the team money, but takes the pressure off you to get every question right. Everybody else visibly relaxed when Jim duffed his locket answer, knowing they'd been spared the ignominy of a first round exit. In an ideal world, you want to get every question right, but those who do rarely win The Weakest Link - other contestants perceive them as too big a threat.

For the most part, recording continues non-stop during the rounds, to allow the countdown to run its course. When everyone is voting off the weakest link, you have to keep miming as if you're writing a word so the cameras can get coverage of everyone. You've never sure if the camera is on you, thanks to the combination of studio lights and stress. So you keep miming. And miming. And miming.

Only when they have coverage of everyone is there a recording break. When not on set Anne retreats to another part of the studio. The contestants are allowed to step away from their podium. Make-up people dabs away perspiration. You're offered drinks of water, and the chance to sit down. There are no seats on the set, so you sit beside your podium or on the edge of Anne's central podium. At last, a chance to relax.

Bear in mind, you've voted for the person you want off, but nobody knows who's getting the boot yet. So you could be standing next to the person you've shafted, trying to mask the fact you've done the dirty to them. No such problems after the first round, everybody knew what was coming - especially Jim. Filming resumed, with the daunting crane camera swinging round in an arc to record our votes. Flipping those boards over, trickier than it looks.

Jim duly got the votes he deserved, then Anne gets to have her fun. She's fed key facts about each contestant and hones in on these, asking impertinent questions in the hope of eliciting some badinage. The Weakest Link is all about the banter, the give and take between contestants and Anne. Will you make a tit of yourself? Can you make Anne corpse? How on earth will this be edited once it appears on screen?

Bolton radio sports commentator Graham did well with Anne, but roofer James got well ambushed, revealing his stewardess girlfriend's age and nearly suggesting she was a bit rough. I didn't envy him explaining that when he got home. I escaped Anne's steely gaze the first round, but knew it wouldn't be long if I kept doing well. Jim took the Walk of Shame, then it was straight into round two.

Several people got a question wrong this time, but chatterbox Clarice fluffed an easy one that cost the team six hundred and fifty quid. I got both my questions right again. This time there was no escaping Anne. She described me as the Barbara Cartland of science fiction, but didn't take the bait when I mentioned looking for a heroine to feature in a paranormal romance novel I was plotting.

I'd kept my Comedy Facial Hair on especially for the recording, knowing it would make an easy target for Anne's barbed commentary. Sure enough, she made fun of it. Still, better than my receding hairline, bulging waistline or the vile tomato-coloured top I was told to wear on the show. I avoided singing, didn't say anything rude about any member of my kin and kith - it could have been a lot worse.

Clarice got booted for costing the team so much money, denying her the chance to banter with Anne. Clarice had talked nineteen to the dozen in the green room, so it would have been fascinating to see Anne trying to get a word in edgeways if they'd gone head to head. But it wasn't to be. Into round three, and the contestants around me had a collective short circuit of their brains.

I got both my questions right again, but there was nothing to bank everytime it was my turn - a frustrating experience. Brains of Britain, we were not. The team banked a paltry twenty pounds from this round, with Dana getting voted off. She was quite petite, and had forgotten she was standing on a box. When it came time to do her Walk of Shame, she fell off the box and nearly knocked me over too. The Walk of Shame gets recorded twice - once for close-up and once in medium shot. Dana's stumble got edited out of the final programme.

Before Dana departed, Anne got into some lengthy and lewd banter with a contestant called Paul who'd said he was good with his hands. Anne corpsed twice, cracked up by the bawdy nature of his innuendo [and out the other]. That helped keep the mood light and happy, despite the paucity of our collective performance. I'd kept a clean sheet through three rounds - could I keep it up?

We recovered in round four, banking two hundred and fifty pounds, but trainee occupational therapist Helen's time was up. She'd had one question in an earlier round that brough out a classic answer [I'm paraphasing here]: what H was a robber who supposedly stopped people in horse-drawn carriages, telling them to stand and deliver? Helen's answer: henchmen. The correct answer was highwayman.

When we got to the next recording break, Helen didn't know what a henchman was wither - she'd just blurted out the word. Dana and James were just as clueless about the word. I tried to help, but I'm not sure I explained it well enough for any of them. Anyway, Helen went after round four, but I was still on a roll, getting three more questions right in that sequence.

I have to confess, a couple of my correct answers in the show were utter guesses. If you listen to the whole question and give yourself a moment to think, on most occasions the answer will come. There's often plenty of clues in the question, though the construction can be so Byzantine it defies easy interpretation. The worst thing you can do is panic after hearing the first few words of a question. Wait for the whole question - then panic.

Round five and I had another clear round, three correct answers and no passes. But errors were creeping in with other contestants, and we banked only seventy pounds. Roofer James got the boot, though singing teacher Rosie was apparently the weakest link. I'd long since giving up counting who'd gotten the most answers wrong, just trying to concentrate on my own efforts.

Round six brought my winning streak to an abrupt end. I got a question about a 1970s British road safety campaign that proved beyond my ken, as I was a child in New Zealand at the time. Got my second question right, but my third effort was another stumble - what does the G stand for in a skiing event called Super G? Giant, apparently. Never been skiing in my life, so no chance there.

In truth, I was remarkably lucky with a lot of the questions I got asked. Anytime there was a TV-related question, it seemed to come to me. The only New Zealand question fell to me as well, along with plenty of others that fell nicely inside my store of knowledge and life experience. Luck plays a big part in winning The Weakest Link, and I had more than my fair share that day.

Round six was the start of squeaky bum time for me. We were down to four contestants - me, Graham, Rosie and Paul. I'd only gotten one of my three questions right, and had no idea how many the others had gotten wrong - but we banked a puny twenty pounds out of a possible thousand quid. Could I make a great escape? Would my good efforts in previous rounds help me through?

I'd no idea whom I should vote off. I was alone on my side of the studio, while the other three were clustered together. I looked across at them, trying to choose, and thought I saw Paul writing a letter O. Was he voting for Rosie? If he voted for Rosie and I voted for Rosie, she'd get two out of four votes. Even if I got the other two, it'd be a tie. Maybe I might survive. So I voted Rosie.

Only after I'd finished voting Rosie, did it occur to me that writing the letter G for Graham could look a lot like writing the letter O from the other side of the studio. But it was too late to chance my mind - not that you're allowed to change your mind, once you've voted. I held my breath and waited for the result. Being last to reveal their vote from among the four, I knew my fate could be sealed before I even got the chance to vote...

Graham voted for me - the second time he'd do so in the show. Paul voted for Rosie - I'd guessed right, it was an O, not a G after all. Now it was down to Rosie - if she voted me, it'd be a tie. Graham was the strongest link, he'd decide who got to stay and who would have to go. Argh, argh, argh, said my brain. Rosie turned over her board - she didn't vote for me. I was safe. Phew.

Rosie took her Walk of Shame and we were down to the final three. Getting voted off now would be utterly gutting. I fancied my chances in the final round penalty shoot-out of questions, though I'm not sure why. Anyway we had round seven to get through first before the all important final vote. I'd another dodgy round, getting two questions right and two questions wrong.

My brain had a complete spasm on the first question, a really simple one - in American jails, pen is the slang abbreviation for what word? The answer, obviously, is penitentiary. I could have stood there another hour and I doubt that would have come to me. It's not that I didn't know, but I'd tied my brain in knots during the question instead of waiting to hear the whole thing.

In the early rounds, there were longer breaks in recording and you had time to catch your breath. As the show accelerated to its conclusion, the countdown gets shorter and the pressure mounts. Questions that were easy before become mind-boggingly difficult - at least in your head. You're so close to the final, that's playing on your mind too. Graham was sweating for England, they had to keep aiming hairdryers at him. All in all, no shortage of tenseness to be had.

We won forty quid that round, but money was now irrelevant. It was all about who could make the final. Graham had voted for me twice and he was the strongest link. If he voted for me again, my chances of survival were slim. I figured Paul was likely to vote for me, as voting for Graham would have been disingenuous at best. Should I vote for Graham or Paul? I went for Paul, he was weaker than Graham throughout the show. It seemed the right thing to do.

Time to reveal the votes and, again, my fate was sealed before I could say who I wanted off. Graham voted for - Paul! Phew, I could relax. Paul voted for me, but that was irrelevant. I turned over my board for the last time, revealing my vote for Paul. Anne questioned our choices, but Paul had been the weakest from among the three of us, so it was fair and square, no tactical voting.

The final round of quickfire questions has three thousand pounds up for grabs, with whatever you bank getting trebled. But there's only ninety seconds and the questions are a lot harder than before. I only got one of four right, and Graham got one out of five right. We banked forty quid [the only time I banked in the whole show], trebled to one hundred and twenty pounds. Total prize money = one thousand, five hundred and seventy pounds. Nice.

I'd spent the previous seven weeks working on speculative writing, so was well and truly skint. Plus I was flying to New Zealand three weeks after the show, so winning some money - any money - would be a huge help financially. Winnings on The Weakest Link can be as little as eight hundred quid, and have reached close to four grand on certain editions of the show's daytime, non-celebrity incarnation. Our total was a decent amount, but it still had to be won.

As the strongest link, Graham chose to go first in the penalty shoot-out - but couldn't remember the answer to his first question: In what 1964 film in which Peter Sellars plays the American president, does his character say, 'Gentlemen, you can't fight in here - this is the War Room'? The answer was Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, and I was telepathically screaming it out. Happily, I have no telepathic powers, so Graham had to pass. 0-0.

My first question was something about which Asian city was recently given the most Michelin stars of any city in the world? I must have read an article about this somewhere, as I knew the answer straight away: Tokyo. 0-1 to me.

Graham guessed at his second question about Paris fashion houses, but he guessed wrong. I'd have gotten that wrong too, so breathed a sigh of relief for not having his questions. Still 0-1 to me, but with my second question to come.

Anne started talking about milk, Greek and gatherings of stars in the sky. My brain turned to mush. I latched on to the word milk and blurted out, 'milky way'. Wrong, the correct answer is 'galaxy'. Personally, I prefer a Flake. Still 0-1 to me.

Graham got a nightmare question about Edward the First's wife. He guessed, and got it wrong. I'd been dreading questions about kings and queens from history, nursery rhymes and British geography. Happily, I'd avoided them throughout the show. Still 0-1 to me.

My third question: Jan Garvie recently joined what radio show alongside Jennie Murray? I did my best to surpress a grin. I've had one radio play broadcast and it was part of the show Anne was asking me about, talk about horses for courses. I uttered the answer, Women's Hour. Anne was flummoxed by my New Zealand accent, and we bounced the words back and forth several times before she accepted my answer. Most of that gout cut from the broadcast version.

So, the score was now 0-2 to me, with only two questions left each for me and Graham. Even if I duffed both my remaining questions, he could only tie me and it was guaranteed to go to sudden death. I relaxed a little, the pressure easing. Back to Graham for his fourth question.

It was something about a public school, the correct answer was Winchester, which I'd never even have guessed. Again, I was grateful not to have his questions, as I would only have gotten one from the first four right. Graham knew the answer, so 1-2 to me.

My fourth question was about the inventor of vulcanisation who went on to make tyres for cars. Try as I might, I couldn't remember the correct answer [Charles Goodyear], so had a guess with Pirelli. The other answer in my head was Firestone, but I didn't believe that was right. Anyway, I got it wrong, still 1-2 to me.

Graham's last question was make or break. If he got it right, I had to nail my final question to win, otherwise we were going to sudden death. If he got it wrong, I would win without having to face my final question.

His question revolved around the collective name for a kind of music popularised in Liverpool during the 1960s, also the name for a police show set in the same city broadcast from 2001. Again, my brain was screaming the answer: Mersey Beat.

I felt certain Graham would know it. He was 60, so he would have been a teenager during the 1960s, when the Mersey Beat sound of the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers et al was storming the British charts.

But he couldn't pull the answer from the fathoms of his memory, and suddenly it was all over. I'd won 1-2 without needing my final question. Anne came over, congratulated me and shook my hand, before commiserating with Graham. We were escorted away to do our after show interviews, where I made sure to express my good fortune. Graham answered far more questions than me and got fewer wrong throughout.

After that I was given a cheque for my winnings, put in a car and taken back to Heathrow. It was all over in a trice, leaving me happy but bewildered. I celebrated with a slap-up feed at Cafe Rouge in Terminal 1, entrusted my good news to only two people and have kept it quiet ever since - until last Friday.

All in all, The Weakest Link was a tense but enjoyable experience, made more so by reaching the final and winning. The money has long since departed my bank account, alas, but it's an accomplishment I can still savour. Would I try out for other TV quiz shows? Maybe. There's a lot more money to be won elsewhere, but I doubt my general knowledge is good enough to achieve that.

I was lucky. As I said in my post-show interview, pure jam.


Laura Anderson said...

Hooray! I'll have to watch it on the i-player. I have another friend who won a few years back as well - you clever things.

You'll have to go on Millionaire next. Or perhaps, in a few years, a screenwriters special CELEBRITY Weakest link.

Well done :-)

Paul Crilley said...

Congrats Dave. we seem pretty up to date here in S.A. with Weakest LInk, so I'll keep my eye out.

John Soanes said...

Great write-up - and congratulations!

Paul Campbell said...

Nice one, Dave!

I hadn't watched the show for ages. I'd forgotten how long-winded the questions are. Often, they're quite straightforward, but you have to listen to her going on for so long that you lose track of what the actual question is. So, congrats on keeping your nerve.

Simon Fraser said...

Well played Dave



Lee Harris said...


I have a Weakest Link audition next Tuesday - any tips? :-)

Phil Reynolds said...

Nice one, David - really enjoyed reading your account and comparing it with my own experience (I took part in the show in 2003). You can read what happened to me here.