Sunday, 20 December 2009

Weakest Link

My great (or not so great) moment on national television arrived on December 9 2009, with the broadcast of an episode of “Weakest Link”, which had been filmed on September 16 of that year. The footage shown on television was only the tip of the iceberg, whereas I prefer the full story, which is set out here – mostly written from memory prior to the broadcast so the wording of dialogue is not exact. On the day of filming, I travelled by train to Slough, the town where “The Office” was set, and took a taxi ride across the border from Berkshire into Buckinghamshire. On arriving at Pinewood Studios, I took some photos of the famous gatehouse entrance to the studios, which were opened in 1935

I had been given a 2.00 call time ahead of planned filming from 3.30. In view of this, I had aimed to get to Pinewood at about 12.00, allowing plenty of time for any train delays, and duly arrived around noon. At the Pinewood TV studio, I reported in at reception, and was then shown to the contestants’ room. Here I met Gemma, who had led the audition I had participated in, and also Kevin, who had been the first contestant to arrive. After settling in, I popped out for a quick walk around the car park, from where I took a couple of photos of the James Bond set. Back in the contestant room, I met other participants as they arrived, and also ate BBC sandwiches for lunch. We learned from Gemma that this was the first day of filming for “Weakest Link” after a three month break. This was Gemma’s final day with “Weakest Link”, as she was moving to “Strictly Come Dancing”, a new series of which would start broadcasting two days later. David Cheeseman, the BBC researcher covering the episode I was participating in, arrived accompanied by another bloke called Dave, who would be taking on work with “Weakest Link” when filming moved to Scotland. Three episodes of “Weakest Link” were filmed that day, and I saw part of the first programme via a live video link. This included some great banter between Anne Robinson and a couple of the contestants, a retired lady who writes romantic novels, and a bloke who is training to be a barrister.

At 2.00, once all the contestants had arrived, we were led off to another room. Here we were met by the two ladies who form the wardrobe team. We had been asked to bring three separate outfits, with a note on various colours and patterns to avoid. Besides the shirt and trousers I was wearing, I took along a further four shirts and two pairs of trousers. The wardrobe team sought to avoid clashes between the outfits worn by all of the contestants. After consulting the developing colour chart for the episode, one of the ladies selected a pair of trousers plus two possible shirts. These were to be taken away for ironing. When handing over my trousers, I asked one of the ladies if she could specifically iron them inside out, having been advised to do so by Jeannette, due to the mix of materials. The lady advised me that she had been doing ironing for many years. Once the colour line-up was finalised, the outfit I was to wear for the filming consisted of a pair of brown trousers, bought a few days earlier, and a dark blue shirt, which had been a present from my wife back in 1995.

Each of the contestants were called in turn into a corridor for a biography chat with a lady named Claire. David Cheeseman had spoken to each of us on the telephone – my call had lasted forty five minutes – and typed up notes that were to be passed to Anne Robinson, to give her ideas on quizzing contestants about themselves. David had produced a good summary of my diverse activities, and Claire noted a few minor corrections. As I had mentioned disco dancing, Claire said I could expect Anne to ask for a demonstration.

Alongside the biography chats, each of the contestants were sent to the make- up room, where two ladies applied make up. The information pack from the BBC had advised that all contestants, including the men, would require make-up. The application of make-up was a (relatively) novel experience for me. The make up lady also topped up the gel in my hair. I then got changed into my show outfit, as did the other contestants. Amidst chat about the programme, we learned from the Scottish Dave that audience numbers for “Weakest Link” were currently around 2,500,000 per show. Gemma added that the audience for “Weakest Link” had actually been higher than that for “Big Brother” in the current year.

As we prepared for the show, there was a lot of discussion among the contestants, and a good camaraderie developed. We were shown the podium line-up, and I was pleased to find that I would be in the centre, directly opposite Anne Robinson. The full line-up, from left to right on the television screen, would be.

Kevin. A student, aged 20, who also ran a website selling T shirts.

Gillian. A retired lady aged 67, who was keen on line dancing.

Adam. Aged 32, a project manager, and singer in a rock band, Black Manalishi.

Ellie. A student, aged 20, who was studying history.

Andrew. Myself, a local government officer and writer, age about to be mentioned.

Katie. Aged 25, a lieutenant in the army.

Laurie. He was 62, and worked for a company that imports nuts.

Sally. A medical secretary, aged 52.

Chris. Aged 41, he was a trainee driving instructor.

Gillian and Laurie joked that the older members of the group should join together to vote against the younger ones. I said I was getting old, and asked if I could join the relevant group, but Gillian disagreed. I suggested that Gillian should guess my age, and she tried 23, while some of the others said they thought I was in my thirties. I then revealed my age as 44, to general surprise.

As we looked at the podium line-up, Gillian suggested a banking strategy for the first round. With Adam getting the initial question, due to his name being first in the alphabet, Gillian would be the last person to face their opening question. Gillian suggested that if everbody else had got their question right, she could bank the £800 in the chain, rather than attempting to immediately increase this to £1,000 maximum available in each round, as the latter course would mean the loss of the potential £800 if she got the answer wrong. With the prospect of adding another £200 to a banked £800 by getting a further four questions right in succession, there was a team agreement to Gillian’s suggestion. It was quickly established that a new run from Adam could lead to Katie getting the £200 question, with Laurie banking if all went to plan.

Next we were taken back through the contestants’ room, and off to the programme’s official green room, which was elsewhere in the building. The BBC comedy “My Family” is filmed in the same building, and there were photos of the cast displayed on the walls of the corridor alongside the green room. We were joined in the green room by Claire, who went through the technicalities of the rules for the contest, and also gave us some pointers regarding the banter with Anne. We were also told collusion on voting was not allowed, and that the production team had been known to block the broadcast of shows where there had been a fix. Claire gave an example where the men had decided to vote off the women in alphabetical order, which she said was a silly idea. I asked whether Claire was suggesting that the men did not know the alphabet. The next stage was a lady named Julie running through the technical process for the studio, including the camerawork, plus the “walk of shame” and interviews with contestants after the programme. Then the contestants were filmed chatting amongst ourselves for the opening scene of the programme. As the afternoon progressed, it was apparent that the start of our filming was going to be considerably delayed, with the two previous shows having over-run their expected time slot. Food was provided in the green room and, several hours on from the lunchtime sandwiches, I ate a couple of croissants, to avoid hunger during the filming. Most of the contestants seemed a bit nervous. I also felt some nerves, but my main feeling was one of excited anticipation. There were several last calls for visits to the toilets as the time for filming slipped. With a strange sense of direction, I had managed to get a little bit lost in the corridors around the wardrobe area earlier in the afternoon. During the course of the afternoon, I managed a few other diversions during the extended preparation for filming. The BBC team appeared to conclude that I was prone to such mishaps, and the Scottish Dave acted as an informal minder, keeping an eye on me. It was all part of the fun.

We finally made our way into the studio at 5.30, two hours later than scheduled. I walked into the studio with a sense of excitement, as I arrived in the place I had seen so often on television. I felt like a footballer who was about to play at Wembley Stadium for the first time. Following our arrival, the floor manager, another bloke called Dave, ran though the technical details, focussing on the camera prompts, and use of the voting boards. The two make up ladies arrived to top-up make up for the contestants now, and were to return for this process after each round. I had a practice of my dance moves, which did not go as well as planned, as I banged into a metal hoarding marking the back of the podium. I was about to try the dance again, when I noticed that Anne Robinson had arrived in front of us. Just before filming started, we had a practice display with the voting boards, using made up names – I chose Fred. Some of the contestants got the boards round the wrong way, prompting some withering remarks from Anne. First Anne asked Gillian whether she had seen the show before, following which she asked Kevin how old he was, and when he said 20, Anne remarked “Goodness sake”. My glasses slipped down my nose, and I pushed them back up, which led Anne to tell me not to scratch my nose – I pointed out what had really happened.

The contest started at 6.00. In the first round, we started with Adam. I was the third person to be asked a question, and correctly stated that the day between Wednesday and Friday is Thursday. It was an easy question, but I still felt nervous as I delivered the answer. With the first eight questions answered correctly, Gillian banked £800. The chain started again, and I was soon answering another question, stating that the second word in the continent names beginning North and South is America. Katie got the next question right, and Laurie banked £200 taking us to the £1,000 maximum for the round. I had been one of the four people to correctly answer two questions, but with the right answers having been given to all of the questions in the round, the elimination of a weakest link could be a lottery. I decided to vote against Sally, based on my perception that she appeared more nervous than the other contestants. We were told to pretend we were still writing after we had actually written the name on the board, to allow time for each of us to be filmed in this task. A member of the production team counted the votes, while Anne Robinson was working out which of the contestants she would speak to.

Once the votes had been cast, there was a break of a few minutes before they were officially announced. After we had finished the writing exercise, we were able to perch around the dais where Anne normally stands. I asked if there was time for a drink of water, to which Dave, the floor manager, said we would have to wait until later. There was a bit of chat among the contestants, with the consensus being that it had been difficult to vote against people who had not got any questions wrong. We were called back to our podium positions, and filming resumed with each of us announcing our votes. This started with Kevin voting against me, but I avoided getting any other adverse votes. Once all the votes were revealed there was a tie between Gillian and Katie. Anne began the banter, asking Chris about his work as a trainee driving instructor, and prompting him to give a physical demonstration of his technique in starting a car. Anne then moved to Ellie, with the focus on the latter’s being a history student, who was writing a dissertation about the history of sex. Next Anne turned the attention to Katie, asking about her work with army, and how many stripes she has on her uniform. Anne referred to the fact that Katie could have banked £200 instead of answering a second question. Katie had followed the banking strategy discussed by the team during the preparations, during which the planned sequence had worked on the second chain starting with Adam. As Gillian had answered her question correctly, the banking should have been done one step earlier than we had envisaged. The votes against Katie were presumably due to people realising this. I felt that the votes against Gillian were unfair, as she had suggested a strategy which worked. Anne advised Katie that she was the strongest link, and Katie duly used her casting vote against Gillian, with the latter being the first “weakest link” to depart from the contest.

In the second round I got both of my questions right. First I identified that Chloe Smith, who had recently won a by-election to become Britain’s youngest current MP, is a Conservative. Secondly I stated that the word which can describe both an unwelcome plant and a person of weak physical stature is weed. During the break between rounds water arrived – we each had a bottle with our name on a label. As we chatted, Katie said that she had been nervous at being questioned about her work in the army, and had been required to read and sign a 22 page document setting out the army’s rules on contact with the media. I had asked at my workplace whether there was any specific advice if I was asked about my work for broadcast on television, and been told I just had to be sensible. When filming resumed, and the votes were announced, it was clear that Kevin was being voted off. Anne started the banter for the round by asking Laurie about his work for a company that imports nuts. Laurie pretended not to get involved with Anne’s attempts at innuendo, before saying that is was all below the belt.

Then Anne turned to myself. My moment in the spotlight had arrived. Anne opened by asking if my work in local government and as a writer was dull. I replied that my writing is creative. Anne decided to find out if I knew any local government jokes, to which I responded that the specific area in which I work is accountancy, for which I had several jokes. Wishing to avoid making a hash of telling anything long or complex, I tried a quick remark, saying that accountancy is a great cure for insomnia, and explaining that if my wife has trouble getting to sleep she says to me “Tell me about your work, my angel”. I hope that Anne would pick up on my being referred to as “my angel”, as I had a great story about how my wife and I met each other that followed from this – it had gone down very well at my audition for the programme. Instead Anne wanted another accountancy joke. I responded with “There are three types of accountant, those who can count, and those who cannot”. Anne looked confused, and asked for more, but I said that was the joke. Anne then asked for another joke, and I said “Why did the accountant cross the road? So that he could bore the people over there as well”. Anne then said she had heard I am keen on disco dancing. I said I had won a competition for this. As we moved away from simple joke telling, the banter got more interesting. Anne saw I was enjoying this, and I said “I can keep it up all night”. When Anne said I should put my voting board down, I said I knew what was coming next, and that I would be asked to display my dance moves. I added that I had seen the programme on the BBC at tea-time. I performed a quick run through my dance moves, with a commentary, explaining the arm and leg movements, the twirls, and my ending on my knees. The filmed version included a reverse twirl in addition to the routine I had practised earlier. When I had finished, Anne Robinson said that “the new Michael Jackson” had been found. Anne asked if I could tell a further accountancy joke. I said I had a very good one, but it was a bit rude, and Anne said I should try it. So off I went with a joke that ran more or less as follows. “An accountant leaves a note for his wife one morning saying ‘At the age of 54 I am seeking some youth and excitement in my life, and will therefore be spending tonight at the local hotel with my 18 year-old secretary’. When he arrives at the hotel in the evening, the accountant is surprised to find that his wife has left a message for him at the reception. This note says ‘I too have reached the age of 54, and seek youth and excitement. I shall be spending tonight with my 18 year-old toy boy, and expect to have a great time. As an accountant, you will surely realise that 18 goes into 54 more times than 54 goes into 18’”. This produced laughter from several of the other contestants. When Anne asked why I had voted against Kevin, I said this was due to his getting the date of the Battle of Hastings wrong – he had said 1666 instead of 1066. Kevin then departed. As one of the blokes from the production team sorted out the voting boards ahead of the next round of questions, he said that my jokes had been great. Then it was question time again.

In the third round I got my first question wrong. Being asked which sensory organ includes a series of named bones, I got confused, and said the hand, whereas the correct answer was the ear. My next question was which German group had a hit with “Evacuate the Dancefloor”. I did not have a clue, and therefore passed rather than offering an answer – Anne announced that the band was Cascada. Having failed to get a correct answer in this round, I realised there was a possibility of my being voted off, but hoped to avoid the drop, as Laurie had also got a couple of questions wrong. As I voted against Laurie, I noticed Katie and Ellie both voting against me. During the break between rounds, Katie apologised for voting against me, and I told her it was not a problem, as I had got my questions wrong. Several of the other contestants commented favourably on my performance in the banter. The Scottish Dave said my performance had given the BBC crew a great laugh, although it was unlikely that my last joke would be shown on television. There was also a return of the water bottles during this break. When the votes were revealed, five of the votes had gone against myself, and two against Laurie. This meant that I would be departing as soon as Anne had completed the next set of banter. Within a few minutes of the excitement of my dance and jokes, I now experienced the disappointment of defeat. It was a rollercoaster ride, but that’s life.

Anne turned to Sally, who works as a medical secretary, asking whether she found the doctors she worked with attractive. Sally said that she did not. Anne then asked Sally for her view of Chris, who she did not find sexy. Anne asked if Andrew with his dancing was sexy, and Sally said “yes”, to which I replied “thank you”. Anne also asked Chris why he voted against me, and he said I had a bad round. Then it was time for the inevitable phrase from Anne, “Andrew you are the weakest link, goodbye”. Now I had to make the “walk of shame” off of the set. We had been told beforehand that this walk would have to be made twice, as it was filmed from two angles, and that we had to remember to exit the podium by the same route each time. I duly walked away from the podium, returned for a moment, and then walked fully off the set, being given directions from the production team as I did so. I left the set at shortly after 7.00, which meant I had been in the studio for just over 90 minutes, and involved in filming at intervals across a little more than an hour. On leaving the set, I was led down long corridors to a small room, in which Julie conducted what could be called my post-match interview, accompanied by a cameraman. Julie had a chat with me about the main features of my participation. I thought this was an introductory process, ahead of the filming of the real version, but answered Julie’s questions as well as I could in case I was being filmed. Julie then confirmed my belief that this had been the warm-up, before re-staging the discussion which was now filmed. Unfortunately several times when I made a point that Julie liked, she suggested a re-phrasing of my answer which was then filmed again. Amidst the repetition, some of the spontaneity in my answers was lost. Julie seemed pleased when I said that Anne had not got one of the jokes I told, and I suggested that Anne was not as smart as she thinks she is. Amidst disappointment at being voted off relatively early, I spoke about the positive elements, with the enjoyment of my banter with Anne being prominent. I was surprised at the way in which about ten minutes was taken to get what would only probably be a twenty second soundbite on the TV, especially as the comments part of the programme tend to be rather formulaic. At the end of the day you are only as good as your last cliché.

After the filming was complete, I made my way back to the contestants’ room, passing Adam on the way, as he had been voted off at the end of round four. I watched the remainder of the contest on the live video link, while also talking to other contestants, and members of the BBC team. I also took some photos, and collected a BBC cheque for £11, representing the reimbursement of my taxi fair. Laurie departed at the end of round five, being followed by Ellie in the next round. The final vote eliminated Sally, which left a final between Chris and Katie. During the final Anne Robinson made a small error in asking a question to Katie, who got the answer wrong. Katie was given another question to answer instead. After a close contest, Chris won the final in the sudden death section. Chris and Katie returned to the contestants’ room, and Chris received a round of applause from both contestants and BBC staff. After a round of farewells, I left the studio at 8.20, and shared a taxi to Slough station with Ellie and Laurie. During the journey home I had telephone conversations with my family about the show. My disappointment at an early exit from “Weakest Link” was less important than excitement at the positive experience of participating in the programme, enjoying the good life, and I still had the screening of the programme on television to look forward to.