With all the excitement over the Weakest Link reboot this coming Friday night, some colleagues were surprised to hear that I had been a contestant the best part of twenty years ago so I thought it was time to write up the experience – and link to the video, something that absolutely wouldn’t have happened up until a few years ago. It’s all hidden under a cut because it’s quite large, so if you want to know click on the link.
Right we’ll cut to the chase – it’s 2000, I am 19 (I’m now 36), The Weakest Link had just started around a year after I started my first proper job (which I’m still doing, assistant staff at Cambridge Uni, albeit slightly higher up). I dug it, I found how it defied convention really exciting and appealing, I wrote the bulk of this UKGameshows.com entry. Anyway being of a certain age me and my friend and colleague Rachel used to go out and get drunk several times a week, and the pub of choice was Cambridge’s very own The Maypole (still going strong) which used to show it in the back bar on the TV, and we always caught the last twenty minutes. I thought it looked like a massive laugh, and usually I could get most of the questions right, so I ended up applying.
Fortuitously I got a phone call during a day off saying they were from the Weakest Link, they’d like to give me a general knowledge test, ten questions if I recall correctly, and I think I got nine right, so was asked if I could make an audition at the Royal Cambridge Hotel (still standing) an afternoon in the future. I could!
There were about twenty of us auditioning that afternoon and I was very nervous, I wasn’t very comfortable talking to random people (I’m still not really, but twenty years of customer service and playing live poker has made me much better at it) and invariably there’s an element of that at the start of the audition. Followed by “pretend to be an electric appliance” (I chose to be a kettle, there might have been an argument as to whether it counted as an appliance or not), followed by a couple of mock rounds and then everybody did a piece to camera, to which I think I suggested I might “give Anne a cheeky smack on the bum on my way out”, which I thought was killer at the time and got outraged laughter from the researchers but twenty years later fills me with abject horror.
Having been told that if they want you you’d get a letter in the next six months, I must have done something right because I got a summons about a week later. Everyone was very excited, least of all me. They were going to film in, and I may have the dates wrong here, the end of January – here are the rules, bring several shirts (not checked ones because the cameras doesn’t like them), here’s your train ticket and hotel booking, see you then.
It wasn’t the first time in London but it was my first time on my own. It was also the first time I’d been in a hotel (actually that might not have been true in retrospect, but it certainly felt like it). I was surprised when the concierge asked for my debit card but I didn’t seem to be charged, so. Anyway I did what anybody who is new to London and new to hotels did when they were eighteen, they stayed in their room and watched telly all evening, not even venturing for dinner.
The wake-up call came at 5am. I think I was OK with it actually, jumped in the shower and went down for breakfast where I rather nervously met with the other contestants – we were the first of three episodes filming that day and the minivan to the studio left at 6am. So we hopped on that to the Magic Eye Studios in Wandsworth (deceased) and spent the next two hours prepping in the green room – making sure the clothes are alright, having make-up applied, getting mic’ed up, being given dos and don’ts, that sort of thing – this is where they film the pre-show sequence. Then about 9am, it’s time.
The actual studio felt quite small, much smaller than it looks on telly. There were two projection screens top left and top right of vision with the money chain and the clock on it. The room was quite deep, lots of crew behind the camera. You do a runthrough of the opening and the voting (wait until the light goes red!) Then finally Anne comes in, no words of encouragement, but she checks with everyone that she’s got the pronounciation of your name right. And we go straight into it.
There’s one (well several) key difference between watching it at home and playing in the studio. At home you just answer all the questions. Playing live you only ever answer the question that’s fired at you, it’s completely irrelevant knowing the answer to someone else’s question, therefore there’s an increasing tension as Anne slowly makes her way round the circle as you pray that on your go you get something you know, otherwise you might be going home. At the same time as answering questions you need to mentally juggle keeping track of how other players are performing whilst keeping an eye on the clock and getting quietly annoyed when the person before you keeps banking, because you’re not getting out of bed for less than £50. Also at this stage of the show’s production the in studio clock disappears at 30 seconds remaining (something dropped soon afterwards), but this isn’t that bad because you can still hear the music bed in the background to act as a warning.
To play it is both terrifying and great fun. When you stuff it up, you pray that somebody stuffs it up even worse (which thankfully they did in round one). I was kicking myself at some of the questions I got wrong – I think I knew bald men could get dandruff really, I was certainly aware of Umberto Eco, and Notting Hill was only the biggest film of the year (which I had paid little attention to).
When you vote you’re asked to pretend to keep writing for about a minute so they can get shots of everybody. A researcher checks everyone’s votes, then there’s about five minutes of downtime to prepare Anne for her lines of questioning before the votes are revealed.
Anne has a chat with three or four people each time and there’s no warning that she’ll come to you, you have to think on your feet. Like I said, I was pretty much giggling all the way through it (really argumentative older people are ten a penny where I work, I think she asked what was so funny at one point, and I looked like a naughty schoolboy), I certainly found it quite difficult to take seriously. My final well-timed line before leaving got a massive laugh from the crew (which obviously got edited out) which I was quite pleased about. Then you’re off – they film you walking off twice from two different angles with different lighting, then it’s upstairs for the post-game interview.
I was buoyed going into this by the researcher telling me she was at the audition I was at and did really well. You stand in front of the board and someone else asks you questions, most of which are designed to try and get you spit some venom – I wasn’t sure I was very good at this to be honest – most of us seemed to be there for a laugh, certainly annoyed not to have won but realistically we’re aware we probably wouldn’t win and there are no hard feelings really and I didn’t really want to insult people for the sake of insulting them. Venom spat, down to a second green room to watch the rest of the show with other losing contestants and stand-bys. It’s fair to say that it was never going to be my day going by the rest of the questions. Anyway Anne seemed genuinely upset with the show’s outcome (basically Yvonne got almost all her questions right and got voted off before the end) and everyone except the winner (who presumably was getting their cheque written out or something) was pretty much immediately sent off to their relative train stations in taxis.
It wasn’t my first time in a TV studio (I previously got to go and watch Sub Zero being made, which I had an additional material credit for, alongside David Bodycombe and Chris M Dickson of the parish) but nonetheless it was quite the experience.
A few weeks later I got a letter with the date of broadcast on it, so loads of us knocked off early to watch it down the pub in full and much fun was had. And then it got a repeat on a Bank Holiday which was an unexpected surprise as I was sat at home watching. I got recognised in the street a few times (“Oi! Weakest Link!”), probably most surprising was getting recognised at a pub quiz (different pub) about eight months after it first went out (“excuse me, were you on The Weakest Link?”) which suggests a level of dedication and/or stalking to the show and/or me.
The Weakest Link is also indirectly where the handle Brig Bother comes from, again one of those things that sounds like a great idea when you’re that age but make you cringe hugely now – the idea of writing a comedy online reality show where celebrities are trapped on a prison ship and are recorded 24/7, like Big Brother right, but Anne Robinson acts as the voice of Brig Bother (the brig of a ship, you see?) bossing the celebrities about (bothering them) and evicting them. I think the plan was to do this on Geocities. Thankfully laziness meant this didn’t happen, although I quite liked the playfulness of the name. I have never referred to me as that in real life.
Small world: turns out Lucy, who was my favourite of the bunch I think (bomb defusal! Had been on The Krypton Factor!), is or was part of the Cambridge University Constabulary a few years ago, according to a friend who was also in it, although goodness knows how that conversation came about.
And that is the story, not many shows have come up since which looked like they might be really good fun to do – the experience of watching a show is very different to the experience of playing on one, although I keep threatening to apply for Tipping Point and Cash Trapped, so.