A Man Walks Into a Bar… Peter Davey

One of the most important producers in UK reality television comes for a quick chat about The Mole, Playing it Straight, current hit Beauty and the Geek and sort-of inventing I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!

Hello Peter. We may as well begin with The Mole, since I don’t think it would be too unfair to describe it as your show that’s caused the biggest critical impact so far, in a way. I’m told there was a massive cheer from the Channel 5 stable when De Mol won the Golden Rose of Montreux in 2000. Did you know at that point you were going to be involved in the show? How DID you come to be involved in that show?

The history of my involvement was that in early 1999 the show was sent into Action Time having been seen by the Tony Wilson (of Factory records fame) who was a close friend of Stephen Leahy. Tony said it had just gone on air in Belgium and he thought it looked good and was causing a stir. I looked at it (although it was in Flemish I think) and thought it was brilliant. Having seen ep 1 I ordered the rest overnight and watched all nine hours in one sitting the next day. We signed it there and then – and the only other place it has been optioned at that point was Holland. Remember this was before Big Brother, Survivor etc etc.

At the time broadcasters had lots of fly on the wall like Airport and Driving School and were saying “what’s next”. I thought it was The Mole – and I suppose I was right – in that it was reality tv. We had a year trying to convince broadcasters this was the next big thing (including lots of people turning it down) before it finally won the Golden Rose. Funnily enough our phone started ringing at 8am the next day with them all calling back – but we had already gone to Five as they were the only ones who had recognised the potential of the show before it was spelt out in an international award ceremony.

Yourself, some actor from Corrie and then Gerard the Alien from Ghost Train [Angelo Abela] doesn’t strike me as an overtly obvious combination but it seems to have worked. How did that come about?

Angelo and I had worked together on other shows before the show. Essentially we get on very well and compliment each other – I produce, he directs – although we can both do the other discipline but leave it to each other. I use him because he is both a brilliant director and totally unflappable – which is critical on reality location. He is the easiest person in the world to get on with, is brilliant with contestants and can deliver the most complex camera set ups with ease. Plus he, like the rest of us, is an insomniac – also crucial on location.

Glenn and I was very odd. We were casting loads of actors to find the right person for The Mole. I needed someone who could be both very warm and pleasant – but if the time came he could be quite dark and scary. Essentially that was the profile of his character from Coronation Street. But again we hit it off the second he came in. Indeed I told him at the end of the audition it was his – which horrified everyone else at the time because you are supposed to act cool ahead of the negotiations. And then he said he wanted to do it regardless of pay – which wasn’t the coolest of moves either on his part. So we started on a very no bullshit basis and it has gone on from there. And then when we got on location it was clear Glenn was a lot more skilled in production terms than the average actor/presenter – so he ended up co-producing. The Mole was quite a lonely job to run because of the pressure of the huge secret – and it was a massive help to be able to rely on both Glenn and Angelo.

Personally speaking, I was quite excited about the prospect when several people I respect were reporting about how great the Aussie show was. The first time I saw any real news of the British version was when I chanced across an episode of The Big Breakfast where (as I recall) Glenn and yourself were trying to “sell” it to Johnny and Denise. What I remember most about it was that they seemed quite cold about the whole thing, they weren’t really buying it. Was this worrying? Were there any moments beforehand you and other members of team were thinking “shit! No-one’s going to watch this!”? How are you meant to cope with that?

No, absolutely not. I knew it was a good, well made intelligent show. The day I worry about Johnny Vaughan’s critical appreciation of any of my shows is the day I pack up and go home. The truth is he probably hadn’t seen it. Plus from memory I recall the high brow way they approached the show was to dress a researcher up in a Mole outfit, like a womble, and have him hiding on the set – so it was good coverage but I didn’t lose sleep over their lukewarm reaction.

First day of filming… was there ever a worry that something was going to give the game away immediately? Is it one of those shows that felt much easier to produce once the first challenge was out of the way?

Yes, for every moment of every day and night there was the fear that the whole thing would be blown from something either me or The Mole did or said. It aged me years. And no it got no easier – it got more and more tense as it unfolded.

Did you realise quite how big the fall-out from the paintballing challenge was going to be?

The Paintball. Well, well well. In short it was a game devised absolutely to cause conflict so we anticipated it could happen. The big question was how would it unfold. And it unfolded in such a dramatic way – Zi was doing his best John Wayne and was determined to go back and get Sara – and then literally dragged her over the line. He gave everything – god bless him – and then she shot him the back. Quality TV!!! Glenn was brilliant as he had to break the news – and told Zi first – and then got Sara to explain what she had done. And then it really kicked off. I was about 50 yards away and suddenly saw researchers and producers making a run for it – to get away and hide. Zi was pretty scary when roused. Then I saw Zi who wanted to kill. And that is the point where you earn your money. You have to calm then down and remind the contestants it is a game. But it rumbled on for hours. A similar incident happened after the egg challenge on series 2- they all went nuts.

For me, one of the best things that came out of The Mole was the hilarious Producer Diary you wrote for Broadcast [we’re trying to find a copy to put up – Brig] . In it, you mentioned you rather had a sense of humour failure when the team managed to get through the maize of maize really early in the morning. Bearing this in mind, did you have to stifle a laugh when in series two the team failed to catch the giant metal ball after being awake for 27+ hours? Were you up all night too?

That ball challenge was one of my all time favourites. So simple but so brilliant. And again we could not have scripted it better – for Chris to drop it was fantastic for our story. We had been up all night – remember they had been doing the challenge protecting the glass bowl so we had been filming. The bottom line is that however long the contestants are up we are up usually two to three hours before we wake them and the same after they have gone to bed. I said we’re all insomniacs.

One of the interesting things I think is that you borrowed the really excellent soundtrack to the Aussie show, and most of the set-up (I think you can be forgiven for missing out the “filming humour” game). However, the rest of the world seems to have nicked a ton of things from the UK show – the Aussie style became much closer to ours, and despite the second series rather lacking in commercial success, many other versions I’ve seen and read about have nicked some of its core games. Were there any ideas for the second series (where clearly you had more of a free reign) you wished you could have put in but didn’t?

As I said we signed the show in the very early days and so we worked closely on the games with the creators in Belgium. I went out there to brainstorm ideas with them (and the Swedes and Dutch from memory). And then we used to come up with our own ideas for our show – and if anyone wanted to use them that was fair enough. We did work very hard on our UK games – it was one thing Glenn and I specialised in. Some we came up with and found a location, others we built round a location we had found. And having set the game then we had to create the Mole’s role. Also David B* came up with some crackers in series 2. It is the biggest disappointment of my career that the show died over here but I’m proud that some of our games are still being used to this day.

* David Bodycombe, writer for many a game show.

Were there any great ideas pitched you knew would make for some fantastic television but ditched from a moral perspective? Were there any challenges you made contestants do that made it quite difficult for you to sleep at night? Or, by jumping off a bridge/cliff by way of setting an example, did that absolve you of all responsibility?

It is quite hard to remember challenges but there were some that we had to bin. I can remember it was us and the Swedes who were always the ones pushing it in what we can do. I can remember on the dogs challenge my original plan was to release the dogs and make it a real hunt. Everyone said “you can’t do that”. I was adamant – and finally was forced to put the dogs on leads – which still irritates me to this day!!

My theory was only to do things that I would be happy to do – I would have quite liked to try to evade a dog – which was why occasionally we felt we had to do stuff to show the contestants what we were about. It is an approach shared by Glenn and Angelo – and we usually do something every series. It also helps the contestants morale. And I’m not just talking about the big stunts. You may remember the infamous body shot game in the tequila bar in Playing It Straight. When the two Dannys were refusing to do the body shot Angelo showed them the way. We had agreed one of us would do it – but unfortunately I was in the local hospital having been impaled on a particularly vicious cactus earlier in the day whilst shooting.

Did you have a favourite bit of sabotage?

Every bit of sabotage was great to pull off because it was such a relief to get away without being caught. It was great to use the radio to speak to Tanya on her walkman in series 2 – and her spreading the scent in the dog game was a cracker too.

The free pass system of our show seemed to let the team bond and then just as they were getting comfortable, rip it apart. Other versions of the show do away with this completely and give out free passes willy-nilly from the off. Was there ever a temptation to do this for the second series?

No free passes were, for us, the ultimate hand grenade to toss in amongst the contestants. So we would only ever use them sparingly.

The internet played quite an important part in building up interest for the show. I thought it was really excellent that Glenn and yourself took some time to answer questions from Ver Fans. But how secretly irritated were you when someone cracked the first clue online quite so quickly? I understand the more overt clues were an attempt to make the show more accessible. In hindsight, do you still think they were a good idea?

No it didn’t bother us becasue the clues were there to be cracked. And they had to pitched so they could be solved. And obviously if you tape the show and endlessly go over it the chances are you’ll get it – and you should be rewarded for that effort. However the clues are always interesting when they are discussed retrospectively. The great thing about this show is that even if someone absolutely cracked it and were absolutely 100% sure, no -one was ever certain. Was what you worked out a big red herring or double bluff? And even if one person thought they had it all sussed, invariably within hours they were changing their minds. That happened with both contestants and viewers alike – which made it fun. No one was ever really sure until the reveal.

Were eliminations difficult? Do you grow attached to certain contestants, or could you maintain a stoic stiff upper-lip for the whole thing?

Were eliminations difficult? Always. And they never get easier. It’s because they are so brutal, so sudden and so final. And bizarrely in every single show – they are always shocking even though you know they are coming. But the one that sticks into my mind the most was the very first elimination I ever did. It was Jools – who was the first to go in the first episode of The Mole. It was really shocking – especially as she was one of the favourites in my mind to win. But it is odd because a big part of the disappointment with contestants leaving is that they feel they don’t want to miss out on the production – which is actually a back handed compliment.

Did Glenn know who the Mole was? I don’t think he did during series one, and the host diaries that went up on the site for series two suggested not, but clearly having Tanya go first in the Scrabble bit wasn’t a bit of luck.

The truth is Glenn never knew. We agreed on Day One it was an unfair pressure for him to know and he didn’t want to be in a position to let it slip while filming. Also he liked playing the game – indeed he was the biggest pain in the arse on location with his constant theories and speculation. Plus he always claimed he knew when I was lying or using my “Poker Face” and used to hassle me on an hourly basis. (I still think he was behind the infamous Watergate style break in on my hotel room where someone gained access in an attempt to find evidence of who the Mole was during filming – but I’m delighted to say I had left not one shred of evidence thank god). However the Scrabble clue was the point where I told him for the first and only time – and then he didn’t believe me! The sabotages were always carefully planned and ready but I had to always decide whether it was safe to pull them off and what risk was involved. With the Scrabble one it was always a long shot but for some reason I felt we were light on clues in that episode and felt under pressure to do it. But it meant telling Glenn. The position was complicated by the fact that on day one he had said he thought Tanya was The Mole and had continued with that theory – which had really annoyed me!!!! I had done some heavy duty double bluffing and was just getting him to doubt her and think it was Chris – when the Scrabble clue happened. But the irony was he then thought it was a bluff to make him doubt his theory that it was Tanya – and it took me 2 hours to convince him what I was saying was genuine. It shows the level of strangeness that happened on location with The Mole! But having told him we filmed the sequence – and then he only had to keep the secret for another couple of days. But he said if we ever did it again he never wanted to be told because he really didn’t like the pressure that came with the knowledge. But as you all know we never had the chance to do it again!

That’s enough Mole for the moment I think. I’m sure our readers are aware that you’ve made shows other than The Mole, Playing it Straight and Beauty and the Geek (which we’ll get to in a moment). For example, I noticed your name on an I’m a Celeb spin-off show with Fern and Phil a few years back. What else have you done? Are you traditionally a documentary maker who “fell into” reality entertainment?

My career: I’ll send you a CV! I’ve done years of stuff – all in Factual or Factual Entertainment – starting with Network Seven in the late nineteen eighties, through researching, producing, directing, developing and executive producing. I also had a very brief and inglorious presenting career.

I suppose the biggest claim to fame/bit of trivia is that I am credited with creating what became I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. That came from a documentary I made in the middle 1990’s about a group of British soldiers who had got lost in a place called Low’s Gully in Borneo. I made a film where we took two of them back into the jungle. We were filming for a month and had to learn how to survive in the jungle before going in. I came back and wrote a treatment for a new show based on my experience. It involved dropping a group of ten strangers in the jungle and watching them survive (obviously this was before Survivor hit the screen). The twist was that the group had a phone supplied which was called the “Get Me Out Of Here” phone – and if they couldn’t handle it they had to use the “Get Me Out Of Here” phone and would be air lifted out – which was the Health and Safety arrangement on our original documentary film. And that idea was develped into the celebrity format that everyone now knows.

And yes I did do a live studio show on it a while back. That came about because they got the commission from the ITV Network Centre one day and wanted to be live on air the next day. I was asked to go over in the morning and come up with some thing that would work on air by 5pm that night. I had worked with Philip previous so was despatched to do it. And then we made a show every day for the following 2 weeks or so.

If they offered you a producer role on Big Brother, would you take it?

Never say never… but it is not on the horizon! The challenge with Big Brother is giving that massive audience something fresh and original – but also all the bits they expect from “their” show.

Have you ever been shouted at by a contestant who feels they’ve been misrepresented?

I’m assuming you are asking about people complaining about the way they have been portrayed once the show has been on. The answer to that is a very definite no on all the shows you know about. Reality shows do weird things to people emotionally when you are making them so on every show certain people lose it – which you come to expect. So in every series you usually have to sit people down and make them keep their perspective – which I tend to be quite blunt about. Usually it revolves around people thinking things are being “fixed” – which they never are. They always forget it is a compeition with a lot of money at stake typically – and usually behind their backs their rivals are doing whatever they can to win – and will do anything they can to cover their tracks because they don’t want to be exposed. The easiest way to cover anything is to blame the production – and contestants often buy into that. I remember we had a classic towards the end of Playing It Straight. The boys got obsessed with something that had been said – and they convinced themselves that the information had been revealed by a member of the production team. But I knew the full picture – it had been revealed by one of them in an attempt to manipulate the game and Zoe to his advantage. In the end I got so fed up with it I sat them all down and made the person admit they had said it – and it all calmed down immediately.

Let’s move on to Playing it Straight. Unlike The Mole, the original fortunes of the show were far from auspicious – cancelled in the States mid-run. When you were asked to be involved, was this a worry?

Obviously if a show you are working on is cancelled elsewhere it is a bit worrying. For the record it was pulled in Australia as well. But I was confident ours was going to be different and a strong stand alone show that would, with a bit of luck, appeal to a British audience – who ultimately wouldn’t care about the American or Australian version. So I wasn’t overly bothered.

Contestants didn’t seem to know what the show was about when they started. Was there ever a temptation to throw in an overtly homophobic man in just to see what would have happened?

Before we left all the gay guys knew what the deal was – we had to tell them because they had to be comfortable with the idea of effectively “going back into the closet” for the duration of the show. The straight guys had no idea until we told them on camera (obviously the gay guys knew that was coming and so had to act “shocked”). And then Zoe – God Bless Her – we dumped the news on her when you saw it on screen. And it wasn’t a temptation to throw someone deeply homophobic in. I’m not a big fan of that sort of extreme and obvious casting that some other shows go for. I try to look for something a little more subtle and interesting when I cast.

Was there some kind of test the gay contestants had to go through to prove they were gay?

No we had no gay tests – but we did have to get legal documentation from some of the guys to prove they were straight or gay and not bi-sexual – which would have destroyed the show. We had to ensure someone wouldn’t go to the papers claiming we had been duped by a contestant pretending to be something they weren’t.

I’ve not seen an awful lot of the original US show (lack of research is bad, I know), but your vision of the show seemed much more overtly humourous. Was this in direct contrast to the original US show? Who had the idea of challenges involving throwing and catching, and putting up shelves because we all know that homosexuals can’t do DIY?

The American show was very strong and had great stories – but the tone was very serious – similar in style to Survivor. The first thing that occurred to me was that the whole premise of the show – can you/how do you spot whether a man is gay or not – was ridiculous. The whole point was that you can’t – and all those cliched things people still rely on – like the walk, how good they are at sports etc etc etc – are all ridiculous, outdated notions. But they were all the things that the challenges were to be based on. Therefore if you have got a show based predominantly on ridiculous concepts you have to make it funny. Also I think the Brits are generally a bit more laid back and therefore willing to joke about this whole area. Sometimes we were very “Carry On” in our approach, and at other times we were very camp, and that was the hardest thing with the show – getting the tone right. And I think our greatest achievement was that, on the whole, the gay community seemed to like it, think it was broadly funny and not offensive.

Was it difficult keeping the various sexualities of the contestants a secret whilst filming? Was it all a bit like The Mole?

Yes it was tough and very Mole like. But again it was very strange on location due to the pressures everyone was under. The biggest surprise was that all the gay guys didn’t suss each other out straight away. I assumed their “Gaydar” would be spot on. Indeed the strangest moment on the shoot was in the second ep where one of the gay guys sought me out and said he thought he was the only gay man there, thought I was setting him up and it was some sort of Truman Show on him we were really making. I told Zoe that one later – it made her feel a lot better about how hard she found it to spot the gay guys!

Did Alan Cumming write his own script?

In a word no. On all our shows the scripts are written by Glenn, Angelo and me. But Alan Cumming was a top bloke, lovely to work with and a really down to earth and funny man. I went to New York to do the voice over because he was there and forgot how massive a movie star he is over there. The reaction of people when they saw him was incredible – and he just wanted to gossip about the show! And I just wanted to ask him about The High Life. He was a big fan of the show. Indeed he turned up early on the final day of the record so he could sit and watch the final as a programme before we did the voice over meaning he could concentrate on it and enjoy it as a viewer – which was great. And then he made me promise to send a boxed copy of the series over to him and he played it to all his house guests over the Xmas holiday – and said it was the hit of his Christmas – which is about as high as praise gets!

We all saw the rather powerful ending of the series where Zoe turned down Dan, who we all thought she was getting on rather well with, for Ben who for our money was the most obviously gay of the three finalists. Was there a rather deliberate production ploy to downplay the Zoe/Ben relationship throughout the series to provide a shocking finale, or did the end result come as a shock to everyone on the production?

I don’t think we did down play the Zoe and Ben relationship. It started developing very late and we showed exactly how it came about. Ben got genuinely concerned that Zoe was going to get hurt – and started looking after her like her little sister – as he said on camera. And remarkably – he thereby overtook the two hot favourites – the Dannys – and she responded to the point of picking him. To this day I’m still slightly shocked she went that way – but she did and we showed what happened!

Did Zoe and Dan ever speak to each other again?

Zoe and Danny did definitely speak to each other again – but I’m not sure on the current state of play – it is a couple of years now almost since we made it.

Was there ever a temptation to pitch “Playing it Bent”, the show where straight blokes pretend to be gay in order to win a cash prize? Why no second series?

There was a lot of desire to capitalise on the success of the show. There were discussions about doing 1 man and ten lipstick lesbians/pin up girls, or the same again, or a celebrity girl picker etc etc – but on all these ideas it is all very well having the “concept” but you need to have the “content” too. What other games could you play in series 2? What are the cliched signs to spot a lesbian for example – and how do you turn that into one game – let alone games for a six part series. I felt it was a “one joke show” – albeit a very successful joke – and thought it was best left at that. Perhaps it is like the reality equivalent of The Office – we quit while we were ahead!

[Spoiler warning – if you’re waiting for Beauty and the Geek be shown on Channel 4, you’d be advised to tread carefully here]

This segues quite neatly into your current project, the British version of cult US hit Beauty and the Geek. You seem to have a much wider variety of geeks in comparison to the US counterpart. Certainly some of our ones don’t look quite so stereotypically geeky, and seem rather more outgoing. Was this deliberate? Where did you find them?

We do have a broad range but I think that is a reflection of the fact that “geek” is a very broad category – encompassing everything through computer obsessives to train/plane spotters, academics and blokes with glasses and sensible hair who have never had girlfriends. We just cast people who we thought fitted our bill. And to find them – we contacted every obscure club, organisation, hobby centre and convention we could think of – as well as all the universities and colleges.

Unlike Playing it Straight, I have watched Beauty and the Geek US, mainly because it has the respect of our chums across the pond and also because I knew David Bodycombe had some Now Get Out Of That-esque stuff coming up on our version so I should “gen up” and look knowledgable. Along with The Mole, it seems to be The Reality Show It’s OK To Like from a critics perspective…

Yes it is hugely gratifying when people like Jonathan Ross on his radio show and Ally Ross in The Sun say they like it and think it is funny. I’ve got a lot of time for both those guys and think they are both very sharp and funny – so it was high praise indeed. And for an E4 show to get that kind of attention it is pleasing. Plus without sounding too arrogant I think both B&TG and Playing It Straight had a certain intelligence behind them – in the casting, the way they were made and the way they are put together – and I think the critics respond to that.

I have to say, though, I’m a little bit baffled as to some of the production choices…

Right onto the really controversial bits!! Why did we do what we did. The first thing I’d say is that the original US show is brilliant. It was engaging, funny, moving and very well crafted. But the simple fact of life was that we had a greatly reduced budget and production team so had to make some alternative editorial choices. I’m not going to go through figures but one simple comparison is that we had four cameras compared to ten or eleven in the US. Hence the simple fact of life is that you do have to film on DV at times because otherwise you wouldn’t have the footage. But other changes we made weren’t just as a result of budget.

One of the major differences is a lack of physical host (although we do have David Mitchell on commentary). What was the thinking behind that? Surely this is going to make doing the final quiz rather difficult? I know you’re all fans of technology, was reading out the questions on a Palm Pilot just that one thing too far?

This was actually inspired by the American version ironically. They were very keen on the fact that it is a “social experiment” taking seven girls and seven geeks, pairing them together and seeing what happened. That was the idea at its most pure and I thought it would be great to keep it just like that. The closest model in my mind was Big Brother Series One which I believe had similar aspirations (before Nasty Nick kicked it all off) in that it put quite diverse people (Craig, Nick, Nichola, that Irish bloke etc etc) together as an interesting mix. We were taking fourteen strangers and effectively locking them away in a remote Scottish castle and I wanted them to concentrate exclusively on each other as the heart of the show was about how they would influence/change each other. My instinct was that a presenter would “contaminate” that process – it would be like having Davina inside the house during Big Brother. The next stage is to think who would you cast. Considering it was an E4 show – would you go for someone like Steve Jones? For me immediately you would potentially intimidate the boys and potentially distract all the girls – who may have been more interested in impressing him than helping the boys. Or how about a girl – someone like June [Sarpong]. Again potentially it could have thrown the balance out and drawn contestants in a different direction – would the girls all want to be her mate and would she just terrify the boys? Ultimately the presenter’s job boiled down to reading out the challenges and comparing the quiz. It was easy to get a replacement to do the setting the challenges. We thought about who would fit the setting and the idea of a non speaking butler fitted the location, plus gave us an interesting dynamic and options as things develop. In the opening scene alone you saw Hailey – arguably the most outgoing of the girls – taking charge of the situation and reading the note – which allowed you to learn a little about her. In contrast it was Ed – one of the more nervous and shy of the boys – who did it for them. And if you look at that sequence closely a slight movement from Gates makes Ed almost jump out of his skin. Then compare Ed interacting with Gates in ep 3/4 and you get a sense of how much he developed over time. These are very small things but are the things we discussed when making this decision.

Going without a presenter left a massive problem with the final quiz, which was the part we changed most [**]. The three major changes were that the contestants asked each other the questions, their partners were in the same room and the others watched from above. So why did we do this and did the decisions work?

The contestants asked the questions. Beforehand we were trying to work how we could do the quiz without a host. Initially it was Angelo or Glenn’s idea (I can’t quite remember) to get them to ask each other. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure but then we discussed it and realised that it may give us some editorial content. Our thought was if the boys were asking the girls, the questions would be very simplistic to them and the answers absolutely obvious (and vice versa). One example was a girl asking a boy Jordan’s real name. We realised the way they asked the question might tell us a bit about them and add editorially. Arguably the best example of this was Jamie with Sam in ep 3. Jamie is a decent bloke and was genuinely sorry to have to ask Sam questions that he thought she stood no chance of getting. But then suddenly – she got them right – and Jamie had to feel sorry for himself as he was out. However before we filmed there was still a feeling that contestants asking each other questions would be “too weird” (in Four’s own words). But the final selling point for us to go this way was that we realised that the most successful quiz format in recent history has exactly this dynamic and it did add massively to the gameplay. That game was, of course… Trivial Pursuit. Once we realised that we became determined to go for it…. and did. And I’m very happy with it.

[**] In the grand final of the US show, the contestants are asked questions based on their partners.

In the US show, the partners not taking the quiz would be watching their partners in another room…

We felt having the rivals in another room could be improved. We decided if we had them in the room but at a distance away so that they were unable to help it would increase the tension and, more important, the viewer would always see their reaction, as it happened, in the deep two shot (rather than having to cut away to a room across the hall). So we always had the option to see their immediate reaction as their partner answered right or wrong. And I think that worked brilliantly. Re-examine any of our finals and those shots tell a great story – for example what about Sam’s shock and spontaneous applause when Ed dragged the answer of Versace out of some previously unexplored part of his brain – or Carrie unable to hide her frustration as Phil struggled with his “simple” questions.

Having the other contestants watch the elimination from the balcony, when in the original show they were all locked away so you could have a reaction when the winning contestants walked back upstairs. It seems rather odd for a gameshow to deliberately drop a reaction shot, which always seem so crucial in game and reality shows. Again, what was the thinking here?

Again very deliberate and done to add potential drama and story. We felt their reaction would give viewers an insight into the in-castle dynamic. And I think it worked. Look once more at the shots we used from the balcony throughout the series and then decide whether it worked. And by doing that we sacrificed the shots the Americans used of the victors going back to join the others. Yes we did and we were criticised on the website for it. But I’m sorry I’d do that again 100 times out of 100. At the risk of upsetting the person that made that observation but those shots of people returning have been done one million times on every reality show – and they are lame, lame, lame.

We had both the immediate real time reaction on the balcony – and then another hit when we did the reunification after the elimination.

I know you’re all fans of technology, was reading out the questions on a Palm Pilot thing just that one thing too far?

The Archos. We wanted something that could randomly generate the questions (before the quiz the contestants had to decide whether they wanted machine A or B – girls and boys – so there was a random element) And we used them for something else later in the series so that’s why we went for those. I thought they were slightly more modern/geeky than questions on cards.

Do you regret giving the geeks questions on celebrity culture in week one when it didn’t really relate to the subject of the task involved? Surely having a skilled host would have heightened the tension in the elimination quiz in a way that amatuers can’t?

No because it was designed to show exactly how different the boys were from the “norm”. Also it meant they then crammed for future eps from the girls which gave us content and pointed up how relevant or not all that ephemeral all prevailing celebrity bullshit is. And most important, it gave Jonathan Ross something to talk about!

Should we have used a host to up the tension? Not for me. The eliminations were plenty tense enough, especially as the show develops, and I think the audience actually don’t like shows being hyped by presenters. That feels a bit eighties and fine for Millionaire on ITV but we were on E4. I hate presenters trying to up tension – and I think the bulk of the sophisticated audience do – it’s like “don’t tell me how I should be thinking or reacting – I can do it for myself without your input thanks.”

The first episode seemed a bit rushed.

The first ep on any reality show is always tough because you have to establish the game, introduce everybody, squeeze in the content and resolve it. Would I change it? – possibly as people thought it was a bit hectic. I think the biggest change if we did another series I’d make to ep 1 is that I wouldn’t eliminate. Lots of people felt cheated that Phil and Carrie went so quickly. I think both would have added lots of content and it was a shame they left so soon – perhaps we should start eliminating in ep 2.

I always thought Glenn Hugill was a bit geeky. Would he have made a good contestant?

No comment – contact him direct at Deal or No Deal and you ask him. Put it this way – it wasn’t me that worked out and then programmed the Archos!

Final obvious questions: Which of your shows are you most proud of?

What am I most proud of? I like the three reality shows in that I think they do stand well against every other of the thousands of reality shows. I believe they are well made and innovative. What is strange is that people seem to like my shows more when they are not on air – both The Mole and Playing It Straight had a weird afterlife where people said “That was really good – we miss that” once they were gone. It would be nice if that happened while it was on – so tell everyone to watch Beauty and the Geek.

Final bit of gossip – one of my friends was talking to Jade Goody’s ex Jeff Brazier today – and he was raving about Beauty and The Geek, saying he thought it was brilliant. Not quite Jonathan Ross – but every bit of praise helps!!!

What are you working on next?

Next – a couple of weird projects – I’ll tell you when they are in production. One is a format sold to the US which I’m going over to sort out next week and the other a more straightforward doc. Plus more B&TG – if it rates well on Channel 4 Friday nights (it starts on March 31st at 10.30 pm) – so e-mail everyone you have ever met and tell them to stay in and watch it!

Peter! The drinks are on the house. Thanks very much.

This feature was originally created in 2006. The following comments were posted to it at the time:

Graham Kibble-White:
Thanks for putting this interview online – really interesting stuff. I’ve always been a huge fan of The Mole, but I think C5 didn’t quite know what to do with the series, particularly in the light of Jail Break’s terrible run. But the big question is: Is Beauty and The Geek actually worth watching, then? Just the premise alone put me off. Have I made a mistake.

Brig Bother
Yes you have. It’s actually a really “nice” and sweet and funny show at its heart. People act as you’d expect for the first few episodes but then it goes all lovely. 
The criticisms I took him to task with came after watching episode one, having spent the week previous watching the US show (see front page entry dated 8th February). However, watching UK episode three last week gave me an epiphany of sorts, I finally “got” where the UK show was coming from, and enjoyed it all the more for it.

Great interview!! (especially the Mole part of course, since I don’t know the other shows *blush*)

I’ll probably give BatG a go when it’s repeated on C4, then…

Great interview I was a big fan of The Mole and think Peter Davey is a lovely bloke. My claim to fame is my name appeared along with others in a news paper used in the Train gmae on the second series and I am the proud owner of the travel book he used when they were planning the second series .

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