A Man Walks Into A Bar… Glenn Hugill

We e-mailed TV’s Glenn Hugill some questions. He found some time in his astonishing schedule to reply!

I’m just looking through your CV, I’m quite surprised to see that you’ve acted in quite a few shows that I’d heard of, although being quite young meant I wasn’t very interested at the time, such as Just a Gigolo, The Upper Hand and Dalziel and Pascoe. And then there was that stint on Coronation Street that you did as Alan McKenna. What was the thought process behind deciding to go in for The Mole? It’s quite a change of direction.

Hello. My name’s Glenn and I was an actor.

For ten years in fact. It was mostly classical theatre, including long stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company although, as you mention, there were cameos in some of Britain’s very finest TV classics along the way. I was like an English Tom Cruise only much taller, blonde and not good looking.

I wish I could say that I made the decision to go for the Mole. I didn’t; Peter Davey, the man I owe my professional life to, did. He saw me being interviewed on Richard and Judy. I can’t remember what I was saying but no doubt it was devastatingly witty. He was looking for a presenter for The Mole and called my agent the next day. Of course the real change of direction was that I went on to produce the show which was the beginning of the rest of my life.

You did two series of that, then our research suggests you did a show on BBC3 called Mechanoids with Nigel Buckland out of Vids. Now our research draws a blank here. what did it involve? Was it just Robot Wars with swearing?

Swearing and blood, yes. There was one brilliant game I remember where alien corpses were strung from the ceiling and to get top marks the robots had to disembowel them. Classic. Baby alien corpses. I kid you not.

Nigel and I did the on-camera stuff and the commentaries too; so we were Craig Charles and Jonathan Pearce rolled into one. And who wouldn’t be proud to say that? It was fabulous fun and a great production crew. I still work with them in fact. I do the narration for Mission Implausible (Sky One – Tuesdays 8pm!).

I notice that you’ve not hosted anything since, but since then you’ve become a big success in the production side of television. Was moving behind the camera a conscious decision?

I don’t want to bore you but I became very seriously ill shortly after Mechanoids and basically spent 18 months in bed. I’m not the man I once was and also no longer what you might call ‘on screen material’! When I was well enough to attempt work again, Peter threw me a lifeline producing Playing it Straight. He told me I’d that I’d been doing the wrong job for 10 years. Which was either very complimentary or very rude dependent on your viewpoint. Either way, he was right. When I was acting, I always felt like a waiter when I wanted to be the chef. Now I’m absolutely passionate about what I do.

After Playing it Straight you edit produced Cash Cab. This was a bit of a sleeper hit wasn’t it? It got exported all over the world. What does it mean to be an edit producer? It’s not a credit we see fairly often. Were you often out in the support car?

An edit producer runs the edit. That’s to say, he sits with the editor and makes the decisions about how the show should be cut for style and content. The series producer, who has ultimate editorial control, then approves this cut.

With factual reality shows, the producers who were on set during the shoot will typically run the edit. This is because there is a huge amount of material and you need someone who was very close to the action with the editor to ensure nothing gets lost. Thus they will be credited as producers and so the term edit producer won’t be used. However with gameshows the edit is often run by someone who was not part of the production of the shoot but is brought in because they have a flair for assembling linear material into something compelling. A bit like a good record producer. The fantastic Adam Wood, who I had got to know well on Playing it Straight – he was the executive producer – was kind enough to think I could make a good fist of the Cash Cab footage that had been shot, so he called me and I came in to cut the establishing episodes. In fact, I’m proud to say that I cut the pilot that Adam used to sell the show worldwide.

The job host John Moody had involved having to drive around several of Britain’s major cities. How did he know where to go? Did he have a secret GPS? Was someone shouting directions in his ear? Did he just know? Or what?

I couldn’t say. Perhaps he’s bionic.

We read that many of the contestants used on Cash Cab were plants who knew they were going to be on a gameshow, but weren’t told the nature of it until they jumped in the taxi. Is this true? What sort of ratio of people picked up at random off the street to plants was there? We normally see one instance of someone deciding they don’t want to play on an episode – how often did it happen?

Can’t help you here either. You’re beginning to hate me aren’t you?

Beauty and the Geek then – it’s the question that has to be asked: you decided on the The Matrix get up for The Mole, you were quite happy to chat on the C5 messageboard for that show as well, you programmed the Archos for BatG. We’ve seen your choice of links on your non-updated website… are you, basically, the sort of person who would use l33t speak in real life without a hint of irony?

Are you calling me a nerd? I might be weakened these days but I could still have you. Sheesh; l33t speak indeed. That’s ridiculou5.

You play poker, don’t you? I have terrible trouble with my pocket pairs. What would you recommend I do with pocket nines, positioned quite early but having quite a short stack?

I would say it depends on the size of the blinds. If the big blind was more than 20% of my stack I’d push ‘em in. Otherwise I’d wait for a better spot.

[We tried this. We lost.]

Going back just slightly – you’ve helped produce two moderately successful (critically and commercially) UK versions of US reality formats, Playing it Straight and Beauty and the Geek. Are there plans for a third?

Thanks for saying ‘moderately’. That really made me feel good.

When we filmed Beauty and the Geek I was still freelance and I squeezed it into the downtime on DoND. Since then, however, I’ve been lucky enough to be offered a senior creative position at Endemol and so I’ll be working on original formats here which I’m thrilled about.

Right, let’s move on to the meaty stuff, Royal Television Society Daytime Progeamme of the Year Deal or No Deal. It’s not doing too badly is it? You seem to have a habit of being involved with shows that have won awards.

Just like DoND, it’s right place; right time. And my Satanic pact, naturally.

The truth is, I love great telly. Pure and simple. I just try to make programmes that I really want to watch.

Let’s begin with the pilot. We have it on good authority that a pilot was filmed with Brian Conley as host, following the more lighthearted European formula. Now it’s a fairly unpopular opinion, but I quite like Brian Conley, and the episodes of the French show I’ve seen were brilliant – genuinely funny and as tense as anything, and I could see it working excellently as a combination. How closely to the Italian/French show was it? Did it keep their excellent use of music stings? We noticed that one of the questions that cropped up in the original application form asked potential contestants what their choice of theme song would be… If I bunged you £20, could we get a copy?

There was never ever any ‘lighthearted’ version of the show. Richard Hague and I have known what we wanted from day one and that’s what’s on screen now. The theme song on the form was probably there because the contestant team based their questionnaire on the French one.

One of the things that was speculated on when the show first started was Augustin Bousfield’s (eerily similar to Cash Cab‘s, but we’ll let it slide) theme to the show was done with a more lighthearted version of the format in mind, but Channel 4 decided they wanted the show to be a bit more serious, but you kept the theme anyway. Time has rather lessened its impact, but at the time we couldn’t work out what the hell was going on – we didn’t think it fit at the show at all. How close to the mark are we here?

Not remotely. Channel 4 have been absolutely like minded with us and terrifically supportive from the outset. They certainly didn’t make any such request. In fact, Gus wrote the theme and the drama music at the same time. The game has a huge range of emotion and the span of the music reflects that very nicely I think.

The story then goes Les Dennis turns it down, Noel turns it down but Peter Bazalgette phones him up and persuades him to change his mind. Les Dennis evidently kicked himself so he’s coming back to host In the Grid, Noel’s doing rather well out of the whole thing. How much influence does Noel have over the show’s direction, or is he generally quite good at doing as he’s told?

We filmed pilots with some brilliant people after Noel turned the show down but as soon as he changed his mind there was only ever one outcome. He was always the first choice and the only person who was ever offered the role.

Did he come up with his own break links, or was there a massive brainstorming session when the show first started, attempting to find as many tenuous ways to fit the word “break” in as possible? He doesn’t do it these days of course. Did he just get bored of that?

We don’t plan anything. A vital part of the show is that we react absolutely to what happens. Noel is fabulously inventive and these things just pour out of him. If there been fewer recently then I apologise to fan of such puns profusely.

He has an interesting grasp of probability and statistics (“the quarter million hasn’t been on the table since June, so statistically it’s GOT to be on the table today!”). Obviously it’s all hype for entertainment value, but the UK show is unique, I think, on its fondness for meaningless prediction based on past form. What lies behind this choice?

It’s not a choice. It’s natural evolution. Mally started talking this way and so the other contestants and Noel followed. Since we only replace one contestant at a time there is continuity within the group that means they pick up on each other and this then becomes part of the fabric of the show. Who was the first contestant to say ‘ask me the question please Noel’? Who was the first to bow to the East and West wings as they walked to the table? The answer may be buried in history but these things are now formatted without anyone ever being instructed to do any of it. Actors would call it ‘organic’, which is partly why I’m glad not to be one anymore.

One of the other (certainly when it began but rather less so now) unique things about the UK show is the lack of on-screen presence of the independent auditor who loads the boxes. What was the thinking behind this? Given Endemol seem to be giving themselves a bit of a trustworthiness image problem through Big Brother, is this a decision you think you may come to regret?

I’d take exception to that comment if I didn’t like you guys so much. The vagaries of public opinion don’t change the fact that I have two principle considerations to every decision I make: editorial and financial. The idea simply failed that test. I am quite sure that the people who hang their suspicions on the fact there’s no onscreen presence would be exactly the same if there were. They’d simply invent a suspicion elsewhere. Besides, after a year with a regular viewership beyond 3 million it seems the only person still fails to fully realize we play the game honestly and for real is KP. Forgive me, but I can live with that.

What was the reasoning behind getting the contestants in the wings to take over Alex Lovell’s viewer competition voiceover?

We never underestimate how much of DoND is about respecting and including the people who have given up weeks of their lives to take part. It’s their show and so we’re always looking for ways to be as inclusive as possible.

Just who is the Banker, and do you think he ever feels just slightly guilty when someone who has given up their life for a few weeks gets lowballed into taking home a meaningless sum of cash?

Do you really want to know? I don’t think so. Wasn’t Christmas just that little bit more fun when you still believed in Santa?

As for lowballing; the Banker can’t deliberately do anything since he doesn’t know where the money is.

One of the great things about the format as we have it is that each episode is pretty much a blank canvas that you can paint onto as you like. Some of the things we quite like about other European versions are the various twists concocted to add a bit of spice, like the idea that the Banker asks the contestant to make a walking offer in the Italian show, or the contestant not getting a final cash offer at two boxes and being forced to pick a box. As much as I love the latter idea, I’m not really convinced it would fit very well into the UK framework and mythos, although I’ve always thought letting the player make the offer at the eight box stage would be quite interesting. Have there been any ideas you thought might work, but decided against it in the end?

You may not believe me but the Banker has total and sole control over what he does. He has actually asked the contestant to make their own offer on a number of occasions and might easily offer an end swap if he saw fit. There was a game recorded a couple of weeks ago with a contestant called Ned where he did a number of amazing things because they were appropriate to Ned. I have to say, the thing I’m proudest of about our show is that everyone thinks on their feet. If something occurs to Noel or the Banker during the game then they go with it. It means our Banker sometimes makes mistakes but also sometimes makes inspired offers that defy mathematical analysis. I also means that contestants have a genuine chance to influence not just their own games but those of their friends – literally right up to the second the phone rings. That’s why our game is so much more of a real psychological scrap between contestant and Banker rather than just luck. It elevates the game to another level. Our Banker has always taken the view that it’s more about mindset than it is about maths and to be fair to him, he’s the most successful Banker there is. And I believe he doesn’t even use a calculator; bad news for maths fans like me.

The drawings on Noel’s hand. His idea or a production idea?

His.

Is there *actually* a correct answer to the competition, or is everyone having a jolly good laugh at people’s creative efforts and are just going to pick the one reckoned the most amusing/inappropriate?

Sorry. Not my area I’m afraid.

[There’s actually some stuff about the reasoning behind this in the new Behind the Scenes book].

I don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility that you’ll eventually have a top prize winner – it has happened variously around the world, after all. Are you scared that once it happens people might turn off? Are you considering raising the top prize if that happens? Given that you film well in advance, how is Noel going to be able to open the show without giving the game away to the live audience?

No, I’d love someone to win the top prize. It would be fantastic. I’m quite sure a number of people will. We’ve had two people, Morris and Kirsty, who have reached the necessary point in just one year. Those games could just as easily been two £250,000 winners.

Its recently transpired that noneother than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is an absolutely huge fan of the show. Do you think she likes the bit where everyone bangs on the table and chants “blue, blue, blue!”?

Oh yes. In fact, I think it’s quite likely she chants back, “Blood, blood, blood.”

When it started, we had no idea if it’s a show that would run and run. Well it turns out that ratings are on the up again after the Summer break. How long do you think the show has? Will it end when Noel wants to leave? Have you considered the idea of guest hosts when Noel wants a holiday?

The response to the show has been overwhelming there’s no doubt. However, we were always hopeful we could create a show that would be genuinely enduring and with such a powerful following I’m now sure we’ll see DoND well into the future. It really is a pleasure to make because so many contestants say it’s the best time of their life. It makes me proud to be a part of that. And day after day the show itself is just so incredibly exciting and so different.

As for guest hosts, our schedule means that Noel can go on holiday without it affecting filming, so we can always have the maestro himself.

By the way, on the subject of ratings, you probably know that producers always factor in the audience share listed with the actual numbers. Ratings are indeed up but in fact they are have been remarkably stable for a long time. It’s just, as I’m sure you would guess, that fewer people watch TV in the summertime.

Let’s end on something light: you’ve single-handedly destroyed terrestrial kids television. When (if?) Deal finishes, is that what you want to be remembered for?

Well, despite what the tabloids say (don’t believe everything you read kids!) I’m not 41 or indeed 42; I’m actually only 36, so I’m not quite ready to be remembered for anything just yet. Besides, kids TV these days is hardly Chorlton and the Wheelies or Ludwig. I sleep soundly. Until, as if from nowhere, the shopkeeper appears. Looking very, very angry.

Thanks Glenn! The drinks are on the house.

Addenum!

Just too late for the main interview, it was asked if we could enquire about the rumour that episodes where people who deal early would be dropped. Glenn?

It is hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances that would lead us to drop a show. The shows are too valuable in all senses. An early deal would have curiosity value at very least and could be very interesting in terms of the player’s personal story. The show wouldn’t be over; the proveout would simply be longer. Besides, other countries have proved that viewing figures can actually climb in games with an early deal – human nature seems to relish watching a lost opportunity just as much a windfall!

This interview was conducted in 2006. These comments were left in the comment box:

Brig Bother:
I’ve not forgotten your question on early deals incidentally JH, these answers came in yesterday evening and I wanted to get it out for the anniversary. I’ve asked, and I’ll add it in later when it gets a reply.

SteveW:
Love the fact the he spotted KP’s frequent *fixed* comments on these forums

He is right though, showing the Ajudicator would only over emphasise the draw and stil people would say the it was edited anyway.

The game works with it’s honesty.

SteveW:
And of course, thanks for the transcript of a great interview

Tufty:
“That’s why our game is so much more of a real psychological scrap between contestant and Banker rather than just luck. It elevates the game to another level.”

No, not elevates. What’s the opposite of elevates? It would be that, whatever it is.

Mister Al:
“I am quite sure that the people who hang their suspicions on the fact there’s no onscreen presence would be exactly the same if there were. They’d simply invent a suspicion elsewhere.”

He’s dead right, you know.

Thanks Brig (and Glenn!) for the interview.

Gizensha:
As a fan of the Banker doing interesting things, I look forward to Ned’s game.

…Despite not having met Ned. When will he show up in the wings abouts, at a best guess, Brig?

Brig Bother:
Well if it was filmed in the last few weeks, he’ll show up very soon I’d imagine.

Pook:
Excellent interview, thanks Brig and Glenn!

NJ:
KP just got dissed by Glenn Hugill!

Lot of interesting stuff in there. Though his attempt at l33t was shameful.

JH:
> As a fan of the Banker doing
> interesting things, I look forward
> to Ned’s game.

> …Despite not having met Ned.
> When will he show up in the wings
> abouts, at a best guess, Brig?

Ned is mentioned in the recent Guardian article (with reference to the system he planned to use in his game) so I expect he will appear within the next week.

KP
Dear hell I must have been incredibly noisy on the issue of the show’s validity if Glenn Hugill points me out specifically.

I think I’ve stopped jumping up and down in relieved joy that it wasn’t 250k in the box tonight… if it had been there, my view would probably have become a majority view, but as it is not even I believe the game’s unfair now. And that 70k was a perfect example of what Glenn mentioned, offers that work despite making no mathematical sense (that offer could have been in six figures and it wouldn’t have looked that odd).

Having said that, Endemol are so big it probably doesn’t matter. The Postcodelotterij, on the other hand…)

Seriously though – the game itself is effectively a televised economics experiment. (I have a lecture that touches on the relevant areas, decision-making under uncertainty and utility theory, tomorrow – at 4pm. Go figure.) Described in those terms it has relatively limited appeal, but add a psychological element and it becomes more interesting to most of the population.

The maths and economics geeks *raises hand* can have fun with all the hypothetical situations and think about how much less money they could give away if they were filling the Banker role… but the role of the Banker is psychological and nothing to do with saving money, and as long as the show is funding the prize money from phone-lottery revenue alone (i.e. ‘until Ofcom change their regulations and/or people have the sense to use the web entry’) that will remain so.

(Aside: I have honestly wondered whether the reason the Dutch offers are more consistent and mathematically sound is because the show is offering prizes an order of magnitude above ours despite gaining only a fraction of the audience and hence ad revenue is because the prize money is actually significant enough that it matters to the company if the offers are poorly judged. It’s not a cultural issue, that idea is disproved by the offers in the new stripped nightly version.�

Gizensha:
You know – the thought of accusing something of a fix because of a 1 in 22 chance coming up strikes me as utterly bizare.

Neil Moon:
a few weeks after that interview of course a show was dropped and the show numbers stopped making sense annie who played on the 500th show recorded was only the 499th from a television prospective

Moon:
I wonder what he meant by “no longer on-screen material”. As far as I can see at IMDB he’s been in a few things after he got ill (which must have been around 2003).

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