The image above needs little introduction. ‘The Black Chair’ has been the symbol of the long-running BBC staple Mastermind from its very beginning; a dark, foreboding presence for that most iconic of TV quizzes, which still remains the ultimate test of general knowledge. Unfortunately however, it would appear that it is becoming a survivor of a dying breed as the traditional TV quiz show is all but disappearing.
When the show first aired back in 1972, there was a host of other programmes of that ilk which were all as challenging as they were popular. For those who still wanted their 15 minutes of fame along with the chance to win prizes, but whose grey cells weren’t quite up to the task, there were ‘game shows’. Here was a place where winning personalities were the order of the day in order to reflect the light-heartedness that programmes like The Generation Game were all about.
Now, personality and general knowledge have merged and for those who want to test themselves on a TV quiz, but don’t necessarily come over that well on-screen (but in all likelihood are still perfectly charming when a camera isn’t thrust in their face), Mastermind is about the only option left. Yes, University Challenge is hardly a walk in the park, but unless you’re a student it is strictly out of bounds.
To say that there aren’t plenty of quizzes still going that don’t require a high standard of trivia would be ludicrous. Pointless, The Chase and Tipping Point all take a bit of deadly knowledge to conquer, but that alone is no longer enough. When you audition for these shows, the researchers aren’t just there to test you out on European capital cities or Oscar-winning actors. They also want to see if the camera ‘likes’ you.
If you come up to scratch in both departments, then great, you’ll more than likely be getting the call within a week. On the other hand, you could stand there all day correctly answering question after question, but if your face doesn’t fit then you may as well have saved yourself the train fare. In fact, there’s a school of thought that goes a step further by suggesting that the more of a brainbox you are, the less chance you’ll have of being selected as the TV bosses want to avoid dishing out the big prizes if they possibly can.
So what we’re left with is a lower standard of quizzers, which immediately means that the questions become that bit less tricky. Fifteen to One is a great example of this. Sandy Toksvig is doing a grand job of hosting this revived classic, but back in its heyday, with the irrepressible William G. Stewart at the helm, it was almost as tough a nut to crack as Mastermind itself. What’s also changed is the prize. In the old days it was a replica of some ancient Greek artefact, whereas now there’s big money to be made – mainly in a bid to win ratings – and now we’re down to the heart of the matter.
Take Who wants to Be a Millionaire. Here was a fantastic show that enjoyed a ridiculously successful run from 1998 until 2014. After around five years, however, viewers started to complain that it was nearly always the same kind of contestant getting through to compete for the chance of the hallowed jackpot; typically a middle-aged, suburban male with plenty of answers to killer questions up his sleeve. To combat this, the telephone audition (a number I rang countless times myself, without success) was made ridiculously easy in order to ensure a wider contestant demographic – remember, there was a time before Google.
People often wonder why the popular darts-based show Bullseye has never been revived successfully – well, here’s a theory. Naff prizes and Jim Bowen‘s unique style of presenting are what it is best remembered for, but really it was built upon pairings of decent darts players and quiz brains. Some of them had about as much charisma as a chopping board, but they were good at what they did nonetheless. They wouldn’t stand a chance of getting on TV now, however talented, which would mean that Bullseye, were it to open auditions tomorrow, would end up with a smaller pool of contestants to select from, certainly not enough to sustain a decent series-long run or beyond.
So unless chopping boards come back in vogue in the eyes of TV executives and audiences alike, many such classic shows will remain features of the archives and staples of Challenge TV. There’s no denying that many of today’s shows are extremely watchable and continue to be very successful, but for the traditionalists it’s almost a case of Mastermind or bust.