3 by 3



Lee Mack


BBC Studios for BBC Two, 18 May 2023


Lee Mack hosts a fairly basic but entertaining team quiz. Three teams of three play, and in a nice touch the members of a team introduce each other. After some introductory chat, there are three rounds... yes, the number three is going to come up a lot in this show.

Lee Mack, a triple threat (allegedly)

The first round, 3's a Crowd, comes in three phases, sort of. Initially it's one question to each player. Teams start with £300; a correct answer wins £100, an incorrect answer loses £100 and means the player is frozen out of the game, indicated by a blue spotlight.

Stay out of the light and you'll be alright.

Once all three teams have been through this, there is the opportunity to buy back any frozen out players for £100 each. Any players frozen out and not bought back leave the studio and take no further part in the game. It strikes us that if an entire team were frozen out, the show could continue with just two teams - but if two full teams were frozen out, they would need a mechanism to bring someone back, maybe a buzzer question. (Perhaps the person who got it could choose to either come back themselves, or nominate a teammate to do so?)

The quickfire round in progress

The third phase is a 60-second quickfire buzzer round. £100 per correct answer, a wrong answer reduces the kitty by £100, and (assuming there are still three teams in play) the lowest-scoring team at the end is eliminated - though in a remarkably generous turn, they do take away whatever was in their kitty.

Well, it's better than playing Global Thermonuclear War.

The next round, 3 Point Turn, is basically noughts and crosses. Each cell in a 3 by 3 grid contains a subject, and teams take it in turns to pick one and answer the associated question. If they get it wrong, the other team gets to answer it for a "steal". A correct answer adds £300 to the team's kitty, and the first team to complete a row, column or diagonal of three goes through to the final. As before, the losing team keeps their prize pot.

Team "Quiztopher Bigwins" confer on an answer.

We've already noted that giving losers their prize money is unusually generous, but the jackpot round, 3 Blind Twice (yes, they're really scraping the barrel now) is extraordinarily so, offering the chance to increase the prize pot by a factor of three for each of three questions correctly answered, so twenty-seven times in all, potentially increasing a low four-figure sum to somewhere in the region of forty grand. It is however pretty tough - two players, one in an isolation booth, have to both give the correct answer to each question, and none of them are "gimmes".

Just your standard classic old-school isolation booth.

They have the choice to bail before the second and third questions, and the team only plays on if both players agree to do so. If either player gives a wrong answer at any point, the game is over but they still take away whatever money they banked in the main game. We don't know what would happen if a single player won through to this stage, but you would imagine they could bring back a teammate - it would be a bit of an anticlimax if they got through to the jackpot round but couldn't play it.

Two matching answers to win ten grand, or thereabouts

All in all, the show doesn't feel "big" enough for primetime, but we're not entirely sure whether it would quite work as a stripped show either. The potential prize money is higher than you would expect for BBC daytime, though offset by the difficulty of winning it; we wouldn't expect a megabucks win very often. On the positive side, it's definitely playalongable and the determination not to let players leave empty-handed is refreshing. It's true that while the prizes are generous, there is obvious cost-cutting at work in the cheap-looking virtual set and game graphics, but presumably they'd put a bit of money into that side of the show were it to go to a series. But definitely the show's greatest asset is Lee Mack, who manages to wring a lot of entertainment value from an otherwise fairly no-frills quiz.


Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith

Theme music

Christian Henson


In case the names of the creators didn't tip you off, 3 by 3 was actually an episode of the comedy anthology Inside No.9. And if you're wondering how this turns into a dark comedy... well, there's another storyline that plays out against the backdrop of the quiz, but we won't spoil it for you here. But though it may have been a fictional show, the fact that we can give you a genuine synopsis of the format goes to show how well thought-out it was. We've seen a great many spoofs over the years (we even have a page listing them) but rarely anything that could plausibly exist as a game show in the real world. Yes, there are possible holes in the format, which we've pointed out in the synopsis, but overall it's a remarkably good attempt - and the actual question writing isn't bad either. Many a writer of fiction comes a cropper when inventing questions for fake quizzes, so to see something good enough to pass for a real show is a rare treat. (Side note: we've noticed that in some circumstances, DuckDuckGo's search engine summary of the page you are now reading states "The show was originally a comedy episode of Inside No.9, but became a real quiz with Lee Mack as host." Just to make it clear to anyone surfing in on the strength of that: that description is an AI "hallucination". There is no real-life version of 3 by 3, just the one spoof episode.)

Although the show aired in Inside No.9's regular slot, it was made to look like a real show - there was no advance announcement that they had made a quiz show episode, and in fact as a decoy they came up with publicity shots and a poster-style graphic for an episode called "Hold On Tight!" co-starring Robin Askwith which appeared to parody On the Buses. (Kudos to YouTube commenter teaandmoretea who pointed out that there was a clue hidden in plain sight on the poster: unlike the posters for other episodes, it didn't list roles like Director, Editor, Production Design - "everyone who you need to make an actual episode... you've only got the people that you’d need to hire a bus and a couple of costumes for the day and take a few photos".) On the night, the continuity announcer told us that they couldn't show Inside No.9 due to a technical fault and they would be showing a quiz show instead. It was made even more believeable by the lack of the usual Inside No.9 opening sequence, the absence of usual stars Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (early in the show's run, they had suggested that they weren't necessarily going to appear in every episode, but that notion seemed to have fallen by the wayside long ago) and the casting of little-known actors as contestants, several of them making their TV debuts (including Saskia Wakefield, playing Catherine Oakwood in the screenshots above, who once the episode had aired was rapidly deluged with plaudits from all directions).

Even the EPG data was changed (though the "5/6" and "Deals with adult themes" are a clue that something's up)

The cheapness of the visuals was actually due to real-life budget concerns. Usually Inside No.9 just needs a location, dressed with a few props from the store, but actually creating a real-life set would have been prohibitively expensive, so a virtual set was used instead - and they didn't even create that from scratch, it was basically a demo that the CGI designers already had on file, given a few slight tweaks.

The show was not specifically written with Lee Mack in mind; according to the writers the host role was originally kept quite generic, but once he was on board (and we cannot stress enough just how much he lifts the episode) they rewrote it around him, and Mack chipped in with his own contributions as well.

The director, Barbara Wiltshire, also directed a previous "fake out" episode of Inside No.9, the live Halloween special "Dead Line" (which won her a BAFTA Award), and is a prolific director of panel shows, perhaps most notably a squillion series of 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and Would I Lie to You? (so possibly she would have been the one who got Lee Mack on board?)


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