Weaver's Week 2003-12-13


In the beginning, William G Stewart saw that daytime television was devoid and without form.

FIFTEEN TO ONE (Regent Productions for Channel 4, 1988 - next Friday)

And, yea, William G Stewart didst take on an idea, and didst reinvent daytime television. And it was good. Five and ten years didst pass, and Ye Bosses of Channel Four didst say, "This Fifteen To One, it's a bit old hat. Let's shuffle it backwards through the schedules, and replace it with a show hosted by two- fifths of the panel on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue."

Indeed, the final episode of venerable daytime quiz show FIFTEEN TO ONE airs this week. The UKGS review explains the show without any difficulty: Fifteen contestants start off with three lives and the idea is to not lose lives by not getting questions wrong. The story of the longest-lived daily quiz show in recent years begins almost two decades ago.

January 1985 saw a BBC documentary, with the cunning title of COME ON DOWN. In the programme, investigative journalist Barry Norman traced many of the popular game shows of the time (The Price is Right, Family Fortunes, Blockbusters, Play Your Cards Right) back to their roots in the USA of the 1950s. Amongst the viewers was John M Lewis, who thought that he could do something a little bit better. He sat down, scratched his head a little, and quickly devised a flexible general knowledge quiz.

TWENTY TO ONE was very similar to the programme we know and love today. Yes, it had twenty contestants, later trimmed by a quarter to fit into a Channel 4 half hour slot. And yes, it gave away a prize to each daily winner, something that never quite came to pass. Mr Lewis eventually worked with William G Stewart's Regent Productions to bring the show to air. The mechanics of the show are comprehensively documented elsewhere.

FIFTEEN TO ONE, as the show had become, took its debut on Channel 4 on January 11, 1988. The opening show was won by Gareth McMullan, a teacher from Northern Ireland. His score of 230 struck everyone as being good, but we wouldn't know how good until it was bettered. When Mr McMullan was still on top of the finals board after a month, we knew he had a very good score. He was eventually topped by John Hughes' 240 in the final week of February, and then by Peter Knott, who accumulated 270 at the start of March.

During the first two series, contestants tied on points from the grand final were split by "the number of lives remaining and the number of questions correctly answered in the second round." This was a fair metric to use, as it compensated people who had won through a tricky second round and answered lots of questions as much as those who came through an easier show with three lives intact. However, it was difficult for many people to comprehend, and abolished in favour of "one point per life left" from series 3. This column is probably a lone voice in preferring the original tie-break, as much for its complexity as its fairness.

There have been some other slight tinkerings to the rules over the years - nothing major, but enough to subtly alter the shape of the show. In the second round, contestants can no longer nominate the person who has just asked them a question, or nominate the same person twice in a row, but must choose someone else. The first series allowed winning contestants to take 10 points per life rather than face further questions - Peter Knott took 20 points with about five questions remaining, so could have scored more than 300. The grand final's final moved to forty questions on the buzzers in series 8, while high-scoring losers were invited back in season 5. This immediately allowed Anthony Martin to come back and win his cabinet of trophies. He had 203 on the board in his series 4 game, but took one question too many, and knocked himself out with three questions to go. His vanquisher, Robin Price, lost a four-way playoff amongst contestants on 111 for two slots in the final, and lost in the next series.

Producer William G Stewart relaxed the rule preventing previous applicants from coming back during 1998, allowing the return of some famous names who had had unfortunate draws in the early years. One such person was polychamp Daphne Fowler; she had had the misfortune to come up against the champion of series 4, Thomas Dyer, but came back ten years later to avenge her defeat. Series winner Dag Griffiths also took advantage of this rule change.

The early games were often tactically naive; players would take questions until they got one wrong, and repeat until the winner was found. Nomination was rare, and the lowest ever winning score - Milo First's 10 points - came after two better contestants had knocked themselves out. The winner of that show, like all daily winners, was invited back for the following series; he declined the invitation. Though not particularly sophisticated, a good player (such as Mal Collier, Clive Spate, Enid Crispin, Walter Dobson, Kevin Ashman or the aforementioned Mr Martin and Mr Dyer) would usually have a very good score. A lucky player could get a very good score indeed, such as Fred Gavin's 290 in the second series; that remained the highest score until Andrew McGlennon's 302 in autumn 1993, ten series later.

Tactics really came into play from around series 5, in early 1990. Now, the emphasis was on winning the game, with a high score being of lesser importance. This led to a lot of relatively staid games, with the finals board ticking over on occasion, thanks to a lucky contestant, or one of the regulars who took the bull by the horns and asked for more questions. No game ended in a tie until 1995, and only a handful have been drawn in the years since.

There's no sure-fire way of winning a game of Fifteen To One, but since the mid- 90s, a confident contestant who wants to make the finals board has generally taken questions on three lives, and only begun to nominate after making an error. If they make an error, that is.

The maximum possible score - originally 430, latterly 433 - eluded everyone until early 1999, when Bill McKaig, a minister from Glasgow, secured that year's top of the finals board trophy with the maximum. Just over a year later, Daphne Fowler, a champion on every quiz show going, chalked up 432 points. This column rates Ms Fowler's performance as the best exhibition of Fifteen To One play ever, as she had to emerge from a dozen contestants in the second round, while Mr McKaig's show only had to eliminate two. Michael Penrice came within a moment of equalling Mr McKaig's achievement, but he was beaten to the buzzer on one of the first questions in the final, and scored a "mere" 423.

In later years, a new generation of regulars cropped up on the show. Leslie Booth won two consecutive series in the mid 90s, Nick Terry and Matti Watton swept all before them later in the decade, while Michael Penrice would enliven any series with his collection of fine bow ties.

Most series of Fifteen To One has been around 60 programmes long - the exact number varied in the early years depending on how many weeks Channel 4 broke the quiz slot for Christmas, and since 1996 depending on the channel's commitment to horse racing. The second and third series, however, were a marathon of 80 programmes (16 weeks); autumn 1989's fourth series was a mere 50 programmes long. This autumn series was the only time two former winners regularly appeared on the same programme, and was the only series to be shot against a red backdrop, rather than the usual blue-green-purple colour.

Fifteen To One has never changed the main set design - a semicircle facing the host, but there have been other cosmetic changes. The backdrop changed slightly most years. Contestants have variously worn name tags, had their name on the front on their podium, and not had their name displayed at all. The numbers on the positions have been a digital display that went out with the contestant, an illuminated light box, a flat piece of wood or card, and eventually the monitors we see today. The theme tune has been jazzed up at least twice, and at one stage the neon tube lights below the contestant's number went out when they erred.

The studio audience (contestants on the day's other shows, friends, relatives, and people who find the Wandsworth Studios warmer than the street) was phased out somewhere in the mid 90s after people's snores started turning up on the soundtrack. The crowd is now canned, and the snorers have been pointed to the rubbish on C4 at 4pm now.

Perhaps the biggest change came in 2001, when first round losers were told,

"and these people must now leave us." The Walk In The Dark syndrome had afflicted television's toughest quiz, and there would be no more sitting down when all three lives were lost. Instead, the lights went out, and the eliminated contestant stood around looking a bit lifeless. It's a small change, but it's indicative of the tinkering the programme's suffered over the years.

In the mid 90s, the show was shown in 16:9 widescreen, with thick black bars at the top and bottom. Unlike most shows since shot in widescreen, the extra space at the side was well used, and did make the show look better. The complete credits rolled after every episode in the first series; ever since, they've only appeared at the end of the series final, or when the episode would otherwise run short. The short credits should prevent C4's intrusive voiceovers from butting in, but this doesn't always happen.

The first series prize was a stunning glass sculpture, based on the Fifteen To One set, and designed by the same person who had worked out the original set. Later years settled into a routine, the series winner winning an artefact from antiquity, and the person (or persons) on top of the finals board winning some other prize, often glassware.

Many questions popped up with regularity. William G Stewart would often ask about the "hendecagon" (a plane figure with eleven sides), Gone With The Wind, the current cabinet and shadow cabinet (so do try to remember who is leader of the opposition this week), Dickens and Shakespeare. He used to have at least one question about the Elgin Marbles each year, but the regulatory bodies muttered something about this being political speech, and he'd have to give an opposing view the right of equal airtime on his show. By that time, everyone knew Bill's view.

Fifteen To One has taught three good quizzing maxims: a little learning goes a long way, go with the instinct, and always have a go, because even the guesses count.

In the week before Christmas 2000, viewers were surprised to see Bill McKaig's 433 show get its fourth or fifth airing. The full finals board wasn't shown afterwards, and the grand final was edited to remove all traces of the person standing at position 5. It transpired that the person who had been removed from history was to stand trial for an offence where identification could be disputed, and Regent Productions had acted to avoid being in contempt of court.

The increasingly cliquey nature of the show began to tell against it, and last year Channel 4 ordered Regent Productions to not extend invitations to previous series champions. We'd never again be able to relish the prospect of a Watton - Fowler - Penrice grand final. As part of the channel's decision to extend Countdown to 45 minutes, the show moved to the earlier time of 1545 in autumn 2001. Two years later, it moved a further hour earlier, as the channel decided to air mindless and tiresome property shows in the 4pm slot.

This Friday's grand final will be the last edition of Fifteen To One ever. There will be no fireworks, no special celebrations, "merely" the two thousand and somethingth edition of an always ultra-professional quiz show.


Opening round, match 13: St Andrews -v- City London

The first set of bonuses is on the refreshment rooms of the houses of parliament. Don't even think of arguing that's common knowledge. City only knows where to find one in a group of World Heritage sites because their captain also comes from Portugal. It wouldn't have been impossible for the producers to remove that question from circulation this game, as it shows patent bias. The first set of picture bonuses has Thumper saying Name ... That Car. St Andrews has a 70-15 lead, and it's already looking ominously one-sided.

Starter of the week: Meaning literally "eating cell," what collective name is given to those... City, David Yates: Fagicites.

Very interesting to hear Thumper read a question saying, "There is little point in sacking researchers trying to do an impossible job." Is that a hidden cry for help?

When they come up with some tedious questions about the Greek roots of obscure biology terms, we might beg to differ. The phrase "Your bonuses are on Peruvian politics" strikes something into everyone's heart: in this case, a mixture of tedium and guesswork. The teams are so bored with this mess that they can't recognise "estuary English," or "the stakeholder society" from their definitions.

Eventually, this exercise in sheer, unremitting tedium comes to an end; thankfully, it does so just before this column runs out of coffee. St Andrews emerges the victor, 195-75, and it's not clear whether they're a moderate side who came across weak opposition, or a good side who beat moderate opponents. The latter explanation appears more likely, though with this year's questions, who knows.

Elliott Wilson heads the list for St Andrews, making 83.3 points; his side went 15/33 on bonuses. City's leading scorer was Oscar Nazareth's 35.9, the side made 5/18 bonuses with two missignals. This column claims 185 points.

One of the perils of having festive television listings four weeks in advance: this column knew before this match began which sides are in the repechage. This column isn't saying. 175 St John's Oxford 160 Hull 150 St Hugh's Oxford | 140 Reading


Acknowledgements: the Fifteen To One feature draws on articles on 625.uk.com, Quizplayers.com, and Gary Woodward's Inquizition site.

The BBC's confirmed four more TEST THE NATION programmes next year, including one themed around the driving test. For those of us who prefer to walk and take the train, this could be entertaining viewing; for those who move their little tin boxes around, it'll be embarrassing. TTN 2003 will go out on the Monday before Christmas, and University Challenge will very sensibly move 30 minutes earlier so we can watch it. Thanks.

Dumb Britain has some of the silliest answers from television game shows, such as "Let's have Tara Palmer-Tompkinson hosting." ITV 1740 tonight. It's the last Wright Around the World of the series, the last Countdown of the series, and the last Fifteen To One ever.

A Labyrinth Games site.
Design by Thomas.
Printable version
Editors: Log in