Let’s Get Quizzical

Mark Fleming on his experience as a contestant on the ITV quiz show The Chase

Who wants to be a Millionaire?” asks the ITV quiz show, still capable of attracting 4 million viewers after 600 episodes, despite the Major Ingram (cough) scandal, or that it’s current presenter is Jeremy Clarkson, for whom one million pounds would represent less than half the annual interest his personal wealth accrues.

Clarkson aside, the obvious answer is “most of us.” TV quizzes represent the closest contestants will ever get to the eye-watering salaries of CEOs, movie stars, or Premier League footballers.

When it comes to University Challenge, understanding the question far less the answer can often be an achievement. Occasionally, extremely occasionally, getting one right after the undergrads have received a disdainful “nope” from Jeremy Paxman leaves me punching the air like Archie Gemmill at the Argentina World Cup.

Sticking with football, an early attempt of mine to succeed at an exam (a glorified quiz) occurred many moons ago. In P7 at Craiglockhart, my parents put my name down for the George Watson’s entrance examination. I made a reasonable fist of most of the questions, becoming unstuck on one about creative writing (the ignominy).

Candidates were asked to write an essay on a sporting topic of their choice. I merely regurgitated factoids from my football annuals. ‘Hibernian, 1875, green shirts/white sleeves, captain Pat Stanton, first British team in European competition; Queen’s Park, 1867, Scotland’s oldest club, black and white hoops, nicknamed The Spiders; Arbroath, maroon shirts, known as The Red Lichties after the red light that guided ships into Arbroath harbour…’ And so on, fact after fact, page after page of lined A4.

I failed and attended my local comprehensive, Tynecastle, but wasn’t in the least bit disappointed. Tynie was a fine school, although I might have followed a more stellar career path than the civil service. if I’d had access to Edinburgh’s fabled ‘old boy’ network.

What the Watson’s exam board had obviously been looking for in 1974 was something more imaginative than demonstrating a good memory. But in the world of TV quizzes, good memories mean fabulous prizes.

I tuned in to Eggheads one evening and came across a former Tynie classmate standing his ground against the elite quizzers. Round about the same time, I caught an episode of The Chase, where the last woman standing pocketed a five figure sum - money down the back of the couch for Clarkson, or this show’s presenter, Bradley Walsh, but still a sizeable dent in my mortgage.

I popped ‘apply for The Chase’ into Google, and so began the journey towards the small fortune my mind’s eye insisted was within easy grasp.

I attended an audition in a city centre hotel. Three of us out of 20-odd were asked to stay behind, our names added to the show’s waiting list.

Eventually, due to data protection laws prohibiting names being stored over a year, I had to re-apply, then re-audition. I was asked to stay behind again.

In due course I received an invite to Elstree Studios to film an episode. I’d already decided what I was going to spend my winnings on after accepting the higher offer of £70,000 and leaving the Chaser in my wake. If I was up against Mark ‘The Beast’ Labett and he got smart, I’d inform him exactly what it meant to be referred to as a ‘beast’ in Scotland.

Burying my nose in general knowledge books for the train journey, I arrived at the Travel Lodge near the studios where so many hopefuls had already beaten a well-worn path.

In the morning we were taxied to the studios, receiving a full English breakfast (I tried not to dwell on the notion of a prisoner’s last meal) before being primed by the production team, all decades younger than me. Finally we were ushered into the familiar studio where Bradley introduced himself. He is as affable as his screen persona.

The first guy in my team, a young Nottingham lad, had been partying the night before. He got one question correct. His lower offer was £1 to which he complained he had more in his pocket.

Me next. Something about Henry VIII. Easy. Which Scottish band released Screamadelica? This was going to be a dawdle. I accumulated £5,000. But during the chase I got unstuck on the combined age of Apollo astronauts and a question about Chicago.

The production staff had insisted we justify our answers, never resorting to “that was a guess,” so I waffled some inane rationale to my hopeless answer before exiting, tail between legs.

As for setting my sights on becoming a millionaire, the one thing about Clarkson that particularly sticks in my craw isn’t the way he was originally sacked by the BBC for sparking out a Top Gear producer half his age whom he’d referred to as an Irish (four-letter expletive).

It was for reprehensible remarks in his column in The Sun, where he belittled those desperate individuals who end their lives on railways. ‘Johnny Suicide’ he wittily described them, insisting trains should resume their journeys as soon as possible following these incidents and leave the body parts for scavenging animals.

His net worth might be around £46 million, thanks to the enduring worldwide popularity of a TV show about cars. But for all his personal wealth, this quizmaster is devoid of class.

Twitter: @markfleming62

The Chase studio at rest

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I’d decided what to spend my winnings on after accepting the higher offer of £70,000 and leaving The Chaser in my wake