A Pointless trip

March 4, 2018 0 Comments

1    M4

The thermometer’s well below zero, but we’re bowling happily along, in light traffic.  Apocalyptic language in the news and weather reports – ‘Beast from the East’, amber warnings, trains cancelled before a flake has fallen – suggests the whole country lies under a thick layer of snow and ice.  On the radio a man from Novosibirsk tells us, politely, not to be winter wimps, and to wear mitts, not gloves, if the temperature fells below minus thirty degrees.  Nothing to be seen on the motorways, except for a snow flurry around Bridgend, till we reach London (a light smattering of snow) and our destination, the Ibis hotel in Borehamwood.

Why Borehamwood, a main drag of cheap restaurants surrounded by featureless north London housing (the clue’s in the first syllable)?  Because tomorrow we hope to be part of the audience in a recording of our favourite quiz show, Pointless, just round the corner from the hotel in Elstree Studios.

(If you’re not familiar with it, Pointless is a knock-out quiz between pairs of contestants who try to score as few points as possible by finding the correct but most obscure answers to general knowledge questions – questions previously put to a panel of 100 individuals in a survey.)

2    Ibis

We scan the guests on the hotel’s ground floor.  C predicted that we’d find pairs of Pointless contestants bent over copies of the Periodic Table or an atlas of the world, in a last minute bid to remember the names of chemical elements or countries with capital cities beginning with the letter ‘A’.  But the hotel heating’s broken down and the only pair in sight, bent over their half empty wine glasses, look too miserable to be Pointless couples.

Contestants tend to be sunny types.  In their introductory chats they reveal unusual ways of making a living (two performance artists appeared last week) and an amazing array of interests.  Even when they crash out with terrible answers to questions, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman never humiliate them, sending them off with a cheery wave.

The key to Pointless success is in the combination of the contestant couples.  Questions embrace contemporary popular culture as well as more ‘academic’ subjects, so it often helps to have a parent and sibling or similar mix. 

3    Queue

The veggie breakfast at Ben & Ollie’s in downtown Borehamwood isn’t for the nervous or the impatient.  By the time we walk out into the snow and wind there’s not much time left before we need to join the queue outside Elstree Studios.  Two people from Stockton-on-Tees are the only others already there.  They too are Pointless addicts.  They tell us the show we’re about to see is for Celebrity Pointless, broadcast on Saturday evening.  This doesn’t sound good news.  ‘Celebrities’ normally come with large egos in tow, and bounce up and down in glee at their own answers.  They soon make you wish you were watching ordinary people, who are generally wittier, more self-effacing and more successful.

After half an hour of waiting, in the teeth of the gale, I feel almost as cold as when I once spent a midwinter evening on the streets of Tallinn.  I could see the force of the argument in favour of mitts.  We watch a succession of limos with blacked-out windows pass into the studio grounds, deposit their celebrities, and glide away.  At last the Audience Team arrives.  They let us on site, but only to spend another half hour in a second, more sheltered queue.  You quickly sense that Elstree Studios lacks the glamour of Californian TV locations, and has plenty of crumbling buildings.  The snow seems able to get indoors.

4    Studio

We’re finally inside Studio 8, and seated in three curved rows.  The Pointless set in front of us looks weirdly similar to the set you see on television each evening.  Our teeth are still chattering, and the person assigned to warm us up for the programme has a hard time of it.  Her name is Laura, and she’s a stand-up by trade – warming-up must be her bread and butter.  Luckily, she’s astonishingly quick-witted and sharp-tongued, and we’re soon on her side, rehearsing our applause scales and our ascending ‘oooohs’ in response to low or pointless scores.  She instructs us how to clap half-heartedly (‘patronisingly’ is her word) when contestants score poorly.

What she almost forgets to tell us is not to stand up when filming starts, since a long boom camera is liable to sweep across, like a vicious sabre, within a foot or two of our heads.

5    Filming

Laura takes a well-earned break as the contestants walk on, to prompted applause.  They’re introduced as ‘TV Experts’.  Some, like Michael Fish and Adam Hart-Davis, are well enough known, others only to daytime television viewers.  But, fair play, they behave impeccably, reining in any urge to over-perform, and they give better answers than the usual Saturday celebrities.

Only the first round, on pop duos, tests their knowledge of pop culture.  Since few of them are in the flush of youth this may be deliberate.  Poor Michael Fish and his partner are the first to leave.  After each round there’s a break, as staff rearrange podia for the remaining pairs, sweep dust from the black plastic flooring, and brush Richard Osman’s collar.  (We can understand why he has to sit behind a chair while the rest stand: he towers above Alexander Armstrong and everyone alse.)

The two of them have been presenting Pointless for so long (since 2009) that it comes as no surprise that the action generally moves quickly and smoothly.  Armstrong has an impressive mental grasp of the backgrounds of the contestants.  The ad-libbing is a treat.  When Armstrong’s earpiece fails and recording pauses, Osman whips in with ‘that’s the end of your career with the minicab firm’ (or something similar).  Even so, there are some fluffs, and Osman has to rerecord more than once.

In no time at all we reach the final round.  Unusually for Pointless Mary Anne Ochota and Adam Hart-Davis choose a literary theme as their preferred category (all too often finalists choose football, films or TV – a weakness of the format).  Alas, panic induced by the sixty minute limit for thinking overcomes them, and they fail to guess correctly with any of their answers.  On the sofa at home it’s not too hard to come up with pointless responses, but in the studio it’s different.  And with that the programme’s over.  The set’s deserted once again.  Our curiosity satisfied, we crocodile our way out of television fantasy into the cold air of the real world.

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