On the face of it, it is mad. It is mad that a game show could achieve such astonishing success while operating on the following premise: over the course of an hour, one contestant with a sealed box opens a series of 21 sealed boxes and hopes that those boxes contain as little money as possible, but that their box contains the jackpot of £250,000.
That's about as brief a description of Deal Or No Deal as I can give you. But does it do justice to the theatrics, the joy and the unpredictability at the heart of the show? It does not. Nor does it convey the extent to which an audience could be flung headlong into the programme’s hysterical whirlpool. Fifteen years after its first episode aired on British television, here is the story of how Deal Or No Deal came to be so much more than “just opening boxes”.
In the mid-2000s, reality TV was king, says Deal Or No Deal series producer, Jim Connolly. This was the honeymoon period for Big Brother, remember, which had debuted in 2000.
In London, another TV producer, Simon Horne, got a call from Richard Hague, executive producer at Endemol, the Dutch company responsible for Big Brother. In the swanky coffee shop at Endemol’s Shepherd's Bush offices, Hague explained the idea of Deal Or No Deal to Horne. He said it was either going to be amazing or “the biggest load of rubbish going”.
Before the show aired in the UK, it had been running in more than 40 other territories, including France, Holland, the US and Peru. These shows, which each had minor differences, had not necessarily caught fire (in the US, the show was inexplicably pervy, the boxes opened by bikini-clad women – one of whom, famously, was Meghan Markle).
Still, they thought it worth a shot, so hired out Ministry of Sound to do several mock runs of the game, using a range of presenters: Les Dennis, Brian Conley and Noel Edmonds. Conley wasn't quite the right fit, partly because he struggled with the numbers. But Edmonds – Edmonds was perfect. He’d been off TV screens since Noel's House Party ended in 1999.
After playing the game, Noel pronounced it brilliant. “There's an inner child in Noel,” says Hague, “and I think it probably needed that.” (Sadly, Edmonds manager turned down an interview request for this article, saying, “Noel now lives in New Zealand and is not doing interviews, so sorry I cannot help.”)
Hague says that initially they pitched Deal to ITV as a prime-time show, but the channel turned it down. Channel 4, however, were happy to give it the green light – in the post-Countdown slot of 4.15PM every weekday. The team decided that 22 contestants was the optimum number (some other countries had 26), and one of their brilliant decisions was for there to be an overarching narrative to the game: before it was their turn to sit in what Edmonds termed “the crazy chair”, the contestants would open the boxes, cheering on their fellow players. The producers also got rid of the section in which contestants were whittled down (from 1,000 in the Dutch version), allowing them to get straight to the interesting part of the show: the one that was all luck and no skill.
The team auditioned people across the country, conscious that they wanted regional diversity. They were looking for people the audience would root for. “It was very liberating,” says assistant producer Michelle James. “Quite often when you're casting for TV, you have to cast attractive people.”
They showed auditionees the French show and played games like Play Your Cards Right to sniff out the risk-takers. They had to be careful that they weren't casting gamblers. “It was always more than a game show,” says James. “It was always utterly based on the personality of the contestants. We didn't want to cast arseholes.” As Connolly puts it, “We always looked for the fountains, not the drains.”
Filming in an old warehouse called the Paintworks, near Bristol's River Avon - “a glorified cowshed”, says James – the team filmed three episodes a day. Every 24 hours, three new people were thrown into the ensemble, and they would have to change their clothes three times in order to give the illusion that each episode had been filmed on a different day.
James, who looked after the contestants in the first series, remembers them coming up to her and saying, “Did you cast us because we've all had some kind of tragedy in our lives?” By chance, most of them had gone through a horrible formative experience.
Even before the show aired, the team realised they had a hit. “You have a feel in your bones,” says editor Cas Casey. Connolly says, “It just felt like it had that sprinkle of magic on it.”
One of the features was a stroke of brilliance: he was the Banker, a mysterious voice on the end of a phone (though Casey says there were also discussions about him being a silhouetted figure on stage). The Banker would call into the studio and bargain with contestants via Edmonds, in the hope that they would take his offer and stop playing the game.
“I don't really wanna comment about who was the Banker and anything on that front, to be honest,” says Connolly, who calls the character “an evil necromancer” (the Banker was later revealed to be executive producer Glenn Hugill).
The first episodes went out and caused a sensation. AA Gill said that watching the show was “like putting heroin in your remote control”.
“The first day we got the viewing figures back, we didn't know what was going on,” says edit producer Melanie Crawford. “It outperformed everything else around it.” Channel 4 sent the team cases of champagne after the first week. “Suddenly, within a relatively short amount of time, a shitload of people were watching it,” says director Richard Van't Riet.
Crawford remembers Dick de Rijk, the inventor of the format, coming down to the studio. With the money he had made from the show, he told them, he was going to buy a castle.
Not only was the format compelling, the producers had underestimated how significant it was for Edmonds to be back on TV. “People genuinely wanted Noel to fall, because it would have been a better story if he had,” says Connolly. But he didn't fall. He flew. The show suited him perfectly. He would leave the studio, with the camera following him, and ask a driver on the Bath Road what he thought a contestant should do next. He would perfectly memorise the back story of the person he was speaking to. He would make the game seem like so much more than a game of chance.
“You want someone like Noel, who's got this amazing ability to persuade people that they want to keep on going,” says Crawford. “He weaved his little world in the studio. I think it was God-given to him, in a way.”
Stand-up Mark Olver, who did warm-up for several thousand episodes of the show, says that some presenters, like Ben Shepherd, are amazing “in the way that Steven Gerrard is amazing and Wayne Rooney is amazing and David Beckham is amazing. Whereas Noel Edmonds and Phillip Schofield, they're essentially Messi and Ronaldo.”
Edmonds was in his element, and on top of the world. Horne remembers seeing him at a petrol station on the way to the studio – Horne in his Peugeot 306 and Edmonds in his Aston Martin. They exchanged hellos. Then Edmonds said, “I'll race you.”
Part of the joy of Deal was the extent to which it embraced the chaos of reality. At one point, Hague remembers, a pigeon pooed on one of the boxes. After the generator conked out, the team filmed one episode in the dark. One contestant's wife fainted, so they filmed the paramedics arriving. The producers encouraged makeup artists not to clean up teary mascara during an advert break: they wanted the audience to see the cracks.
In one bizarre incident, a vicar called David opened a box and there was no number inside. Incredibly, the number that should have been there was the £250,000.
It took just over a year, but in January of 2007 Laura Pearce became the first person to win the jackpot. The next four winners were also women. By the end of Deal's 11-year run, the programme had given away £44 million in prize money. In an episode that aired on the 22nd of September, 2011, Tegen Roberts won the jackpot. When she played she had lymphoma, and the money allowed her to not worry about work while she was receiving treatment. She also bought a £24,000 Audi A3 convertible. “I don't have it anymore, but that was my first love, really,” she says.
When Roberts had only two boxes remaining – £20,000 and £250,000 – the Banker offered her £77,000, which she refused. In order to arrive at this £77,000 figure, Hugill and fellow producer Stephen Boodhun, who were sitting a few hundred feet away from the studio in a little booth, consulted a computer that used a specific algorithm to reach its conclusions.
For many, it was a game of chance. For others, there was something bigger going on. “There was a whole mythology to it… there were lucky boxes and unlucky boxes,” says Horne. “It's all a load of rubbish, isn't it, ultimately.”
In Jon Ronson's fabulous Guardian piece about visiting the set, contestants claim to use telepathy and complex number systems in order to play the game – but often walk away with 1p. “When it is just opening boxes, I think it's human nature to try and find some direction and some reason,” says Michelle James. “It's like life, right?”
Tony James – who makes a living as a Robbie Williams tribute act called Blobbie Williams – played the game in 2011, and dispels any notion that there was some sort of fate at play. He'd just lost a house and was in debt, but left with just £5. “If someone was looking down on me, or someone would have said, 'Let's give him a bit of luck,’ I think that would have been the time,” he says.
Even if many contestants were pragmatic, Edmonds was a perfect host because he bought the schtick hook, line and sinker. Deal would be a different show were it not for him. Edmonds believes that the cosmos can give you things, as long as you are positive, you write them down and you're specific about them – beliefs that chime with the Deal mythology.
As the players didn’t know the Banker's identity, they spent a lot of energy worrying that he was listening in on their conversations and somehow using this information against them. “They always felt like they were spied upon; they felt that there were moles everywhere,” says Casey. In fact, says Horne, Hugill would indeed come and chat to the contestants in his guise as the executive producer: “That was him getting a sense of who they were.”
The show flirted not just with espionage, but also cultism. Because of Edmonds' totemic role, because the players spent so long in each other's company, and because of the strange belief systems at work, Ronson's piece makes liberal use of the word “cult”.
“I think, from the outside, something can look like something, but from the inside it can be something completely different,” says Connolly. “And I'm sure that's what someone who was part of a cult might say, but I don't mean it that way.”
A more accurate description, thinks Hague, is that it was like “Fresher's Week mixed with one of those early two-week holidays to Ibiza”.
The Deal team worked hard and played hard, says Crawford. Often they would “go raving”, says Michelle James, at bars like Reflex. Olver, a Bristolian, remembers having the afternoon off and deciding to take 20 of the team down to the waterfront to drink. On benches in late summer they watched as two kids pushed around a drunk man wearing just pants. One of the kids pulled the man's pants down. From out of nowhere, a walking brass band emerged and played through this bizarre scene. The trombonists, while still playing, tried to get the man's pants from the kids and then disappeared into the distance, the music fading away. The drunk man was reunited with his pants and the team carried on drinking.
As it grew, Deal became not just a success, but a phenomenon. “I genuinely think there are moments of Deal Or No Deal that are some of the tensest, most exciting moments in British TV,” says Olver (he's right).
I remember the one-two punch that awaited me when I came home from school: Countdown at 3.45, Deal at 4.15. At one point, the show attracted a 51 percent share of the entire TV-watching audience – a milestone even in the pre-streaming era. It was a unique time in British daytime programming. Connolly remembers students going mad for it all of a sudden; on one occasion, in a filming break, he went to the toilet, where he stood in between two lads dressed as bankers. One of them leant over to the other and said, “Mate, that was a classic deal.”
In an era in which game shows could be a bit mean (The Weakest Link was arguably the most popular in the UK at around this time), Deal took off not just because of its unpredictability, not just because of the Banker, but because of its sense of companionship.
“Deal Or No Deal was very warm, and it was all-inclusive, and you were family,” says Horne. This would never have happened if the players weren't likeable themselves, and it is them, the “everyday orators”, with whom Connolly credits the show's astronomical success.
“That's why Deal ran for nearly 3,000 shows, or whatever it was,” he says. “Because you have this skeleton… but the player provides the flesh.”