I'd Never Watched the TV Show 'Pointless', Went On It and Won

This is what it’s really like to be on a BBC gameshow.

by Hannah Ewens
13 January 2017, 12:15am

Growing up, game shows were part of my family's nightly TV ritual. I'd imagine myself as one of the kids on Jungle Run, collecting bananas and being harassed by out-of-work actors dressed as monkeys, and then host Dominic Wood proposing to me because of how impressed he was with my dexterity. Later, I encouraged us to graduate to Chris Tarrant's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, beating the contestants and my parents to answers, and fostering the belief that meaningless trivia and television was my route to riches.

So what was I going to do when someone asked me to go on a game show? Obviously say yes.

Sadly, the episode of Pointless I'd be appearing on wouldn't be televised and there would be absolutely zero cash prize. Instead, the aim was to teach journalists what it's like to be on a game show. No one else at work wanted to do it, so I took them up on their offer. I'd never seen the show, but that was fine. 'I'll prep the night before,' I thought. Trouble was, I did no prep. I had absolutely no idea what happened on the show or how to play the game. My little brother messaged to tell me I was a moron. I started to feel a bit sick.

Pointless is filmed at Elstree Studios, a little way out of London. When I arrived there, late, in a sweaty mess, other journalists were tense, tapping away on their phones in a big tent. I was already nervous about the fact I'd never seen the show, but the real panic set in when I realised no one wanted to make conversation because they were ruminating on the challenge ahead. 

I got out my phone and scrolled through the Wikipedia page for Pointless. The premise of the game sounded confused – there were multiple answers but you had to pick the most obscure one. I told someone from Buzzfeed that I'd never seen the show. They looked bemused, as if I was either lying for something to say or utterly stupid. Regrettably, it was the latter.

After waiting for ages I was introduced to my partner, Keith, a very nice man from the newspaper Metro. The other three pairs lined up next to us and each took a numbered counter from a bag to determine what order we'd play in. We were left with "one". Judging from the sighs of relief from everyone else, this was very bad news. Keith said he was a regular viewer of Pointless and had even been on a journalists' version previously. He jumped straight into strategy: what we should and shouldn't do, how many risks we should take. I didn't have the heart to tell Keith my dark secret.

Me and Keith

Keith and Hannah: the Official Press Shot

Studio sets are shiny and fake when you see them in real life, like when you see a celebrity in the flesh and they're really small, perfect and oily, like a troll doll. The producer told us a fun list of what not to do based on previous contestants' mistakes. "Make sure you can see the question screen from here, otherwise you're not going to get much correct! And don't trip off the edge of the walkway!" He gestured to the blue floor in the centre of the walkway. "Someone actually thought that was water. It's not water!"

We were shown to our podium. I thought about all the greats who'd been there in my place, according to Wikipedia. Antony Costa. Paul Hollywood. Michelle Heaton. Now it was just me and Keith, "Hannah and Keith".

Back in the tent we had name badges attached and mics rigged up. My forehead was sweating my powder off. Everyone was casually prancing from foot to foot, trying to talk about anything else, only to swing immediately back to nervous remarks about the show that no one answered. 

Suddenly, we were ushered on. It was go time. We piled out in single file, and Keith and I shuffled up to our podium. Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman were there in suits, waiting, chuckling away and making jokes with the crew. I don't usually find middle-aged men in suits all that funny, but you know what? They're reasonably good. Mostly they just bantered about print media dying and new media essentially being children typing shit onto the internet, which went down nicely between old and young, print and online journalists. Fuel for the competition.

The first challenge was to think of words ending in "eak". Easy, I scoffed. Then I remembered the premise of the whole fucking game: that I had to pick something no one else could think of, and that me and Keith had less time to do it in because we were first. Bleak. Squeak. Break. Heartbreak! Heartbreak was good, wasn't it, Keith? A light went on in Keith's eyes. He knew it was good. 

Alexander Armstrong also knew it was good. "Oh, that's good," he said, when we told him. "That's really good." I could feel the jealousy. I wanted to laugh, my chest filling with pride. Check out my face below – that's what's going there:

Alexander Armstrong asked the other contestants for their answers. All of them were shorter words, and thus more likely to be picked by the general public. Buzzfeed gave their answer: bleak. The scoreboard column became animated. You want your column to fall and fall because the smaller it is, the smaller percentage of people picked your answer. Our column began to fall, but then stopped prematurely. Alexander Armstrong smiled and confirmed that yes, Hannah and Keith had won that round. I went to fist-bump Keith and we missed. No matter.

Onto the second question: countries beginning with C, O, U, N, T, R, I, E or S. Again, Keith and I were first. I can't remember the name of the country Keith said because I'd never heard of it before. He turned to Alexander Armstrong and said the name of the country. Richard Osman looked impressed. The score fell and fell until it stopped just one or two percentage away from the bottom. 


Smug as fuck

You think gameshows are quick-fire: cameras swinging around, answers rallying back and forth. But it's not like that. There's a lot of waiting around and long pauses in which nobody seems to do much. A 20-minute show might take an hour to film, but this only builds the hype for contestants. It gave me and Keith time for pep talks, more failed fist bumps, building a connection. Under Keith's wing, I was learning strategy fast. Don't listen to anyone who says you can't blindly jump into anything and wing it. I was living proof.

Before I knew it, it was head-to-head time. Us versus some TV journalists – people who no doubt worshipped this art form, studied its loopholes, wrote think pieces about the similarities between Pointless and classical liberal theories, fanfic about the kinship between Armstrong and Osman. This beginner's luck couldn't go on much longer. Until I heard the next category: musicals.

Keith looked stressed. I was sweating from the adrenaline. "Keith, leave this to me." I love musicals. I was always in them as a kid and teenager, will willingly watch extended cuts of film versions, and one of the happiest moments of my entire life was watching Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. What I'm saying is I know my Kiss Me Kate from my Whistle Down the Wind

The task popped up on the screen. It showed tabloid headlines loosely describing different musicals. This was easy; laughable. Of course that one was Miss Saigon. Obviously that one was The Sound of Music. "Come on,  Pointless!" I wanted to scream. "Let me flex!" But which one was the most obscure? Keith said Mary Poppins. I went with Little Shop of Horrors. We beat the others. Of course we did.

One more win and it was ours. I wanted this so much I was dribbling. I thought my IBS was going to take me out before we saw it through. I wanted it for myself, as some sort of boost? I wanted it so my little brother would think I was cool. But most of all, I wanted it for Keith. He was a TV journalist, too – these were people he'd see around; I couldn't embarrass him.

The next round was "general" knowledge. General knowledge where the answers all had "general" in. Between us we swept up the answers to the questions on the screen. One of the questions I didn't know the answer to was Keith's suggestion of General Custer, the guy who killed lots of Native Americans in battle. Plenty of Brits know nothing about early US history. On that logic, we placed our bets with Custer. 

Me and the lads

In slow-motion, Alexander Armstrong's mouth twisted into a grin. We'd won. We'd fucking won. I barely managed the now routine fist-bump with Keith. We stumbled for a double cheek kiss. I could have thrown myself on the floor and done a school disco skid, middle fingers blazing down the walkway. The only thing that restrained me was knowing that my peers would think I was a massive arsehole. But, by god, my heart was soaring.

We shook hands with the hosts and took our prize: the Pointless 1,000th episode trophy. Everyone was coming to shake hands, everyone was happy and smiling, congratulating us. I understood what it meant to be Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Beyonce at the AMAs, an acoustic singer-songwriter at the Brits. This was why you wanted to be good at something – to feel this golden. I never wanted to be a loser again. This was me now: a winner. Taking the congratulatory winners picture with the hosts, I smiled into the lens of my future, a future starting now, the rest of my life.

Winners only

I began my misguided journey into Elstree with no knowledge of a game show and came out with a glimmering glass trophy and grossly inflated sense of achievement. I'd learnt. Learnt that people who work in TV are having a lot more fun than the rest of us. That the weird coffee they have backstage isn't very nice. But most of all: that you should always just say yes to doing something you're enormously unprepared for, stagger in blindly, letting competitive rage and a dose of newfound friendship be your guide. Reap the rewards and repeat until you're dead.

The 1,000th episode of Pointless is on BBC1 on Monday the 16th of January, 2017.


More on gameshows:

TV Gameshows Are Dying

When Did British Gameshows Turn Into Just Laughing At People Falling Over?

Dickhead Contestants Are Ruining Gameshows

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British TV
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Alexander Armstrong