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I Went On 'Eggheads' Just to Fuck with Them

The episode aired last night; you may have seen people taking the piss out of me on Twitter.

ByOobah Butlerphotos byChris Bethell

Have you ever watched an episode of the BBC quiz show, Eggheads? Well, you should; you'll be gobsmacked by what you see: passive-aggressive patter; tiny benches, contestants leaning all over each other like they're crammed onto the back of a bus; grown "quiz experts" glaring at presenter Jeremy Vine's face like he's a microwave with 13 seconds left to go. After just a few minutes, you'll realise what Eggheads is: the most predictable show in existence. A show that deserves the Nobel Prize for uneventfulness. It always sticks to the formula.

I know this because I've been obsessed with it for over a decade – because, despite what I've just said, it is incredibly watchable. In that time, though, the atmosphere has been so consistently flat it is almost paralysis-inducing. But that's all about to change. A new challenger has arrived. Me. I'm going to introduce the element of chaos into the most boring show on television, and here's how.

MY PLAN

To fuck with Eggheads, first, I have to apply for Eggheads. This is bizarrely simple. I find a producer's tweet that has exactly three likes, email them and – within half an hour – I'm on the phone answering questions. They are immediately interested.

But if I'm to actually be on the show I first need to build a team: The Oobunch.

Eggheads teams are normally best mates or immediate family who regularly quiz together. Mine is going to be something more like Frankenstein's monster: five people who have never been in the same room together, and who really shouldn't be under any other circumstances.

The first guy I contact, for example, is Ray. Ray is somebody I haven't seen in about a decade, but I'm routinely reminded of his existence by him posting high-scoring Buzzfeed IQ quizzes on Facebook, accompanied with captions like: "Meh." As he surely is the smartest man I know, I invite him to join in.

The second is Hannah. Hannah works for a broadsheet newspaper and, though I've never met her before, I figure she must be quite smart. If nothing else this can be used as a networking opportunity.

Third is my brother-in-law Andy, who finds out I am doing this and invites himself.

These players will all serve us well, but to stand a chance in the show, we would need to exploit a weakness I've seen over the years in one of the Eggheads.

This is Chris. Chris, obviously, is very smart. But watch him and – from time to time – you'll see glimpses. A look of annoyance after being asked to do the sports round for the 10th show in a row; a pop at silly questions under his breath. Chris is a man you can irritate! So that's exactly what I'm going to do with my brother, James.

James is a method actor, and I have the perfect character for him. He will be allowed on the show on the condition that he dyes his hair, alters his mannerisms and becomes Chris. Sat opposite himself, Chris will surely crack under the absurdity of the situation.

Now we have the team it's time to work on some banter. Why leave the uncomfortable back-and-forths to the show's scriptwriters when we can craft it ourselves ahead of time?

JV: Where does the name come from?
OB: My parents! Wicked imagination!
JV: Right.
OB: I am the last of six: James, Peter, Emma, John, Rebecca – oh, and Oobah. How do I define that, JV? Boredom.
*Laughs*
JV: I bet you were annoyed when the app came out.
OB: Well, I have more than a phonetic namesake, JV. I love taking people for a ride, too!

This script is the conversation I promise you I will have with Jeremy Vine. I know this because every person I've ever met has asked me these questions about my name. I will turn Jeremy into a sort of ventriloquist puppet; he will dance to my tune.

One thing that's abundantly clear from the specificity of questioning in the application process is that the producers are control freaks. For example, they want you to bring five different outfits - all without patterns, no pastel colours, black trousers only. Basically the only thing you're allowed is brightly coloured shirts, ensuring you end up looking like you're from a weird bit of stock footage from the 80s. I've sent the entire team the opposite information – patterned tops, pastel colours, bright trousers – just to see what happens.

WAIT, WHAT EVEN IS THE EGGHEADS?

Before we dive in, I realise your knowledge of Eggheads may go no further than CJ De Mooi, so here's a basic rundown. The Eggheads are a dream team of nine world champions and expert quizzers; essentially a Harlem Globetrotters of quizzing. Every episode, a quiz team of five come on and try to beat them. Each round a random subject comes up, and one person from the team steps forward, picking an individual Egghead to play against. Each round is made up of three questions, which they take in turns like a penalty shootout and – if they remain even after these – it goes to sudden death. Whoever wins goes through to the final round. There are four rounds of this and – at the end – the final, which is general knowledge. It follows the same format. If the challengers lose, they get nothing, and £1,000 is added to a prize total, which rolls over to the next week. When a challenging team wins, they collect this total.

THE BIG DAY

I'm stood at the British Heart Foundation in Glasgow, sifting through a 50p rail of shirts. Little pulses of electricity are shooting through my spine: we've got 25 minutes until our taxi to BBC Scotland arrives, and The Oobunch is about to meet for the first time. The first member of our fellowship arrives: Hannah. "What have you been practicing your quizzing skills on?" she asks. "I did a pub quiz the Tuesday before last?" I say. Hannah looks petrified. "Lol. I've been having a go on this." She opens the Eggheads app and I gather that, in the past 24 hours, she's made £20 of in-app purchases.

Soon, the second member of The Oobunch enters: James. Wide-eyed, with hair like Dr Emmett Brown, he's immediately knee-deep into an explanation about how many times they had to bleach his hair to get it Chris' colour. Agitated, scratching his scalp, this is a very James opening.

I hear a thunderously deep Redditch accent over my shoulder. "Alright, Oob?" With his comic book T-shirt, thick orange beard and relaxed demeanour, ten years since I last saw him, Ray still looks like a member of Mastodon. We're here to get our show outfits and everybody can have what they want, apart from James, who must have a rugby shirt on, as that is what Chris was born in.

Soon after, my brother-in-law Andy turns up in a fleece, holding a day bag I'm fairly certain is filled with triangular-shaped tuna sandwiches. Because he drove up from York, the Eggheads' producers have put him up in a hotel for the night in case we finish late, so Andy is acting like a pensioner on a day-trip to Skegness. The only winner here.

The taxi arrives, we jump in.

Waiting in the lobby, a group of five passes and heads out the door; another five head in. Eggheads contestants. They have a strange look to them, Eggheads teams. Mostly men, mostly over 40. Half-UKIP, half-guy who volunteers his Saturdays to keep score at junior cricket. We're led upstairs to the green room.

Two frantic producers burst in wearing headsets. They take it in turns, rattling through drills: eat, make-up, wardrobe, filmed legal agreements and – after that – it's go time. The level of intensity is bizarre, and each yelled rule is received as well as fireworks at a dog pound. We're told that we can't, for example, under any circumstances, keep our name tags, as they reuse them. "You plan on having another Oobah in soon?" I ask. She frowns. The battle is underway.

With the clock ticking, tension is rising. James feels his hair "isn't straight enough to be believable", so Hannah mends that.

Shovelling down some stew, I consider the things I can't prepare for, like which five Eggheads we'll be drawn against.

From the possible nine, there's one ring leader, Kevin Ashman. Kevin is the Lionel Messi of Eggheads. He showed this a fortnight ago by winning the Quiz World Championship for the third year in a row. How do I fuck with impossibly focused Kevin? Suddenly, I hear a shrill scream across the room. "MY SCALP!"

I run over and cover James' mouth. Looking closely, I can see actual droplets of blood in his ear; scabs covering his hairline. Maybe it was one bleach too far?

No, spot on (the viewers agree, and have more to say about how the rest of us look). The producers return, moving us on to makeup.

Within five minutes I'm transformed into some sort of Annie Lennox Stars in Your Eyes contestant, which means I'm probably ready. We head back upstairs to find our outfits laid out, pressed. Four of us will be in shorts, only two of us are wearing the suggested colours, Ray has the word "Japan" printed on the back of his £4 Primark shirt, and they haven't said a word.

Having changed, we're sat down to be filmed agreeing to the show's legal conditions. The footage is presumably something our families will see in time, before paying crippling ransom fees to learn which barn in the Cairngorms we're tied up in.

A producer is waiting for us. It's time. "You'll be playing for £2,000. And you'll be up against Beth, Dave, Pat, Kevin… and Judith." I am forlorn. Chris isn't even playing. I look over my shoulder at James – scalp bleeding; the vague ghost of a man who isn't even here. He looks dead behind the eyes.

At the studio doors, waiting for the green light, I look around my disheartened group, totting up the human expenditure. "So why did you want me on here then, Oob?" Reliable Ray asks me under his breath. I launch into a description of his Facebook quiz scores. I notice, however, that his leg has started going like an irritated spaniel. "Well, the thing is, Oob… I cheat on those things." Ray bursts into nervous laughter. "Yeah, I just google the answers I don't know."

I've been had. Nobody could have known that people dupe social network quizzes! I'd asked for chaos, and now I have it.

One-by-one, the Eggheads arrive, but it's the enigma I'm attracted to: Kevin. Where the others have politely made themselves known, he has not, instead sitting, slurping water. After five minutes studying him – his stagnancy luring me into dark thoughts about my own mortality, I realise – this is it. Kevin is the atmosphere; the bellweather! Break Kevin, break Eggheads.

I hear footsteps approaching, followed closely by a voice like an upset bear cub.

Jeremy Vine!

"Nice to meet you," he stares at his clipboard, "Oobah?"
"Yes, Oobah."
"Where does that come from?"
"My parents' wicked imagination!"
We both laugh.
"Yes, I'm the last of six. James, Peter, Emma, John, Rebecca and – well – Oobah! Must have been boredom!"
"Sounds like the app, doesn't it?"
"Well, I share more than a name... I like taking people for a ride!"

My script, word-for-word, scores a laugh. Like Christ did at the Marriage at Cana, I've turned shit banter into good banter.

Meanwhile, Jeremy – fascinated with the randomness of the team – has been discussing the stories behind why each of us is here. Eventually he gets to Ray on the end, and is spellbound by how long it has been since he last saw me. Ten years. "That's just incredible," Jeremy says. "And has much changed with Oobah in that time?" "Not a lot," Ray's voice is buckling through nerves, "apart from the hair."

The first round comes up and it's History. I send James. Okay, so Chris isn't here, but this has still got to be weird for them, right? Five minutes of silence ensues as they set up.

I notice Jeremy looking in my direction, muttering. "Warning signs on the edges of cliffs," he says. "Sorry, what?" I respond. "Waiters saying your plate is too hot when it's not." His eyes dart toward the floor. "The word 'zen' should not be allowed in the game of Scrabble." His gaze meets mine: "Few things I'm going to get rid of when I get in power." This man is on another planet.

The round is rapid and difficult, not going well for James, who is downed 2-1 by Beth. I'm fascinated with how, despite the fact he's sat in fake glasses and a rugby shirt, hair all over the place, scalp bleeding, acting like a possessed version of one of their Eggheads, nobody has said anything. The next round shows: it's Sports. I want this, and I know who I'm going for.

"Judith, please!"

We're sat, discussing where Judith lives back in London, and I suggest we go for a drink sometime. She pulls that kind of playful Kenneth Williams shocked face only people born pre-1971 are capable of.

"Question number one: in which sport are you likeliest to have a 'rally'?" I dither between options. "Well, my instinct is rugby… my head says hockey…" I stop. "But I've got to go for tennis!" Vine breathes a sigh of relief. "You almost had your team there!" Judith looks over, "You had me too!" I'm inside her head.


WATCH THE FULL EPISODE HERE:


She answers correctly next – I actually give her a mini round of applause, which looks to confuse her – then we both get one wrong. Last question: if I get this right, the pressure is all on her. "Which US swimmer had a controversial incident at a gas station at the Olympics in 2016?" I know it – the dickhead with my hair! – "Ryan Lochte!" Judith follows with an incorrect answer.

There are smiles on the Oobunch's faces when I return. James gives me a nuggy, which he's not once done in my 26 years of knowing him. The Eggheads look on, puzzled. Film & TV is next, and therefore Ray. He has to pick his Egghead. Anyone but Kevin, obviously. "I'll take Kevin."

WHAT! I don't know whether he's brave or stupid, but googling answers isn't going to save him now.

I'm unsure why, but seeing Ray prepare, the camera flittering between Kevin and he, I can't stop giggling. But both men are making easy work of the round until the third and final question, when I notice unsureness in Ray's eyes. I don't blame him – who on earth knows about the kids' animation Kubo and the Two Strings?

Ray, evidently, as he scores three out of three. Kevin's final question comes up: "Who is Thomas Turgoose's character in This Is England?"

Kevin falls silent.

We sit together, me digging my fingers into James' shoulder. Surely Kevin, the world's brightest quizzer, isn't going to choose Woody?

"I'm going for… Woody."

We roar in the studio; Ray punches the air. This Is Chaos. The producers and director look perplexed by our reaction. Ray powers back into the studio inappropriately and we embrace him; Kevin follows, head down like Charlie Brown, returning to the Eggheads – none of them say a word to him.

Weirdly, this puts us in the lead. The next round comes up, Geography. Whatever the subject, this is supposed to be Hannah, as we're keeping Andy for the final. Hannah can barely talk through nerves and presumable sleep deprivation, however, so Andy steps forth and chooses "Tremendous Knowledge" Dave.

The two loveable northern bastards go to battle on easily the hardest round in the whole game. After the opening three, all correct, we're expecting sudden death questions. Instead, Jeremy comments: "Looking great up there, Andy," smiling blankly, "a bit Cat Stevens..." Then the question comes. On which Channel Island is the River Yar? I don't even think the River Yar knows that. Andy guesses wrong with Anglesey. Dave is then asked a question so easy it sounds like a mistake. Which capital city is {insert ridiculously French sounding province} in? Obviously, Paris. It's settled: the final will be 3v3.

With Andy, James, Judith and Kevin disappearing, Jeremy Vine plodding around the studio stage, I begin thinking: all I'd been focused on was being weird, but by completely neglecting logic, three of us are in the final, The Eggheads' best brain has been downed and without considering it once, we're potentially three questions away from winning £2,000. It'd be quite nice to win £2,000, wouldn't it? I take deep breaths. Let's fucking win this thing.

The first question comes up: "What is the common phrase, 'A stitch in times saves…'"

Obviously, we get it right. The Eggheads' reply with a correct answer. The ball's back in our court: What Premier League team did US coach Bob Bradley manage in the 16/17 season? "Swansea!" Now back onto the Eggheads. Again, correct. The third comes up: "Which Rolling Stones song starts with, 'She would never say where she came from…'?" We have no idea. Fuck. What are the chances of three Beatles' people being the only ones left? Blocking out the screams from every member of the British public, we guess: "Angie".

WRONG. It's "Ruby Tuesday". We wait for the eggxecutioners to put us out of our misery with their last question. Predictably, they get it right, and it's debilitating.

But what happens next we couldn't have predicted. "The sound malfunctioned on the correct answer. Can we get all of that – reaction and answer – again, please?" The director's words echo over the set. Nobody bats an eyelid at his request. Hannah, Ray and I have all just lost £2,000, and have basically humiliated ourselves on national television – it's a raw moment. One that we'll never go through again. But that's exactly what the director is asking of us. It's so brutal, it feels almost intentionally like a "don't fuck with us".

Like that, it's game over. We're met by Vine and the Eggheads, before being escorted to leave. They take the name badge from my chest, chucking it into a bucket. I've lost.

Sitting down with a drink in a nearby pub, I feel completely deflated. I don't know why, as we'd done pretty much everything I'd wanted. Maybe it was about winning after all? Our taxi to the airport arrives. Stepping into the car, I notice a figure in the road, dawdling around the car park clutching a Sainsbury's bag. Surely not… Kevin?

"Well done. I should have revised more…" he utters. "I don't even own a computer or a mobile phone…" He apologises for leaving without properly saying goodbye. I think we've broken Kevin. We've destroyed the world's finest quizzer. As he wanders off, I realise why I feel the way I do. While Eggheads may seem like a dull show, it's actually the strangest on television. It doesn't need me larking around; it's already too weird to become weirder. Jeremy Vine is a man more suited to a David Lynch film than daytime TV, and steady star Kevin Ashman is a man unstable, always on the brink of a quiz-based breakdown.

Looking at Kevin disappear into the distance, surrounded by my damaged teammates, I'm reminded how precarious life is. You can spend every minute becoming best at what you do, but you're always just a Ray away from hopelessly wandering the streets with a plastic bag. I tried to fuck with Eggheads, but in the end they just fucked with me.

@Oobahs / @CBethell_Photo

If you want, and if you're in the UK, you can watch the episode on BBC iPlayer here.