If you’ve had the misfortune to watch any of the new series of Catchphrase, you’ll have noticed a few differences. For one, it is now presented by P&O-ferry-magician-gone-rogue Stephen Mulhern, and not silver Ulster comedian Roy "et's gewd but et's nat kwaite raide" Walker. The clues have changed too, presented now in creepy, early-internet 3D animation, giving it the feel of a learning game you’d have been disappointed to get with a magazine in 1998. These differences are only skin deep, though, and are for the most part tolerable. But there’s something more sinister pervading the world of shitty TV gameshows that most people are too busy to actually care about.
Last time I watched it, this abomination occurred: during one of the rounds, a clue came up on the screen. The film showed a woman whose hair was flying away from her, and her leaping in an attempt to keep it on. Keep your hair on, yeah? Hard clue, right? Not really, but what do you, as a contestant, do? You have a think. If you don’t know the answer, you leave it. You slap your thighs and kick yourself and Stephen Mulhern gives you a withering look that says "You really shouldn't have put yourself up to this." But what does one of these jokers decide to do? He buzzes in and shouts, "No idea!"
Watch it, it's in the video above at 24:43. The crowd erupts with laughter. Mulhern, with but a look and a smirk, shakes his fist at this comedian. Where did they find this guy?! He buzzed in without knowing the answer? What?!
And here’s where the problem lies. I know that most people got bored of moaning about "talent" shows years ago. I know even the cynical speech marks I just put around the word talent are out-of-date and probably made you wince like off milk. But by pandering to the banal narcissism of the public – or at least that section of the public bored enough to apply to gameshows – Big Brother, Britain's Got Talent and all the other well-kicked pigs of weekend TV have created the sort of contestant who goes on a gameshow, and buzzes in when he doesn't know the answer. What was he expecting, a book deal and a Bafta? Mate, you're not the star, you're a prop with a working mouth.
In the same show, about ten minutes earlier (18.40), the other contestant – Debbie – wins a family season pass to just-about-better-than-a-funfair theme park Drayton Manor. And then she starts crying, on national television, because she'll be able to ride the Cranky the Crane Drop Tower for free whenever she likes, between the 15th of March and the 1st of November. I mean, they'd probably have to pay for travel themselves. It's hardly Derek Redmond's dad coming on to carry him across the finishing line, is it?
These people fail to realise that viewers don't watch gameshows for the contestants, but for the games themselves. The game is the star of the show, not you. And nowhere is this rule more flagrantly broken than Noel Edmond’s pyschobabbling arsehole beehive Deal Or No Deal. A parade of shit-grinned ponces whipping a studio audience into a lacklustre frenzy to sate their own unjustified TV ego.
If you watch Challenge TV as much as I do, which isn’t even that much, honest, then you’ll be nostalgically proud of how contestants used to be: freakish, unfashionable, awkward, geeks. You wouldn’t trust them to open a can of beans with a fool-proof industrial can opener, such was their look of total thickness. But that’s how they’re supposed to be, question-answering vessels, buzzer pressers, vicarious intellectual punchbags for us to sneer at when they assert that Courtney Love was married to Axl Rose, or that it was Princess Eugenie who died at the Battle of Hastings. They’re not meant to be teeming with jokes and personality, they’re just there to be glad to be there.
I suppose that’s an issue as well. Back then being on telly was a frighteningly big deal. Now you have your face plastered on the news for dancing around Liverpool Street station with a bunch of other dickheads dressed as frogs. Once upon a time it was like being plucked out of the sky by the gods of fame but today, it's a bit like we're living in Iceland, where everyone in the country has been on TV at least 160 times.
Some would say that it’s the fault of Americans, whose gameshow formats have cross-pollinated with our own like squaddies shoving their dicks up bored, sad wives from Nuneaton whose husbands are busy getting PTSD somewhere in a disgusting field in Benelux. The Yanks have an almost natural proclivity for showmanship, but it’s not their fault that they’re good at it. All white smiles and zany quips, that’s their thing, not ours. We do awkward, stilted, unintentionally rude and deathly silent.
Remember Fifteen to One? A semi-circle of geriatrics battling for the last go on the mobility scooter. No talking, no "So what do you do?", just fucking questions and answers. William G Stewart holding it down in the manner his middle name suggests he would. Mastermind seems to be the last bastion of no-bullshit gameshow quizzes, but it’s not really fair, 'cos that’s the point of it: its "thing" is to be as stern and austere as possible, it's the gameshow equivalent of the Heygate Estate or a 12-inch by Shed.
Over-enthusiastic contestants make these shows unwatchable. It is toe curling to watch someone genuinely believe, during their 15 minutes of micro-fame, that they are who we’ve tuned in to see. That the game they’re playing is just an opportunity for them to shine and that as soon as the applause rings out and the show's over, they'll be led backstage and away from the families they came to the studio with into the world of metropolitan showbiz oblivion that they were always really destined for. Do you know why Daryl from Weston-Super-Mare isn’t presenting T4? Because Daryl’s about as interesting as a fucking photo album of your cousin's wedding.
Leave it to the professionals and be happy with your holiday to Universal Studios. Or go on BGT, and live out your dream of being a forgettable scab on the face of entertainment in front of people who'll momentarily seem to give a shit about your "talent".
Follow Joe Bishop on Twitter: @joe_bish
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