In the Green Room: (L to R) me, Jeff, Alex (the presenter), Alicia, Barry.
‘I know it’s short notice.’ A phone call from Endemol Productions had come through on my mobile. ‘But could you come in for this Thursday’s show? We go out live at 11am. It’ll be the last time we record the show in Oxford, which will save you having to travel to Bristol.’
Not much time to prepare, but not much time to get nervous either. ‘Sounds good. I’ll be there.’
I’d applied to appear on a Channel 5 quiz show called BrainTeaser. via a website called www.beonscreen.com set up by my entrepreneurial friend Samuel-Dean. But I’d never actually seen the show. I thought I’d better watch it a couple of times to find out what I’d just let myself in for.
So Tuesday and Wednesday mornings found me glued to the TV screen, trying to calm a growing sense of panic. This was no dumbed-down daytime TV. These word games and general knowledge questions were, in fact, going to be rather more tricky than I’d realised.
And even if I got through to the final, which only one in four contestants did, it seemed there was a good chance I’d come away with nothing – on both Tuesday and Wednesday the finalist gambled their winnings on reaching the next level, and then blew it, coming away empty-handed.
Thursday morning arrived. As I waited in the Green Room at the studios in north Oxford my apprehension grew. A TV set in the corner was showing a videotape of previous editions of the show, and my co-contestants were firing out the answers at incredible speed. Jeff, an 18-year-old student, was especially impressive. ‘He’s got a virtually photographic memory,’ his mother proudly confided to me. I bolted outside for a calming cigarette. I considered running away, but it was a live show and they had no spare contestant. I had to go through with it.
Alicia was the unfortunate cannon-fodder for Jeff in the first round. He racked up an enormous score. Barry, my opponent, was a very entertaining contestant, but he kept buzzing before he knew the answer, giving me valuable extra seconds to figure it out.
So I found myself going through to the second round.. where I would meet the boy genius Jeff.
I’ll have to watch the video to see what happened next – my memories are a bit blurred – but somehow the right questions came up, questions I just happened to know the answers to.
I couldn’t believe it. Somehow, I was through to the final – the Word Pyramid – and the chance to win some cash.
The Word Pyramid would present me with 7 rows of anagrams. A 3-letter word would appear on the first line, then an additional letter would appear in one of the 4 positions on the next tier, and I had to drop down the 3 letters from the top row and rearrange them around the new letter to create a new 4-letter word. The clock would start counting down from 45 seconds as soon as the new letter appeared, and would stop when I figured out the anagram. I’d then have the opportunity to decide whether to gamble my winnings so far on progressing to the 5-letter word and more cash, and so on down the pyramid.
‘What’s your strategy for this round?’ Alex the vivacious blonde presenter asked me. ‘Strategy? I don’t exactly have one – I’m just going to wing it,’ I replied, truthfully. I was counting on my instincts to tell me when to quit.
The Word Pyramid appeared on the screen. I squinted at the letters. The word in the first row was ART. 45 seconds on the clock.
‘Are you ready?’ Alex asked.
‘As I’ll ever be.’
An N appeared on the next row ( _ _ N _ ). The clock started ticking.
‘Errrm. RANT.’ The clock stopped. 41 seconds left.
‘Well done. You’ve won 250. Do you want to carry on?’
‘Yes.’ A letter appeared on the next row down.
_ _ _ I _
‘TRAIN.’ Easy one – it had taken me just one second. 40 seconds left.
I was on 500. ‘Do you want to gamble your 500 and try for 750?’ Alex asked me.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes.’ I nodded.
‘Here you go then. For 750.’
_ E _ _ _ _
I froze. Total numbness of the brain. I stared at the letters – nice, normal, innocent-looking letters – but they refused to resolve themselves into a word. My lips moved as I tried out various combinations, but nothing was working. I could picture the other contestants, sitting in the Green Room, shouting the answer at the screen while I struggled. The seconds were counting down for what felt like an eternity. 220.127.116.11.15.10.
Suddenly, out of the blue, inspiration struck. ‘RETAIN’ I shouted. I still have no idea where that answer came from. It came straight out of my mouth without passing through my head.
‘Yes!’ cried Alex. I almost collapsed in relief. I clung onto the contestant’s lectern for support, trying to believe my luck. I’d just won 750. Against the odds, against my expectations. I couldn’t have been any more ecstatic if I’d just won a million.
And not only had I just pocketed some useful cash, but with Alex’s help, we’d managed to plug my book and briefly outline my plans for Arizona this year. The phone hasn’t rung off the hook yet with offers of book deals and sponsorship, but you never know.