A thing that I did.
Every young gay man has his own preferred set of female iconography growing up. Kylie Minogue, Joan Crawford, Jet from Gladiators, (in the case of one of my friends) Connie from the AOL adverts. All figures whose pain we shared and whose triumphs we revelled in. The brightest star in my own personal firmament was Amy Godell.
Amy Godell was a regular contestant on 15-1. Either a psychotherapist or a physiotherapist from Oxford – smart, dry, mildly overweight and to my adolescent eyes, beautiful. I think I first got hooked on 15-1 when off school with pneumonia at the age of 10. In that slow period of the afternoon before my brother would get home from school, and by which point my nan was bored of looking after me, I’d sit and watch William G Stewart probe 15 social inadequates about the atomic number of calcium and get enthralled. Because 15-1 truly was the greatest quiz tv has ever seen – the perfect mix of medium-hard questions, high emotion, low stakes, and rabid inter-personal bitchery. If people think modern reality shows get heated then they’re not familiar with watching a 52-year-old bookmaker from Surrey viciously saying “NOMINATE TWELVE!” about six times in a row to knock off some poor sad-eyed middle-aged unemployed type who clearly can’t dress himself without the aid of a random number generator sequence.
And of all the returning contestants (one of whom being current Eggheads Smug-Old-Lady-Droid Daphne), Amy was my favourite. And of course, all gay icons let their fans down in the end. Kylie renounced SAW for the Manic Street Preachers, Jet allowed her patrician athletic facade to be punctured by a spell hobbling around behind Neil Buchanan on Finders Keepers, Joan Crawford did Trog, and Amy Godell got a terrifyingly easy question about Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat wrong (and seriously, we’re talking “In Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, who has an Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat?” levels here). Her infallibility was shattered, but I was left with a quizzing bug for the rest of my life.
And up until my tv appearance, it was only really adolescent fumblings with quizzing that I indulged in. Yelling at University Challenge, a school quiz team challenge where we were beaten three times in a row by the same school in the final, then won the following year, only to be disqualified because Mr Swales hadn’t read the eligibility rules properly, an audition for Mastermind aborted due to rampant stomach problems, a weekly pub quiz curtailed after we spent 5 minutes getting heckled by everyone in the pub because it took that long to point out to the marker that Lawrence of Arabia and Lawrence Olivier weren’t in fact the same person.
So what was it about Only Connect that tipped me over?
I’d be lying if I wasn’t saying that Victoria Coren wasn’t a substantial part of it. Really she was the only reason for me wandering into BBC Four in the first place. I’ve always liked Victoria Coren – in fact I once copped off with my friend Doug whilst he was dressed as Victoria Coren during the Durham LGBT Poker League Annual “Ladies of Poker” Drag Night. (I was Kathy Liebert, so it’s not a terribly erotic image whichever way you slice it). I liked her on Late Night Poker, I liked her on Celebrity Poker Club, I like her on Only Connect, and I liked her when I met her.
(That I’m so awkwardly effusive is mostly because half the people I’ve told about the show had a pretty Marmitey reaction to her. My mother’s response after watching my show for the first time (the first she’d watched the show at all) was “has she always been like that?”. So I just thought I’d get on record by opinion that she is in fact “not a cow”.)
Thus drawn in by Victoria Coren and that slow period after University Challenge that’s always filled by personality led-cookery shows (in which case if it’s not Nigella I’m not interested), I grew to appreciate Only Connect. Just like 15-1, the questions are medium-hard (despite the show’s endearing protestations that it is in fact the hardest thing since a Viagra-powered erection. The Missing Vowels round in particular is about the level of an Evening Standard Codeword (which is probably why it’s my best round)). Just like 15-1, it’s personality-led, but not to the extent that people go on it to show off their fabulous exciting personalities. But enough that you can pick up “favourite contestants”, like my own personal favourites the flirtily assertive Simon Spiro and the batshit domineering Min Lacey.
And just like 15-1, it’s for pretty much no prize whatsoever, except for the joy of grinding in your oppontents faces just how much smarter you are than them. Although at least on 15-1 you got an Etruscan vase if you won, rather than something knocked up by the props department in 5 minutes on a lunchbreak from working out what the hell they’re going to faff around with on Strictly Come Dancing next.
Which is all to say that all that (combined with the slow leaning amongst some of my blog-readers to write lurid sexual fantasies about me based on writing which could only be dispelled by them actually seeing me in live-action) tipped me over the edge to becoming a person who appeared on the telly, during a mildly boozy conversation with my boyfriend at a friend’s birthday party. We drafted in Ruth, who along with the pair of us had been badgered repeatedly by the show’s Question-Setter and all-round nag, David Bodycombe, and away we went. Oh yeah, we were scouted, that’s how engaging and exciting we are.
From deciding it was a fairly easy process to get on the show. There was an online application form and practice quiz (filled in via Google Chat as I was watching Apprentice Babies, wondering if Zoe Plummer would consider just sitting in my living room and pulling truculent faces at me forever), an on-camera audition at offices in London (on the same day as England were booted out of the World Cup, if you’re interested in that sort of detail), and various awkward phone-conversations about hobbies and interests (carried out by one of the show’s researchers as I went “buhhhhhhhh”. Being asked your hobbies and interests is like being asked to tell a joke. You inevitably can’t think of ones unless they’re too rude). All of which went fairly smoothly, although obviously with a fair amount of squealing and dancing when we were told that we were through each stage, as well as about 15 different test and practice papers and extensive rules lists (do not swear, do not wear stripes, do not look Victoria directly in the eye or offer her sandwiches) and such like, just to clue us in on how the show worked, as though we hadn’t mapped out fantasy Only Connect tournaments in our heads using soft toys and condiments.
Well, I had anyway. Chris Tudor was a cuddly Yoshi and all of the Rugby Boys were Pepper Cellars.
Much waiting followed, until the day of filming. A day which came just as my boyfriend and I were moving in together for the first time. Moving in together it turned out, to a flat without a working boiler. Or an oven. Or a lock on the front door. To say this was not a great time in our lives to be plunged into the situation of, say, trying to remember the order of characters in Romeo & Juliet by first lines, is something of an understatement. Ruth seemed to be not so harried by life, until she got stuck behind a freight train leaving Sheffield, leading her to a minor panic attack over not even getting to be on the show, followed by a £200 taxi ride from Birmingham to the studios in Cardiff. Then when we got to the studio, we found out we were playing Mensans.
(To be fair, we were told very excitedly on arrival that family teams were debuting this year, and we only overheard team designations in the corridor as we were waiting to play, so I actually briefly, in my move-addled state, thought we were playing Mansons.)
To say this meant we were prepared to lose from the off would be an undeniable truth. To make matters worse, we then sat around and conversed with and humanised the Mensans. They had been on quiz shows before. They had a strategy. They were MENSANS. They were also, sadly, not insufferable smug bastards, so even that impetus to win was removed. The one silver lining was their getting key details of the history of Big Brother utterly wrong (Brian Belo won series 8, not series 7, a WA HA HA) and that was little comfort. (As it turns out there was a question about reality tv. Obviously they got it, and got it right as we sat there gnashing our teeth in frustration). The producer sat us all down and told us we weren’t to throw our chairs at the opposing team mid-quiz, Victoria Coren wafted around somewhere in the background, being utterly intimidating in the act of ordering coffee (or tea, or a hot chocolate, I don’t know. I have no insight into the workings of her mind, despite now having met her once), and then the quizzing began.
Television studios are a funny thing. The Only Connect studio is by turns huge and tiny, really really dark and really really bright, noisy and at the same time very quiet, and hot whilst also being…actually it’s just hot. The make-up lady had to storm the set to reapply the make-up dripping off my face in particular every 5 minutes, and I’m not sure she was that fond of me to start off with. The ever expanding sweat-patches under my arms forced me to adopt a posture similar to one of the Cybernauts from The Avengers. The little glasses of water you see on the show were depleted before even the first question was announced. The taunting of questions about temperate, mild, pleasant European countries was just unnecessary.
It’s WARM, is what I’m saying.
The first two rounds went badly. They’re not my favourite round, but normally I do better than I did on the day (I found a blog post the other day saying that of the quarter finallists we put in by far the weakest performance on the first two rounds. I’m not surprised). To a certain extent there was a level of “if we had their questions, we would have been fine” about it, but overall…not good. We took a little break before The Wall, and we went out to sit in the canteen, more assured of our defeat than ever. We’re usually good at the Wall, but it’s actually much less user-friendly than it appears on tv. Years of being the quick-answer buzzer person on a secondary school quiz-team had left me a button pounder, and let me say, these were not buttons that could be pounded. They needed to be caressed. Loved. Appreciated. Respected. And I am not a respecter of buttons. And whilst Missing Vowels is always a boon, in the short practice run before the show to try the equipment, both teams had come out fairly even.
So basically we were already wondering if we’d get home in time for The Simpsons.
And then we did the Wall, and got 10. Which was a small confidence boost. And then, back in the studio, over the great divide between the teams, we shouted across to the other team, asking how they did. They’d got 7. Something to do with mathematical sequences. So when we went out, we could at least say that we beat them in one round. That was enough of a victory really. And then came Missing Vowels, when I was apprently posessed by Pazuzu.
I have to say, watching it on tv was a bit of a cold comedown. In the studio, I felt like I was answering every single question, at the speed of light, my trigger finger firing off answers with aplomb and good diction to an awe-struck audience. On my screen, I apprently answer somewhere about one-in-three, with a big pause before each one (edited in I think to give people at home a chance, robbing me of my glory), with my hair flopping everywhere, breaking Ruth’s fingers as I ham-fistedly shunted the buzzer (which is a bit like a computer mouse circa 1997).
And then we’d won. We had conquered the Mensans, in a glorious underdog victory, which I’m sure was in no way set up to happen by the producers.
From there, abject defeat to the Wright Family (who were very nice when we sat around with them, mostly discussing which past contestants we’d fancied), because we were at that point more mentally exhausted than the James Franco character in that new film where he eats his own arm off or what have you, wasn’t quite as awful as it might have been. We had done something right. We had beaten Mensans. We were not disqualified. The spirit of Amy Godell was avenged. I could wash this thick layer of foundation off my face. I flirted mildly with Victoria Coren. Someone on twitter slagged me off, saying that I looked like I wanted to suck my own dick (to be fair, not entirely untrue). The experience was complete. I need never appear on television again.
Unless I can get an Eggheads team together.