There’s a moment during an episode of the joyous Car 54, Where Are You? when Gunther complains to his wife Lucille that he doesn’t want to watch a western that is currently on TV because it takes the edge off Wagon Train.
I know how he feels. There are lots of quiz programmes cluttering up the afternoon schedules – Tenable, Impossible, Tipping Point, The Boss – but I don’t watch any of them because they would dilute my enjoyment of Pointless.
Yes, as my wife never tires of telling me, I’m a Pointless man. When I watch Pointless my wife tends to leave me to it. This is because I spend most of the forty-five minutes shouting answers at the screen. The time I don’t spend shouting at the telly I spend wondering how big the coveted Pointless trophy is. It is regularly shown in big fat, loving close-up, as Keith Floyd would have said, but the viewer is left no wiser as to its proportions. It looks like it should be the size of a paperweight, like one of those little glass obelisks containing a 3-D image of the Blackpool Tower or, if you’re religious, the Virgin Mary.
When they did a spoof episode on Not Going Out the trophy looked a fairly hefty size so, to clear things up, I think the big, fat loving close-up should have a handy ruler at the side of the screen to dispel any doubts regarding its dimensions. Pointless also provides a good opportunity to wonder at the televisual skills of its host, Alexander Armstrong. I like Alexander Armstrong and I feel I’ve seen enough episodes now to feel that I can get away with calling him Xander. He is too erudite to be called Sandy and, besides, as far as I am concerned there is only one TV Sandy and that is Sandy Gall.
Whatever Xander does he does with the utmost conviction, except when he’s congratulating a jackpot winner to whom he always offers a half-hearted, one-armed embrace. I used to think it was because the BBC were deducting the winnings from his salary, but I suspect now that it has something to do with his carefully hidden microphone wires.
The Pointless studio audience must be quite well-off because, whenever the jackpot stands at £1000, it never elicits even the tiniest ripple of applause. A paltry grand, the audience seem to be thinking, I wouldn’t risk damaging my jewellery for such a trivial amount.
It might be an example of the north-south divide, but I think such a prize is worthy of a twenty-one-gun salute. If I were to win a grand, I would make sure everyone knew about it and you wouldn’t see me for dust as I set off on a lap of honour around Teesside. Unfortunately, I would have to do it on foot because my driving licence would not be welcome on Pointless.
The reason for this is that my driving style is more akin to The Chase, similar to the one involving Steve McQueen through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt.
As well as being a talented presenter, Xander is a decent actor. How else does he manage to feign convincing surprise when an answer that is obviously incorrect gets its deserved allotment of one hundred points? The impartial viewer can only stand back and admire his tactful treatment of the, admittedly fictional, Mickey and Minnie, a couple from somewhere equally fictional like Beckindale.
Xander would say something like:
‘So Minnie, you think that Winston Churchill was the first
president of the United States. Let’s see first of all if it’s right and, if
so, how many of the one hundred people surveyed said Winston Churchill.’
He then goes on to utter the astonished words ‘Oh no, it’s not right’ as the column turns red from embarrassment and breaks out in a big angry cross. While I am on the subject, I think the Pointless production team could have made more of an effort in choosing an electronic sound to accompany an incorrect answer. It is nowhere as effective as the classic raspberry effect that accompanied a wrong answer in Family Fortunes. I still miss Les Dennis’ jokes about radishes whenever a contestant failed to see eye to eye with at least one of the one hundred people surveyed over, say, a colour of the rainbow.
I have often wondered who the hundred people are that are surveyed, and how the survey takes place. Many is the time I have been strolling through the Cleveland Centre, being a bother to no one, when a surveyor has sneaked up on me and asked for my opinion on something dreary like the need for a bypass to relieve traffic congestion on Marton Road or whether I think the end of the world is nigh. I have never been stopped by a surveyor kind enough to give me one hundred seconds to name as many Top 40 singles by Showaddywaddy as I could. I reckon I could name quite a few of these, starting with Three Steps to Heaven. This tune was also used, some time in the 1970s, to advertise gravy granules on television. Even when I hear the song and know that it’s poor old Eddie Cochran singing it, I always think of a troupe of brightly coloured teddy boys stirring some gravy because, as far as I am concerned, Showaddywaddy and the granules got there first.
Skilled professional that he is, I wonder how Xander really feels when he’s waving adieu to a couple whose lack of knowledge demonstrates that they shouldn’t have been on the show in the first place. He’s the model of restraint and diplomacy as he bids farewell to the departing couple with the words:
‘And so, we have to say goodbye to Mickey and his wife Minnie. If it hadn’t been for that tricky matter of having to name the elements of the periodic table from their description in haiku, you would probably have made it all the way to the jackpot round. You’ve been brilliant contestants and we’re sorry to see you go. Have a safe journey back to Beckindale.’
In the spirit of in vino veritas, he should try presenting Pointless with a few pints inside him. At least then he’d have the Dutch courage to say what every viewer, or at least this viewer, is thinking when confronted with the likes of Mickey and Minnie:
‘And so, the time has come to say goodbye and good riddance to Micky and his wife Minnie. I’ll never know how they managed to find their way to the studio in the first place. They probably thought they were going to see The Jeremy Kyle Show. Why people want to appear on a quiz show when they know nothing about anything is beyond me. As well as the debacle over the first president of the United States, and we even gave her the initials of GW to help her out, Minnie also thought Ontario was the capital of Canada. I don’t know why you’re laughing, Mickey. For the round in which we asked you to name a country that ends in two vowels, you said Narnia. By country we mean, of course, any sovereign state that is a member of the United Nations blah-de -blah-de-blah. When was the last time you saw the lion, the witch and the wardrobe at the UN, Mickey?
Fortunately, I wasn’t being watched by a couple of million viewers, but I had a similar experience to Minnie’s when the issue of the capital of Nigeria cropped up in an episode a while ago. Lagos, I shouted confidently at the screen only to be told by Richard Osman that it was Abuja and has been since 1991. If I had been in the studio I would have earned myself a big fat hundred points but it provided a salutary lesson in not being too cocky, not that I’ll ever learn it.
Xander has a point about Richard, though. In the good old days, he would sit quietly in the corner like the wise old owl. Now he comes across as the wise old owl’s younger brother, just flown in from the ‘hood with the cops on his tail and nothing on his mind but making mischief. No one can shut him up and, when he sets off on one of his extended riffs you can write off the next five minutes’ viewing time and might just as well flick through the schedules to see what’s on the other channels, safe in the knowledge that you haven’t missed anything.
I used to think that, if Xander ever jumped ship, Richard would continue hosting the show himself. He’s got so much on his plate, though, presenting The One Show on an irregular basis, fronting House of Games, Two Tribes and being the brains behind various television production companies, that he wouldn’t have the time. I think Les Dennis would be a good replacement host. He could even reword his Family Fortunes catchphrase to ‘If that answer’s pointless I’ll give you the money myself’.
On the down side, quiz-wise, Mr Dennis is tarred with the ITV brush and I don’t think his jokes about radishes would go down too well at tea-time on the BBC. Should the unthinkable happen and Xander hands in his papers, perhaps it’s best if Pointless were to go the same way as The Weakest Link.
Xander is a brother-in-law to Giles Coren, son of the mighty Alan Coren and brother to the even mightier Victoria.
I should imagine one of the appeals of being a boxing fan is that you can never know for sure who the greatest heavyweight of all time is. Would, for instance, the guile of Muhammad Ali be sufficient to nullify the power of Rocky Marciano? Would Jack Johnson be able to withstand an assault from Mike Tyson? It is a debate to frustrate and delight in equal measure. So it is with brainy TV families. I have often wondered if the more old-school Dimblebys would have too much up top for the younger, hipper Corens. The only way to settle it would be to see them go toe to toe in a festive fantasy edition of Ask the Family.
I don’t know which clan would land the knockout blow but I do know that Robert Robinson’s manner would become less and less avuncular when, as would surely happen in such a high-stakes game, elder siblings persist in buzzing in on those rounds reserved for mother and youngest child only.
Regardless of the outcome, I have fond memories of the late Coren père from his days as one of the team captains on Cabbages and Kings. Now, that was a quiz show. Taking its title from a line in Alice Through the Looking Glass, the questions in it were based on obscure literary quotations.
Benny Green was another regular on Cabbages and Kings. Listening to him on Radio 2 on a Sunday afternoon he seemed a jolly soul but he always looked grumpy when appearing on the show. I suspect it had something to do with being outshone most weeks by Alan Coren. It can’t be good for the ego to be regularly bested at something you think you’re quite good at it.
I am sure that Richard Ingrams was also in the mix somewhere, perhaps filling in whenever Benny Green felt like taking a week off. The show was broadcast by ITV, possibly on a Sunday afternoon. Can you imagine ITV broadcasting such a programme now? That’s a rhetorical question by the way because the answer is, of course, no.
At the time of writing, ITV with the collusion of Alexander Armstrong are happily putting on, at peak viewing time, Teach My Pet To Do That (Xander, what are you thinking?) in which the nation’s pets are taught tricks such as answering a door at the sound of a doorbell. I have nothing against animals but I have a lot against ITV schedulers who think we want to watch dogs doing yoga at eight of the clock on a weekday evening.
In the days when each ITV region had its own distinct identity, the programme would have been bunged on at different times, and different days of the week, depending on the region. As it would have been impossible to build up a solid fan base, they would have had a good excuse to ditch it. Now that ITV is one homogeneous mass, there are no such crafty fixes.
Cabbages and Kings was based on the BBC radio show Quote Unquote so I don’t know why it was shown on ITV and not the BBC. Perhaps the BBC thought they had enough high-brow quiz shows of their own with Call My Bluff, Ask the Family, Face the Music and Pets Win Prizes (sorry, that one was from a few years later when even the Beeb had started to dumb down).
Nigel Rees, host of Quote Unquote, also presented the early episodes of Cabbages and Kings but I don’t remember him at all. The ones I remember were hosted by cheery Robin Ray who had every right to be cheery because he was married to the lovely Susan Stranks, for God’s sake. I spent many a happy hour as a kid admiring her work on Paperplay and Magpie.
Cabbages and Kings is long overdue a reboot. It could alternate with Only Connect on BBC2. Xander could host, Giles Coren could captain one team, his sister the other and, best of all, there wouldn’t be a unicycling parrot in sight. I wonder if Susan Stranks could be persuaded to put in the odd appearance?
Published on November 12th, 2019. Written by Andrew Cobby (2018) for Television Heaven.