Magazine article The Spectator

Afternoon Trash

Magazine article The Spectator

Afternoon Trash

Article excerpt

As often happens when you've been away on holiday, I returned from India with a raging existential crisis and no desire to do any work ever again. Fortunately, I'd managed to pick up a particularly nasty cold on one of the flights. This left me too ill to kill myself and meant that I could ease my way gently back into the real world by lounging in bed, finishing off A Suitable Boy and watching daytime television.

I didn't watch any of that dodgy morning stuff with Anne and Nick, Kilroy or Supermarket Sweep. I wasn't that desperate. But come 4 o'clock I could hold out no longer. On went the television button, up came the credits for Fifteen-to-One (Channel 4) and so began two-and-a-half deliciously wasteful hours of cathode-ray vegetating.

Fifteen-to-One is presented by a man like a scary provincial bank manager called William G. Stewart. I seem to recall that he was once a spy, or an expert in psychological warfare or something equally sinister. And, if he wasn't, he really should have been, for he presides, with an anxious severity Magnus Magnusson would envy, over a quiz show of chilling ruthlessness.

It starts out with 15 contestants who take turns to answer increasingly tough general knowledge questions until they lose their three lives and have to slink off, forgotten for all eternity. Then the real cruelty starts. Three survivors go through to a final round in which they must destroy the opposition by passing questions on to the person with the fewest points, hoping that they will get them wrong and die. There are no jokes, there's little banter and the eventual winner seems almost as depressed as the people he has just killed. I like it.

But not as much as Countdown (Channel 4), which has deservedly remained a cult favourite with students over the ten years since I used to watch it in my posh digs at 86c Banbury Road. Two contestants get 30 seconds to make the longest possible word out of nine, randomly chosen letters - a task made doubly difficult by the tensioninducing musical countdown. The arithmetic section is even harder. In fact it probably offers more of an intellectual challenge than any redbrick university course anywhere in Britain.

Its cult-appeal, though, owes most to the weird chemistry between host Richard Whiteley and mental-arithmetician Carol Vorderman. Richard (dressed in terrifyingly violent pastels) has the hunched, furtive look of a schoolboy who has just been caught playing with himself behind his desk; Carol wears an expression which seems to say: 'I may be a brainbox but I'm a real goer. …

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