At just after five o’clock, I was in the foyer of Dock House, MediaCity UK, waiting with the other contestants to go across to the Brain of Britain studio. I felt a bit uneasy, as they were all chatting and joking amongst themselves. I got the impression that some of them were regulars on ‘the circuit’, and in fact I was pretty sure I recognised one of them from TV.
It was in fact my second visit to Dock House – I’d left my SD card in my Netbook, so I’d gone back for that. The main reason I wanted my camera was something I’d spotted in the foyer of the main building as I was going to the hotel. After all, what self-respecting Time Lord aficionado would pass up this opportunity for a couple of photos:
One of the production team arrived a few minutes later to take us across to the studio. On our way through the door one of the others introduced himself and started chatting. His name was Scott Dawson, and we were about the same age. He introduced me to Darren Martin and Chris Gould (the chap I thought I’d recognised), and immediately I felt a lot more relaxed. There were another handful of contestants as well, and I guessed that they’d be recording two shows back to back. (That seems to be normal practice, as some friends of mine went to a double recording of I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue in Cardiff a few years ago.) It turned out I was going to take part in the same show as Scott, Darren and Bel, an attractive woman in her forties.
We checked in at a side-office away from the main reception area, and I noticed that the girl at the desk had some very impressive tattoos on both arms. I made a mental note of this, and it came in useful later. Then we made our way through a maze of corridors filled with lamps, sound equipment and flight cases of electronic gear to the studio itself. While we were waiting for the ‘okay’ to go in, Scott and I spotted a great sign on the wall nearby:
Then we were inside the studio and face to face with Russell Davies himself. In Sibling Rivalry I talked about trying to picture someone from his or her radio voice, and failing badly. Russell Davies was another presenter who’d had me fooled – he’s actually quite short and a bit plump, with a shock of white hair and a bushy white moustache. The set-up was far less elaborate than I’d imagined as well, but then again it’s a radio show.
The ‘studio’ is actually the concert hall which various BBC orchestras and bands use, and looks like a large lecture theatre or indoor sports hall. There were two tables end to end at an oblique angle to the audience, and about ten feet across from there was another large table at an oblique angle. Russell was sitting at the large table between the adjudicator and one of the production team (neither of whose names I can remember, alas.) The tables were connected by a spaghetti tangle of cables, and the first row of seats in the auditorium were ‘reserved’ for the contestants and their guests. My name was at one end of the double table, along with Scott’s, Darren’s and Bel’s. (If it had been a TV programme, there’d probably have been a flashy graphic with my name on it. For Radio 4, a piece of A4 paper folded in half lengthways did the job admirably.)
We all sat in the front row while technicians made adjustments to the equipment. I spotted a slim dark-haired young woman darting back and forth, and guessed (correctly) that she was Lizzie Foster. A few minutes later the show’s producer Paul Bajoria walked out to centre stage. Bel told him that he looked exactly like Steve Jobs, and she was spot-on! Tall, lanky, slightly balding, and extremely pleasant, he put us all at our ease and explained what would happen next. They’d do a levels check first to make sure that everyone was transmitting loud and clear. The second batch of contestants would go first (which is why our names were already set up), then the first batch. Once Paul was happy with the sound quality, the studio audience would come in and the recording would get under way.
Scott, Bel, Darren and I took our places behind the tables and a technician adjusted our microphones so that we didn’t have to lean forward to talk. Paul disappeared into the control booth, the signature tune was played in, and Russell read his chairman’s script effortlessly into his mic. I always envy professional broadcasters who just go straight into their spiel without any hesitation and without any stumbling. This was a classic case.
We played two rounds of the game just as we would have during the recording, with the other contestants and guests as the audience. I’ll allow myself a modest cough and say that I did rather well in the dry run. Then we swapped places with the other four players and sat in on their sound check. It was great fun, and Russell proved a genial and entertaining host, throwing in some nice little asides between questions.
After a few more minutes while he reviewed the rough cut, Paul said they were ready to start the recording. Chris and the others stayed where they were, we stayed where we were, and the audience filed in to their seats behind us. That must be a nice way to pass a wet Friday evening in Manchester – just hop on a tram and sit in the audience of a live quiz show. Paul returned and gave a little talk to the audience, asking them to observe certain basic precautions (no mobile phones and so forth) during the recordings. Then he returned to the shelter of his glass screen, the signature tune was played in again, and Chris and his fellow contestants were in the metaphorical spotlight for half an hour.
At the end of the first round there was some confusion, when Russell lost track of whose question came next, and they had to do some re-recording. Things went awry again when nobody realised that the last round had been the Last Round, if you see what I mean. It was nice to know that even the BBC can cock their quizzes up. (It made me feel a little less guilty about the legendary Xmas Quiz in the Cambrian in 2007, when I was so horrendously pissed that Lorna had to read the answers out for me!)
Paul spoke to his colleague through the cans and requested a couple of ‘extras’ for the final edit. Then the first game was over and Scott, Bel, Darren and I were in the hot seats. Lizzie brought us a glass of water each, we wished each other luck, and sat back while the signature tune was played in.
Without going into too much detail, I think my performance during the rehearsal might have burned me out. I’d peaked much too soon. (I was going to call this Movement There Are More Questions Than Answers, in fact.) I made a late run for the finish line, but it was too late in the day to make any difference. I’m not making excuses when I say that Scott and Darren were hardcore! They were so fast on the button to pick up bonuses that they left me standing. Mind you, I really did enjoy the Beat the Brains round, where the four contestants team up to answer a pair of questions submitted by a listener.
One of the questions was this: ‘Ten elements of the Periodic Table have chemical symbols whose first letter is different from that of the full name. For example, Sodium, which is Na.’ My vague memories of A-Level Chemistry, nearly three decades ago, vanished like liquid nitrogen at room temperature. At first, I was surprised that there are only ten. However, when we started thinking about it, it was remarkably difficult to compile the whole list. I had a pen – when don’t I? – so I noted down our answers on the back of my name card as we came up with them. and read them out at the end. At one point, when were halfway through our list, I said, ‘If you play your cards right, Russell, we’ll have this finished before the end of the show.’ That got a good laugh from everyone. In the event, Russell had to give us a clue for the tenth one, but we still managed to get them all. It’s my voice that you’ll hear on the broadcast version at this point.
After recording a last few extras for the edit, we were ushered through into the Hospitality Room for a well-earned glass of wine with the team. The other contestants and I had a good chat with Paul and Lizzie. As I’d suspected, some of them had been on Countdown, Eggheads and The Weakest Link, so would probably be banned from every pub quiz machine in the country. Russell called in briefly, but didn’t stay long. I gave Lizzie my incredibly complicated travel tickets, and she promised to get them to the finance department as soon as she could. Before we left, I asked one of the guests if she’d take a photo of us all. Two of the contestants had dashed off for trains home, but there were still six of us:
We drifted off over the next ten minutes, and I headed back to the main reception desk. The tattooed girl was still there, and that was when I put the next stage of my cunning plan into action.
No, of course I didn’t ask her for her number! Instead, I asked her if she could point me in the direction of a decent rock pub/club/venue. I knew simply by looking that she wasn’t the sort of girl to go to a rave club, and I was right. She mentioned a pub in the city centre, and then recommended a place called Satan’s Hollow. It sounded like a decent enough itinerary to me. I headed straight for the tram and made my way out into the big city.