Our off-peak TV connoisseur Calum Henderson watches The Tipping Point, the human versus machine game show that strikes a crucial balance between moronic and enthralling.
In moments of hopelessness and despair, it can be easy to think that TV’s best game shows belong to the past. Millionaire has been clocked. Every possible permutation of Deal or No Deal has been played out. I think some plebs finally even beat The Chaser. It would seem the barrel has been well-and-truly scraped. But what if I told you… there’s gold below the bottom of the barrel?
Tipping Point seems like it could only have been conceived by a down-on-his-luck game show ideas man wandering miserably around an abandoned video game arcade on his lunch break. He’s been hounded by the big studio execs to come up with the new Millionaire every day for the last five years. “We’re losing ground to Deal every day, mate,” they would remind him as they passed his desk, or ‘ideastation’.
Chris Tarrant got his mobile number and started calling him in the middle of the night. “I need a lifeline, Michael,” he would whisper. It was beginning to take its toll. But as he stared into the games machine pushing stale mini chocolates tantalisingly close to the edge, the ‘tipping point’ as it were, a question mark appeared above his head. “This could work…?!”
He ran to the nearest greasy spoon and designed the whole show on a napkin in five minutes. The execs loved it. But it was too late for Tarrant. “Sorry mate, we’ve gone for fresh blood,” the execs told him in a cowardly voicemail.
One host, four contestants and, as the host grossly oversells it, “this amazing machine”. The machine is loaded with counters, each of which represents £50, or as they say in England “50 squid”.
Each contestant starts round one with three counters to their name. The first to buzz in and answer a question correctly gets to drop a counter into the machine, in the hope that it will push the other counters over the edge and into the Win Zone.
Lance, a prison officer from Northamptonshire, answers the first question correctly, but weirdly decides to abdicate his turn to Leicester retiree Helen in a tactical move designed to waste one of her counters. This backfires as Helen gets three to fall for a cool £150.
Lance’s total domination of the buzzer eventually pays dividends when he gets an astonishing 13 counters to fall in one go. He’s sitting pretty with £850, streets ahead of Helen and London ad man Antony. Erika, who seems to be the dunce of the show, has nothing.
Finally Erika gets the buzzer, on the question “What is the only month with a letter G in it?” Shit. Really good question. “Aaaah… I don’t know!” she answers in a heartbreakingly lovely Welsh lilt. Oh, Erika. She loses one of her counters to the Penalty Pot.
With no money in the bank, and on the brink of elimination, Erika finally gets a question correct when it matters most. She wins the four counters in the Penalty Pot. On her first go she forces nine counters over the tipping point. She’s safe and through to the next round. Antony is sent packing with £50 for his troubles, left to rue what could have been in his stylish London apartment. Hard luck mate.
At the start of round two Lance is still well in front with £850, ahead of Erika, who now has £500, and Helen with £350. As the leader, Lance gets first go at the quickfire round. He must answer as many questions as he can in thirty seconds. Each correct answer represents one cherished counter.
At this point of the show one thing has become strangely apparent. The trivia is completely secondary to the addictive thrill of watching these people drop their counters into the machine. Lance wins five counters, and the whole time he spends popping them in and waiting to see if anything drops, Erika is going “ooh! ooh!” in the background like a beautiful Welsh owl. It’s the most moronically enthralling thing I think I’ve ever seen on the telly. I love it.
Helen is the last to go in round two, and with her penultimate counter snares a tasty 12-counter windfall. With one counter remaining she sits on £950 – needing just one to fall to force a tiebreak with Erika. It is agonisingly close.
Unfortunately for Helen, neither fall. “Oh, so close” Erika says sadly, even though this has sealed her passage to the next round. Helen is politely asked to bugger off back to Leicester with £950 to top-up her pension.
Lance takes a £300 lead into the head-to-head round against Erika. He must surely be the odds-on favourite to win through and compete for the jackpot. But does the machine have other ideas?
This is the most tactical round yet. Lance and Erika take turns at fielding questions, and can choose to either answer themselves or pass them over if they think the other contestant won’t know the answer. Lance goes first and correctly answers a question about Richard Branson’s autobiography. “I’ve actually read it,” he boasts. Lance, you are rotten to the core.
On his next turn, Lance tries to get tactical for the second time in the game, and for the second time, he blows it. Mistaking Erika for a true regional idiot, he passes her the question: ‘In which decade of the 20th Century did the USA repeal its prohibition laws?’ She coolly and correctly nails it. 1930s, of course. With this bonus turn she pulls down five counters, bringing her to within £50 of Lance. “Yaaaay” she whispers, Welshly.
On the final question, still trailing by only one counter, Erika is asked ‘Which member of the British Royal family is seventh in line to the throne?’ She doesn’t know, and doesn’t think the rampant Bransonite next to her will either. She passes. Great move. Lance guesses Beatrice. It’s Edward. Erika now has one final go to determine her fate. She needs two counters to win and one to force a tiebreak.
Her counter drops unpromisingly. “Oh no, that’s the worst one” she groans. “Is it going to get any peripheral movement?” asks the host. Bloody hell. It does! It gets a shitload of peripheral movement and sends three counters tumbling. Erika is going through to the £10,000 jackpot round, and Lance is going back to read Losing My Virginity in the Northamptonshire County Prison staff room.
The loveliest person to ever be on a TV quiz show is through to the jackpot round. Erika now gets to drop the magnificent gold Jackpot Counter into the machine, and stands to gain untold wealth if she can get it over the tipping point. She could even overtake Charlotte Church as the richest woman in Wales.
The Jackpot Counter drop is crucial – as the host constantly reminds everyone, “it’s all about timing”. Erika times it nicely, but makes an unconvinced noise. “It’s riding up!” reassures the excited host. He has clearly spent untold hours trying to decipher the mysterious workings of this highly luck-based machine. He likes what he sees.
Erika gets six categories, and for each category the choice of one, two or three counters. The more counters she goes for, the harder the question will be. The categories are Politics, Film, Art, Reality TV, Mythology and The Beatles. The six cornerstones of British society.
It is intense, gripping, stupid TV. I want sweet, cardigan-wearing Erika to win the jackpot probably as much as I wanted the Black Caps to win the Cricket World Cup. Maybe more.
Agony follows ecstasy in staggeringly quick succession. With just two categories left up her sleeve, Erika gets the Jackpot Counter to drop to the second tier – “yay!” – but another counter lands right on top of it. “Oh”. That’s going to weigh the JC down. Erika’s hopes seem to have been dashed by a cruel act of physics.
She has no choice but to go for the hard Politics question. It’s about the Conservative Party, and worryingly she knows the answer straight away. Could Erika be a proud, strident Tory? Like the politics of our sporting gods, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Probably best to just not think at all. Just watch the counters in the machine.
She gets it on the third and final attempt. As the golden Jackpot Counter drops into the Win Zone, the host screams “YEEEEEEESSSSSS” with such unrestrained excitement that his lapel mic distorts. Erika just laughs and laughs. She has achieved one of the most improbable and thrilling game show victories of all time.
Tipping Point airs on TV One 3pm weekdays