Aaron Hawkins recalls his childhood love for quiz shows, and calls for the return of Dougal Stevenson’s Herculean all-rounder competition The Krypton Factor.
“They’ve been very popular, in fact they’ve been a hit: Tubular Bells. But we don’t need our contestants to hit them tonight, merely to assemble them, in the proper order.”
– Dougal Stevenson
I’ve been in love with The Krypton Factor for longer than I’ve been able to read. I wanted to name my first pet lamb after my favourite contestant, Chris, but felt compelled to name her the more feminine Christine. She was an absolute nightmare, and we probably ate her. I can’t have been more than four years old.
The Krypton Factor’s state of the art title graphic, with its awkward hands, slick graphite tile and Art of Noise inspired soundtrack, was my weekly call to arms. With grim determination, the four combatants would introduce themselves, as Executive Officers, Telecom Engineers and Doctor / Musicians. This was an impressive array of intellectual horsepower to this young rural lad, who had given up on ‘Weet-Bix Maker’ and ‘Fireman’ to settle on ‘Keith Quinn’ as a career path.
I was obsessed with quiz shows. I watched the jolly Phillip Leishman’s Wheel of Fortune, with the glamorous Lana Coc-Kroft by his side (is this what people from Auckland looked like?), the dozens in attendance screaming for Top Dollar. There was the sadly short-lived local version of Jeopardy, hosted by Mark Leishman, in the more serious manner it demanded. I even liked Michael Barrymore’s imported Strike It Lucky. I represented my school in annual current events quizzes, costing us a tie-breaker win one year, something I’ve clearly never recovered from.
Perhaps that’s what lead me to an audition for the rebooted Wheel of Fortune with Jason Gunn, in Dunedin’s historic Mayfair Theatre. After breezing through a puzzle test, the top scorers were then given their shot at convincing the producers why they would be good on-screen talent. As a kid, I told them, the only show I wanted to be on more than a game show was the Son of a Gunn Show. This was my best shot, all these years later, of doing both. Or so I thought. “You might have heard rumours about the show struggling,” one of the wranglers told us, “but don’t worry we’ve got loads of cash and prizes.” The show was cancelled within weeks, and I never heard back from them.
I was disappointed, but continued to be devoted to the genre.
Having witnessed the return of Top Town, and now Mastermind, surely my beloved Krypton Factor is next. Hell, Dougal Stevenson is still in good enough form to come back and front it. It has to happen, because the show was like nothing else on television.
At its most basic level, The Krypton Factor was a nerd pentathlon in primetime, and this is what made it the king. There wasn’t even a prize! In what seems like blasphemy in this era of naked capitalism, contestants were prepared to be put through their paces, on national television, for little more than the sense of self satisfaction and a statuette.
This was essentially a visual memory test. You were given ten seconds to look at an image – words on a greeting card, temperatures on a map – then get grilled on particulars. If you want to get a sense of it, in the zero stakes environment you’re sitting in now, spend ten seconds looking at this greeting card:
Then cover it up and answer the following questions: What is the second letter? What’s the first letter of the third word? Can you spell the second word backwards? What is the penultimate letter? Can you list the letters of the second word in alphabetical order?
The opening round is a perverse test of both your photographic recall, and abstract problem solving skills. Neither have ever been my strong suit, and I flail about aimlessly, as the cool headed lecturer on screen sinks them with ease.
The format varied over the years, but it was always a video segment. Some seasons it would be a video played twice, with contestants spotting the differences, and others it was counting continuity errors on a single clip. I preferred the former, mainly because it was easier, and didn’t rely so much on subtlety.
‘Number one was the room number. It says ‘255’ on the door, but later James says: “Well I suppose it’s better than Room 225”
Number two was the hotel location. Bond complained of: “Cheap Baghdad hotel service!”, but it wasn’t Baghdad later on. “My assignment was to come here to Hong Kong.”
Next Bond’s gun changed from a short-barrelled pistol, to a long barrelled revolver.’
(The James Bond mentioned above is played by none other than Steve Coogan. For a season in 1989, the original British version commissioned Coogan, billed as their ‘resident comic actor’, to star in the video sketches. Audiences saw him play Sylvester Stallone as Hamlet; the ‘alternative comedian’ Ben Elton; Labour leader Neil Kinnock (more than once, including an episode of Play School with Margaret Thatcher); Michael Caine as a hard boiled, and inept, school teacher; and Bob Geldof trying to buy cream. The following year, they were introduced by Dougal, here in New Zealand.)
The colours of drinks, the size of earrings, and the variety of table ornaments all vary. To nail the observation round, you need to keeping an eye on props, costumes, and a close reading of the dialogue all at the same time. There are always a couple of obvious ones, which seemed beneath the contestants, and aimed more at keeping the home viewer’s spirits up, and it works.
Intelligence always struck me as an odd name for this round, perhaps the more accurate Spatial Awareness was considered too alienating for even this show’s high brow audience. It was tactile puzzle that needed solving, including blindfolded jigsaws, 3D puzzles, and assembling a pulley system to raise a flag. ‘Contestants, this should a-peel to you’, Stevenson deadpans, as the 1990 finalists prepare to construct a set of chimes.
The third round is also the first of two that requires commentary, making it certainly the biggest test for the show’s announcer, and he is masterful. Dougal doesn’t feel the urge to use all the oxygen available to him, letting the action breathe and speak for itself. When he does speak, his offerings are a hushed mix of secrets (hooks go to eyes, but not hooks to hooks); context (12 of the 13 pieces are pentominos, with one tetronimo … a domino is made up of two squares, a tetronimo four and a pentomino five); and analysis.
Generally dispassionate, as befitting his public broadcasting roots, at his most excitable his temperature gauge raises to inquisitive. “Some tentative trial and error – Alan has room on the table to lay out a few experimental assemblies, and hope that they’ll provide the key”. So far so banal, until Alan throws the conventional approach out the window, and catches his commentator off-guard. “What is Alan doing?”, asks Dougal, his furrowed brow bleeding into his tone of voice. “This is a somewhat unorthodox approach. He’s measuring the frame with the smallest piece of the bells, trying to graduate the scale.”
Alan wins, and collects the ten points. Having no way to compete at home in either this round or the following, we can allow our inflated sense of physical prowess to thrive uncontested.
The second to last round remains most people’s strongest memory, a 400m assault course at the Burnham Army Base outside Christchurch including the iconic flying fox. Hilariously, they even brought in a soldier to fire the starter’s pistol, for added gravitas. Using the kind of assumptions you could get away with in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, start times were staggered by age and gender: older woman, younger woman, older man, younger man.
Low-lying hurdles, five foot drops and scaling six foot walls? So far so good. Scrambling over a net and crossing a water obstacle Tarzan style also seem doable. When we get to running along high bars at ten feet, or crawling along even higher wires, the suspension of disbelief in my own physical limitations dissipates. I get dizzy in thick socks, you see, and such heights don’t bare thinking about. Never you mind though, I tell myself, you’ve got talent to burn in the night’s home straight.
Framed up on television like the world’s worst Kraftwerk tribute, our four aspirants sweat it out for two minutes, answering as many questions as possible in their last shot at glory. Points are awarded for correct answers, obviously, but also subtracted for incorrect ones. Strong leads can evaporate for a buzzer happy brainbox out of their depth, as they run they gamut of pub trivia topics from the periodic table and Olympic podia, to quotes from the classics and dead Presidents.
The cooler heads remain an emotional void, the weaker ones start to crack, showing their disappointment, split seconds lost that should have been invested in answering the next question. Regardless of the different discipline being tested, it is that mental toughness that all five rounds have in common. It is the Sixth Round, and it is the one in which Krypton Factor‘s champions are made.
Not only is it the climax of the show for the contestants, it’s also a mad scramble here at home, kneeling on the lounge floor in front of the television, screaming answers at Dougal.
Like its track and field cousins, you have to watch right through until the very last event. There’s always the possibility that General Knowledge will be someone’s freak strength, and they’ll come storming from behind to win the whole thing. Witness, for example, this incredible run from Trevor Kitson to win the grand final in 1990. Even more incredibly, Kitson turned up again the following year and won it all over again, before fate intervened and the show was canned. The disappointment doesn’t seem to have dampened the still reigning champion’s spirit, finding time amongst his academic work to do things like climb the North Island’s four highest mountains in 24 hours.
I once asked Hamish McDouall, who clocked both Sale of the Century and Mastermind, why he never had a crack at the Krypton Factor. We were discussing his book 100 Essential New Zealand Films, which I can only assume he wrote as a stream of consciousness, a single sitting of a cinematic savant. It would explain the inclusion of Snakeskin, at least. He said it was because there’d be a one in four chance he’d have to wear yellow on television, which is a great answer, but clearly an attempt to use fashion to hide fear. This is an all rounder’s event, an event so intimidating that even a general knowledge maven like McDouall was too scared to tackle it. It was a telling confession.
The only thing more impressive than the Krypton Factor’s mental and physical challenges was the glue that held them all together. With a haircut you could set your watch to, and the clipped and measured intonation that only the NZBC could provide, Dougal was a rock. It made no difference whether he was watching an abstract puzzle being assembled, or a military assault course being conquered. In the two quiz rounds, he was all stern headmaster, the faintest hint of disappointment coming out to meet your incorrect answers.
‘A fine student, but fails to meet his potential’, said my school reports each year, and my inner monologue that read them sounded a lot like Dougal Stevenson.