Interview with Sandi Toksvig
Fifteen to One is returning as a series for the first time since 2003. It first went out in 1988. Why do you think the format has endured so well?
I think it’s extraordinary to see the number of people who participate, first of all, and how that reduces down to one person. I think I asked 2500 questions over twenty episodes. It’s a heck of a thing, and what I love about it is you can be a genius about physics and geography and history, and then fail on the Beyonce question.
For aficionados of the show, there are one or two differences from the original series. Can you explain what they are?
First of all, I’m not William G Stewart. That may take them a little while to come to terms with, because he was brilliant. And there’s £40,000. That is life-changing money. That’s really going to make a significant difference to someone’s life, whether they decide to give up their job or have a different place to live, or go on their dream holiday; all of the significant areas of your life that are just beyond your reach, but £40 grand could bring them within your reach. One of the nice things was that during the course of the show, we began to hear what the stories were and what people dreamt of if they were lucky enough to win.
Did you ever watch Fifteen to One when it was on back in the day?
Yeah, I did. I can’t say I slavishly sat there and watched it, because I was often at work when it was on. But I like quizzes, and have always enjoyed anything to do with general knowledge. So if I was at home and it as on, I definitely would have watched, and I remember having many a happy time watching it.
How are you at quizzes yourself?
It’s hard to say, because I’m always the quiz master. I always know the answer, though that may be loosely connected to the fact that I’m holding them in my hand. I do an awful lot of quizzes at charitable fundraisers, and I have yet to be asked to be in a quiz team. I suspect I have large gaps of popular knowledge.
Have you had a go at Fifteen to One? Did the production team get together and play it?
Yes, we did, but again I was asking the questions. So I don’t know what it feels like to stand there in that semi-circle. Maybe I should try that sometime.
What qualities do you think you need to be a quiz show host?
To be honest, partly because this massive round set, the quality you need most is to remember where you’re supposed to be standing. There was an awful lot of moving around. I like to think – and other people would be better positioned to tell you if this is true or not – that I make it a fun experience for everybody, whether they win or not. It’s a jolly show to be on. I’m not a wildly competitive person myself, and so I genuinely believe in the old adage that it’s the taking part that counts. You’re spinning a lot of plates that people don’t realise, because you’ve got people talking in your ear all the time, so you’ve got the producer telling you things, you’ve got the director telling you where to stand, you’ve got the person who does pronunciations telling you how to pronounce things, there’s a lot of stuff happening apart from smiling, remembering the names of all the contestants, remembering where we are in terms of the drama of the show, so who’s got a little spat going with somebody, who’s been nominating somebody a lot – plus trying to make sure that every single person gets the same shot by always asking every question evenly and fairly and not in any way giving away anything to somebody who you might think is rather nicer than somebody else. It is a bit of plate spinning.
How does the complexity of presenting Fifteen to One compare with other shows you’ve hosted?
It’s one of the toughest shows that I’ve done. It took three hours to record each episode, and we did three-a-day, so that’s nine hours of actual recording. But between shows you’ve got to be briefed on all the contestants, you’ve got to be briefed on all the questions, to make sure you do know how to pronounce things. So they are among the longer days that I’ve done in the studio.
Do you get ever contestants who are visibly nervous? If so, how do you go about putting them at ease?
Yeah, that’s part of my job. One of the things I do is make sure I meet everybody on the set before we start doing any recording. We have a photo opportunity where we all have a team picture together. I try and chat with them, find out a bit about them. It’s not quite the royal “Have you come far?” but it is things like what do you do? Did you watch the show when it was on before? I think there as one person who was the third generation of their family to appear on 15-to-1. So, anyway, I make a few jokes with them, and if they are visibly nervous, which sometimes they are, I say to them “Listen, I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, and I’ve never lost anybody. And I’m not planning on making you my first. Don’t you worry about it. I will look after you!”
Have you enjoyed the experience of filming the show, and was it how you expected it would be?
Yes, I loved it. We had a terrific team putting it together, I can’t fault them in any way. And we did laugh a lot, which when you’re working long days day after day after day is not always the easiest thing. So it was a fab team, I couldn’t have been more royally treated. I suppose, in terms of expectations, it was physically tougher than I’d anticipated. I’m standing the whole time, there’s no chair or desk, no place for the host to hide. I’ve done shows before where they’ve been quite long recordings, but I’ve been sitting down. So standing there for nine hours was a little tiring. Though by the time we got to the final, my goodness, the tension was enough to make you forget how long you’d been standing there, and be completely gripped by the game.
The whole idea of being able to nominate opponents to ask the next question is quite antagonistic. Do people get annoyed with each other?
It’s very sweet, because I like to think we developed a very friendly atmosphere in the studio, so what people did was they would say “Oh, I feel really bad now, I’m going to nominate Frank for the fourth time. I’m so sorry, Frank!” It was all done with this marvellous veneer of British civility, but they did it anyway. It was done in a fantastically British manner, apologetic but lethal.
Contestants can appear on up to three shows, so you got to know them a bit. Did you find yourself willing some of them on?
Yes, of course, in your mind you think “Wouldn’t it be marvellous if that person who’s got a particular story and could really do with the money, or has had real difficulty, would win. It would be so fantastic for them. But that’s when you have to restrain yourself and be absolutely adamant that everybody gets the same attention, the same degree of clear pronunciation with the questions. But of course I was sorry to see some of them go, particularly ones who you know will make great telly. The ones who have a funny comeback or a quirky personality. Of course you don’t want them to go, because you know the audience at home will love them.
Is it true that some of the contestants appeared on the show in its first incarnation?
Yeah. So we had someone who was third generation, his father and grandfather had been on. So not only did we have people on before, we had people whose parents had been on before. I have to say, in terms of the quiz community (I had no idea there was such a thing!) it is a show that is held in very high regard.
It was well-known for being among the tougher quizzes out there. Is that still the case?
There’s no question about it. We’d get to a question and I’d just think “No way. There’s no way anybody knows the answer to this, it’s just way too arcane. And bang, back would come not only the answer, but a bit of trivia associated with it. Extraordinary.
*This interview is available free for reproduction in full or in part
*Fifteen to One launches Saturday 5th April at 5:30pm and then continues weekdays Mon-Fri from 4:30pm starting Monday 7th April