No one watches a game show, not if it’s any good. We get involved, we play: frowning, groaning, we bark our answers at the indifferent screen. And so here I am, wasting time, playing the game. The afternoon is almost over. In less than an hour, the news will arrive, a danse macabre of death, deceit, disorder. But right now I’m primed for Pointless, a teatime game show on BBC One. Over the course of seven years, it has grown from being something of a quirky cult to a mainstream favourite. It has yet to outlive its welcome, at least in my house. The show has generated an inevitable (but not insufferable) celebrity version – cunningly entitled Pointless Celebrities – which airs on Saturday evenings, along with the usual remunerative tat, board games and quiz books, available now at your local car-boot sale. Hosted by pixie-eared Alexander ‘Xander’ Armstrong and Richard ‘my pointless friend’ Osman, agreeable gents with a talent for charming, often amusing prattle, Pointless fills the autumn of the afternoon before the arrival our daily winter, the news, with its grim weather of war and famine. This slot was once occupied by children’s programmes. Dull Blue Peter, rowdy Grange Hill, the Welsh melancholy of Ivor the Engine, shows which, at some stage in my life, probably when I was in the pub, disappeared from the main channels. I presume children still exist. Certainly, the news is still with us, a world of dark majesty. Pointless, like a strong cuppa, prepares us for the rigours and pleasures of the night, softening the small calamities of the working day.
Wearing suits and open-necked shirts, Armstrong and Osman might be minor politicians in Sunday mode, liberals keen to please. They eschew laddish banter for a kind of meandering, catch-and-call routine that often fizzles to nothing, a pleasing echo of real life. These awkward moments are central to the show’s appeal: indeed, the original format of five teams was reduced to four, allowing the hosts more time to mess around, and they do so without overwhelming the game. The whole thing is cosy without being twee, while the questions never descend to the type of silliness spouted by glib quizmaster Laddie O’Neill in Anthony Burgess’ One Hand Clapping: ‘“Which would be better for breakfast, Shakespeare or Bacon?”’
Pointless is an idle pleasure, but not one I choose idly. (Stretched out on my sofa, I disdain the brash company of hairy Edmonds or lairy Walsh.) Osman and Armstrong: I like these guys. More importantly, I like the game. I play the game. There’s been a few tweaks to the format over nine series but nothing too upsetting for the steadfast fan. Each contestant aims to proffer the most obscure answer within a given category (countries that have won Miss World, for instance). Obscurity is determined by answers given by the public in surveys conducted before transmission. (I yearn to be involved.) Strangely, the novels of Anthony Burgess is a category I’ve yet to encounter. The best answers score zero – MF or Napoleon Symphony would surely thrash A Clockwork Orange – because they are the answers no one else can think of. There are subtle variations on this idea – pictures, anagrams, missing words – but a search for obscurity is the common theme. Having to second-guess the public gives the game a gambling aspect, like picking a horse in the National, and faced with an unfamiliar category, it is difficult enough to think of a correct answer, let alone an obscure one. The game is addictive: suspense and anticipation are followed by moments of revelation and blunt surprise. It’s a cerebral version of darts. The most excruciating interludes occur when blank-faced contestants are reduced to inventing the names of books or songs. I’ve never seen such fictions succeed. Some categories, such as geography, are made for the informed guesser: the Central African Republic is invariably a sound answer (although increasingly less so) while the many republics of the old Soviet Union are a treasure trove of zeros. In British politics, Stanley Baldwin has always served me well, not a thing I say often about a Conservative.
The bassy thump of the theme tune is accompanied by spinning discs while random gold numbers – 44, 57, 12 – throb towards the viewer in what appears to be a homage to late period Top of the Pops. The set looks much like any other gameshow set: a suburban nightclub from 1988. Silvery arcs and blue lines swoosh across a purple cosmos; they suggest speed and dynamism, as in a Boccioni painting. So Xander and Richard, affable squires of an Italian futurist suburban nightclub, introduce the teams. Alison and her identical twin LJ. Francis, a railwayman, with Tori his daughter who loves wrestling (watching it, not doing it). There’s Omar in a tight burgundy shirt, and his friend Dan. Peter from Essex is here with his pal Rula. ‘A lot of rather ugly and silly people came on and were asked easy questions about things’ says Janet Shirley in One Hand Clapping. But there’s no sense of slick humiliation or aggressive greed in Pointless. Our hosts sometimes tease the contestants, but they never mock: there is a warmth at play, a generosity of spirit. This is a nerd utopia, a parliament of geeks. Osman is the true star of the show, an amiable giant with an impressively oblong head mostly composed of lips and spectacles. He is a past winner of Heat magazine’s Weird Crush award. If Doctor Frankenstein hadn’t botched his experiment, he’d have given the world Richard Osman. He sits behind a desk, laptop open, like a man explaining a fixed-rate mortgage.
Political History is our opening category. Name a PM who governed in one of these decades: 1800-1809, 1860-1869, 1920-1929, 1950-1959, 1970-1979. We don’t even have to match the PM to a decade, a guesser’s paradise. It’s Baldwin for me, but Alison plumps for John Major. Wrong answer, 100 points. The scoring mechanism is a kind of glowing obelisk or disco-bright charity barometer, composed of kitchen strip lights which are turned off, one by one, until the result is reached. The lower you go, the better it is, and a manic ticking accompanies the giddy plummet. It’s a neon limbo dance. Everyone wants to reach the bottom and score a big zero, the equivalent of a ton-eighty in darts. Tori, despite her name, hates politics. She goes for Edward Heath, who skittles down to an unspectacular 37. Dan says, Harold Wilkinson. Who? Ah. He’s combined a lugubrious Labour PM with a lugubrious manager of Leeds United, a peculiar Yorkshire synthesis. Peter is a serious-looking man, a mathematics teacher. He likes history, he says, but he’s not good on dates, which is unfortunate because Robert Walpole is a wrong answer. And so on. We even get Jimmy Carter (a special relationship indeed). There are tons all over the place. Omar saves the day with Clement Attlee, scoring 11, while Francis gives us Gladstone on 51.
It’s goodbye to Peter and Rula. Next up, fictional towns. I groan. Smallville, Gotham, Metropolis, Holby, a place in Star Wars that sounds like somewhere in Snowdonia. It’s a shaky round for me, I’m sweating on the sofa. But I’m in good hands with Xander and Richard, they’re a pair of cool uncles, except they’re not particularly cool. Cool uncles don’t have to be that cool.
We’re into the head-to-head now. Our couples can confer. It’s harder for me, of course, because I’m on my own. It’s Francis and Tori versus Dan and Omar. The category is Famous Carols and we’re shown six pictures. I’m straight in: Decker; the bloke who directed Odd Man Out (can’t remember his surname); Vorderman; Lombard, looking ethereal and earthy, a sensuous ghoul; and a smiling blonde who is familiar but nameless. Francis and Tori take my advice and go for Lombard: it wins them round one. Now we’re faced with mathematical sequences. I flinch. Peter would have liked these. I don’t. I feel a migraine coming on. Dan and Omar hesitantly venture 198: I’ve no idea how they arrived at that. Tori not only hates politics, she hates maths, but not to the extent that she doesn’t recognise a bit of the old Fibonacci when she sees it. She and her dad win through to the final with its serviceable jackpot of £2250. The final category is Influential Women, subdivided into female Nobel Laureates, the cast of the film Suffragette, and Forbes’ top 50 most powerful women. I plump for Toni Morrison as a Nobel Laureate. Tori and her dad whisper aloud, clearly nervous: Beyoncé, Oprah, Hillary Clinton. The barometer tells a brutal truth. They have not won. Toni, I note, was a pointless answer: I fist-pump violently. But my glory is brief. The trivial idyll is over. The cool uncles must say goodbye. Goodbye. And here comes the news and its gallery of grotesques: Trump, Farage, cadaverous May, but no Baldwin, no Harold Wilkinson.