Pointless at 500 – the secrets behind a quiz sensation

Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman explain how making a Pointless game show is harder than it looks

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Richard laptop’s just a prop, so is he really as knowledgeable as he appears on the show?

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Alexander: Genuinely Richard has the biggest brain of anyone I know. It’s an extraordinary, effortless knowledge of such a wide-ranging spectrum of things. Sport is his big thing; he knows an awful lot. I mean he’ll know the Argentinian teams of every World Cup. Ditto anything to do with golf, darts or snooker. He just has this extraordinary memory bank.

Richard: People assume I’m a bit clever, but I think that’s largely down to the glasses! Certainly if I go into a pub quiz or something people go, ‘Oh no.’

We never know anything about the people who provide the answers. What do you know about the 100 people?

Alexander: That is the big mystery, and no, we don’t have a group of people kept in an underground cellar somewhere. They’re found by an online polling company.

Richard: Among all the millions of other things they ask people, they filter in a few Pointless questions every now and again. They’ve got very strict rules about how you fill them in, so you have to do them timed so people can’t look things up.

Alexander: The point is those who answer can’t know they’re being polled for Pointless. You can’t ‘apply’ to be one of the 100 people, because that would then affect the outcome. Who knows who these people are? I’d be delighted to meet someone who had been asked, and find out if they knew they had been asked a Pointless question.

Have you ever had to deal with someone who’s really disagreed with your answer?

Richard: It’s normally pronunciation things where issues come up. We had some debate about the capital city of Suriname. One team said “Parinaimbo”, and the other contestants came back and said, “Actually it’s Paramaribo”, which it is. The losers claimed that they’d only seen it written down, but we still couldn’t allow it.

Alexander: We have to go with what the official line is; there has to be a point of adjudication where you say whether that’s right or wrong.

Richard: However, occasionally you get people who are… unfortunate, to put it one way.

Alexander: We nominate the Oxford Dictionary of English as our dictionary because the Oxford English Dictionary has so many variants it doesn’t provide an absolute. That occasionally leads to some interesting decisions: for example, ‘dormice’ was not allowed as a word ending ‘–ice’, because it doesn’t appear in the Oxford Dictionary of English. Dormouse appears with ‘mice’ supplied as a potential plural, but it’s not actually a word in its own right. I’ve not idea why not. I felt very sorry for them.

Has 500 episodes of delving into the public’s memory bank taught you anything?

Alexander: I think there’s a lot to be gleaned from the things that score 80 or above. There was a time of national consciousness, which stretched through the 70s, reached a peak in the 80s and then tailed off during the 90s. Anyone who was famous around that sort of time is famous in a way that no one else is. If you were in a popular band or a TV sitcom in the 80s, you will be remembered by many more people. I guess it has something to do with being before the massive explosion of media, when people had fewer choices.

There’s something very interesting about how we find out what the truth is, turning to our Delphic Oracle. Let the column speak its wisdom!

How nervous are people before their Pointless experience?

Richard: We always talk to the contestants beforehand. You can see some people who are just terrified, especially if it’s their first show. You make sure they know the show isn’t live, if they make an idiot of themselves it’s fine. But it’s impossible to get rid of nerves; it’s a nerve wracking place to be.

What’s the one piece of Pointless advice you would give to future contestants?

Richard: My one piece of advice would be to trust your interests. Time and time again, people say they’ve got a risky one and they’ve got a safe one, and they go for the safe one. I just want to shake them and say, “You knew the other one! You knew it!”

Alexander: It must be truly frightening. I forget that everything rests on the answer they give for that particular question. I can have a shot at each of them, and I survive even if I get it wrong.

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Richard: People by and large know much more than they think they do. Your brain knows what it knows. It’s only the Pointless situation that makes your consciousness starts saying, “What if it’s not right?” Go with your first instinct.