TV has been a major entertainment lifeline for most people across the world over the last year, with Tiger King distracting us during the first lockdown, Bill Bailey‘s dancing raising the mood after coronavirus briefings and The Undoing keeping us gripped as we moved up and down the tier system.
Arguably the most timely quiz to come out of the pandemic therefore is Paul Sinha’s TV Showdown – ITV’s brand new trivia series hosted by The Chase’s Sinnerman.
“To be perfectly honest, since March and lockdown, life has been completely surreal,” he tells me ahead of his presenting debut. “When I first walked into the studio and saw my name in lights, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
“At the same time, life has been so odd since March that nothing completely takes you by surprise anymore.”
It’s a dreary Tuesday afternoon when I’m on the phone to Sinha, whose delightfully chatty manner is a stark contrast to his wry Chaser persona, often dubbed ‘Sarcasm in a Suit’. The doctor-turned-comedian-turned-trivia-whiz tells me that despite his new TV quiz gig, he hasn’t had a chance to watch many shows throughout the pandemic (“I’m glad I’ve actually gotten round to watching one: The Queen’s Gambit“) – but that’s understandable considering the crazy year he’s had.
From being diagnosed with degenerative neurological disorder Parkinson’s in 2019, catching what was ‘most likely’ COVID last March and seeing the live comedy industry shut down, to filming Beat the Chasers‘ second series and hosting his own quiz show, 2020 was definitely a year of highs and lows for Sinha.
“This is kind of what I mean when I say it’s been a rollercoaster year,” he says. “Although being diagnosed with Parkinson’s and having what was likely to be COVID last year, it doesn’t feel like I’m one of the lucky ones – but I absolutely am one of the lucky ones.”
“I’ve been given work opportunities that many people would kill for quite frankly so you have to look at life in that perspective and just get on with it and enjoy.”
“It’s my first year of marriage as well, so it’s been quite the adventure,” he adds. “When the realisation set in that the TV show was actually going to happen, it was hard to know how to react other than: ‘My God, this is a weird year.'”
As for how Paul Sinha’s TV Showdown – which sees him test various celebrities’ TV knowledge – came about, the Chaser isn’t entirely sure. “I wasn’t there for any of the meetings where they came up with the show and I wasn’t there when somebody said we’d like Paul Sinha to host,” he reveals. “What you’ve got to remember as well is that none of us even knew if it would get made.
“Until I actually sat in the studio, I never knew 100 per cent it was going to happen,” he adds. “I’m just really, really grateful that all my hard work in trying to push my face into people’s vision has come off.”
On how he ended up being chosen to host the show, Sinha says that it came as “a big surprise” to him.
“I mean obviously The Chase has been a massive success and [fellow Chaser Anne Hegerty] has hosted her spin-off TV show, which was called Britain’s Brightest Family.
“We’ve always been aware on The Chase that we’re part of an ITV family and if you keep your head down and work hard, other things may arise – but I’m not really going to wonder why.
“The last thing I expected as for something to come up during lockdown and so instead of wondering how, I’m just incredibly grateful that it happened and in the conveyor belt of celebrity faces that came along, someone looked at mine and said, ‘We’ll have him.'”
Did he reach out to The Chase presenter Bradley Walsh for hosting advice prior to filming? “Not really,” Sinha admits. “And in many ways, I’m kind of glad.
“Bradley is the absolute king. I think it’s very important to try and forge your own path,” he says. “I’m aware that sometimes if you’re trying to be somebody else, you end up saying words that just don’t sound like your voice. And for better or worse, I want to be Paul Sinha, I don’t want to be Bradley Walsh. Bradley Walsh is the king of what he does because he’s Bradley Walsh.
“Hopefully I’ll bring something slightly different. I think you can be inspired by the best, but if you try to imitate the best, you might end up falling disappointedly short,” he laughs.
Turning to the ITV juggernaut that is The Chase, this year marks Sinha’s 10th anniversary as one of the show’s formidable quiz masters – a role he added to his already packed CV back in 2011 whilst working as a stand-up comedian and trained medical professional.
“It wasn’t sort of leaps to be perfectly honest with you – I’ve always been more than one thing at more than one time,” he says.
The now 50-year-old started his stand-up career the same year he began practicing medicine. “The exit from medicine happened steadily, rather than suddenly.”
Sinha hit a turning point in his career after taking his stand-up to Edinburgh Festival in 2006 and being nominated Best Comedy Show, before joining The Chase in 2011, by which time he’d spent two years in “the murky world of serious quizzing”.
“I’d made rapid progress in that world because I started from a position of not knowing that much, but being incredibly keen,” he says. “In 2009/2010, I think having been in serious quizzing for a year and a half, I came 31st in the World Quizzing Championships, and that sort of progress is very, very rare indeed.”
“Everything has helped everything else. They’re not what you call isolated concepts,” he explains. “Being a doctor has given me some perspective and anecdotes that have really helped my comedy. Being a comedian has given me a curiosity for what’s going on in the world and it’s really helped my quizzing.”
“Being a quizzer and being a minor little TV star has really helped my comedy. So they all they all sort of feed off each other if you like. They don’t live in isolation.”
While being on The Chase has undoubtedly raised Sinha’s public profile over the last 10 years, he says the fame has been “non-existent” since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.
“The thing that used to drive me on in life is that I used to enjoy going out, doing live comedy in towns and cities and going out for a drink, posing for photos, signing autographs and generally having a good time – enjoying the life of a mid-level celebrity.
“There’s been none of that – in fact, I can count up the number of times I’ve been recognised in the public since March as probably zero,” he adds. “I’ve not felt like a celebrity and I miss it! It’s one of the things I enjoyed about The Chase – ‘Ooh, it’s the Sinnerman!’ from complete strangers. Hopefully there’s going to be a massive party when this is all over.”
Having been a staple part of many viewers’ weekday routines for the past decade, has the Chaser had to deal with many internet trolls? “You know what, it used to be worse,” he says.
“It’s a very difficult tightrope, because I’m a comedian and I’m a Chaser. The two things in some ways are very, very different. As a comedian, you’re expected to be fairly forthright in your in opinions, as a Chaser perhaps less so. I seem to be having a decent time on Twitter, I don’t get many in the way of trolls.”
Sinha adds that what he does find disheartening are the number of “low-level tabloid stories” he comes across about himself on the internet.
When Beat the Chasers first aired last Spring, Sinha would see newspaper articles reporting quotes he’d said during those shows which were recorded back in January, his performance on five-year-old repeat episodes of The Chase and stories about his personal life at the time as he fought COVID.
“I was getting newspaper stories from three different periods of my life coming up on my [Twitter] feed and I found that quite wearying,” he says. “I think the people that produce these stories don’t realise the degree to which the people that are in the story read the stories and go, ‘Ugh, this is just exhausting.’
“I find that side more difficult than Twitter. I like Twitter as a medium, I like the fact that you’re free to basically express yourself and the other thing about the Chasers is we’re all very different people. We’ve all got a very different persona.”
Looking forward to the debut of Paul Sinha’s TV Showdown, the Chaser refuses to tease what’s to come but does say that team captains Rob Beckett and Fay Ripley are “very, very, very different” when it comes to TV knowledge.
“Without wishing to give it away, the show needs different approaches [and] they took very different approaches to the idea of knowing stuff about telly,” he says.
While this series sees Sinha quiz the likes of Emilia Fox, Melvin Odoom, Laura Whitmore, Shirley Ballas and Roman Kemp on their TV trivia, the host has a few ideas as to who he’d love to fire questions at in the future.
“I think an Inbetweeners special would be quite fun,” he says. “My wish list might not make great telly but [Brass Eye’s] Chris Morris would be terrifying, [Screenwipe’s] Charlie Brooker, Andrew Flintoff, who’s my sporting hero, he likes a sport quiz. Any comedian that I’ve got on with over the years really.”
He adds that Fleabag star Sian Clifford would also be a dream guest of his, saying: “I’d love to say hello to her because I found her incredible in the show. I’m not going to ask Phoebe Waller-Bridge because I just don’t think she’d say yes.”
Paul Sinha’s TV Showdown airs Saturday 9th January at 10pm on ITV. If you’re looking for more to watch, visit out TV Guide.