A (not so) Pointless experience

It’s like any ordinary town in the UK. People bustle up and down the high street going about their business. There’s a train station at one end of the street and travellers are hurrying in and out as the tannoy announces the latest departures and arrivals. Yet …  if you care to look down at the pavement near the station or glance towards the roadside as you walk down it, or if you look right towards that hangar, on what on the face of it, looks like an industrial estate as you leave the supermarket, you might notice something not ordinary at all. That hangar’s roof has lettering on it naming it ‘The George Lucas Stage’ and down at your feet are star names and near the road are large commemorative plaques honouring some famous actors.

This is Elstree, the home of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and more recently where The King’s Speech and Sherlock Holmes: Book of Shadows were made. It has also been the home of numerous other films and British TV series for decades. It is currently the home of Strictly Come Dancing and a popular quiz show, which I and my husband happen to like, called Pointless.

In May 2014, we were lucky enough to get notification that our application for tickets for two afternoon recordings of Pointless in June had been successful, so, we booked a hotel in Elstree and travelled down on the train. It was on our arrival at the Elstree and Borehamwood train station that we saw the stars on the pavement and as we trundled down the high street with our case, we noticed the plaques placed down the side of the road. It is highly likely that that we didn’t see all the plaques and stars around Elstree but the ones we did see are in the slideshow at the bottom of this post.

Elstree studios occupy a considerable area, but the entrance to the studios is very near the high street. Walking past and looking through the railings one can see reserved car parking spaces, all named after famous actors! I wonder who has had the thrill of being given the Harrison Ford or Dame Judi Dench parking space!

So, a bit of background on Pointless. Pointless is a quiz show on BBC1 whose main version is for members of the public to win an accumulating jackpot. It occasionally has celebrity editions, brilliantly called Pointless Celebrities, which are for charity. The show is a sort of a reverse Family Fortunes in that the contestants have to try and give an answer which the fewest of the 100 people surveyed gave. For example, if asked to name a film starring Harrison Ford, The Mosquito Coast would be a much better answer than Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The contestants score points for the number of people of the 100 who gave their answer, a Pointless answer being the aim, coming up with something which none of the 100 said. This adds money to the jackpot.

This show is entertaining for a number of reasons. For each answer, we find out how many people of the 100 gave that answer. This can be be fascinating.  For example, how many people named the current prime minister when asked to name a post-war prime minister. The playability at home factor is high; getting a pointless answer is very satisfying!
However, one of the best things about the show are the presenters. The main presenter is comedian/actor Alexander Armstrong. He, like the contestants, does not know the results of the 100 so he can react genuinely to what the contestants offer as answers and sometimes, at the end of the round, has a try at getting a Pointless answer himself.  Where the programme really shines is Alexander’s ‘Pointless friend’ Richard Osman.  Richard is there to give details on the results of the 100, what the most popular answers were, what the pointless answers were, and any extra info/ trivia. Osman is very witty and has strong chemistry with Armstrong, and they can bounce some surreal ideas off each other sometimes based on the questions. The contestants can also come in for some gentle ribbing; for example a teacher being clueless on a literature round, not being able to name any authors of the well known books listed!  Armstrong can be teased by Osman sometimes, particularly if Armstrong’s former comedy partner, and now actor, Ben Miller is mentioned, with Osman saying how wonderful he is!

So, we queued up outside Elstree noting the famously named car parking spaces and were given a security sticker number each. On entering the grounds we were directed into a room which was obviously used as a function room, having a dance floor, bar and tables and chairs. Here we were told we had about half an hour to purchase a drink from the bar, alcoholic or soft. There were a number of ‘audience liaison’  guys and gals, all with comms headsets, in constant communication with other unseen production staff. One liaison guy came round the tables chatting to everyone, asking where where we were from and if we had been before.  Then the big moment arrived and then someone led us all, follow my leader, to the studio. When we got there, and got our first glimpse of the set, it was quite surreal. It was a bit like Mike Teevee in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, when he gets sucked into the TV!

(This is a screenshot. No photos were taken in the studio)
(C) BBC

There was the shiny blue and red set with four podiums for the contestants and a lectern for Alexander and the desk which Richard sits at. There were production staff buzzing in and out as we all filed in, filling the rows of seats. We got quite a good position, second row near centre. Soon as we were settled, the ‘warm up’ guy appeared and immediately started getting us rehearsed on woo-ing This was to do with the 100-0 countdown indicator. When a contestant gives a correct answer, the indicator starts at 100 and starts decreasing with beeps to the number the contestant got. We had to practise woo-ing, starting roughly from 70, because if we started too soon we’d run out of breath!  As the warm-up guy said, it sounds weird if you start, run out of breath and then start woo-ing again! After we’d got our collective audience woo-ing practised, our warm-up guy reminded us not to make a noise other than audience response during recording as some people think they’re at the movies and start eating crisps or opening drinks!  He also warned us about the low camera which would sweep over our heads at quite an alarming speed, threatening to knock out anyone who stood up!

Whilst all this was going on, the contestants, four pairs of people, had arrived on set and stood at the podiums being giving directions by the production staff and any last minute make-up adjustments.

Our warm up guy was chatting to us and calling up any passing production staff for a word. It was all very busy but very friendly. Suddenly our warm up guy mentioned Alexander’s name, and on he bounced to say hello. It was quite informal and things were so busy I’d not seen him arrive on set!  It’s true what they say about television putting weight on you, because Alexander looks a slim, but not thin man on TV, but I felt like he needed a good meal when I saw him in person!  Alexander engaged in some friendly chat with us and the warm-up guy and then he went over to meet and greet the contestants, along with Richard who had also arrived since then.  We were getting very close to recording now as the the guy who was obviously in charge was talking with Richard and Alexander.  Then, everyone took their positions and it began, the music played and Alexander welcomed everyone to Pointless. It was different watching it without the camera changes between Alexander,Richard and the contestants. It just goes to show how important editing is.  Everything was pretty much as it’s seen on TV except that there are slight pauses while the contestants’ answers are checked against the 100’s answers and then programmed into the countdowner, and small breaks at the end of each round as a podium was removed.  We watched two shows recorded, which took about three hours in all with approximately a fifteen minute break in between to stand up and stretch our legs or take a sip from a water bottle. The returning contestants and Richard and Alexander went off to change their clothes for the next recording.

In the break, the warm-up man asked us all if we had any questions. Someone asked to see the Pointless trophy (given  to the finalist couple regardless of whether they win the jackpot). He said it would be smaller than we thought and it was, not as tall as we expected!   Someone else asked when our episodes would be broadcast. We were surprised to hear roughly around March next year, but the next episode to be recorded would be the Christmas special.  Sure enough, when we trooped out of the studio at the end of our session, there were Christmas trees being brought in!

We really enjoyed it and have an appreciation of how the staff and the stars do a professional and efficient job in making Pointless and how natural Alexander and Richard are.

Certainly not a Pointless experience.

This is a slideshow gallery of the commemorative plaques and pavement stars we saw in Elstree town.

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