Fifteen to One

Fifteen to One is a British general knowledge quiz show broadcast on Channel 4. It originally ran from 11 January 1988 to 19 December 2003 and had a reputation for being one of the toughest quizzes on TV. Throughout the show’s original run, it was presented and produced by William G. Stewart. Thousands of contestants appeared on the programme, which had very little of the chatting between host and contestants that is often a feature of other television quiz shows.

The basis of the show was devised by John M. Lewis, a former sales manager for British Telecom. He submitted the idea to Regent Productions, who developed the programme into a 30-minute format. Originally, there were 20 starting contestants, but this was reduced to 15 to fit the available running time. The number varied in other countries.

At the start of the grand finale of the 35th and final original series, William G. Stewart provided some statistics about the show, stating that nearly 350,000 questions had been asked to 33,975 contestants in a total of 2,265 programmes.

Two celebrity specials had been aired in 1990 and 1992. Amongst the changes, the studio set and presentation were overhauled, the length of the programme increased from 30 to 60 minutes, the host’s catch phrase, “Lights out” was introduced, spoken when a contestant is eliminated from the game before the final round.

The 15 contestants stood in a semicircle, each behind a lectern with a number from 1 to 15 (a similar layout was used by the later game show The Weakest Link). Although the design varied slightly over the years, the essential elements were a number on the front of the lectern, a name badge on top of the lectern (in the earlier series, the badge was worn by the contestant) and three green neon lights to represent the lives of the contestant. The numbers were allocated by drawing lots from a bag before videotaping. Upon elimination from the game, a contestant had to sit down and his or her spotlight went out.

A separate lectern for each contestant was moved in place for the third and final round, with the semicircle behind it no longer lit.

Twelve of the contestants were eliminated over the course of the first two rounds, leaving three to compete in the final.

Each of the 15 numbered contestants began the quiz with three ‘lives’. The host made two passes through the field in numerical order, asking one question to each contestant per pass; typically, the category for each question was announced before it was asked. The contestant had three seconds to respond, and lost one life for the first incorrect answer or failure to respond in time, whether on the first or second pass. A second miss took away both remaining lives and eliminated the contestant from the game. Stewart’s succinct explanation of Round 1 was, “Two questions each in the first round; one correct answer from you to survive.”

The outcome of Round 1 could vary considerably. Sometimes there were as few as four contestants left standing, but occasionally nobody was eliminated at all. There was never a case when only three or fewer contestants survived the round, which would have made Round 2 unnecessary. Were this to happen, the contingency plan would have been to replay the first round, although Stewart once jokingly said that he would give a talk on the Parthenon Marbles to fill the time. Stewart was an outspoken supporter of returning the Marbles to Greece, and once presented a Fifteen to One special on the subject with replicas of the Marbles placed at the contestants’ podiums.

At this point, every surviving contestant had either two or three lives remaining. As in Round 1, questions were asked to contestants in numerical order in turn, with one life lost for an incorrect response. The first contestant to answer correctly gained the right to “nominate,” or choose another contestant to receive the next question. If the nominee answered incorrectly, he/she lost one life and the nominating player kept control; a correct answer turned control over to the nominee. Contestants were eliminated after losing all their lives. Towards the end of the show’s original run, a new rule forbade contestants from nominating the player who had just nominated them. This rule was abandoned in the revived series. When only three contestants remained, the first phase of the quiz was over and the programme paused for a commercial break.

Round 2 had no fixed duration or number of questions; it varied depending on how many players survived from Round 1 and how many correct answers were given. In theory, it could continue indefinitely if not enough wrong answers were given to narrow the field to three, until the pool of available questions was exhausted. To prevent this outcome, the questions gradually increased in difficulty and obscurity to force more incorrect answers and eliminations.

Each of the three remaining contestants was given a new set of three lives and received one point for each life they had kept through the first two rounds. A maximum of 40 questions were asked in this round, with 10 points awarded for each correct answer and one life lost on each miss. The questions were initially open for all contestants on the buzzer until one of them gave a total of three correct answers (not necessarily on consecutive questions). That contestant could then either answer the next question directly or nominate an opponent to take it. A contestant who answered correctly gained control of the next question. If a nominee answered incorrectly, control reverted to the nominating contestant. If a contestant took a question for him/herself and missed it, the next question was asked on the buzzer.

Once two contestants were eliminated, the remaining contestant became the day’s winner and continued answering questions until all 40 had been used or all three lives were lost (whichever came first), with each correct answer still worth 10 points. However, if at least two contestants remained in the game after the questions were exhausted, the high scorer won; in the event of a tie, the contestant with the most remaining lives won. In episodes where all questions were asked, the winning contestant received an additional 10 points for every life remaining.

In the Grand Final of each series (except the first seven), all questions in the final round were asked on the buzzer until two contestants had lost all their lives or the full 40 questions had been used; there was no option to nominate.

The 15 highest-scoring winners and their totals during any given series were displayed in a table referred to at different times as the Finals Board or Leaderboard. The board was cleared at the beginning of each new series, and the winners of the first 15 episodes were automatically entered onto it in descending order by score. Beyond the 15th episode, earlier winners could be displaced from the board by being outscored, and newer winners who failed to surpass the last-place score did not earn a slot on it at all. If more contestants were tied for last place than there were available slots at the bottom of the board, they were said to be “on the sidelines,” and were frequently listed off to one side rather than on the board itself. (E.g. three contestants tied for 14th place.)

At the end of a series, the 15 winners still listed on the Finals Board competed in the Grand Final. An unscreened playoff took place immediately before the Grand Final if there were still people on the sidelines tied for last place.

The format of a Grand Final differed in Round 3; after the first few series, all the questions were played on the buzzer. Presumably this was to prevent the player who correctly answered the first question from simply taking all subsequent questions themselves, and never nominating an opponent.

The maximum end game score of 433 could only be achieved if a player started the end game with all three lives intact and correctly answered all 40 questions. The player scored 3 points for retaining their three lives from the first two rounds, 400 points for answering the 40 questions correctly, and 30 points for retaining their three lives from the end game. The maximum score was achieved only once by Bill McKaig, a minister from Glasgow, in April 1999 (Series 25). The other two contestants in that final, Martin Penny and Alison Shand, were invited back for the next series even though they had not won, a very rare exception to the rule preventing losers from competing on the show again.

In 1998 Trevor Montague, a former contestant, was sued by Regent Productions. Montague broke the rule that losers on the programme cannot take part again unless invited back. Having been knocked out in 1989, he entered again in 1992 under the name “Steve Romana”. When a viewer saw a repeat of the series on Challenge TV, they noticed similarities in appearance between Montague and “Steve Romana” and contacted Channel 4.

The shows were filmed at Capital Studios in Wandsworth, south west London. Only in the first few series was there a live audience. William G. Stewart decided to abolish the studio audience after audience members audibly whispered answers to questions on too many occasions. After that, the audience sounds were pre-recorded, and the only real audience were any contestants who had already been knocked out and 1-4 guests per contestant (for the last few original series, however, the contestants’ guests were also barred from the studio, due to a change in the layout of the filming and production equipment).

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