My 15 minutes of shame on a 90s quiz show

Nick Richards, front row, right, appearing on 15-1 in 1998. Host William G Stewart is in the middle of the back row

Nick Richards, front row, right, appearing on 15-1 in 1998. Host William G Stewart is in the middle of the back row - Credit: Nick Richards

Here's your starter question for 10 points: What are the two largest organs in the human body?

If you said 'liver and brain' you'd be right, so in that sense being kind to both at this time of year is a cracking idea. If you're enduring a Dry January after the brief Christmas celebrations, then good on you, but given that we're in a big old lockdown again, keeping your noggin active seems far more key than giving your liver a rest.

And while going for a run or walk is great to keep your heart and lungs in top nick, I'm focussing on getting quizzical rather than physical in this lockdown.

I confess that I am a  quiz junkie. Raised on a diet of Mike Read's Pop Quiz and Masterteam I've matured to University Challenge, Only Connect, The Chase, even newcomers like The Wheel and The Wall and all that jazz. Watching a quiz show on a daily basis is how I'm dealing with this latest lockdown,. My favourite quiz is Popmaster on Ken Bruce's morning Radio 2 show. I've applied several times and was nearly on air last January. I just hope if and when I do get through, I don't draw a blank.

That's because in the late 1990s I did manage to get on TV with my favourite quiz of that era and it didn't go so well.

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I was 22 and at university in west London at the time, working nights stacking shelves at Tesco in Twickenham to earn extra money and used to regularly raid the Top of The Pops quiz machines around Richmond for the £10 jackpot. One highlight of those days was a 4pm break from my studies to indulge in Channel 4's 15-1. I used to watch it with a few housemates and bark out most of the answers correctly as they rolled their eyes, stared at their Pot Noodles and longed for the days when they could watch TV in peace.

"You should go on it," one of them said, probably to make me leave the room.

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So I applied and was asked to go to an audition at a building I think was Wandsworth Town Hall. Fifteen of us sat around in a circle and a researcher asked us questions. I got everything right and was told to expect a call. I was very excited. A week or so later I went to the TV studios in Wandsworth, which was only a short train ride away and was told I was a reserve.

After going into make up and sitting around for a while, the producers casually told me I was going to be one of the 15. I was buzzing. Backstage I felt like a combination of Freddie Mercury before Live Aid and David Brent before one of his motivational speeches. I was going to win this quiz hands down, get through to the grand final and take home that prize of a Greek urn, though to keep myself grounded I told myself I would keep sweets or monkey nuts in it.

I needn't have been so pumped up as the show was filmed in a tin pot studio that looked like it had been knocked up on Blue Peter. There was no audience, that was all dubbed on afterwards. One woman had a board full of lights that corresponded to the lights (or lives) in front of each contestant. She'd flick a switch if you got a question wrong. Another woman's job was literally to press a buzzer to make a noise if you got a question right or wrong.

In front of each contestant was a mass of wires and cables that looked very unsafe and a polite notice next to your microphone saying 'please do not tap your fingers'.

Host William G Stewart walked around the semi-circle introducing himself and then we had to record the couple of seconds of each person at the start of the show over which a voiceover would tell viewers our name and where we came from. It took ages. We were then shown our names on a TV screen to check for spellings etc. I was living in Hounslow at the time and asked if I could be Nick Richards from Norwich rather than Nick Richards from Hounslow. A call was made upstairs and several people rolled their eyes.

After plenty of build up, the filming started. If you recall the show, everyone was asked two questions to start with, you just had to get one right to stay in. Then it was knockout where you could nominate someone else. I knew I'd be fine as long as  I didn't get both questions wrong.

Sadly, my mind went blank on both questions. The first one asked which Caribbean island also has the same name as a crocodile. I could only think of Cuba and looked totally clueless before William G told me and the viewers at home it was The Cayman Islands. The second question started with.. "Nick...opera." I knew I wouldn't get it right so laughed and started to sit down. I can't recall the question, but the answer was Rake's Progress. The light above my head went out and I sat in the dark for the rest of the show.

Filming took two hours and I was actually on the telly for about 30  seconds. I was given my expenses - £85 for the day. It had only cost me £2 on the train so it really was easy money, compared to lining up tinned fruit at 3am at Tesco. I then got a free lunch and had a chat with the other hardened quizzers which was hilarious.

One woman was a real pro. "I've done Blockbusters, done Countdown, done 15-1. I really want to get on Bullseye, " she told me. Later in 1998 Who Wants To Be A Millionaire would start and blow the prize money levels through the roof, but back then Jim Bowen's darts quiz was seen as the most lucrative show, even tough it had been off air for a couple of years.

Maybe she needed a new speedboat, F-Reg Maestro or just her BFH. Ten more points if you recall what that stood for...

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