“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” This quote is usually attributed to John Lennon.
But it also seems to be ringing true for David Poltorak, as his plans of a screenwriting career continue to be interrupted by his role as Sale of the Century question writer and adjudicator…
DP: Each year, the show’s run would be extended… the numbers were gradually trending down, but they’d pick up occasionally, you know. They’d throw in a special, and they’d go up again, briefly. But we got all the way to the end of 2001.
SH: And during this time, when you’re doing your behind-the-scenes work, was it a full-time job? Was it nine to five?
DP: Oh, absolutely. That was the thing; it so quickly became all-consuming. As I said, I had to write 180 questions a week. I was madly scouring newspapers and magazines for anything contemporary that was happening in the news. But most of the stuff was coming from either dictionaries or Britannica. There were 12 A-Z volumes of Britannica. So, each week, I’d open say Volume One of Britannica. And I’d start at the front, find my first question there. Then I’d go to the back, and working from the back, get my next question there, work my way to the middle. So, I got 24 questions a week from Britannica. I got another 10 from the Guinness Book of World Records. I had another book called Rock and Pop Day by Day, which was just a sort of calendar of musical events, births, deaths and record releases since the 50s. So that was a source of another possibly 10 questions. I had a Halliwell’s Film Guide, I’d get at least five questions from there. At the end of ‘91 – my first year on Sale – I got my first laptop; an Apple black and white laptop. So I’d take that to the studio with me and I’d spend the day in my downtime, looking for questions out of World Book Dictionary, which I found is a very user-friendly dictionary. It was written for the normal person in America. So, the language tended to be very simple. It wasn’t highfalutin, like the Oxford dictionary or even the Macquarie dictionary, which tended to be a little bit verbose in its definitions.
SH: And you were writing 180 questions a week. How many question writers were there?
DP: There was one other guy who was writing the ‘Fast Money’s and the ‘Fame Game’s. Initially, that was Graeme Rickerby, then another former winner on the show, Brian Fitzpatrick.
SH: So just two people writing all the questions for the show?
DP: Yeah. And then, each week, we had to check each other’s questions.
DP: So, I’d be on the plane (from Sydney to Melbourne), going through the questions, making notes, and then we’d have a production meeting for a couple of hours for each record day. And then I’d bring up any issues that were there; there might be doubles, there might be badly written questions that needed to be retyped. We had a gang of girls who just used to type cards all day because everything was done on IBM golf balls, nothing was computerized. I mean, the questions were delivered to me by courier, they were printed out down in Melbourne, they came up to me in Sydney by courier, so I was reading question cards on the plane going back down to Melbourne.
SH: There were no other options back then.
SH: When you were in that job, were there moments where you thought, “Ah, I wish I’d known this when I was a contestant”? Is there anything that you-as-a-question-writer would’ve liked to have told you-as-a-contestant?
DP: Well, this is a bit silly, but I remember one bit of flippant advice I used to give people was, if they ask “What European capital city…” just jump in early and say “Paris!”
SH: Okay. And that works?
DP: Well, it worked for me once on a championship, and it is arguably the most famous capital city in Europe, so when in doubt…
DP: On one of the episodes I was on, there were at least four consecutive answers that started with D. And I thought ‘the question writer is writing from a dictionary, but they’re not even shuffling the questions around’!
DP: It might have been coincidence, but I thought I had a little insight into her process. It’s the pressure of having to churn out so many questions.
Next week, David reveals his very best tips for aspiring game show contestants, and we’ll find out exactly what tempted him back in front of the cameras for his very successful tilt on last year’s Beat The Chasers!
See you then.