Today, I begin my EXCLUSIVE interview with TV light entertainment and game show producer and Executive Producer Pam Barnes. Pam’s multi-award career spans decades, so it was great to sit down with her and hear all manner of behind-the scenes stories, reminiscences, and of course some invaluable tips and hints for aspiring game show contestants! I’d like to thank Pam for being so generous with her time, particularly since she’s currently so busy producing the runaway success story on Australian TV that is Family Feud. Ladies and gentlemen… Pam Barnes!
SH: Pam, welcome and thanks for speaking to me for howtowingameshows.com. You have had – and continue to have – a very illustrious and amazing career, right across Australian television – light entertainment and game shows. And it’s the game shows that we’ll mostly be talking about today. Am I right in thinking that the first game show you produced, after producing a lot of live television entertainment, was Sale of the Century?
PB: That’s correct. I produced it for a year in 1988. That was when Tony Barber was the host and Alyce Platt was the co-host.
SH: Given that this was at its peak popularity, was there a long waiting list, or a big pool of contestants to draw from?
PB: There were continual auditions. You have to continually be looking for new people. We used to hold them at Studio 9 at Channel 9 in Melbourne. We’d have a set of audition questions, and depending on how people went with those, they’d then be interviewed by producers and have their photo taken and that sort of thing.
SH: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”…
PB: (LAUGHING) “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”. That’s the old showbiz adage, isn’t it? We still say that today.
SH: Do you know who the biggest winner was during your time there?
PB: From what I can remember, my biggest winner was a boy called Andrew Werbik and he was 16 years old – the youngest champion ever, I think. He was a very tall boy – looked older than 16 – but he had extremely scary knowledge for a 16 year old. What he went on to, and what he did after that, I have absolutely no idea. I have a feeling that he might have come back for a Sale of The Century ‘Champion of Champions’ special. Whether he is a nuclear scientist today or a garbage man, I don’t know.
SH: Sixteen? That must’ve been the youngest you can be, and still get on the show.
PB: That was the youngest.
SH: Did he go all the way through?
PB: He did win The Lot.*
SH: I want to talk you about The Einstein Factor, which was an ABC show. It was a more specialized knowledge show, like Mastermind. It was a mix of contestants’ ‘Special Subjects’ and general knowledge. I’ve already spoken to Peter Berner (the show’s host) a little while back, and he gave some amusing answers.
PB: I am sure he would. Peter’s such a clever and funny man.
SH: I remember Special Subjects ranging from ‘Astronomy’ to ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. Did you have any particular favourite Special Subjects?
PB: Not particular favorites, but when we would go and interview and audition people for that, it was hard from a producer’s point of view because we were interviewing people that had amazing knowledge about something that I had no idea about! You have to talk to them about their particular knowledge – their passion – and then try to work out whether they also had a good general knowledge. Also whether they would make good television and whether they would be able to cope with appearing on television, and not be too nervous and introverted and too narrow in their whole knowledge base.
SH: That was going to be my next question; “what was the most challenging thing about producing that show?”… but I think you might have touched on it there.
PB: To be honest, in the very beginning, I didn’t think it would be as successful as it was, because I didn’t think that watching somebody who knew everything about “Steam Trains of the 1800’s” would be very interesting. Credit to Peter Berner and the way he handled the contestants, and the way we ended up developing the format; it did end up to be very entertaining. Programming those questions was artful too, to get the right balance so that it still remained interesting to the people who didn’t know about steam trains!
SH: The contestant’s Special Subject was only the first round…
PB: Yes, the first round was 15 questions to each contestant on their Special Subject. Then in Round 2 they had to pick varying categories from a board, and then Round 3 was 15 questions with the contestants competing against the “Brains Trust” panel.** The questions were a mix of their Special Subjects and General Knowledge.
SH: Yes, and you were instrumental in developing the format, weren’t you? And I think it went for 4 years?
PB: It went for 6 years; 2004-2009. Who would have thought?
SH: How long did the format take to develop? I remember that period as well. I was writing some stuff for Pete.*** There was lots of tweaking.
PB: I remember we did some pilot programs and from the pilots we had to tweak again. The Einstein Factor was originally conceived by Barry O’Brien and he brought on myself and Michelle Seers – who both had game show history – to work on it, and develop the format. Michelle was particularly good with the validity of the question base, working with question writers, and making sure everything was 100% researched and correct. When we started, it really wasn’t really a format. That developed as we worked on it. I didn’t ever think it would go for that long, but it was a good show. We got many well-known personalities and “brains” involved in the Brains Trust. On one of the pilots, we had Hamish & Andy, and no one at that stage had heard of them. I remember seeing Hamish and thinking “Wow! you’ve got something”
SH: There you go – you heard it here first, folks!
PB: The things you find out!
SH: Was there one contestant in particular that sticks in your mind?
PB: For me, it was Diana Burley. She was the first champion, the Grand Champion, and her subject was Gilbert & Sullivan. I do remember her, she was a very nice lady. She went all the way and she was fun.
Next week, our discussion moves on to Family Feud, which is currently blitzing the ratings in the 6:00 PM slot on Australian TV, with Pam at the helm. We’ll talk about the Family Feud audition process, Do’s and Don’t’s… and some other fascinating behind-the-scenes snippets, so be sure to check back here next Tuesday, for Part II of my exclusive interview with the brilliant Pam Barnes!
*According to www.tvtropes.org, Andrew won cash and prizes totalling $315,702 on August 11th, 1988.
** In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I appeared on several episodes of ‘The Einstein Factor’, in the show’s later seasons, as a member of the Brains Trust.
*** Full disclosure again.