‘Shafted’? Well, yes we were, as a matter of fact – Part 3 of 5

Hello again, and welcome to the third instalment of this Trip Down Memory Lane…

Destination: Shafted!

Last week, we were gearing up for the launch of the show, and we’d just received the news that the original (UK) version of the show had been axed after just 4 episodes. With this news still playing on our minds, and with the show’s Australian premiere fast approaching, we now started preparing for the media launch…

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Usually, before a TV show premieres, the production will send critics and reviewers a preview disc that contains a few episodes of it. This gives those journalists an early chance to see the show, review it, and hopefully recommend it to their readers, ideally delivering more viewers to the show’s premiere. The producers of Shafted, however, had a different idea; rather than sending the journalists discs of completed episodes, they invited them to come along and watch a couple of episodes being made… with a select few of them being chosen as the contestants in those episodes! The idea was that this would deliver us the best of both worlds; some of the reviewers would be able to write about the experience of watching the show, and some would be able to write about the experience of actually playing the game; about what it’s like to be a Shafted contestant.

And, if memory serves, this concept worked pretty well. Graeme and Chris (the show’s two other question writers) and I were charged with ‘stacking the deck’ of questions for the launch episodes. For these shows, there’d be more questions about TV, entertainment and pop culture than there would be in a usual episode; we wanted the TV reviewers playing the game to be in their comfort zone during the question rounds.

The shows came together well; before too long, I’d written both episode scripts for the show’s host, Red Symons, and we had all the questions written, checked, signed off and programmed. On the day of the media launch, the entire production team arrived early, enthusiastic and raring to go. The entire production team that is, except for one of our bosses (who shall remain nameless).

When he did show up, roughly two hours late, he realised that one of the journalists playing the game today had appeared in a show he remembered from 20 years ago. He thought it’d be funny to reference this during the show, play the footage, and have Red tease her about her appearance back then. To this day, I don’t know why. The old footage was unremarkable; just her, wearing what everyone wore back then, doing some work in an office. But on the day, for some reason, it became my job to source this footage, go and physically retrieve the tape from the archive, bring it back and get it converted and ingested into the Control Room’s inserts feed, in time to be rolled into the show, when we started the record.

“But wait a minute, Hally, old chap… weren’t you the show’s Head Writer?”, I hear you ask. “Shouldn’t you have been working with the host on his material, ensuring he was happy, making any last minute changes to the script and/or the questions, making sure that everyone who needed a script had a copy, and just generally being across where the script for the show was at? Especially since these all-important, make-or-break, ‘first impressions’ episodes were about to start in minutes, rather than hours?”

Well, yes.

Yes, of course I should have. But this was that boss’s idea, and he was my… well, he was my boss. So I had to do what he said. And at the time I was a keen, relatively inexperienced 31-year-old, far too polite to say “Nope, not my job. Get someone else to do it.” I’d never do that now.

I remember SPRINTING down the corridors of Channel Nine with the tape in my hand, as all the journalists began filing into the studio audience… Since this clip was such a last minute addition to the show, I’d had no time to write anything for Red to say about it, no time to brainstorm it with him, let alone any time to incorporate it into the script that everyone – including autocue – would be referring to as the show unfolded…. how was he going to throw to this footage?

Footage which, by the way, had nothing to do with our show, and which that boss was including purely to embarrass (in public) one of the TV reviewers we were trying to get onside. Hm – an odd decision.

To say the least.

I recall getting the tape up to the Control Room with just a couple of minutes to spare. The show began, and the clip was smoothly rolled into the show at the agreed moment. The reviewer in question was predictably embarrassed, and there was a polite, awkward silence from all of her colleagues in the audience…. hardly the uproarious laughter I’m sure our boss expected. Red handled the moment smoothly and seamlessly, making its inclusion in the show as painless as it could possibly be. He really was an unflappable class act.

For those of you outside Australia, Red Symons has had a very long and varied career in the Australian entertainment industry, since first rising to prominence as a guitarist in the successful 70s band Skyhooks. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he was a fan favourite on the high-rating variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday, in his dual role of house band member and “hanging judge” on the show’s talent contest segment Red Faces.

Red being interviewed on the ‘Shafted’set.

Red’s onscreen persona was that of the lovable, acid-tongued curmudgeon, always ready with a witty quip or a withering put-down. He’s an extremely intelligent and cultured man, is Red, and utterly delightful company. And when he’s on screen and in character, his confidence is utterly unassailable.

Which is handy, because for Shafted... it really needed to be. Back on Hey Hey, the live studio audience loved Red’s pithy one-liners, and their laughs were always long, loud and genuine. Shafted, by contrast, had no studio audience at all, and no canned laughter either – just wall-to-wall atmospheric background music. For a less confident, experienced performer, this could have meant a real crisis of confidence; “if I can’t hear anyone laughing, how can I go on selling the gags?”

But I never, ever saw Red fazed by this. Early on, we decided that we’d open each episode with a rhetorical question gag; “This is Shafted; the program that asks the question…. (insert gag here).” Here’s one:

I remember another one: This is Shafted; the program that asks the question ‘If you’re shooting a documentary about penguins, would you even bother using colour film?’

I had to write at least 40 of them (although Red came up with a lot of his own), which Red professionally delivered at the top of each episode, before segueing into his hosting duties. He bantered with the contestants, gently (and sometimes not so gently) mocking them. He congratulated them on their victories (which were rare) and consoled them in their defeats (far more common). For this particular format, for this particular show, I couldn’t think of a better person for the job.

Oh, and did I mention that he was delightful company?

That one time when we found a pith helmet in the ‘Shafted’ office. “Oh, I say… what’s that over there, Old Bean?”

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Cripes! This week’s post ran on a bit longer than I intended – gotta go!

I’ll see you again next week, when I regale you with further exploits of my punctuality-challenged ‘superior’. 

That’s right here, next Tuesday, as my PatentedHowToWinGameShowsBehindTheScenesReminiscence of Shafted continues….

Don’t be two hours late.  

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