My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 12

Our discussion last week of whether David was resigned to being pigeonholed as ‘The Quiz Guy’ got me thinking…

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SH: At the time, what other quiz shows were on? Other than Sale of the Century?

DP: I think around that time Channel 10 tried to revive Pick A Box with Mike Walsh as the host.

SH: Oh really?

DP: And I remember going to the audition. And a producer getting us to do what we needed to do for the audition, but also telling us that the network had just axed the show. “So,” he said, “it was most likely that we weren’t going to be used, but we would do the audition anyway…” So that was one show that looked (briefly!) like it might’ve been an opportunity. Tony Barber hosted the local version of Jeopardy!, but it was a very short run. So it really wasn’t until quiz shows morphed into a kind of reality-style concept, which is what Millionaire and Weakest Link and every iteration since has adopted.

SH: So when did they ask you to write questions for Sale of the Century?

DP: Okay, so I won in late ‘86. I travelled in ‘87. I did lots of little jobs. I worked on a couple of TV pilots; I had some friends who pitched a pilot for a quiz show. It was a really terrible concept. It was like Sale of the Century, except the contestants had to wear a silly hat. Because that was their character (!) There’s just this blur of little jobs I did like that… I didn’t need the money, so I was happy to work on various pilot ideas.

But then in 1989, I got a call from the ABC to be the adjudicator and a question writer for a show called The Oz Game, which was hosted by John Derum. It was a six o’clock stripped show, Monday to Friday. And it was three teams with two family members; typically a parent and a child. Most of the questions were about Australiana. The winners got things like Akubra hats and Australian-style stuff that wasn’t very expensive. And when I look back at that, I shudder at my ignorance. I remember we did a celebrity episode; one of the contestants was a woman I vaguely knew by appearance; she played a nurse on a soapie. And one of the questions was “What is the longest bone in the human body?” And my card said “Thighbone”, and she answered “femur”, and I marked her wrong.

SH: Oh.

DP: She arked up, and I was mortified. I was so glad I got to basically serve an apprenticeship in that role. But that was a major gaffe that stuck in my mind. It made me realize that there was a lot – a hell of a lot – I didn’t know. And I guess that’s the frustrating thing about all this work I’ve done on various shows over the years…. The more I do know, you’re always just expanding the boundary of your own ignorance. That area- outside-the-things-you-know just seems to get bigger. I mean, on one hand, yes, I know capitals and stuff; I’ve got most of that under my belt. But there’s still so much sport. Sport is just never-ending. Sport is just continually expanding in its range and breadth and depth and it’s just so hard to keep up. And I think even say 40 years ago, there was just far less of everything. If you were a Learned Man back in the Renaissance, then you could have pretty well had a grasp of everything.

SH: Right. Because there was only so much that you could know.

DP: Yeah. So now it’s just not getting easier. So anyway, so I did that job on The Oz Game for three months. I then worked on another ABC show; the local version of University Challenge. And that was another great testament to ignorance on the part not just of myself, but of everybody involved. And we wrote questions and the production team went round to various universities to get students to go on the show. But when we recorded the episodes there was so much dead air. We’d overestimated – to a tragic degree – the knowledge level of the contestants.

SH: Oh dear.

DP: So, it was horrible.

SH: Lots of embarrassing silences where everyone stared blankly at each other?

DP: Yeah. We’d gone way too academic.

SH: For university students?

DP: They really didn’t know much. And there’d been no kind of instruction. Nobody’d had the wit to plan ahead and think, “Well, just how smart are these people going to be?” The assumption had been that they’d be like the UK contestants. But the UK is obviously drawing from such a bigger pool that they can have a lot of brilliant people. And we didn’t. It just wasn’t good television. That was also in 1989, I think. And at the end of ‘90, my sister rang me, and said “David, do you know your Sale of the Century World Record has been beaten?” This was news to me, but my sister happened to know someone who knew someone who knew this contestant Kate Buckingham who had just beaten my record in terms of dollar amount, so she replaced me in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Detail of David’s entry in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’.

And that same day, I got a call from (Sale of the Century production company) Grundy’s. And I thought “Oh, this is nice – they’re going to give me the heads up about my record before it goes to air.” But it was nothing to do with that. They were offering me the job of adjudicator!

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Next week, we’ll get all the juicy behind-the-scenes details of David’s new role, as he gives us an insider’s perspective on the sometimes surprisingly rocky road of ‘Australia’s Richest Quiz’… 

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