My EXCLUSIVE interview with game show producer Steve Marshall – Part 7

Hello and welcome back. Last week, we left off just as Steve was talking about his stint writing quiz questions for Million Dollar Minute. And if you’re not too familiar with Million Dollar Minute, I’d recommend you take a look at THIS interview I did with one of that show’s biggest winners, Alex Dusek. Of course, since Steve brought it up, I felt I had to ask him the one question I ask all question writers…

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SH: What do you think is the secret to writing a good quiz question?

SM: It’s probably no real secret, but every quiz question is just a sentence or question, basically. You want to make sure the clue part doesn’t come in too early, or too late (unless the point is to have quick answers, like in a ‘Fast Money’ segment on Sale of the Century.) But it’s mainly just structured so all three contestants can have an equal go at it. And the better ones will pick up that clue quicker than the others. I guess the most important thing we found on Sale and is that a good question should only have one answer.

SH: Yeah.

SM: We’d have a question meeting before every record; I would sit there with David Poltorak, and we’d do it all the time. If the answer to the question is “London”, what if they say “UK”? What if they say, you know, a specific part of London? Do we need to restructure it so there’s only one answer? The last thing you want is to have a contest say “Actually, I was right on that question. But they wrote it wrong.” So, you have to be very careful in that regard. And in those days, there was no Google or internet.

SH: No.

SM: David – who’d be sitting upstairs in the control room during records – had a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica and about eight dictionaries, maybe the World Book Encyclopedia, there’d be atlases.

SH: Right.

SM: What you’d never want to do is to have the show make a mistake and have to address it and then bring the contestant back for another go. It happened occasionally. Very rarely.

SH: Yes.

SM: That’s a part of behind the scenes that a LOT of work goes into.

SH: And you can spend an hour on one question.

SM: Oh yeah, easily, easily! At which point we’d usually go “why don’t we just ditch it?”. Who was the Prime Minister of Australia in 1963? That’s a straight-up answer.

SH: Sure. Steve, you’ve worked in the industry over so many shows and over so many years, you’d have seen a lot of highs a lot of lows… What common mistakes did you see contestants make?

SM: The biggest one on Sale of the Century was being a smartarse. Because we used to see it, occasionally. We had one contestant – and I’ll certainly not name him – but he was an annoying guy on air and he made smartarse quips and one-liners in between the questions… I used to say to him, “Just pull it back a bit. Just answer the question. People don’t like that.” But the audience would watch Sale of the Century and the ratings would go up if somebody was winning each night… Because the audience loved seeing people win a lot. But they also used to watch when the not-so-likable contestants were on, hoping they’d lose! That was probably the biggest thing, just be yourself and just be pleasant. If you try too hard, sometimes you can make unnecessary mistakes.

SH: And was that annoying person you mentioned there for a long time?

SM: Yes, he won the lot.

SH: Oh, right!

SM: He was that good. But just to show you how annoying he was… he won the Audi which was an amazing navy blue sports car. And about six weeks after his winning episode went to air, I got a call from the guy at Melbourne Audi.

He said, “I’ve got a problem with this contestant – he won’t pick up his car.”

I said, “Why won’t he pick up his car?”

He wants a purple one. I told him, he can have navy-blue, silver, British racing green, black, white… But as far as I know, Audi has never made a purple convertible.”

So, I rang the contestant and said “If you don’t pick up the car by Friday, you’re not going to get it”, which was just pure bluff on my part. Eventually, he picked up his car. But he was an excellent player. Unlikable on air (and off, to a degree) but very good.

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Yikes! What a charmer… Of course, I was dying to know the name of that person, but despite all my ham-fisted amateur journalistic probing, Steve never revealed it. He’s too much of a gentleman for that. So we’re just left to speculate… Oh well, maybe next time.

Join me next week for the last instalment of this epic chat, where Steve reveals his TOP TIPS for any aspiring game show contestant. (And they’re great, as you’d expect). Until then, then!

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