My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 18: The Conclusion!

David Poltorak, present day. (Well, a few weeks ago, actually.)

It’s been quite the ride chatting to David over these past 17 weeks, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it! We’ve discussed his early love of quiz shows, his screenwriting career, his World-Record-setting quiz show win in 1986, his many years as a question writer and adjudicator, and his return to the studio floor as a contestant in Beat The Chasers in 2020

====================================

SH: Now that brings us up to the present day, and you’ve recently returned to standup comedy… all these years after your baptism of fire on Star Search. Why is that? And how’s it going?

DP: I started doing it again in 2015 because at that stage, I was still working on Millionaire Hot Seat, but that was a part-time job and I wasn’t enjoying it. So I was glad I got the sack from there, ultimately. And I thought “I need something to do with my time,” and I started coming out with funny lines that started popping into my head. And I remember thinking “Oh, that’d be a good line in stand up”.

SH: Right.

DP: Back shortly after my Star Search experience, I did a couple of open mics at The Comedy Store in Sydney, which were really brutal, brutal experiences. And I put it out of my mind; I thought “I just don’t hate myself enough to do that on a regular basis!” It was just too horrible for words, you know? That’s it, done that. And I didn’t watch comedy or listen to comedy; it just wasn’t an area that interested me. But now, all these years later it’s suddenly just clicked… and also, I’d had years of frustration writing scripts, and nothing had happened. I just thought “This is really stupid. Either I’m just not clever enough or I don’t have the application or my ideas aren’t good enough or I’m not meeting the right people; I’m just banging my head against the wall… But I still like writing.”

And so, I thought I’d give it a go. And so, I did it. And again, it was very nervewracking. I did an open mic, I got some good laughs, but it made me realize it was going to be a lot harder to get better at it than I imagined. I’ve seen it in the years since 2015, I’ve seen time and time again, people who don’t necessarily have good material, but just through dint of perseverance, getting up and being on stage, they’ve got the confidence and they’ve got the charm that you’re no longer nervous in their presence. And so they’re actually quite skillful. And if they have good material, too… boy, watch out! And the ones that do have that sort of performance – that skill and ease – and good material, well, they do best of all.

SH: So are you concentrating more on the stand up now?

DP: Yeah, I’m just happy to do as many gigs as I can. And I’m in a group called 10 Comedians.

SH: In addition to your stand up, you‘ve just finished working on The Weakest Link. Do you see yourself doing more quiz question writing and adjudicating down the track?

DP: Oh, yeah, I’ll happily do it if it comes along. After I got sacked from Millionaire Hot Seat (along with a couple of other people, because we’d all gone to work for Pointless as well), there’d been very little work. I think I was down to 400 bucks a week or something, so getting sacked didn’t really worry me. And also, I didn’t like the hierarchy, the managerial side of their question department; it was really unfriendly to the writers. And so, I’m glad that’s in my past. And so then Pointless came up, then Think Tank. Then Mastermind – we’ve done three series of that – and now, The Weakest Link. There’s talk of another Mastermind series. I‘d be happy with that sort of work coming in now and again – more than happy.

SH: That’s a good way to be.

DP: Yeah. I’m doing an open mic tonight. I did two on Tuesday. I’ve got other gigs now and again… I’m sort of in that semi-pro range, where I’m still doing as much open mic as I can just for experience, and trying out new material. I’m not a headliner. I’m old, you know; I’m typed as ‘The Old Guy’.

SH: Okay.

DP: I’ve got to accept that it’s a young person’s field, so generally people don’t book people of my vintage. I think I work better with an audience aged 30 up rather than 30 down.

SH: Right. Well, on that note David, it just remains for me to say thank you so much for your time today, and for sharing all your stories with us. It’s been really, really interesting. Thank you.

DP: Excellent. I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I look forward to reading it – it’s been a lot of fun!

==================================================================

I really can’t thank David enough for his time, for all those amazing memories, and for his endlessly cheerful candour! I’ve absolutely loved this opportunity to talk to one of the true greats in the history of Australian quiz shows, and I sincerely hope you’ve found it entertaining and illuminating too.

If you’re a keen comedy-goer here in Australia, check your local gig guides – there’s a good chance that David will be playing somewhere near you soon. (Pandemic permitting, of course.) 

And so we bid a fond farewell to that most impressive screenwriting, record-setting, question-adjudicating, Chaser-beating, cheerful autodidact, Mr David Poltorak.

Join me back here in a fortnight’s time… 

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 17

As we launch into the penultimate instalment of our epic conversation, I wanted to revisit the subject of David’s Top Tips for aspiring game shows contestants… and hey, if his answer ends up taking us on a fascinating detour through the world of mid-eighties Australian TV talent shows, who am I to argue?

==================================================================

SH: So you won big on Australian TV shows in 1986 and in 2020. What have you learned over that time as a ‘career contestant’, and what would be the three biggest pieces of advice you can offer aspiring contestants?

DP: Swallow your pride.

SH: Oh, yeah. That’s good.

DP: You’ve got to be prepared to take a fall. And that comes back to me going on Beat The Chaser, too. To do well, you have to risk looking like an idiot.

SH: Right.

DP: Did I tell you about my Star Search appearance?

SH: No, you did not. Please do.

DP: Well, in 1985, I had aspirations to be a stand-up comedian, but I’d never done it. But a friend of mine knew the guy who booked the acts on the Channel 10 show Star Search, hosted by Greg Evans.

SH: Yes.

DP: They had categories of performers. And so each week there would be two performers in each category. And the winner of each category would then go into a semi.

SH: Yes.

DP: And one of the ‘categories’ was spokesmodel!

SH: Really? Truly?

DP: Yeah. Actually, one of the winners of that category, Kerrie Friend, did go on to become a TV hostess.

That’s Kerrie on the right. Greg Evans (coincidentally, the aforementioned host of ‘Star Search’) is on the left, and that’s Dexter the robot in the middle. This photo was taken on the set of the dating show, ‘Perfect Match’. At least, I really, really hope it was…

DP: So anyway, I went on Star Search and that was my very first attempt at standup comedy.

SH: Whoa, that’s very brave.

DP: And I was so nervous. I drank a flask of Southern Comfort and I took a Valium. I needed to.

SH: Before going on?!

DP: Before going on. So I was very mellow.

SH: Jeez!

DP: And I didn’t win my category; my category was won by a double act called Broccoli Productions. They were two guys, one of whom read the news, while the other one acted it out, with silly pratfalls.

SH: Okay.

DP: It was very visual, and the audience loved it. I was too cerebral and inexperienced. The audience was polite, though; I got a few titters. But some people were open-mouthed about how bad I was, while other people were quite supportive. Some people said “Good on you,” and others – my father, for instance – were just shaking their heads in disbelief.

But it was a great lesson for me; it taught me that what you do and people’s reactions to it aren’t necessarily connected. The way people reacted said more about them than it did about me. Some were supportive, and some were critical… but they’d all seen the same thing. And so, ultimately it was all water off a duck’s back; it didn’t worry me.

It’s a cliché – “It doesn’t matter what people think about you,” but it’s true. Because it’s just their opinion. You can let it affect you, but that’s your choice.

And the next year when I auditioned for Sale, a couple of people said, “Why are you doing that to yourself?” They thought I was punishing myself or something. They saw it as some weird, masochistic desire for public humiliation.

SH: But you’d had that Star Search experience… which was an audacious thing to do on your part. And so your skin was thick enough?

DP: Yeah, yeah. I really thought that by going on Sale, I had absolutely nothing to lose; I could only gain from it… I didn’t think I’d get as much as I did! But I didn’t think I’d do badly. And I thought, having been through that Star Search trial-by-fire, this was going to be a cakewalk.

SH: Yeah, cool. During my time on Temptation, I noticed some contestants whose reputation – and even their identity – seemed to be bound up in this! Usually, they were middle-aged or older men, who I guess might have been “Mr. Quiz Expert” in their workplace… And I’d see they were humiliated – or even devastated – when they lost. I could see them thinking “Oh no, there goes my status in my social group”. And I felt for them, because they’d decided that they had a lot riding on this, reputationally.

DP: Yeah.

SH: But I digress. And now…

DP: You asked for three pieces of advice. I think I’ve only answered one. But actually, I feel a bit sad for anybody today who’d like to be a quiz show contestant… because the formats are so unfairly loaded towards the show and not the player. The player doesn’t get a chance really to shine. In Beat the Chasers, for example, you’ve got a minute to answer maybe 10 or 12 questions. And if there’s just a couple that you don’t know, you’re done. The great thing about Sale – or any of those other quiz shows in the past – was that you’ve got a lot of questions. And if you were smart, then it wouldn’t matter that you got a couple wrong, because on balance, you’d do well.

It’s a shame that TV has moved away from displaying and recognizing and exalting knowledge, which quiz shows used to do. But I think if you want to do well, you’ve got to put in the work; it isn’t going to fall in your lap. Prepare! When I was on Sale, the first time I had a couple of very lucky answers that were purely from stuff that I’d read or seen in the week or two prior to being on the show. One of my questions was, “Yugoslavia is made up of how many republics?” And I knew the answer because I’d read an article about it in the Good Weekend a couple of weeks earlier. Maybe the question writers got that question from that article.

SH: Yeah, that’s possible, absolutely.

DP: When you’re studying for a quiz, you just want to bring as much knowledge as you can, as close to the surface of the brain as possible. So it’s easily accessible.

I think you’ve got to be curious. You just have to want to know stuff. Yeah, there’s got to be something in your makeup that frustrates you if you don’t know something.

SH: Yes.

DP: I mean, even if I’m not practising for a quiz show, I just look up stuff all the time. You know, somebody says something, and I’m not sure about it, I want to clarify it in my mind; I go and look it up. I’m not practising for a quiz show. It’s just me enjoying knowing things.

Another bit of advice I would add, if you’re a contestant on a show where time is counting down and there’s a clock showing your remaining time, don’t look at it! I did that once on a show, when I was ahead, and the distraction was enough to take me out of the zone. I just lost. Which is why, on Beat the Chasers, I purposely looked down so I couldn’t see how much time I had left.

==================================================================

Some great tips there! Next week, David and I wrap it all up with a few reflections, a chat about his current return to the world of standup comedy, and a look at what his future holds.

See you then!

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 16

Hello and welcome to the antepenultimate instalment of my epic interview with David Poltorak. When we left off last week, it was mid-2020, and one of the producers of Beat The Chasers was trying to tempt David into signing up for the show…

==================================================================

DP: I wasn’t sure; I don’t think I said yes straight away. But it wouldn’t have taken me long to say yes. And so, she then sent me links (that everybody would have been given access to) of the UK version of the show. And I just thought, “F*** – this is hard!” But there was one YouTube of one winner on the UK show, who won everything. But she actually got a couple wrong. And I thought, “Well, I knew the ones she got wrong”. I didn’t know all the ones she got right, but on balance, I would have done the same as her. So that instilled me with a certain confidence that it was possible… So I said yes. My fingers were crossed that I would do well, because if I didn’t, it was going to be a really bad look.

SH: Yeah, your reputation!

DP: For what that’s worth. But I convinced myself that if I lost, it wouldn’t necessarily be catastrophic, because it was such a hard format. I thought because of my background, I’m going to have to go up against all four Chasers. I don’t have an option really of going below that. But interestingly, when I got to the studio that day of recording, one of the producers said to all of us, “Look, I know most of you are smart, you’ve been on other shows, you’ve done well, you’re here to win money. But everybody has thought like that, and nobody has won the big money. You might want to temper your ambitions and at least go home with something. We’ve had some people who walked away with low-level prizes, but nobody has taken the most, because the really good ones amongst you have gone for the most … and they’ve all bombed out.”

And so all that day, I had producers and PA’s asking me “What do you think you’ll do? What do you think you’ll do?” And after that little producer talk, I remember thinking “Maybe I shouldn’t be so ambitious. Maybe I should just go for a lower amount because I’d like to leave with something…” And I was on the last record day, and I was one of the last to be done. I guess they’d held me strategically in reserve so they could play with me, in terms of how much they offered me.

SH: Right.

DP: So, when the time came for me to go onto the set, they’re probably thinking, “We don’t have a big winner yet. We want one big winner. This is our only chance; we’d better offer him a lot of money. Because he said he’s only gonna go for three Chasers. And we want him to go for four.” And when they flashed up $150,000 on the screen, I couldn’t believe it. The guy before me, his top offer was just $70,000. And I thought, based on the English show, where they offer up to 100,000 (admittedly, pounds), that they wouldn’t offer anything more than $100,000 on the Australian show. And so, when I saw $150,000… I thought “Ah, they want me to win!”

SH: Yeah, yeah. Good!

DP: I mean, they weren’t handing it to me, but they were saying, “We want you to get this.”

SH: Yeah, just quietly…

DP: So, suddenly any cautious thinking went out the window, and I thought, “I have no option. I have to go for four.”

SH: That’s gutsy! How did you train for going on Beat the Chasers?

DP: I’ve got a couple of versions of Trivial Pursuit, so I just read as many boxes of Trivial Pursuit questions as I could, I’d get my wife to ask me 20 questions over dinner. And I learned a lot of popular culture, because I thought that, as I get older, it’s increasingly my weakest area. Ironically, there was a girl on the show just before me, this cute young lawyer, Mara, and she got a question where I knew the answer was Bruno Mars. And she didn’t know it. That was annoying, because I would have liked that question, obviously.

SH: Yes, of course.

DP: I think there might have been one other question I knew the answer to because of my study. But really, I think the study was to give me the confidence and the self-assurance that I’d done as much as I could do in preparation.

SH: Yeah, which is big – confidence is an enormous part of the equation.

DP: Yeah, it really is. And look, the only reason I won was because on the night I pulled it out of somewhere that Nicole Kidman played Chase Meridian in Batman Forever… a movie I never saw!

SH: You’re very good!

DP: But I must have seen it on IMDb; I must have seen a list of the credits. And it just popped into my head. You know, it was just a miracle.

SH: And just like that, you were $150,000 richer! How was the aftermath of that win, compared to the aftermath of your original Sale of the Century win?

DP: Well, I had an expectation that it wouldn’t be as big, because it was only on for one or two nights, but Channel 7 promoted it as a major prime-time event.

SH: It’s very emotive stuff.

DP: And the morning after I’d done the show, I walked out of my place and past a couple, and the guy turned around and said, “Hey, that’s the guy who was on Beat the Chasers!” I thought, “Holy f***! The first person I’ve seen!” But it turned out that he was the only member of the public who’s said that they saw me on the show.

SH: Okay.

DP: I’ve had no recognition from anyone else, apart from people I know.

SH: Yeah. A very different world from 1986.

DP: It is a different world because so many people I know who saw this show, saw it either on catch up or on YouTube. They didn’t watch it when it went to air.

SH: No, not like in 1986, when a million people regularly gathered around to watch TV at seven o’clock each weeknight!

DP: Yeah. The whole context in which people watch shows has lost that intensity. There are advantages in that you don’t have to be at home at the time it’s broadcast; there’s always some way for you to see it.

SH: I’m not sure audiences enjoy watching clever people display their cleverness anymore.

DP: That’s an interesting point. In terms of the way the culture is moving, that idea of admiring people for displaying their talent at knowledge almost seems old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy now. It’s something that’s gradually declined ever since the days of Pick-A-Box. Pick-A-Box clearly celebrated dry, dull people who just happen to know a lot, and if you got someone like Barry Jones, who had a bit of a personality to go along with it, well, that just made it better.

SH: You’re right. There was a time – and I think its heyday was during Sale of the Century – when people would go “Wow, what a brainiac! I admire brainiacs!” And in that movie Quiz Show, which is set back in the ’50s, they admire intellectuals too. It was a different time.

DP: It’s just not mainstream anymore. There is Mastermind, there was The Einstein Factor as well; but their audiences are not the mainstream audience. And let’s face it, free-to-air broadcast TV is hardly even a mainstream audience these days.

SH: Yeah, I think those days are gone. As you say, commercial free-to-air TV is struggling, so they have to appeal to as many people as possible. I guess it’s the equivalent of clickbait, really.

DP: And now they’re always just short-run shows. The latest (Australian) version of The Weakest Link is just 14 episodes, and they’ve programmed it at nine o’clock. That’s not exactly a vote of confidence from the network.

==================================================================

Next week, in our penultimate instalment, David and I discuss

More TOP contestant tips,

The rigours of becoming a professional TV spokesmodel and of course

The roles of Southern Comfort and valium in pre-performance preparation…

See you next Tuesday!

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 15

Welcome to Part XV of my exclusive and wide-ranging interview with quiz show legend David Poltorak. And since the name of this blog is HowToWinGameShows.com, I felt it would be extremely remiss of me not to ask David for his tips on…

Well, on how to win game shows.

==================================================================

DP: In terms of advice I’d give to any contestant… I was always eager to sort the people who were serious from the people who weren’t. You know, people who say “I’m just here because my wife thought I should give it a go”, or “we need new saucepans” or “I’ll be happy to just get a (consolation prize) board game!” You know those folks are just taking up space.

SH: But that’s good to know! That’s a very useful piece of information in itself. 

DP: Yeah. And I’d always be impressed with people who had bothered to learn that year’s Oscar winners or some recent landmark events… at least they were trying. And the other thing – and I guess you can’t really teach this – but that whole thing about anticipating.

SH: When it comes to anticipation, one thing I put into practice while I was on the show, was to always watch the host’s mouth while he’s asking the questions. Really concentrate on his mouth. And then when you buzz in, he’ll say another two or three words of the question. And then you’ve got one second, two seconds, even three seconds… that’s a heap of time. If you’ve been intently watching the host’s mouth, you can get a feel for where the question might be going next. Then you can finish the question in your mind, and then you’ve got those seconds to access the answer.

DP: Yes.

SH: And that constant pep talk to yourself; to always be saying to yourself “I know the next one. I know the next one”… rather than not getting one and going “Oh yeah, of course I should have known that… Now, where were we?” If you do that, you’re gone. You always have to go “Okay, let that one go. I know the next one. I know the next one.” I think it was Matt Parkinson who said to me, “It’s like someone’s throwing lots of tennis balls at you. And some of them you’ll catch, some of them you won’t… but just let those ones go, don’t give them a second thought. Just focus on the next one that’s coming at you.”

DP: Yeah. It’s true; it is a mind game. And Sale was so different to Millionaire; the skills needed to do well on Sale were so different to those needed for Millionaire. For Sale, you needed to be quick, you needed quick recall, you couldn’t allow yourself to get flustered, you had to have a broad general knowledge. Whereas with Millionaire… apart from broad general knowledge, none of that other stuff comes into play. But your luck is a much bigger factor in Millionaire because you’ve only got 12 questions. But so many smart people on Millionaire would just get done in by the question about last year’s winner of The French Open, for example.

SH: Yeah. Well, that’s your ‘Ask The Audience’ question. I’ve interviewed two WWTBAM Millionaire winners here – Martin Flood and Rob “The Coach” Fulton and there are certain strategies around when to use those lifelines…

DP: Ah, Martin Flood. When I went on Beat the Chasers, the contestants would stand up at the back of the bleachers, and when they were announced, they’d run downstairs onto the set and meet (the host) Andrew (O’Keefe). And when I was there waiting to be introduced, Martin Flood came over. He was coaching one of the contestants.

SH: Martin wasn’t on the show?

DP: I expected him to be on the show; he was asked, but he decided not to do it. But he was coaching this particular person. I don’t know how you coach… but I guess you can lend your experience…

SH: Now, speaking of Beat the Chasers… you went on it 34 years after you first won Sale of the Century! They were looking for lots of former quiz winners to go on the show. And one thing that struck me about that is that you’ve got quite a lot to lose; there’s a lot of pride at stake. I shied away from going back on Temptation a second time, and since doing Australia’s Brainiest Quizmaster I’ve shied away from anything like that. And yet you had the cojones to go on Beat The Chasers, and of all the former champions who appeared on it, you did the best. So why did you decide to go on it? And what if it didn’t go that well? Can you just talk us through the process?

DP: Well, I got a call from the producer, Andrea Williams, who I’ve known for years, and she said, “Polty, are your quizzing days over?” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “There’s this new quiz show Beat the Chasers and we’re looking for people who’ve been on other shows… and you’ve jumped to mind.”

And all those things just popped into my head; that chest-tightening feeling. There’s excitement, but at the same time pressure straightaway. But you’ve got to just make it a binary thing; you either say yes or no. If you say no, you may regret it because you see other people get the money, possibly. And part of me thought “Look, I’m nearing the end of my working life…” So there was a greed factor. And I had no confidence I was necessarily going to win, because I know the way these shows are structured these days. At least in Sale‘s day, you could lose but you still left with the board game and a stickpin!

SH: That’s true.

DP: Nowadays on a show, unless you take away the big money, you go home with nothing.

SH: You’re providing really great content for them, and you get nothing in return.

DP: You might get lunch and a bottle of water.

SH: A bottle of water? Yum!

==================================================================

WILL David accept the challenge of competing on Beat The Chasers?*

WILL he rise to the occasion, and do brilliantly?**

WILL he go home with The Big Money?***

For the answers to all these questions, dear reader, just scroll down to the asterisks below. But for the more detailed answers to all these questions, be sure to join us next Tuesday afternoon, right here at HowToWinGameShows.com!

* Yes.

** Also yes.

*** Again, also yes.

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 14

“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.

SH: Sure.

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.

DP: Yeah.

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…

SH: Indeed!

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’!

SH: Right.

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.

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 13

When we left off last week, David had just received a call from the people at Grundy’s (the production company who made Sale of the Century), offering him the job of adjudicator on the show! ==========================

DP: … And I was just really chuffed! I’d never imagined that this was going to happen, I didn’t think I’d get this job! And so they flew me down to Melbourne, where the story was that (host) Tony Barber was about to have a hip replacement. So they were going to record a bunch of extra episodes so they’d have enough to broadcast while Tony was recuperating. They’d be an extra month ahead, and these episodes would all go to air at the start of ‘91. I was watching Fran Powell; she was the show’s current adjudicator. She was the last adjudicator to appear on air, but by this stage she was offscreen. Times had changed, and actually seeing the adjudicator made for dull TV.

At the start of ‘91, I went to Melbourne to do the job when Tony came back. And then three months later, there was a contract dispute or something, and the word went around that Tony Barber was leaving the show. And everybody was just gloom and doom. Everybody just thought “Well, that’s it. Sale‘s done. Tony was the show, or that’s what everyone thought… and presumably, it was what Tony thought! The show was due to be off anyway for two weeks, for the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, so the network and Grundy’s basically had two weeks to find a new host.

SH: Wow.

Out with the old… (Tony Barber & Alyce Platt)

DP: They tried all manner of combinations and finally settled on Glenn Ridge and Jo Bailey, who replaced the lovely Alyce Platt, who unfortunately was collateral damage.

… and in with the new. (Glenn Ridge & Jo Bailey)

DP: I mean, you can’t change the host without changing the hostess, can you? Anyway, a lot of us working on the show were in the deepest funk. We thought there’s no way the show can survive with these two. Don’t get me wrong; Glenn Ridge is a lovely guy and an innately smart person, but he conveyed no sense of having any idea what the questions were about, and he also had a lot of difficulties reading big words. 

SH: Really?

DP: Yeah.

SH: And big words or little, as host he needs to read lots of questions really quickly and articulately. And he had no experience doing that? How on earth – 

DP: A lot of practice – a hell of a lot of practice. I mean, there were words we learned very early on we could not put in questions… “Mesopotamia” was a key one. “Which river in Messpo… which river in Meps… I’ll try that again… which river in Mes… I’ll try that again.”

SH: Oh dear.

DP: The record days stretched out… I can remember talking to Pete Smith, the voice man. And he said, “Dave, this is it. You know, it’s over, it’s over.” He just could not see the show lasting the rest of the year. And at that stage, I thought “I’ll do this job for a year, because it’ll be an interesting experience”.

SH: Sure.

DP: Because I really wanted to get stuck into more scriptwriting. So when I started the job as the adjudicator, I was thinking of it as just a short-term thing. But the show kept going, longer than anybody expected it would! Glenn Ridge got better, and we all got better at learning what to give him and what not to give him. He was a very charming, nice guy, and obviously the audience liked him. And as a comparison, in Tony Barber’s day, I only ever saw him speak to contestants when the cameras were on. When the cameras weren’t on, he wasn’t there. He had this knack for disappearing as soon as we weren’t recording, whereas in recording breaks Glenn would go and chat to the contestants, very down-to-earth, unassuming. Was Glenn Ridge the host for your episodes?

SH: Yeah, I went on twice. In 1994 and in ’99. Yes, Glenn made his way over and shook our hands and introduced himself before the show started, which I thought was pretty classy.

==================================================================

Sale of the Century eventually finished in 2001 after 4,610 episodes, completing an incredible 21-year run! Four years later in 2005, it was rebranded and revived as Temptation, and went on to run for another 555 episodes.

But that, my friends, is another story…

 

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…

===========================

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!

==================================================================

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’… 

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 11

The Australian team at the ’87 ‘Worlds’: (L-R) Cary Young, David Poltorak, (co-host) Alyce Platt, Geoff Saunders, (host) Tony Barber, David Bock, Virginia Noel

One very fond memory I have of Sale of the Century throughout its long run is its various tournaments, where previous big winners were invited back to compete against each other…

========================

SH: You were in a few of those Sale of the Century ‘Champions of Champions’ tournaments. How many did you do?

DP: Look, it’s a blur. I did one in early ‘87, so that was just a couple of months after I’d been on the first time. In retrospect, that was far too soon. I just wasn’t mentally prepared, although I almost won; it came down to a tie-breaker between (fellow Sale of the Century champion) Cary Young and myself. And he got it. From what I can remember, the person in the ‘Who am I?’ tiebreaker question was born in 1868… which is often all that Cary needs, if there were not many famous people born that year. I think the next clue might have been “born on the Darling Downs” or something like that. Or maybe “born Arthur Hoey Davis”? Does that name ring a bell?

SH: No, it doesn’t. The only person I can think of is AB Facey, who wrote A Fortunate Life

DP: Well, it’s in that ballpark. It’s Steele Rudd. But that was a wake-up call to me; to compete at this level, you really must know every famous person’s year of birth. Because Cary did! Or he knew enough of them to knock everyone else out of the way on his way through to a win. And although not all Fame Games were people, or started with the year of their birth…. most of them did. So he had an innate advantage. I remember from that point, I started compiling index cards of famous people.

SH: Yep.

DP: Starting with composers and painters, and presidents and kings and queens and Prime Ministers and movie stars and things like that. And this is before I had a computer! I just remember having a big pile of these cards. And then when I did get a computer (about a year later), I started typing in all this information about famous people. I’ve still got the file and I still update it if someone famous dies.

SH: If you’re doing this now, is it as ammunition for future quizzing, or is it just something that interests you?

DP: It’s a bit of both. I think it’s part of always being curious and wanting to know stuff. And it was also a realisation that if they ask me on to subsequent championships… “Well, this seems to be the level I’m at now; I’ve really got to know a lot more than I do.” And the thing is, you just never know what’s ahead of you, whether there will be other opportunities. I just wanted to be prepared. And I’ve got a lot of free time because I’m not working much these days, and it’s something that’s never been a chore for me.

SH: You said you went on your first ‘Champion of champions’ games too soon; not long after your big win. I did exactly the same thing. And I think I was overconfident; I thought “I’m on top of the world, and how hard can it be?” But my opponents were really, really, really good – much better than me. Which is entirely predictable, in hindsight.

DP: And who were some of your opponents?

SH: I had Rob O’Neill, who was a Temptation Grand Champion. And I was also up against Rob ‘The Coach’ Fulton who was the first Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? millionaire.

DP: Okay. He was there as a Millionaire winner?

SH: That’s right. But I only made it through one heat. And then I got knocked out in the second heat. I think I was a bit too big for my boots there; flushed with my recent success, I think. After that, I didn’t go back again. But this takes me back to something you said earlier; you were saying that after your big win, you didn’t necessarily want to be just “The Quiz Guy”…

DP: Yeah. Because one of the things that kept coming up with people I encountered was that they viewed me as The Quiz Guy, which was an understandable perception. But I was only too aware that so much of it is luck, and the fact that you might have won one show is no guarantee of anything, or of any subsequent success. I didn’t really think there’d be that many quiz opportunities… But I thought ‘I’ve got to compartmentalise some time for that avenue’.

One of the things I found quite unenjoyable about my win was the attention I got from people whose attention I didn’t necessarily desire. For instance, there was a woman from an insurance company who really had her claws in me. She was determined that I was going to invest in annuities with her insurance company. And we had, I don’t know how many cups of coffee and she took me back to the head office to meet her managing director or something, and they really wanted me to put that money into annuities. And I was just getting the big hard sell on what I should be doing with that jackpot. The whole thing never felt right to me. And in retrospect, it would have been a really dumb thing to do. I mean, annuities are a sort of pension-age product.

==================================================================

So, if David doesn’t necessarily want to be seen as The Quiz Guy, but people are seeing him as The Quiz Guy anyway, and he’s very good at being The Quiz Guy, and he’s doing all the homework that a Quiz Guy does… where does that leave him?

Find out next week, Dear Reader, in our subsequent exciting instalment!

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 10

“No explanation necessary.” (Photo: supplied.)

After hearing about all the excitement of David’s incredible win ($132,200 in prizes and a cool $244,000 in cash – in 1986!), my next question was an obvious one…

============================

SH: What did you do with your winnings? I can tell you about my experience, and what I got wrong… (It’s actually point #6, right HERE.) How about you?

DP: Well, I gave my long-term girlfriend (who I’d had throughout my 20s) about $5,000. And she bought a secondhand car. She was the only person I gave cash to. My mother was living quite comfortably with her second husband. And I think I gave her some leather goods. I gave my father a telescope.

SH: I got a telescope. Love telescopes!

DP: I wouldn’t have known how to have a discussion with anybody in my family about what would be appropriate to give them, to make them feel good; I wouldn’t have known where to start. You know, I remember my mother saying, “Look I’m just very happy that you’ve won and that this all worked.” She was sort of an unemotional person. But she was also very rational. And she didn’t want anything. I gave her a briefcase and some luggage, and she was very grateful for that. She was just happy to have the story, as much as anything.

My father subsequently moved to Tasmania with his second wife, but she died shortly after they moved there. And at the wake at my father’s house after her funeral, he was showing everyone the magazine cover from Express.

(This one).

SH: “My son! I’m proud of him”?

DP: I’m watching this and thinking ‘this just doesn’t compute’. A friend of mine put me onto an accountant, and he put me on to a stockbroker – a very sensible guy – and I basically left it up to him to decide where to put my money. I ended up buying a lot of debentures, and put money into the stock market, which was the start of my portfolio. I bought a unit in Woollahra the next year. I went on the trip I won, with my girlfriend at the time. That was the first-class trip to India. But we went business-class, so we could go on to England afterwards. We broke up in England, and I went on to Europe and I came home three months later. So, I was very sensible with the money. I wasn’t working, I was just living off interest; interest rates were really high. So, the term deposits were basically funding my living.

“My cash jackpot cheque, back when $244,000 was worth something!” (Photo: supplied.)

SH: You’re in your early 30s at this stage?

DP: Yeah.

SH: Not long after this, you went back to Sale the Century for your first ‘Champion of Champions’ tournament. How soon after your big win was that?

DP: I think it was fairly early; maybe early ‘87. And I shouldn’t have done it. Because I just wasn’t in the frame of mind. I didn’t study enough, and I just didn’t enjoy it.

Australian team at the 1987 ‘Worlds’: L – R Cary Young, me, co-host Alyce Platt, Geoff Saunders, host Tony Barber, David Bock, Virginia Noel.

SH: Why’s that?

DP: The ‘fame’ aspect of being on the show… I was very ambivalent about. I liked some aspects of it, but I often felt very uncomfortable. I’d lose my bearings with people, in terms of not knowing whether people knew me because they knew me or knew me because they’d seen me on TV. And I found that a really creepy phenomenon. I was surprised by how many people knew me from TV.

SH: Yeah, it was a big-rating show.

DP: A big-rating show. And it was like anywhere I went; someone was bound to talk about it. And if they didn’t talk about it, I didn’t know whether they were just not mentioning it to be polite. So, I thought ‘Wow, I can see the value in anonymity’… But it was nice when people would come up and say, “Hey, I saw you on TV!” It was great. I mean, that was terrific. But often people would say hi, and sometimes afterwards I’d find out it was someone I actually knew! (And I was thinking, that they’d just seen me on TV…) I was offending people left, right and centre!

But I still thought of myself not as a ‘quiz person’; I still had ambitions as a writer and I didn’t want to become just totally associated with quizzes.

==================================================================

And yet, David’s subsequent career would prove to have a significantly quiz-centric vibe, starting with several appearances on various Sale of the Century ‘Champion of Champions’ tournaments. This is where he’d be going up against the best of the best, and next week, we chat about all the highs – and lows – of that level of intense competition.

Until then, then!  

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 9

After his amazing Sale of the Century win, David made arrangements to watch his last episode with some friends at a pub in Taylor Square, and it turned into quite the occasion! He had, however, neglected to invite his parents….

==============================================================

SH: They were living in Sydney? They could have gone?

DP: Well, they were divorced. They could have gone, but they just weren’t pub people. And I’d never done anything with them socially. My father at that stage had a second wife who was basically a Polish mail-order bride who I did not get on with. I mean, the big drama in my life with my father – because I was raised by my father – was leaving home. When I left home, my father was shattered. I left home in 1974 when my father returned to Poland, for his first trip back since coming here in 1950. And I did it then because I feared for my life if I tried to leave while he was here, because he had threatened to kill me if I tried to leave home.

SH: Really?

DP: Yeah, bit of backstory: my dad was a single father, raised my two sisters and I from when we were quite young, no mean feat back then. He was loving and a good provider but he had a violent temper and was very controlling. And when he came home in 1974, and found out I wasn’t there, and that I’d dropped out of uni at the same time… well, it was traumatic for him as well as for me. I remember the first time I saw him after this all happened – he just suddenly seemed much older. It was like my leaving home just knocked the stuffing out of him. And he was bitter and angry. He burned everything of mine that was at home. I had lots of books and all my schoolwork, my university work, you know, model aeroplanes. I had this vision of him making a bonfire and just burning everything. It was kind of like, I was gone.

SH: Jeez.

DP: It was all very sad. We had a very troubled relationship. And so, when the show went to air, I went to my father’s place one night to watch an episode, and I went to my mother’s place one night to watch an episode. And I think I told him at that stage that I was going to watch the last episode in a pub with some friends. And that’s all it was; it wasn’t like some big event. And everybody seemed fine about that. But, you know, I was thoughtless with my father. When I went around to his place, I didn’t even take anything to drink. I mean, he wasn’t a drinker, but I should have taken a bottle of champagne. And I didn’t. And then when I got there, his wife had made a banquet! Like a celebratory banquet…

SH: Just for you.

DP: Just for the fact that I was coming to watch the show with them. And it was like, “Oh, f***.” I didn’t realize what impact this was going to have on them. And I learnt later they were really hurt that I hadn’t bought a bottle of champagne. But I just thought I was going over there for chops!

SH: Right.

DP: And then after the win, I was being rung up by radio stations. The morning after my winning show went to air, I was woken by Alan Jones ringing me! (I hardly got a word in, though; it was just Alan Jones going on about how I demonstrated what you could do if you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, blah, blah, blah…)

SH: While we’re on the subject of publicity after your big win… I also found this magazine cover, from a magazine called Express!

SH: You’re the “star of the century,” apparently! Can you talk us through this?

DP: Well, that was a little arts magazine that the wife of some wealthy businessman had poured money into. And they said, “We’d like to do a story on you.” I said, “Fine, great. You know, let’s, let’s do it.” But this was another source of tension; my new girlfriend was really miffed that they wouldn’t put her on the cover with me. She was very attractive, well I thought so. But they chose this model. And she was just some Norwegian woman who was very dour and hardly spoke any English… or at least she didn’t speak any English to me! But once the camera was on, she just suddenly came alive. It was like, wow, she was made to be photographed.

SH: Yeah.

DP: So, the little bits of publicity that I had, like that magazine cover and newspaper articles, all fed back into the idea in my father’s mind that the fame was going to my head.

“First page of an article I wrote for ‘Good Weekend’, shortly after my win.” (Photo: supplied).

“From a ‘Woman’s Day’ article on quiz show winners.” (Photo: supplied).

SH: Right.

DP: He went from being elated for my win to being depressed about it. It was very odd.

==================================================================

There’s no doubt that a big win like this is life-changing; not just for the person who wins it, but for their family, too. It’s a fraught and delicate time, mixing family, money and fame… and David and I explore this in a bit more detail as our discussion continues in next week’s instalment.

Until then, then!