“Oh, things aren’t what they used to be”, my Grandmother used to say, chastising me for spending endless hours in front of a computer screen, playing the Playstation or watching episode after episode of Dragonball Z or Sonic the Hedgehog or whatever other visual sedatives I used to consume daily. At the age of 10 (and still, at age 23), I was not what you’d consider “outdoorsy”. I would generally mumble something back to her - something typically moody - about the fact that where she would have been outside playing hopscotch or tiddlywinks in black and white somewhere in the mid-1930s, I am able to ride the wave of modernity, killing bad guys, blowing things up and racing hedgehogs in the glorious technicolour of 1999; And all without even putting on my trousers.
Fast-forward to Christmas 2012. I am home for the holidays and bored out of my skull, reverting back to my childhood self and spending hours glued to the television. Amongst the 3 million or so channels, something deep within has compelled me to settle on a re-run of “Goldenballs”, an absolute bullshit-fest of the highest order, presented by the one-time paragon of virtue, Jasper Carrott. If you’re not familiar with the game it involves four people choosing – surprisingly - GOLDEN BALLS of various monetary values, then shamelessly lying to each other about which ones they possess in order to remain in the game until the final stage. The worst liars are generally weeded out and banished to gameshow obscurity, until the two most cunning bullshitters remain. It is then up to these final two to decide whether to “Split” or “Steal” their cash. If both choose to split, they both share the spoils. If they both steal, they - quite rightly - get nothing. If one splits and one steals, the stealer or “chief bullshitter” then gets every last penny. It was at this stage I had tuned in. There was £100,000 up for grabs. Big money. Cue the tense music.
One of the two contestants was a fairly likeable Northern man, a taxi driver who repeatedly insisted he would share the money, staring deep into the eyes of his opposite, who at this stage is also repeatedly affirming her general integrity and desire to share the money. The man almost has tears in his eyes as he explains how life-changing it would be for him to win £50,000 and the woman gently takes his hand, a doe-eyed, sincere expression on her face, re-assuring him that she could not possibly live with herself if she stole the money. How lovely, you think. You are gently uplifted, your spirits rising. You begin to imagine how you would definitely split the money in the same situation as by this point you whole-heartedly believe in the general good-naturedness of all mankind. The world truly is a magical place.
Then she steals.
Jasper stands open-mouthed. There are gasps amongst the audience as Steve the taxi driver lowers his head and gently begins to sob, his Golden “Share” Ball rolling slowly out of his hands and across the table. Within a space of 5 seconds he has endured a mental free-fall, from imagining a mortgage-less house and a trip to Disneyland with his wife and 2 young children, to the stark reality of going home with absolutely nothing. Roll credits.
This was a surprisingly profound experience for me, which I’m sure is a rarity amongst viewers of Challenge TV. What happened to the f*&^%ng consolation prizes? I think it’s generally indicative of the decline of modern society that we’ve gone from “It’s been lovely to have you on Steve and we hope you’ve enjoyed it too, here’s an engraved paperweight!” to “Sorry Steve you go home with nothing, not even a tissue for your tears”. How long is it before a “Steve” snaps and tracks down the deceitful Jezebel who modern society has just rewarded with £100,000 after the show? I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to endure such an experience without becoming hell-bent on revenge.
Everywhere you look now, in a modern trend popularised by the (now relatively tame) suspense of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, game shows are mentally torturing people up and down the country, shamelessly whipping away the carrot right at the last minute, only to smash their dreams into little pieces with the giant stick of failure. The fact that this stick is often wielded by presenters such as Noel Edmunds and Davina McCall makes it ten times worse. The Million Pound Drop even lets them see the money literally falling away in front of their eyes, as if the horror show in their own mind’s eye wasn’t crippling enough. Soon we’ll be seeing computer-generated visuals of a new house, a Porsche and a Caribbean beach literally melting into dust playing on an in-studio screen as Jean - a 56 year-old Checkout Assistant from Dundee - looks on. What happened to the signed photo of Ted Rogers and ceramic dusty bin (“And you know how much they’re worth!”) of 3-2-1? Or the Strike It Lucky board game? Or even the crème-de-la-crème of gameshows, Catchphrase, where the loser still got to take home whatever money they’d accumulated? Nowadays, at the end of the show, most contestants spend the time where they should be shaking hands with Les Dennis as he hands them an engraved clock desperately trying to retain their dignity on screen as the credits roll and the audience howls with delight at the emotional car crash they’ve just witnessed. At this rate we’re only a few years away from the Big Brother contestants hearing nothing but the sound of a single gunshot after the eviction of each housemate. Oh, things aren’t what they used to be.