The Weakest Link

Filmed Thursday 15th October 2004. Broadcast Tuesday, March 8, 2005

The TV programme, the appearance of the author upon it and its representation of society

The Programme

The Weakest Link is a quiz show produced by the BBC for television. A number of contestants (starting with nine in the first round) are, in turn, asked a succession of questions, correct answers to which result in money being added to the prize pot. Each answer adds increasing amounts to the pot, but incorrect answers lose the amount for the current ‘chain’ of correct answers. Each competitor may, however, ‘bank’ the money, prior to his or her question. Although banking is a no risk strategy, greater amounts of money can, at least theoretically, be obtained more quickly by not banking and answering correctly. The values of questions in a chain are:-

  1. £20
  2. £50
  3. £100
  4. £200
  5. £400
  6. £600
  7. £800
  8. £1000

After each round the contestants vote for one of their fellow contestants to be eliminated. When only two contestants are left, they compete in a head to head quiz to win the total prize money.

The programme has been screened since the year 2000, and provides an alternative to the perhaps patronising approach of other games shows. A deal of strategising is usually required in addition to some General Knowledge. One of the remarkable aspects of the show is the nuance of tactic which very frequently sees stronger players being voted off by alliances of weaker players, thus diminishing the prize money, but focusing it on fewer contestants.

Personal Diary

I had given up hope of being on the programme, as I had had my audition in Leeds two years ago, thought I had done O.K., but never ever heard anything. Since then, my friends, John Marsden and Mike Abbott, had both been auditioned and filmed, the latter winning and the former being screened on Friday 16th October. A few weeks ago (September 2005), however, I got the call, accepted, and travelled down by train and tube to the Sheraton Heathrow hotel. The wine costs £13 a 250 ml bottle!

I was in a bath measured in fathoms when I got the ‘phone call to my room at 15:30 telling me my taxi had arrived. I didn’t pick the ‘phone up, therefore was unaware that I was late when I came across Adrian and Julie in the foyer 15 minutes later, both fellow competitors. I had been advised by John Marsden not to make any deals, but when they recognised four flags on the hotel flyer (including Mexico’s) and after just a little conversation we agreed on what perhaps the most critical aspect of my game plan. It was not long before I had decided that the two were bright enough to offer a pact to, and we shook on a deal whereby if any of us won, we would look after the other two.

At the studios at Pinewood, about five miles from Heathrow airport, the nine competitors were introduced.

Me, 36, (46 really) from sunny Pontefract
1 Me, 36, (46 really)

Linda, 58, from Rustington
2 Linda, 58, from Rustington

Adrian, 42, from Northern Ireland
3 Adrian, 42, from Northern Ireland

Nathalie, 20, at University in Aberystwyth
4 Nathalie, 20, at University in Aberystwyth

Mike, c.49 all the way from Newquay
5 Mike, c.49 all the way from Newquay

Julie, 30 from Glasgow
6 Julie, 30 from Glasgow

Richard, 20 , from Blackpool
7 Richard, 20 , from Blackpool

Debra, 46, from Norfolk
8 Debra, 46, from Norfolk

Matt, c. 24 from Hounslow
9 Matt, c. 24 from Hounslow

I deliberately tried to avoid drawing attention to myself prior to the show being filmed, but with 15 minutes to go I suggested that, at least in the first round, we go to £800 before the first bank and the team (kind of) agreed. We were magnificent; starting with the first alphabetically, Adrian, with twelve correct answers and perfect banks from Linda and Julie, a quick first round with £1000 in the kitty.

I felt desperately sorry for Mike, who was voted out on the strength of asking a question to be repeated (bloody sensible tactic in the situation if you ask me), but he did vote for me to go off for some reason, so on a personal level perhaps it was good for me. I voted for Richard, a horrible thing to do, but he was the youngest male, and I figured out he would get another chance at winning on games shows and I would do what I might to help him.

Start of the show
The Start of The Show

Round two was a minor disaster for the team and the pact in that we couldn’t bank a great deal of money, but even worse in that it was a three way tie involving Julie. Matt stuck by his decision to vote her off, and the pact was down to two. In retrospect it can be seen that Adrian and I should have voted with Linda, whose choice we could see in between us. If we had done that we would have practically ensured our places in the final there and then. This left four on our side of the stage and I hinted to my ‘side’ that there were only three on the opposite side, and were we to be judicious, we could ensure our mutual survival.

Round three, I voted for Debbie, but it was another tie, this time involving Adrian and Matt and my choice Debbie. It fell on me to make the decision and I changed to Matt. Ostensibly this was because I had picked on Debbie once and I was not going to choose Adrian. I also thought that, despite Debbie voting for me, if I showed her magnanimity, she would not vote for me again in the near future.

Round four and Natalie went, round five Richard. We had not been amassing much cash after a great start, and I couldn’t believe it when Linda, next to me, voted for me. I am sure I only got one wrong in the round, but under pressure sometimes you don’t know what is happening.

Down to four and both Adrian & I went for Linda, as did Debbie. It was then I knew we were guaranteed cash, as despite being by far the strongest of my opponents, Debbie had to go. On the surface this seemed like a terrible decision on my part in terms of morality, and an astute one in terms of business, but it was simple:- For that evening I was ‘married’ to Adrian and Julie, for better or for worse, I had shook with them and the deal was unbreakable.

Poor Adrian. From the little I know of the guy, he is easily capable of getting four out of every five questions right, but he went into pass hell. A lot of us have been there and he went there in style. Perhaps the pact was distracting, perhaps he was unlucky with a couple of questions, but the £150 between us in the penultimate round was, I suppose, disappointing. I got one wrong by pre-empting ‘Handel’ for ‘Messiah’, instead of the Stradivarius of the same name, and I was denied (correctly) a late last bank, but I really wish Adrian could have got a couple, not for the money, but just to prove he could. I was gutted for him.

More pressingly, I was well cheesed off, because I knew what would happen next. He would win the last round with some easy questions. I elected to go first, I got the first answer, he stayed in purgatory, I got number two, he failed again, I failed, he failed again and I got my third correct answer to seal it. Whoopee.

It is nice!

It was a fantastic, expenses paid, day out, I met some lovely people, the staff were brilliant and I won, in effect, 40 days off work, but you know I am not that happy about it. Of course it is absolutely fantastic to get a TV victory under my belt, and it should stand me in great stead over the coming years, but I had set my stall out to treat it as an exercise in social science. In this respect the result was superb, because I can voice my opinions about the game and its representing a microcosm of human society without it seeming like sour grapes.

The Weakest Link as a representation of society in general

From Gallileo to Gerard Ratner, many many have discovered that from an individual perspective telling the truth can be disastrous. This may make uncomfortable reading for some, but we must face facts. The game of the Weakest Link and the Game of Life are not about ‘survival of the fittest’. Granted there is meritocracy at some levels, but what is far more important in achieving ‘success’ is luck and politics.

In an ideal situation, all the contestants should have established the meritocracy together. To base decisions upon the way somebody looks, the fact that they asked for a question repeating or that a vote might be some tit for tat revenge is counter productive if the objective is to maximise wealth for the group. Once a hierarchy had been established, it should be agreed to eliminate the contestants from the ‘bottom’ up, whilst guaranteeing that the winner got a proscribed (large) portion of the spoils. Theoretically this should increase the pot to such a degree that everybody could be much happier, without the winner losing any more than (s)he might have won anyway. What is better – for Joe Bloggs to win £1, 230, and give £800 to his two allies and buy drinks for £50, or for Joe Bloggs to win £1,230, give the entire cohort £400 each? Not a difficult dichotomy to resolve. This latter scenario is, however, a ‘no-brainer’, because if Joe Bloggs had walked into the room of nine and suggested such a scheme, he perceives he would have been told to take a hike and set himself up as an arrogant pushy bastard who should be voted off ASAP (As Soon As Possible).

So what are we left with? A situation in which, at least understandable, mostly rational, individual decisions are made which wreak potentially huge disbenefits for the social group. (Let us assume, for the moment, counter to this posit, that the production company are not part of the ‘group’). The Weakest Link is a superb analogy of life in general. Yes, people can do well through diligence, focus, application, strength, intelligence and all those quantifiable attributes of humanity which are considered a boon to society, but in the never ceasing expenditure of energy in the pursuit of marginal advantage, huge societal disbenefits accrue, making the poor poorer yet the rich no more richer. Survival of the fittest my arse.

N.B. On being asked why he voted for me, Mick told me in no uncertain terms that because I had lied on my application (I said I was a 36 year old scuba diver), he was not going to tell me. I heard it said that a few contestants, especially Mick, perceived me as a ‘professional’ quizzer. This was upsetting, in that naturally I do not like to be thought ill of, but vindicated my thoughts that any attempts to coerce a larger group into cooperative behaviour was fraught with risk. (I can also state categorically that I am not a professional quizzer, had never won any prize on television, but had been given £100 by a previous winner of a quiz and won £6000 as part of a team which I organised).

So where might this analogy take us? A perfect democracy should be driven by perfect information and perfect decision making. This is statistically unlikely to occur. We do, however, have the option of striving for excellence. This is not an endorsement of Stalinism, far from it. All those positive efforts and skills of humans outlined above should reap huge rewards. Even luck should benefit some rather than others. It should be understood that net wealth may be increased through the cooperation of the less advantaged as opposed to their coercion. It must also be understood that $1 billion dollars in the bank account of a single person will definitely not, in itself generate as much well being as $1000 in the back pockets of a million refugees in Darfur, Sierra Leone, Palestine or the Niger Delta. (In the latter cases it is highly probable that it will be assimilated into the general economy at a faster, more beneficial rate, by stimulating local markets). In the Weakest Link, as in life, we have a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, where too often the most sensible option for an individual is a selfish decision which somehow diminishes the well being of others. Logically, in the game of life we should strive to emulate the optimal strategy for the Weakest Link.

Weakest Link Life
Establish meritocracy Establish meritocracy
Offer financial reward for ‘altruistic’ sacrifice, i.e. guarantee some cash even for the first out Ensure that nobody is hungry, thirsty, homeless, uneducated, unrecreational, unempowered or uncared for
Reduce the rewards at the upper end of the meritocracy enough to cover the welfare at lower Reduce the rewards at the upper end of the meritocracy enough to cover the welfare at lower.
Vote off defaulters Ensure that any default has a perceived high chance of being detected
Do not pay defaulters Ensure that all costs incurred through such default are sustained by the defaulter
Coincident optimal group strategy for the Weakest Link and Life

It is difficult to envisage how, what is in effect, an advocation of decent social security for all, paid for by the disproportionately high gains of those lucky enough to be at the ‘top’ could be sold to the populous. In a rational democracy within which the vast majority of wealth condenses upwards to a small minority it would be adopted through the logical process. We can observe, however, that even in a small group, such as within ‘The Weakest Link’, rationality and logic are not common currency. It is conceivable that, providing that some more ‘wealth’ is moved from the richest to the poorest, the Pareto curve (which indicates that a given proportion of the population will have a given proportion of the wealth, whatever the cross section, place or time) may move right, indicating net financial and huge social gain for society as a whole and for the vast majority of individuals (including the very rich). Until those weak, selfish, but ultimately ‘successful’ (in the short term) ‘links’ are replaced by strong, altruistic ones, society will continue to haemorrhage wealth. That is not clever

Many Thanks to my fellow competitors and the BBC/Weakest Link Team.

Julie went and got married a few months after her experience, Adrian still lives happily in Ulster and occasionally dreams of being chased by Anne Robinson. Richard runs a chain of Hotels in Las Vegas, Michael runs a surf school in Newquay, Nathalie went to Holywood and after some minor roles in such films as Starsky and Hutch somehow got the ketchup contract for Tarantino's next film. Matt saved the planet from terrorist attack and Debra had to go into hiding after generating a fan club after her TV appearence (Perhaps). I got an interesting phone call three weeks after filming the Weakest Link, and otherwise am still at Sheffield University.


Steve Kidd: Updated: 15 February 2006