Daniel Stour on The Weakest Link

First published March 2001

Part of the appeal of the television quiz show is that identification between viewer and viewed can be achieved with so little effort. The viewer is immediately in a position of inwardly answering for the person on the screen (even if that answer is wrong or “pass”), and so the experience is instantly projected, and just as easily disposed of afterwards. The overt motivation of participants is financial reward, and in this sense the projection is a simple one of individual success or failure; the story of Mr X winning a fortune on television is an ongoing narrative of wish-fulfilment, with discussions among the audience of whether they would have won, how they would spend the money, etc. It is the same mechanism by which the National Lottery, effectively the country’s biggest (and, for many of its contestants, most expensive) game show operates.

Game shows are endlessly produced on the television production line, made on low budgets and with constant repetition of the same components. To maintain commercial viability, the public’s attention must be attracted by some quirk, and programmes aspire to a momentary resonance. The actual rules of the game, as well as the outcome of winning or losing, become crucial to the process of identification. It is freely acknowledged that most television “phenomena” rely on an illusion hyped by the medium itself, a constructed and marketed image. The Weakest Link absolutely fits this description; it attempts to capture an audience by playing to aspirations of “cleverness” and a more recent fondness for irony. This is being pushed to the extent that a computerised parody of the show’s host anchored BBC2′s nascent Monday Comedy Night in February 2001; programmes wholly unrelated to it. The overall strategy of The Weakest Link aims to reassure the viewer who might otherwise feel ashamed of indulging in the show (rather than some more highbrow choice of leisure) by giving an escape to higher ground – “it’s OK,” the human image winks, “I know you know – we’re both in on the joke.” Such presentation flatters the taste of the consumer and conceals the true content or function of the product; in the case of quiz shows, and The Weakest Link in particular, scratching the apparently dull surface reveals some interesting material.

Because of the rather derivative nature of The Weakest Link its underlying themes can best be approached via its context and some of its obvious influences. A useful historical starting point is Mastermind. The appeal of Mastermind centred upon the emblem of the black chair, fetishized to the point where this object became the star of the show. The programme was trailed by a shot of the empty chair, as if daring the viewer to embark upon a projective phantasy at the appointed time. The chair could be said to represent a lifetime’s neurosis; the school examination, job interview, dentist’s/surgeon’s/psychiatrist’s chair, whatever positions of interrogation and anxiety the viewer cared (not) to imagine. This led irresistibly back to the original seat in which human performance was measured, and in which the infant tried to please the parent by producing the right answers; Mastermind, with its mechanical deposition of facts, its storing up and releasing of knowledge for the approval of an authority figure, was toilet training for adults. The infantile basis of the show was given the alibi of maturity by way of “knowledge”, obtainable only by the most intelligent (if anal retentive) adult. This sublimation of desires or objects into “general knowledge” can be generalised to all quiz shows; they throw a veil of civilisation over the primitive, they are ciphers which allow the underlying regressive drama to be played out in safety.

Something of the style of Mastermind lives on in Who Wants to be a Millionaire, repeating the fetishistic symbol of the chair, and with each contestant extracted from a line of colleagues to take the seat in exactly the same way. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two which could be seen to signify a broader cultural shift. This is a move away from knowledge as indicator of intellectual status and towards knowledge as currency. The knowledge encapsulated in the quiz show question is de-intellectualised and turned into collateral, recognisable only in so far as what it can buy. In Millionaire knowledge can buy freedom, as the suburban gladiator hacks his/her way through successive barriers in quest of the ultimate prize. Knowledge is something to be overcome, rather than understood. In this way knowledge is used almost subliminally, divested of meaning except as a means of economic exchange. Of course this has always been the case to some extent; however, in terms of the most prominent game shows acting as cultural signifiers, the move from the myth of Mastermind to that of Millionaire represents a fundamental change that reaches beyond the immediate boundaries of the genre.

Mastermind, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and the National Lottery all depend for their popularity upon denying an essential consequence of the game show; that is, in order to have a winner, there must also be losers. These are dramas of individual heroism, in which other characters either dissolve completely, or politely signal the triumph of the individual. The genre takes a different turn if this is reversed, and the negative element is emphasised. The appearance of Fifteen to One heralded the arrival of this form; its brutal minimalism instilling at first shock, and then trance-like acceptance. William G Stewart, an emissary from “1984″ with blank suit, light-reflecting spectacles and hypnotic monotone, presides over the administrative sadism of a regime driven to eradicate all emotion, heavily repressing something potentially powerful below the surface. The group of Fifteen to One have not admitted their desires to one another. A slight tightening of the bonds was all that was required to loosen the inhibitions, and make them ready to revel in their humiliations.

The blatant drive to create a “phenomenon” out of The Weakest Link is consistent with its overall philosophy. Every aspect of the show is concerned with domination and submission. This is immediately demonstrated by the bondage imagery of its title. There is also the issue of its ubiquity; at the start of 2001 the programme takes up four and a half hours of screen time a week, in two time slots on two different channels. The coverage is designed specifically to catch the audiences of its two main predecessors/competitors; Millionaire and Fifteen to One broadcast three and two and a half hours a week each. Another striking feature is its shamelessly derivative format, by which it aims to hijack viewers from these other programmes. The structure is taken directly from Fifteen to One, the “nominating” process from Big Brother and the presentation imitates Millionaire in sound, lighting and camerawork.

Knowledge submits to the constraint of time; the suffocation of intelligence by discipline. “I’ve started so I’ll finish” becomes “I cannot complete the question”. The outwardly promoted fixation with power is an aestheticised model of the programme’s underlying concerns. The basic theme has to be enacted at every level, indeed overplayed, in order to attract the necessary attention for the programme to survive. The show therefore promises a sort of camp drama, the course of which the viewer is invited to follow. It’s a product of depersonalised, back-stabbing workplaces, of the breakdown of trust in professions, of the financial sponsorship of education, of the technological conduct of relationships. The impression is one of artificiality: simulated co-operation, knowledge, communication.

It is impossible to escape the sexual implications of this relentless imagery. The show advances a form of socially sanctioned sadomasochism borne out of the displaced desires of an economised, virtualized society. The recalling of the show’s catchphrase in that most adult of nurseries, the House of Commons, demonstrates its proximity to the regressive imagination; the show could have been devised in an upstairs room in Soho as a way of satisfying a group of politicians and business executives, hitting upon the same impulse that might lead a grown adult to dress in baby clothes, or request to be tied up or enslaved. Just as sexual gratification then becomes removed from the sexual act, the role of game show contestant or viewer is removed from the object of winning the game.

The wilful submission to authority suggests arousal by humiliation (of both self and others). Anne Robinson herself has been totally fetishized; the focus of childish dread that once lingered upon that empty black Mastermind chair, now finds expression in the human object. Her image, separated from the pretence of journalism, now openly celebrates the persecutory phantasy inherent in its construction. As with its smearing of the schedules and blunt appropriation of styles, The Weakest Link celebrates ugliness; Robinson is a deliberately hideous caricature, the maniacal schoolmistress figure swivelling before her class, firing questions and admonishments. The image is designed to invoke adolescent sniggering, rekindling the revenge fantasies of overgrown pupils, whose motivations for confronting the teacher have since been made ambivalent by experience.

The ritual of dismissal and the “walk of shame” of the expelled contestants at first recalls the naughty child being sent out of class; however, a true interpretation of the process goes back further and uncovers a kind of castration; the ridiculing of professions and qualifications is a prominent device, as if these supposedly virile attachments are discovered to be useless (“the weakest link”) and snapped off in disgust – “You’re an English teacher are you? Never heard of Charles Dickens then?” This unconsciously phallocentric mechanism applies equally to male and female participants. The individual’s speech to the screen afterwards is an opportunity to display the wound, to revel in the act performed upon them. The frequent looks of glazed satisfaction betray the true nature of this exhibition; it is a self-inflicted humiliation, wished for and instigated by the victim.

The contestants have the alibi of seeking monetary reward – although most of them “leave with nothing” (the metaphorical penis having been removed) – but what is the motivation for the viewer? Perhaps to gawp at the headmistress, and to despise those she reprimands; to partake in a vicarious ritual of subjugation, magically relieving others, and finally the self, of the burden of real life, that troublesome appendage with its capacity for responsibility and risk.