Deal Or No Deal?

Monday, November 7, 2005 by

Who’s the best when it comes to handling a telephone on television? There aren’t many contenders. Hardly anybody uses one to chat with the viewing public anymore. Our voices boom from an unseen speaker or earpiece direct to the presenter, conveniently leaving them to stare groggily down the lens while their hands crease a piece of paper or fiddle with a tissue for want of anything better to do.

The practice of manipulating a handset in front of a pitiless camera and an equally unforgiving audience who didn’t tune in just to see someone yakking on a phone has tested the mettle of countless small screen professionals down the years. But only one man in the whole of television history has ever been able to craft an entire career out of such an otherwise mundane activity. And only one man could turn that activity into the lynchpin for not just a brand-new, consummately enjoyable daytime game show, but the foundation for nothing less than an all-out TV comeback.

Why does Deal or No Deal?, a quiz that by its own admission doesn’t have any real questions, nor one that requires any general knowledge whatsoever, and concerns itself with little more than a solitary contestant sitting in a high wooden chair calling out random numbers between 1 and 22, work so amazingly well? In part precisely because of that ultra-simple, instantly understandable format, already a hit around the world. But a lot is to do with its host, the one man who has been able, throughout his career, to take the simplest and most instantly understandable of things – including talking on a telephone – and from them fashion gripping TV: Noel Edmonds.

As with the man’s very act of returning to television after a too-long absence, a great deal of Deal or No Deal? involves a demonstration of immaculate timing. Presumably it comes instinctively to Noel after all these years, but it’s still rare to see such a skill trotted out with such casual aplomb in such a febrile environment. Looking back there’d always been an element of mastering the moment with Noel, of knowing when to essay that crucial phrase or word or when to shut up. But it was usually within a context loaded with so much paraphernalia jockeying for our attention that what was actually reticence more often than not ended up coming over as selfishness. Here, with only himself centre stage, finally we’re seeing the connoisseur of the barbed remark and the pregnant pause in his element.

And it is, quite simply, a joy to watch. It’s been a fair wait, but Noel and a format have finally come together in a way that allows both room to breathe. One isn’t constantly threatening to overwhelm or upset the other, and where Noel’s concerned that’s of vital importance. How many times down the decades have decent formats buckled under the weight of Noel’s demands to involve himself with that oh-so-fussy extra little bit of business? How many instances has Noel quite clearly struggled to be free of detritus washed up from too many re-treads of too many rehashed gimmicks and gunge tanks?

None of that applies here. It’s a proper dynamic between presenter and programme, with neither presuming to come close to permanently getting the upper hand. If proceedings look like simmering down, Noel lobs in a patented amiable ad-lib (“What’s that? You think you’re ’1% lucky’? Oh, I’d love to come into your world Dilys!”) or strikes another anguished pose, head to one side, fingers on chin, pensively staring. Conversely if Noel threatens to drift off into a reverie of babble, the phone goes and “the banker”, the show’s one gesture to the archly theatrical, cuts him dead.

Either way this programme has more periods of silence than any other quiz show currently on TV. Given such a wafer-thin premise, you could argue this is inevitable and a churlish decision on the part of the programme-makers: we haven’t switched on to watch a load of people staring at each other in mute amazement. On the other hand, and from a far more convincing point of view, it’s the silence that keeps you tuned in. It creates a vacuum that gut impulse orders you to fill, be it with chatter or gasps or murmurs or debate – anything by way of a response, to become part of the game, and to indulge in some unashamed “what would you do?” chicanery.

This reaches a tingling crescendo whenever the banker rings up and Noel listens, usually in complete silence, to the words the unnamed financier wishes to relay. Noel’s in heaven during these sequences. He knows he’s back doing what he can do best: reactive TV, conjuring up heart-stopping moments from thin air via a expertly-judged gesture, an impeccably-executed grimace or a self-indulgent burst of the giggles. The contestant looks on, agog. So do we. Is Noel making it all up? Is there a real person on the other end of the line? If not, just who is the mystery mercantile, so prone to derisory opening bids, cool calculation and provocative budgeting? “The banker would like to offer you a sum of money …” Noel resumes after replacing the handset and unleashing another agonizing pause “… after the break!” The swine!

Of course the show isn’t flawless. The set looks shoddy (too much wood panelling – did Noel specifically state he wanted nothing hi-tech or shiny?), the title music is awful, the studio audience too small and there’s the ubiquitous and woeful “interactive” element clumsily shoehorned into proceedings. Each edition is also predicated upon the contestant not cutting a deal with the banker to take the money and run, and instead choosing to play on, gambling on the likelihood of their own particular treasure chest containing a high sum rather than a penny. It’s pretty obvious, therefore, that the banker’s first and second offer will always be rejected. Nobody will “deal” straight away and the chance of landing a big prize will always be sustained beyond at least the first commercial break.

But even so, all of this cannot detract from the majesty of the show’s conception nor the wit and wisdom of its front man. It may trade in the motifs of other programmes similarly heavy on ponderous agitation and individual vexation (The Weakest Link, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?), but easily outclasses all contenders by virtue of a cutting back on histrionics and a majoring on fluidity. And it’s not just the contestants with whom Noel sparks and reacts – it’s his very environment. As he paces the floor, circling the players and orchestrating the entire circus, we’re a whole blessed world away from Anne Robinson perched behind her lectern of Chris Tarrant lolling in his upholstered leather console.

“I’ve waited a long time to get into this chair,” today’s contender insisted as she rejected another offer from the never-seen, never-heard banker, relayed with all-conquering poise by her host and confidante. We’ve all endured a similarly lengthy wait to see Noel back where he belongs. We can only hope that Deal or No Deal? ensures he hangs around to rustle many more such accomplished rounds of quizzing, besides just as many supreme reminders of the right way to deploy a telephone for light entertainment.


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