Deal or No Deal?

Saturday, March 18, 2006 by

In a turn of phrase that wouldn’t be out of place tumbling from the lips of its loquacious host, the Saturday night incarnation of this show has turned out to be something of a curate’s egg. What we’ve got is a spectacularly good weekday institution donning embarrassingly ill-chosen robes for a high-profile turn at the weekend, but which, thanks to Noel’s majestic presence, is impossible to discount out of sheer politeness and timidity. In other words, we might have a bad egg, but parts of it, your Reverend Edmonds, and we can’t stress this highly enough, are most excellent.

Since we last looked, Deal or No Deal? has become, if not always the most entertaining, then definitely the most compulsively needling programme on TV. Noel remains the key, of course, but as time has gone on the people playing the game have come to represent far more than simply the banker’s hapless victims. The increasingly acute mix of both quietly dignified and infinitely maddening contestants has meant you now watch the programme out of both respect and revulsion. One day you can’t help but applaud someone’s courage and judgement; the next you’re shouting at the screen for the player to pipe down, grow up or simply lose as much money as they can.

Exuding far more verve and aplomb than when it began, Deal or No Deal? panders to your most shameless and extreme of emotions, but does so with such effortless guile and energetic self-mythologising that even if your wish of financial devastation has come true, you come away feeling mightily pleased with yourself.

As might have been expected, Noel has flourished in these circumstances. For him, it’s a case of any excuse to elevate proceedings from a rudimentary hide-and-seek to “a unique entertainment drama”. When the show fell on his birthday, he wore a suit and was presented with a birthday cake. For the 100th edition he quite rightly sported a velvet jacket, but quite wrongly kissed the contestant on the cheek. It was a woman, but really, there are valid arenas, and there are valid arenas.

Meanwhile his exploitation of the studio has just got better and better. Sometimes he’ll open the programme casually sitting at the podium like he’s busy in his own study. Other times he’ll come over all Cecil B DeMille and start rearranging to entire set by getting people to stand in weird places and calling up relatives from the audience and ordering the contestants around the room. He even let one nip to the loo the other day.

His penchant for hyperbole, however, is less consistently spectacular. Sure, he can roll out a nifty turn of phrase better than most (and flog them to death assuredly too): “PLEASE, keep it low!” “… I think you’ll be there!” “Don’t, whatever you do, touch that power block of five!” “This isn’t just life-enhancing, but life-changing territory!” “You played the dream game!” “It’s the theatre of dreams – and the arena of nightmares!”

But there has been a danger of him outclichéing his own clichés, chiefly when attempting extended riffs on one subject. Most spectacular so far has probably been: “It’s a rollercoaster ride … we’re all on it … the knack is knowing when to get off … and when you’re at the top … holding on tight … who’ll be left?” And while we can all agree it’s “a unique game”, even a “unique entertainment drama”, he’s on somewhat dodgy ground banging on about having a “unique game board” to boot. Surely it’s the same as the ones being used in all the other versions of Deal or No Deal? around the world?

Half the fun is merely intercepting Noel’s verbal volleys, rating them on past form and invariably trying to fathom just where the hell he’s coming from. We’ve had concentrated dabbling in innuendo: “I take it you’ve been banking away all weekend?” “There you go again, whipping it out before I was ready”. We also get the obsession with rules and rituals. “Each of these 22 boxes was chosen at random,” announces Noel at the start of every show, wrongly, because by the time the 22nd contestant gets to “choose” their box there’s only one left to pick from, and hence their selection is far from random.

All of this is small-fry, though, when placed against the show’s penchant for the spectacular. Over Christmas the theme tune was spruced up with sleigh bells. For St Patrick’s Day the boxes were turned green. And for Valentine’s Day, or rather Valentine’s Week, the entire production went dementedly overboard. You could imagine the scene: Noel calling a special meeting with the team, bustling in with a shopping list of ideas he’d thought up in the taxi on the way in: “OK … poems from the banker … double the cash prize for the telephone competition … lots of red cloth … a weekend break in Paris for a player … special music … a red rose on my podium … and everyone in evening dress … another TV first!!!”

Off the back of all this, you’d have expected them to really push the boat out for Saturday nights. And with an extended running time of an hour rather than 45 minutes, there is indeed more space for Noel’s capricious conversation (a good thing) and yet more mythologising about the programme’s short history (ditto). But there’s also more room for backchat from the contestant, and here’s where these peak time weekend efforts have run aground.

Of course, the show has been running on Saturdays for ages, often slipping as far back in the schedule as 6pm. But prior promotion to post-7pm, the format – and, crucially, the pot pourri attitude to picking contestants – prevailed. Now, the temptation to try and make glitter come out of the set is clearly irresistible to Noel, and to this end banter and hyperbole can only do so much. What he longs for, and what so far he’s got, is a “randomly chosen” contestant for the Saturday show that need the barest encouragement to play to the camera and who, from the word go, makes it their business to match Noel point for point in the shamelessness stakes.

Hence we’ve had three Saturday night specials to date, each one graced, or rather cursed, with contestants as unsubtle as they come: rabblerousing extroverts moved to preposterous displays of emotion at the most flimsy, most inconsequential of portents (usually the contents of the very first box) and who go out of their way not to sit down, shut up and play the game.

These loquacious loudmouths, who have something to say about absolutely everything whether it’s relevant or not, make themselves very hard to like. They typify a certain kind of contestant which occasionally crops up on the weekday edition, who not only deal too soon but who have a propensity for using up those few minutes of precious gossip with Noel at the start of each show by blubbing over a sheathe of photos from their family album.

Put your snaps away, people! We want strategy chat and nothing but! Jocular conversation is fine (“I’m going to no deal, Noel!” “I think it’s a bad board, Noel!” “Ooh, where did you buy these mugs, Noel?!”) just as long as it’s about The Game. Tonight’s player, a serial game show regular (always a bad sign), began bawling almost the second he arrived at the podium and continued to screech and whoop right to the end. Noel did his best – “If you do that after every box you’ll be going out in one … can you just phone Bristol infirmary and check they’ve got a bed spare?” But in the end it was to no avail. Things got out of hand, as they have done three Saturdays running, with manufactured schlock triumphing over guttural sentiment.

It’s great to have Noel back on Saturday nights (as he quite properly makes the most of reminding you), but not in a forum where he’s made to look small and inconsequential, or where he’s not completely in control.

Fortunately the weekday editions are still on a roll. We recently had another person “joining Nick in the 1p club” followed the day after by someone winning £1. We’ve had Noel deciding to do an entire show sitting down because the contestant wanted to stand up. And we’ve had one contestant who always dressed very dapper and looked like Captain Peacock, who quickly became our favourite by virtue of his taciturn countenance and consummate apparel. There really aren’t enough Windsor-knotted ties on afternoon telly.

In almost five months on air, Deal or No Deal? has already given away over two million pounds. Has any other daytime show ever handed out so much in such a short space of time? Saying that, it’s equally surprising to see how few contestants have ended up effectively “losing”, be it through stubborn no-dealing or, in yet another of Noel’s lexicographical legations, closing “one deal too soon”. Every time the quarter of a million has come up, the contestants have done just this, usually ending up winning about a 10th of their box.

So while these less than impressive Saturday night endeavours will come and go, their phalanx of shouty contestants soon to be safely confined to memory, the weekday editions will continue to delight and confound, the elusive £250,000 ensuring there is indeed no question except one: how long before all those streamers and balloons you just know Noel has insisted be tied up ready in the studio ceiling, get to be unleashed?


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