Here is your starter for 10. What is the least intellectually demanding profession in the United Kingdom? Is it a) traffic warden; b) lap dancer; or c) Labour Party spin doctor? The answer is none of the above. Judging from a special episode of The Weakest Link that’s due to be broadcast this evening, the answer is “writer”. The programme was recorded earlier this month when nine writers were invited to appear on the show in the hope of raising some money for charity. I was asked because I’ve just published a book called How To Lose Friends & Alienate People about the five years I spent trying—and failing—to take Manhattan. Things got off to a rocky start during a dummy round in the Green Room. The producer thought it would be a good idea to warm us up—and she wasn’t wrong. The first question went to Andrew Morton, author of Diana: Her True Story. “What playwright is famous for his pregnant pauses?” asked the producer. “Crikey,” said Morton, scratching his head. He evidently hadn’t expected the questions to be that hard. “Shakespeare?” The producer stared at him in open-mouthed disbelief: Had he really never heard of Harold Pinter? Apparently not. She’d have to ask something a lot easier than that if she was going to build up our confidence before facing the hot studio lights. The next question went to Jilly Cooper. “What do Chamomile and Darjeeling have in common?” “Gosh, that’s a tough one,” said the author of Rivals and Polo. “Is it that they’re both sorts of skin cream?” Clearly, Anne Robinson was going to have a field day.
When we did finally venture out into the studio another problem quickly emerged: Some of the contestants had never watched The Weakest Link. Sue MacGregor, for instance, the distinguished BBC broadcaster and author of Woman of Today, had enormous difficulty mastering the basic mechanics of the game. We had to stop and start again three times after the first round because she kept nominating the person she thought was the weakest link when it wasn’t her turn. Facing down Prime Ministers was all in a day’s work for MacGregor, but this elementary BBC quiz show was completely beyond her. Every time one of the players nominated her, she’d call out somebody’s name, apparently under the impression that as soon as someone said “Sue” it was her turn to speak up. When it came to answering the questions, though, the Today presenter (who retired from that role this morning after 18 years in the job) proved to be a veritable mastermind compared to some of the writers on the programme. Take Patrick Neate, the winner of the 2001 Whitbread First Novel Award for Twelve Bar Blues. He couldn’t identify the transitive verb in a simple English sentence, failed to name the author of The Crucible, and couldn’t for the life of him think of the Salman Rushdie novel that resulted in a fatwa being issued against the author.
Anne Robinson got medieval on his ass, as the Americans might say about a vicious putdown. To be fair, Neate was probably suffering from the television equivalent of stage fright. Before appearing on the programme, all the contestants had been asked to sign a form stating that they were “fit and well” and “capable of fulfilling the role” they were contracting for. (We were each paid £2,000, and none of us, as far as I know, gave that to charity.) According to the producer, this was for “insurance purposes”, but I had no idea what she meant until Anne Robinson turned her attention towards me. Suddenly, it all became horribly clear. For a few awful seconds I thought I was going to have a heart attack. “Okay, baldy,” she said. “What special form of handwriting was devised by Isaac Pittman in 1837?” As any fool knows, the answer to that question is “Pittman’s Shorthand”. But in the glare of Robinson’s headlights I became a paralysed deer. “Er, calligraphy?” Doh!
This wasn’t the only time I made an idiot of myself. By far the most difficult questions were the ones Robinson lobbed at us between rounds. “So, baldy,” she said, lining me up in her sites. “How big was your advance?” “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” I quipped. “I ASK THE QUESTIONS,” she thundered. “S … sorry,” I stammered. “Repartee isn’t my strong suit.” “We can see that,” she shot back. I won’t reveal who won—the producer made us swear we wouldn’t—but I can tell you how much money we donated to charity over the course of the evening: £7,700. To give you some idea of how bad that is, had we answered all the questions correctly, we could have raised £50,000. It was the lowest amount ever recorded on a Weakest Link special. This wouldn’t be so humiliating if the previous contestants in these episodes had been astrophysicists or rocket scientists, but I’m ashamed to say they’ve all been D-list celebrities. Writers, it turns out, are far more intellectually challenged than soap stars. It’s official. We are the weakest link.