Your starter for 10: what, apart from the Late Late Toy Show, is the most-watched programme on Irish television this century? By the metric of average ratings (not the more flattering “peak” numbers), the answer at the time of recording is the first episode of the Irish version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
On October 17th, 2000, the Tuesday night debut of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with an ultra-serious Gay Byrne in the quizmaster seat made famous by ITV's pause-proficient Chris Tarrant lured some 1,276,000 viewers to RTÉ One. Nineteen years later, that is a number to be nostalgic about.
Most of the audience liked what they saw. For the second episode, it was an estimated that an average of 1,137,000 people tuned in. They couldn’t all know someone on it. Indeed, on six occasions that autumn-winter, more than one million viewers tolerated those boring early rounds, putting Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in a ratings league dominated by sport, one-off events and the Love/Hate phenomenon.
I was thinking about this innocent pre-Deal or No Deal golden era on Saturday when, after completing the Booker Prize shortlist, listening to all available podcasts and running a marathon in under two hours, I found myself getting weirdly involved in something called The Wall, which went out in the peak-time post-Strictly slot on BBC One to an, ahem, mixed reception.
The 2019 rule of British television is that anything can be commissioned as long as it is fronted by either Rylan Clark-Neal or Danny Dyer, which to be fair is a great rule. The honour of explaining what the hell is going on in The Wall goes to the latter, who is best known these days for EastEnders and slamming David Cameron for being "in Nice, with his trotters up", but has also acted in several Harold Pinter plays on the West End stage and once appeared in an Oscar-winning short film.
The Wall, in which Dyer aims to break a world record for the number of times he can say “balls” in a single hour, is the kind of TV creation that seems designed purely to put Gogglebox participants in confused hysterics.
Watching along with despairing Twitter users is a decent substitute, though as social media hashtags go, #TheWall can veer perilously from people wondering when Dyer will attempt to "nut" an inanimate game show set (located in Warsaw) to crazed megalomania of the Donald Trump construction project variety.
The Wall – with catchphrases including “drop ‘em”, “nasty red balls” (you didn’t get them on Turnabout) and “the wall gives and the wall takes away” – was either terribly hypnotic or hypnotically terrible. It sort of didn’t matter, really.
After 60 minutes of trying to figure out what kind of sick mind came up with its blend of multiple-choice trivia, arcade-game optics, family dynamics, “luck” and gambling psychodrama, nothing mattered.
The poor souls who felt this was a poor use of their BBC licence fee understandably vented when, after lots of unhelpful shouting and clasping of hands, two sisters from Leeds took home an inaugural prize pot of about £14,000 (€15,900) while their husbands watched on from a special husband platform.
The problem is, the higher the stakes, the more addictive the facepalming when contestants get a question wrong. That’s why Channel 4’s The 100k Drop will never be as watchable as its predecessor, The Million Pound Drop. For publicly funded broadcasters, this is a reputation-alert issue, as the bigger the prize money, the louder the licence-fee groans.
It's not an accident that on RTÉ's longest-running game show, the trivia-free game-of-chance that is Winning Streak, the prizes are funded by the National Lottery.
Back when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was mopping up viewers, RTÉ had a big-spending sponsor in the shape of Jurassic-era mobile brand Eircell, and when that deal expired, the Tyrone Productions-made series was soon booted off air. Even with this clear paymaster on board, the Irish version of Millionaire triggered multiple Letters to the Editor about what the show’s existence meant for RTÉ’s public service remit.
ITV doesn't get this hassle with Tipping Point or The Chase or the more easily ignored current iteration of Millionaire (in which the concept of phoning a friend – for any reason, never mind emergency quiz assistance – has acquired a charmingly quaint flavour). So in the unlikely event that The Wall ever gets its own Irish version, it will simply have to be on Virgin Media One.
I say unlikely event, but it’s already spread everywhere. Since originating on US network NBC in 2016, more than 25 countries have aired international versions of The Wall and about 10 are doing so right now. That it is absurd is absolutely no barrier to short-term success. It’s more logical and less cruel than Brexit and that’s all anyone needs to know.
To beat The Wall, you'll have to find a successor to The Wall. This week, the international television industry is descending upon Cannes for the Mipcom marketplace, where among the mainstream formats distributors are hoping to hawk, there are game shows with titles such as In For a Penny, Can't Touch This, You Should Know and the superbly named Don't.
Look, not everything can be a literary adaptation.