Stop the lights!: What Bunny Carr’s ‘Quicksilver’ gave the language

A gift from single-channel land, the quizshow and its catchphrase are part of who we are

Quicksilver: Bunny Carr hosted the quizshow from 1965 to 1981. Photograph courtesy of RTÉ

Quicksilver: Bunny Carr hosted the quizshow from 1965 to 1981. Photograph courtesy of RTÉ

 

Dear boys and girls, you may have heard a person a wee bit older than you utter the phrase “Stop the lights.” We don’t marvel at it, and barely notice it, because in the back of our minds we know it’s part of who we are.

The phrase goes back to the dark ages of single-channel land – for those of us outside the Pale, at least – and a TV quizshow from when we didn’t have many quizshows, innocent days before the sophistication and classiness of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Weakest Link.

“Stop the lights!” was a catchphrase on a wildly popular RTÉ quizshow, Quicksilver, hosted by Bunny Carr, a celebrity of his day, who has died, aged 91. Contestants shouted “Stop the lights!” when they didn’t know the answer, to avoid losing prize money.

Some humdinger answers  have gone into lore. One contestant, asked Hitler’s first name, tried ‘Heil?’ Another, asked who the ayatollah was, said it might be a céilí band

Quicksilver, which was amazingly long-lived – from 1965 to 1981 – was broadcast from a different town each week, with a live audience. The audience had numbered tickets, and competitors were selected by lottery from among them.

I am open to correction on the following detail. (Stop the lights if I get it wrong.) Quicksilver had a chequerboard of lights, six rows of five, and each light represented a question with increasing prize money. The bucks were not big. The top row had more valuable amounts – say, £5 – and the rows below, less: rows of £1, 25p, 10p and so on. (In the early days, predecimalisation, the amounts were in old pennies.) The total possible purse if you got every question right was still not very much (perhaps £85 or so). These were hair-shirt days.

The more quickly you answered the questions the more you could play for. The lights went out one by one: the longer you took to answer a question the more lights went out, and so the more money you lost. Whatever was left on the board after three questions was yours. You could roar (or even just say) “Stop the lights!” if you were flummoxed, to stop proceedings.

Because of the exceedingly easy questions – “How many wheels has a bicycle?” – speed was the thing. Despite the low expectations, there were some humdinger answers that have gone into lore. One contestant, asked Hitler’s first name, tried “Heil?” Another, asked who the ayatollah was, said it might be a céilí band.

Oh, it was the crack, all right.

Quicksilver: Bunny Carr with the quizshow’s organist, Norman Metcalfe. Photograph courtesy of RTÉ
Quicksilver: Bunny Carr with the quizshow’s organist, Norman Metcalfe. Photograph courtesy of RTÉ

Musical accompaniment was from “our musical maestro”, as Bunny introduced the organist Norman Metcalfe, who specialised in musical hints – sometimes heavy, sometimes amusingly convoluted in their lateral thinking.

Bunny Carr did other TV shows – including Going Strong and Teen Talk, for which he won a Jacob’s Award in 1964 – and was a public supporter and fundraiser for the aid organisation Gorta, but it was Quicksilver that made him a star in our small universe.

The show achieved a kind of cult status among a few generations, and “Stop the lights!” entered the idiom. It seems to have moved from meaning “Hang on a minute,” as it did in the show, to “You’re codding,” or a sort of mock amazement. (Actually, it’s not very far removed from that other idiom from an Irish TV show, “Well, holy God!” as Miley would say in Glenroe. The prevalence of such phrases may signify something deep about our sardonic nature, but we won’t worry about such things here.)

On his first day at school one of the nuns took him by the ears, announcing loudly to the other youngsters: ‘Look, children, we have a little bunny rabbit here’

And in the land where Gay Byrne is our most famous broadcaster without so much as a double take about the oddity of his name, why would we think twice about another broadcaster’s being called Bunny? Bunny was really Bernard, and in 1996 he told The Irish Times where “Bunny” came from: When he started school, at the age of five, at the Holy Faith Convent in Clontarf, “On his first day there, one of the nuns took him by the ears, announcing loudly to the other youngsters: ‘Look, children, we have a little bunny rabbit here.’ The adult Carr’s ears look ordinary enough; it is only when he says, with heavy mock irony, ‘Before you say anything, I like to think I have grown into my ears,’ that it seems possible that, yes, perhaps they are not particularly small.”

Thus a name is born of that glorious combination of corporal punishment and small-child shaming.

But Bunny Carr was more of a heavyweight than a soft gameshow or the daft name belies. He became an Irish public-relations pioneer, and 45 years ago founded Carr Communications (it’s still going strong), which changed the game for public relations and media training. Carr Communications was long associated in the public mind with teaching politicians how to not answer questions in interviews. (“Thank you for asking that, but first let me say...”)

In the interests of preserving Irish idiom and remembering where we came from, not to mention the charming and gentle TV host that Bunny Carr was, maybe we should start a campaign to rejuvenate the phrase Stop the lights!

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