Winning Streak: 1,000 shows, 6,000 guests, €170m won and Marty Whelan’s hair
As ‘Winning Streak’ approaches its 1,000 show, presenters Marty Whelan and Sinead Kennedy talk about the cash-crazy extravaganza
Winning Streak: presenters Marty Whelan and Sinead Kennedy. Photograph: Bryan Meade
The presenters of Winning Streak, one of Europe’s longest-running television gameshows, are meeting contestants in a reception room at RTÉ’s television building.
Marty Whelan is wearing a dark blazer with tan slacks. Sinead Kennedy is wearing a bomber jacket with a picture of Bambi on the back. Her hair is a flounce of curls. Over the course of the morning she and some colleagues liken her do to a poodle, a sheep and Shirley Temple. “Who am I to say anything about anyone’s hair?” says Marty, formerly an advocate for hair restoration.
The guests are here because they mailed in a three-star scratch card and were subsequently drawn from a Perspex tombola on live television. They are set to win a minimum of €12,000 and a potential €500,000, and they seem simultaneously overawed and thrilled by this prospect.
Olexander Pidluzhniy had never seen ‘Winning Streak’ and was recovering from an operation on his nose when he got the phone call. ‘I thought that it was the painkillers’
“You look younger in real life,” 68-year-old Elizabeth O’Brien from Milltown tells Sinead.
“And you look only gorgeous,” she tells Marty.
“She should have gone to Specsavers,” says Marty.
Marty and Sinead go around the room, introducing themselves to this week’s five contestants. Winning Streak has distributed nearly €170 million of National Lottery money to nearly 6,000 players since it started, in 1990, and Marty and Sinead have overseen the process for nine and five years, respectively. Some people think they’re like lucky charms and ask them to rub their scratch cards for them. “I’ve never met any of those people here since,” Sinead says, sadly.
They give the contestants a pep talk. Sinead tells them to remember that the show is all recorded in advance, “so don’t worry about making mistakes and have fun”.
Eimear O’Mahony, the series producer, explains that sometimes they have to cut things, so “if you want to say hello to 20 people, prioritise them”.
Marty says, “You only have to give Sinead 10 per cent of your winnings and 15 per cent to me.”
“Hey, 15 per cent to me, too!” says Sinead. “What about equality?”
Some contestants found out that they are to be on Winning Streak while watching the show the previous week. Elizabeth, a fan of quiz shows, “nearly fell on the floor” when she heard her name being announced. Galway-based trainee welder Olexander Pidluzhniy, in contrast, had never seen Winning Streak and was recovering from an operation on his nose when he got the phone call. “I thought that it was the painkillers,” he says. “I thought I’d lost it.”
“I had to convince him it was really happening,” says Robert Magee from the National Lottery.
Robert talks to everybody at the start of the week, letting them know that they’re on the show if, like Olexander, they weren’t watching television. Then Sinead rings everyone and talks with them for about an hour, assuaging any worries they have. It’s not like reality TV, she says. “None of these people planned to be on television . . . On Saturday night the phone starts hopping and they’re all excited, and then on Sunday they think, Oh, God, I’m going to be on telly.”
Contestants are often fierce worried about “the chat” at the outset of the show. They are often reserved people who worry about being asked about estranged family or the fact they might be unwell or out of work. “People sometimes say, ‘What must you think of me?’ ” says Sinead, who is coincidentally doing a master’s degree in mental-health science. “But I’ve heard it all before. There’s nothing that would surprise me.”
The guests head over to the canteen, past the bulldozers that are ripping up the RTÉ campus (“a metaphor”, says one employee), for an early roast dinner. Twenty-nine-year-old David O’Brien from Youghal was given a lottery ticket by his parents to congratulate him on his new job at a hardware store. He wants to bring the whole family on a holiday. “I couldn’t just keep it for myself,” he says.
He could. “Ah, I couldn’t,” he says, appalled.
Once upon a time people spent their winnings on racehorses and Caribbean cruises. ‘In recent years it’s more about paying off credit-union loans or paying a house deposit’
Denise Cullen is playing on behalf of her siblings. They’re planning to split the winnings five ways, although her sister Noreen Ryan is the name on the ticket, because she’d won a hamper over Christmas and Denise figured she was lucky. Their scratch card was bought on a routine trip to the shop last summer, before spending several months in her husband’s jeep, a handbag, a bread bin and, finally, a fruit bowl. “The day Noreen won the hamper I decided to send it in.”
Two of this week’s contestants are representing other people. As well as Denise there’s Catriona Quigley, a long-time Dunnes Stores employee from Thurles who is playing on behalf of her father, John Ryan. “He was sick during the year. I was nominated. There are five of us, and the other four wouldn’t do it.”
Elizabeth O’Brien, for the record, is adamant that she’d have had someone to fill in for her if she could think of anyone. She hopes to refurbish her home and says, with a laugh, that she is wary of moochers. “A woman in the shop said, ‘You won’t forget me?’ Forget her? I didn’t know her!”
What people are planning to spend their winnings on has changed over the years, says Sinead Kennedy. Once upon a time it was all racehorses and Caribbean cruises. “In recent years it’s more about paying off credit-union loans or paying a deposit on a house. I think we’ve all copped on a lot.”
Not everyone has copped on. “If I even won €20,000 I’d quit my job,” says one noncontestant at dinner.
“I think I’d quit if I won €20,” mutters another, possibly me.
Back at the studio I meet Noel Crowther, from the National Lottery’s security and compliance section. He has two sealed packages. One contains the balls for this week’s Wheel Reveal, the game through which the week’s wheel-spinner is chosen; the other contains the 100 scratch cards, picked from a wider 30,000, from which next week’s contestants will be selected. He guards them as if they’re the nuclear codes, and he opens them and puts them into the relevant machines under observation from some KPMG personnel.
People have crazy conspiracy theories about Winning Streak, says Marty. Like what? “That Dublin people are barred from the show.” He laughs. “Or that we deliberately hold back prizes . . . I started my own conspiracy that there’s a little person at the back of the wheel with a magnet, refusing to let it go further than 20,000.”
The contestants, their make-up on and fancy frocks donned, are led down the corridor to the studio for the rehearsal.
“Now the execution,” says Olexander darkly.
“Ah, sure you can’t rehearse it,” says Denise stoically.
“I want to go home,” says Elizabeth, and she laughs. “Give me the money and let me go.”
Everyone agrees that the Tardis-like set looks a lot smaller than it does on television. Marty and Sinead appear, full of comforting words and bonhomie. They rehearse every game and every word they’re going to say. As this is a game of sheer luck, the main responsibility on the contestants is to look like they’re enjoying themselves. Smiling is crucial.
“Smile,” says Marty. “You’ve won €30,000. If you don’t look happy we’re all finished.”
“Smile,” says Sinead. “It’s not Crimecall. It’s all good.”
The 130-strong audience file in. They’re wielding signs made with cardboard and markers and glitter that say things like ‘In it to win it’ and ‘Spin that wheel!’
They even rehearse the fearful “chat”. “Tell me about your wife,” says Marty to David, pointing to me because I’m seated in the bit of the audience where his wife will sit later. “She’s sporting a fantastic beard.”
The set is all glowing circular panels and tricksy contraptions. During the rehearsal bits of it are rolled around by men in T-shirts. One of them rolls in a TV monitor. “That’s so we can watch the match,” says Marty inaccurately.
They make it feel very relaxed. At one point Sinead leans on Marty nonchalantly, like he’s a wall. At another she instigates a conversation with Denise, who met her husband on a blind date, about the television programme First Dates. Then Marty tells them to imagine the things they might be buying on Monday, and Elizabeth, ever practical, tells him the cheque won’t have cleared by then.
During a later set-changing interlude Marty sits beside me and looks at his cue cards. “How do you pronounce that?” he asks, showing me Olexander’s full name. “He speaks five languages, and I can’t even pronounce his name.”
As soon as the rehearsal is over Marty and Sinead disappear and the 130-strong audience file into the studio. They’re wielding signs made with cardboard and markers and glitter that say things like “In it to win it” and “Spin that wheel!” and “Sonny for the money”. (Catriona’s father goes by the nickname Sonny.)
I speak with Elizabeth’s friends and neighbours Betty and Theresa, who are hoping for a postshow party at some point. Betty watches Winning Streak every week but Theresa does not. Why not? “She’d be out with the boyfriend,” says Betty.
Anne Caffrey is Catriona’s aunt. “Never in 1,000 years would I think any of our family would end up on it,” says Anne. “We never win in draws.”
Eamon Fitzsimons, her nephew, lives in Cavan. “We’re here for any extra money that falls on the floor, so we can bring it home with us,” he says.
“He’s a true Cavan man,” says his mother, May Fitzsimons, with a sigh.
David O’Brien’s family and friends have specially laminated signs, and they seem like the loudest bunch. “We’ve had a bottle of wine each,” says David O’Brien snr, but I think he’s joking.
Behind him Liam McCarthy, the shopkeeper who sold them the scratch card, is holding a huge sign: “Congratulations to our seventh Winning Streak contestant. Seven is the lucky number. Good luck David! MCC News.”
How does he account for selling seven winners? “Sheer luck,” he says. “Or maybe the rarefied air in Youghal.”
I’m ushered to my seat, and the floor manager, Eddie Finlay explains to the audience everything that’s about to happen. Then he says that they need to film some reaction shots of the audience cheering, “to use next week, when the audience isn’t as good looking”. We all cheer and wave signs, and then he says, “We might use some of these on Crimecall as well.”
The radio presenter and warm-up man Shay Byrne arrives and informs the audience that in the gameshow industry family and friends are known as vultures. He gets them to practise their cheering and looks with concern at those not cheering loudly enough. “You’re not from the Revenue, are you?” (For the record, winnings are tax free.)
Marty turns up and announces that he’s thrilled to announce that four of the panellists are sober this week. Eddie is concerned. “It’s gone very quiet, Marty,” he says.
“That’s the impending greed,” says Marty.
The show begins, and you know the drill: the contestants chose numbered squares and press buttons and, ultimately, spin a big wheel to determine what sums they will win. Throughout, despite the results’ being entirely down to chance, the audience yell suggestions. The man in front of me is particularly confident. “Four!” he shouts. “It’s four! It’s four!” It’s not four, but he learns nothing. “Three!” he bellows authoritatively the next time. “Three! It’s three.”
It’s a good day. Everyone wins prizes worth at least €30,000, and ultimately David O’Brien spins the big wheel and goes home with €73,000.
“Remember how we bonded earlier, David?” says Marty.
Two cheques are handed over to each contestant, a small one and a photogenic novelty one. “I might try the big one in the bank,” says David when I ask him which is which.
Then the audience clamour around Marty and Sinead, taking selfies, as crew members begin dismantling the set. Several of the contestants have booked tables at restaurants and pubs, where some plan to watch the show when it airs, a few hours later.
Sinead says she loves presenting Winning Streak. “It’s all about family, really,” she says. “I can be so career focused sometimes, and this show reminds me that family is the real thing.”
As presenters they are not unbiased. Sometimes they end up rooting for people because they know things the audience does not. Marty remembers one young man who was on the verge of leaving college because of financial problems, “and I think he won €130,000. At moments like that you go, ‘Oh my sweet God . . .’ Just a few hours and everyone leaves with a cheque.”