Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone

Okay, it was three weeks ago, but here's my account of my German TV adventure!

Although in some ways planned in advance, the trip to Germany was a last-minute kind of thing - the qualifying contest between Simon and Johannes was filmed on Tuesday night, and it was the vote of the studio audience at that show that decided which three disciplines would go through to the grand final. Since I'd booked Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off work anyway, I would've felt silly going back and explaining that I wasn't on German TV after all. Luckily, though, the memory challenge was spectacular enough to qualify, and I was off to Cologne.

Arriving at Düsseldorf on Thursday morning, I shared a car with the UK's Strongest Man, Eddie Hall, plus his wife and baby son Maximus the Muscle Baby. Well, I just made up the subtitle, but isn't Maximus the best possible name for a strongman to call his son? We were conveyed to Cologne and set up in the Hopper Hotel on the very memorably-named Dagobertstrasse (Donald Duck's Uncle Scrooge is called Uncle Dagobert in German; I have no idea why. But that's the only thing anyone in Germany would ever associate the name with, although the street was presumably named after some mediaeval saint.) And then it was off to the TV studios for our first rehearsal.

The challenge had been trimmed down a little from the original plans - the qualifying contest between Simon and Johannes gave them a maximum three minutes to memorise 50 digits, 100 heads-or-tails coins (that is, binary digits in a clever disguise) and 40 words. The grand final added 32 cards (7 to ace, like in the popular German game Skat) for a great all-round test of memorising. But then they realised that it took way too long to recite all those heads and tails, so the coins were removed from the final. Which is a shame, I was looking forward to that part, and binary is perhaps the only remaining discipline where I've still got the edge over Simon.

Generally speaking, the European masters were separated from the German winners in rehearsals - it was supposed to be a big surprise for them when they saw their opponent on the live show. Since Simon and I know each other quite well, the TV people didn't bother to keep us apart, and let us do the rehearsals together - unlike in the first show, when they sat down and looked at computer screens, this time it would be more visual, with the cards, numbers and words appearing on separate screens that the competitors walked between, with a big red buzzer to press at the end (the first one to finish presses the buzzer to make the screens go blank for both competitors). The studio looked very cool - quite a bit bigger than the ones I've been in at BBC Television Centre in the past.

After a practice run with the speed memory challenge, which was held up by a technical problem or two, we had dinner in the studio canteen and then faced the important decision of what to wear on the show. The Germans got to wear their normal clothes, but the European challengers were dressed up in something a bit more spectacular. The costume woman had already hit on a way to make me look extremely British and colourful - a kilt. I thought she was joking, but she really didn't seem to see anything wrong with that idea - and to be fair, everyone in England has been making comments about lederhosen, which sounds just as absurd to Germans in the Rhineland as a kilt does to English people. Anyway, it was good to have something to say 'no' to - the TV people, spearheaded by the wonderful Uschi, were constantly asking me if their various ideas were okay and whether I was unhappy with anything. For future reference, I'm basically fine with everything in the world, always. Except wearing a kilt on TV.

So they eventually were persuaded to go with the second choice - a suit and tie, bowler hat and umbrella. I looked surprisingly awesome in this get-up! My beard's quite long at the moment, and I looked like some kind of absent-minded professor. I need to dress up like that more often. I would have much preferred the outfit they put Eddie Hall in, though - a studded leather gladiator-style skirt (what is it with the Germans trying to make the English wear skirts?), leather thongs around his wrists, bright red cape and nothing else.

We all dressed up in full costume for the big dress rehearsal on Friday evening, including my big entrance - the giant screen splits in half to reveal me standing on a pedestal and looking awesome, to the accompaniment of dramatic music. In the rehearsal, actually, it looked much better - I looked serious and sinister until the last moment, then smiled just as it cut to the pre-filmed sequence of me going about my everyday life (standing next to the Robin Hood statue in Nottingham, that kind of thing). On the show itself, they stopped the music a beat earlier, so I missed the smile.

I attempted to talk in German with the host, which was made a bit more difficult by having a translator in my ear, five seconds delayed, telling me what he was saying and generally meaning that I couldn't follow either of them. I tend to find it difficult to understand what Germans are saying to me; replying in German is a lot easier for some reason. Hopefully I made some kind of sense. So we did another practice run of the challenge, which worked better this time, although I still wasn't much good at the memorising, and then went out into the pouring rain (it was nice and warm compared to the weather here in England, but rained most of the time I was there) for a meal with Simon and Johannes (who was there as Simon's guest - mine, arriving on Saturday, was Boris, who'd been Simon's guest at the first show but now had to pretend to support the evil foreigner). They attempted to talk in German, but I didn't understand a word, so we switched back to English

Saturday gave me a chance to look around the shops of Cologne (the Friday was a bank holiday in Germany, and they closed down everything, just like they do on Sundays - Germany is a different world) before the big show in the evening. I had to be at the studio two hours before the show started, which was a bit excessive considering the memory part was the second from last and didn't happen until two and a half hours into the show and I'm ready to go with a light coating of makeup - since I was wearing a hat, I didn't even have to have powder plastered on my bald head to stop it reflecting the studio lights and blinding everyone! But the TV people, wonderfully, had set me up with an empty, silent conference room to compose my thoughts in - I even had the choice between that and hanging out in the green room with various other international competitors, so I only went up to the quiet room once the show had started and Boris had joined the audience.

I'd had a talk with the commentator, explaining how my memory techniques work (basically, exactly the same as Simon had already told him), and told him the journey I'd be using today was around Toton, Nottinghamshire. He wrote it down as "Toten", and I'm fairly sure he told the watching German audience that I was picturing myself in the village of the dead.

Despite all the 'mental preparation time', I was strangely nervous about the show - much more than I ever am about a memory championship. You'd think that by now I'd be used to never doing any good on TV shows, but obviously not. Since I'd gone too quickly with the numbers in rehearsals, in an attempt to catch up with the speed Simon was going at, I made a point of going more slowly and carefully this time. But then we had to re-start, because Simon had the same numbers as he'd had in the first programme, which was a little bit disorienting. German mind-games. So I quickly racked my brain for a journey that I hadn't used in practice too recently, settled on the Queensgate Centre in Peterborough, and started again.

Simon hit the buzzer while I was still half-way through my second reading of the words (we'd both decided to go through each list twice, rather than risking a single sighting), so I wasn't clear on a lot of them. But more importantly, I couldn't for the life of me remember what the first pair of cards was. So, having won the coin toss, I made Simon go first, in an attempt to give myself some more thinking time and remember it. Didn't work. And in any case, Simon was so perfect in his recall of everything that he would have won whatever I did.

So while the winners sat with their trophies in big gold armchairs, awaiting the viewer phone vote as to which performance was the most spectacular (it was the running-up-a-wall-and-backflipping-over-a-high-jump-bar, which admittedly looked a bit cooler than the memory show), I got to watch the last of the show in a room with the other losers. And a very fun experience it was for everyone, too! It's just a shame they didn't let me keep the bowler hat...


Anonymous said...


sounds like you had some fun at least. I was wondering, was it very hard to do the cards in german? For me it seems super complicated, to memorize and think in a foreign language at the same time.

The outfit was great!



Zoomy said...

It wasn't really any harder to do it in German, I only had to learn seventeen different words. Even my awful standard of spoken German can cope with that!