If we get the politicians – and indeed the quiz shows – we deserve, what do TV quizzes tell us about our times? That change is coming and the end of the format is nigh, according to quiz master general, Richard Osman.
The Pointless co-host, 49, who was raised in West Sussex by a “strong and inspirational” single mother alongside his brother (Suede bassist Mat Osman), immersed himself in television from an early age. Following his graduation from Cambridge University, and much to his mother’s disappointment, there was no question over his career plans: he wanted to move into television.
Having spent his thirties helping to create some of the world’s most popular quiz shows – Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, Big Brother and The Million Pound Drop – Osman became a co-host in 2009 on Pointless. The BBC show asks contestants to provide answers to general knowledge questions that few others would think of. Hosted by Alexander Armstrong, with Osman as wing-man and chief fact-checker, the absurd but accessible programme has become a mainstay of British teatime television, especially during lockdown.
Eleven years after Pointless’ launch, its popularity endures: it is the most-watched quiz show on the BBC. But its fact-master is on the move again. As he approaches his 50th birthday in November, Osman is pursuing the biggest prize in publishing – a number one best-seller. His evolution from producer to host, and now author, forms part of a carefully crafted career trajectory that is centred on the power of language. “Everything is words,” he said when we spoke. “For me, there is an absolute continuum between all of the jobs I’ve done. You have to do things authentically. I want to be writing novels for the next ten years so it was important to get it right. And I want as many people to read my writing as possible, because I’m really proud of it.”
Osman’s debut novel, The Thursday Murder Club, is published today (3 September) – the so-called Super Thursday when 600 new titles will be released in advance of Christmas. The novel was subject to a record-breaking, ten-way, seven-figure bidding war and the film rights have been acquired by Steven Spielberg.
The Thursday Murder Club ostensibly offers readers a cosy crime novel centred on four geriatric protagonists in an upmarket residential home. But in Osman’s hands, the safe and familiar tropes of golden-age crime fiction are cleverly mobilised as the means by which to grapple with some of the most pressing contemporary concerns facing British society, from ageing and gentrification to the pervasive role of technology in our lives. Like Osman himself, The Thursday Murder Club uses a disarmingly friendly facade to disguise a steely, intelligent heart.
As a celebrity synonymous with popular culture and the middle ground, Osman was drawn to the proven commercial success of crime fiction and its capacity to offer new ways of understanding society. In common with quiz shows, crime fiction can teach us much about the times in which we live. “Pointless is popular because it responds to the last decade of British history. It wasn’t designed as that, but when shows hit, it’s for a reason. Pointless is successful because it goes against what we are told about the times we are living in, that they are times of extremes, because most of Britain is not like that at all. Most of Britain is like the contestants you see on Pointless.”
During lockdown, Pointless rose to new prominence because it was broadcast before the government’s daily 5pm coronavirus press conferences and the early evening news. Osman commented at the time that viewing figures for the show varied according to which politician was giving the briefing each day. “Some people spend their whole lives in lockdown, and a daily routine is incredibly important. Quiz shows are an important part of that. Loneliness is a form of lockdown. People love the interactivity of Pointless – they always say to me ‘oh we love it when you say, did you get that one at home?’ as if that’s an affectation, and it’s not. The whole way through every show I do I’m thinking about the audience at home because I want people to feel entertained and involved and happy. It’s a different kind of showmanship. I value success in the mainstream enormously.”
Yet the future of the TV quiz show has never looked less certain in a post-pandemic world of declining real-time viewing and ubiquitous subscription services such as Netflix. As Pointless begins recording its 24th season in November (minus a studio audience to comply with social distancing), does Osman have the desire to kill off a national institution and continued ratings success?
“I host Pointless with Alexander Armstrong, so it’s like a big relationship decision. If we do leave Pointless in the future then you could replace us, but you’d have to be careful. Gavin Williamson would be a bad host of Pointless. But I guess you never know? Imagine 20 years ago saying, ‘I’ll tell you what the British public are going to love: a series where we put Michael Portillo on a train around the world.’ But like the heart knows what it wants, the public know what they like. And sometimes that’s Michael Portillo. The daytime TV audience is the most discerning audience because they are watching these shows every single day, and if they don’t like something they will just turn over and watch something else.’
The respect Osman holds for daytime television, and popular culture more generally, underpins all his creative endeavours. He continues to work as creative director at the production company Endemol Shine UK, “blue sky thinking” the next quiz show concept, as he puts it. But he fears the format has run its course on terrestrial television. “Entertainment TV will soon be gone forever, because the internet just does it better. It doesn’t do drama, or comedy, or long-form documentary better, but it does do entertainment better. People will always love quizzes, but in ten years’ time the stats suggest that TV quiz shows will be gone. Pointless could be one of the last quiz shows.”
This data-driven quantitative approach to facts and figures underpins Osman’s approach to popular culture. “The two exams that I use every single day of my life are A-level sociology and O-level statistics. Between those two things, that’s the filter through which I see everything. I absolutely love a poll. That’s why I love American politics and elections. That thing now of not trusting pollsters, it’s just mad. It might generate a truth you don’t want to hear, or that you struggle to interpret, but it’s as close to the truth as we are going to get.”
For a man with skills in stats and a proven understanding of what motivates people, could Osman’s next move be to parliament? “I am very happy to be small-p political. I think I would be a good adviser to a politician,” he replied. “But if someone wants to put me in the Lords as a crossbencher, I would do that in a heartbeat. Consider this a ‘come and get me plea’ to the Lords, like footballers make in the transfer window.”