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The Big Question

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Ace, New York, 1960
(price: 35c; 224 pages)

The blurb on the back:

Peter Roland was just the man the quiz program needed. He was a nice-looking average Joe, with enough on the ball to know most of the answers - and the smart boys on the inside could take care of the rest for him...
But there were things about Peter's past they didn't know until it was too late - and by that time he was the idol of twenty million TV screens.
A tensely exciting novel of what happened behind the scenes of a big-money quiz program.

opening lines:
It was a sweltering New York July day on Madison Avenue, with the temperature nearing ninety and the humidity bordering on rain. Inside the shiny unpainted metal walls of the skyscraper it was cool by comparison and pleasantly dry.

Back in the 1950s the university professor Charles Van Doren appeared on the US TV quiz programme Twenty-One, and promptly became a national celebrity, winning the hearts of all decent Americans as he set new records for winning money. It wasn't until it became known that the entire show was corrupt - winning contestants were being fed the answers - that he disappeared, sinking in a sea of scandal. He only re-emerged in 1994 in the guise of Ralph Fiennes in the very fine movie Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford.

By no coincidence whatsoever, this novel starts with a university professor as the biggest ever winner on a TV quiz show Treble-or-Tremble. Then the show's producer discovers that the man 'was rumoured to have once belonged to some Communist front organization', so he gets the bullet and our boy - the narrator of the book - gets his big shot at going for the half-million dollar top prize.

It's hardly a classic, but there's some value in this novel nonetheless. Partly it's the subtlety of the TV manipulation. Once the contestant has made it through the first few easy questions and is set to have a decent run, the production team move in on him. He's been cast as the all-American boy, so he gets a new wardrobe bought for him - the same kind of suits, but a little bit cheaper, not quite so well-fitting - and he gets coached in how to stumble while giving the answers. It soon becomes apparent that it's the style not the questions that makes the show.

None of this, of course, is in any way appropriate to the TV of our own time, all of which is as pure as pure can be. But as a piece of history - suggesting that even the great god television might have feet of clay - it's really quite sweet.


More on early TV quizzes...

One Hand Clapping