625 - Andrew Wiseman's Television Room
Fifteen to One

How do you go about creating a hit television quiz show? Here's an interview with a man who knows:

John M Lewis

Created  Sa 29-Nov-97
Main Content Last Revised  Mo 30-Nov-98

Fifteen contestants start, but only one will remain "Come On Down" was the title of a documentary shown on the BBC in January 1985. In it, Barry Norman went to the USA to investigate the history of the game show and he discovered that most of the formats seen on British Television today were invented over there in the Fifties. Watching the programme was John M Lewis, then a salesman for BT. He couldn't believe what passed for entertainment and was certain we could invent our own, infinitely better shows. In a classic tale of "I could do better than that", John proved he was right.
Quiz shows, as we like to call them, became extremely popular in this country when ITV began in 1955 and now fill up its schedule alongside the other popular but cheaply-made TV product of day-time, the Australian soap opera. The BBC is keen to follow ITV's example and in 1996 cancelled its classic quiz, Mastermind, after 25 years.
The story on Channel 4 is much different. The very first programme broadcast on the station back in 1982 was the word and numbers game, Countdown, responsible for launching Carol Vorderman to stardom. Countdown is still running today, attracting audiences of up to 5 million people. Hand in hand for the audience's affections is a relative newcomer, the brainchild of John Lewis, Fifteen to One.

Set in what has been likened to a gladiatorial arena, Fifteen to One is a purer, simpler kind of quiz which relies not only on a persons general knowledge, but also requires a contestant to use tactics to eliminate opponents, as the title suggests, fifteen contestants down to one. Like Countdown, it has no need to offer major prizes or handfuls of cash; there are no cheesy comedians doing impressions of Mavis Riley between the rounds and no funny stories are required of the contestants before they are allowed to play.

Presenter and Producer: William G Stewart
Fifteen To One was invented at the end of the 1980s. John Lewis devised an easily understood format and, using his experience as a salesman, presented it as a selling document. He sent it to a handful of quiz show producers (whose names he'd got from the Radio and TV Times magazines) and waited. He received four rejection letters. Two of the producers didn't even bother to reply. But fortunately, a man called William G Stewart saw potential in the idea and bought a two-year option to develop the show. A pilot show was made and shown to Shamus Cassidy, a commissioning editor at Channel 4. He liked what he saw.
Developed by REGENT PRODUCTIONS from a format by JOHN M. LEWIS Originally John Lewis had envisaged prizes, as was in vogue at the time, instead of points. But Regent Productions, who developed 15 to 1, changed very little from John Lewis' original concept. The only major change was the number of contestants. Initially the show was 20 to 1, but was cut down in order to fit a running time of 28 minutes and 10 seconds.

To bring 15 to 1 to its devoted British audience, from conception, took four years. Action Time, via John's agent, have ensured that viewers in Europe also get to play along. Poland has Ten to One, and in Germany (SAT 1) they watch Jeden Gegen Jeden (all against all).

Now that the BBC has axed Mastermind, 15 to 1 must surely reign uncontested as the toughest of all quizzes. Its audience accordingly has nothing but respect for the show. It could easily be argued that Mastermind wasn't that tough anyway. John says, "15 to 1 is a true test of a person's general knowledge. Not an exercise on researching and remembering an individual subject."
These days, John Lewis earns his living from the media. He's written four books tied in to 15 to 1 and is also resident quiz show consultant for, and a member of The CWA (Comedy Writers Association).

And if the viewers ever tire of watching fifteen sweating individuals challenging themselves and each other, John has plenty more ideas up his sleeve.

Britain's toughest quiz, Invented by a Brit!

Pictures by Rob Sedgebeer
Fifteen To One Developed by Regent Productions from a format by John M. Lewis
Repeats of the early series are now being shown on Challenge TV
© Channel Four Television Corporation

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E-mail addresses
John M Lewis : fifteen.toone@btinternet.com
Andrew Wiseman : 15to1@625.uk.com
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