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The Secrets of ITV’s “Surprise Surprise” and the “F*** Me! It’s Beadle!” moment

The title sequence from the original LWT Surprise! Surprise!

ITV1 is transmitting a new series of Surprise! Surprise! from tomorrow night, after a break of more than ten years.

I was a researcher on the second series in 1984.

Most of the London Weekend Television production team had worked on the hidden camera series Game For a Laugh and came straight off that on to Surprise! Surprise!

The immensely talented Alan Boyd, LWT’s Controller of Entertainment, had had the bright idea that some of the ‘surprising’ items on Game For a Laugh – people doing bizarre things or behaving oddly – could be farmed off into a new format – Surprise! Surprise!

This did not really work until the final item on the final show of the first series, which involved a reunion. The result was emotional, tearful and compulsive television and Boyd realised that, instead of having ‘surprising’ items, every item on the show had to have at least one actual ‘surprise’ built into it. That was, after all, what had made Game For a Laugh so successful that it often out-rated Coronation Street.

Both Surprise! Surprise! (after the first series) and Game For a Laugh were built round a similar objective. Each item on every show had to build up to one single shot which HAD to be captured on camera by the director.

On Game For a Laugh, this was called by the production team the Fuck me! – It’s Beadle! moment.

It was the point at which the punter realised that he had been set up for an elaborate practical joke. When co-presenter Jeremy Beadle pulled the stunts himself, this was the moment of revelation when he walked into view or removed his disguise and the camera saw the look of shock, realisation and sometimes relief on the punter’s face. You could almost see the person saying to themselves: “Fuck me! – It’s Beadle!” That same clear shot of the person’s face was a necessity on all items, no matter who presented them.

“Ever-loveable” Cilla in a cuddly publicity shot

With Surprise! Surprise! presented by the ever-loveable Cilla Black (perhaps I am being sarcastic?), there was a similar vital moment – the facial expression at the exact point at which the surprise was revealed to the unsuspecting punter. On some items it was, in effect, a Fuck me! – It’s Cilla! moment. In others – especially the final item on each show, which tended to be the big reunion item –  it was the moment the long lost brother/sister/parent/son/daughter was revealed to the punter.

This was called by the team the Sick and Tears moment.

The ‘quality newspapers’ tended to sneer at Surprise! Surprise!

This was partly because of its massive ratings – anything liked by mass audiences tends to be sneered-at by the Guardian-reading chattering classes of Islington. But it was also because the show was said to exploit its participants for the cheap voyeuristic thrill of seeing people break down emotionally.

The show was certainly not literally cheap – in 1984, a run of eight episodes plus a Christmas special cost £1.5 million.

But I never had any qualms about the morality of the series. The reason the punters broke into tears on the final reunion item was because it was life-changing for them.

Often, a loss had eaten-away at them day-after-day for twenty or more years of their lives. In one sudden instant – the Fuck me! – It’s Beadle! moment of sick and tears, they were reunited with their lost person or persons. The shock was immense… What you saw were tears of happiness. They would remember that instant on their death beds and the release of tension from all those years of genuine anguish was genuinely immense. I never heard and I cannot imagine any punter complain about intrusion into their private moments. They were overwhelmed by happiness. They never thought they would meet that person/those people again… but Surprise! Surprise! found them.

Though, really, the research trick with Surprise! Surprise! was to choose people with not much ‘finding’ involved.

On one occasion, a woman had already found her long-lost friend in (I think it was) New Zealand and had even talked to her once on the phone. But there was no chance they would ever meet, because both were very poor and neither would ever be able to afford the cost of the flight. So we simply flew the friend from New Zealand to London, without telling the British punter and, with careful wording of the script, it was presented in such a way that we never said we had actually ‘found’ the long-lost friend in NZ but the unwary viewer would think we had.

Another person wrote in to say he wanted to be reunited with the Best Man at his wedding over 30 years before. They had lost touch (I never did find out why). The Best Man, said the punter, had worked at the Gas Board.

So all I did was phone up the Pensions section of British Gas, tell them the guy’s name and where he had lived/worked around rough dates and, almost immediately, they gave me his telephone number and address. Our punter had been searching for this guy for years. I found him within ten minutes with two phone calls.

Most items on the show, of course, took far more work and one thing we always did was check if anyone involved had any medical problems: we did not want people having heart attacks in front of the camera, whatever the Guardian might think.

The doctor who had a lifelong ambition to swim with dolphins

On one particular show, I had arranged for a doctor who had always wanted to swim with dolphins to do so at Windsor Safari Park. He was in the studio during the recording of the show which included this film. Another (very efficient) researcher working on another item had flown over some long-lost relative from New Zealand for a big reunion with someone at the end of the show. She had checked if this aged guy from New Zealand had any medical problems. No, none, she had been told.

In fact, he had angina – a serious heart condition.

The guy was reunited with his long lost friend/relative (I can’t remember which) and immediately collapsed on the set. The legendary appeal went up:

“Is there a doctor in the house?”

Fortunately, my dolphin doctor man was sitting there in the audience and may well have saved the guy’s life.

On another occasion there was another more bizarre problem.

Reading through viewers’ letters, I spotted (because it was an unusual address) that a man had written to us wanting to spring a surprise on his girlfriend AND his girlfriend had separately written in wanting to spring a surprise on the boyfriend. They lived together but, reading between the lines, I guessed neither knew the other had written in to Surprise! Surprise!

And this was indeed the case.

So we were able to spring a double surprise within one item.

We sprang the first surprise on the girl with the boyfriend’s knowledge… and then we sprang the second surprise on the boyfriend. They both loved it…

…until a front page tabloid story appeared a couple of days after the show was transmitted.

Watching the show on that Sunday night had been the man’s wife, who had wondered where he had been for the past few years after he walked out on her and their two small kids.

To this day, I cannot begin to imagine how he thought he could appear in peaktime on network television in the country’s most successful entertainment show without being recognised and without any repercussions.

People’s levels of fantasy seemed to be fuelled by the show.

On one occasion, I set up an item featuring a man from Croxteth – a part of Liverpool not widely known for its law-abiding inhabitants. When I arrived at the man’s house to chat to him as part of the pre-production research, he asked me (genuinely shocked):

“Jesus! You haven’t parked your car round here, have you?”

He appeared on the show and, from what I remember, he was a very nice man indeed. The item went well and that was that…

Until, a couple of months later, the producer got a phone call from the police in Liverpool.

The man had been arrested for some crime and his alibi to the police was that, at the time of the crime (a couple of months after the show was transmitted), he had been filming in London with Cilla Black.

What on earth he thought was going to happen – that Cilla was perhaps going to perjure herself on his behalf or whatever – I cannot imagine.

A level of fantasy had been unleashed.

Associate Producer Danny Greenstone amazed

On another occasion, someone wanted to propose marriage on the show to his girlfriend. The (very efficient) researcher (not me) checked with the girls’ parents and friends. Everyone said she would say Yes like a shot.

On the show, she turned him down. Not once but (if memory serves me) three times. He was down on his knees; Cilla tried her best. But No. No. No.

When the couple came off set, the researcher apologised and explained we had arranged a slap-up meal for them both at an expensive restaurant after the show to celebrate their engagement. Obviously they would not now want to have the meal.

“Oh that’s fine,” said the no-longer-to-be-bride. “I will marry him, but I just didn’t want to say Yes to him yet.”

And off they both happily went to the restaurant.

People were never altogether averse to taking advantage.

One distraught father wrote in to Surprise! Surprise! trying to make contact with his long-lost daughter. We found her in Australia (we did quite a lot of Antipodean reunions because it sounded impressive and was expensive). We flew her in from Australia to be reunited with her long-lost father (who did not know she was there) in front of the studio audience and cameras. Backstage, before the reunion, she seemed a little nervous. This was not uncommon, but the researcher asked her if she was OK.

“Last time I saw him all those years ago,” the daughter explained, “he was standing in our kitchen threatening to kill my mother with a carving knife.”

On screen, the reunion went well. The man burst into tears and hugged the daughter but, when you knew the back story, you could see the daughter flinch as he embraced her. Our best bet was that she had figured out she did not want to meet him again, but that she would get a free flight to the UK and free hotel accommodation in London for a few days.

Surprise! Surprise! was well-named.

It sometimes surprised us as much as audiences and punters.


Filed under Television

“Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow”

North Korea, land of the Kims, is truly a People’s Paradise

In North Korea, you can see new buildings being constructed as skeletons of concrete, brick and stone but rough and unsophisticated. The final surfaces, though, are very well-designed and finished. They look superficially perfect.

There is another simile for North Korea here. It looks OK from a cursory glance but, underneath…

The Chinese build better foundations.

It seems to me the Chinese have tried to change their society from the bottom upwards. The North Koreans manage any change from the top downwards. They start with the triumphant monuments to success and then (ironically in this supposed people’s paradise but – hey! – this is Communism) there is a rigid hierarchy through which change may trickle down to the bottom though it seems not to have done in the 26 years since I was last here.

One odd feature in the relentless propaganda is that, since I was last here, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s mother and early wife seem to have appeared as pseudo Mary Mother of Jesus figures. I do not remember them being mentioned before; now they occasionally appear in pictures. Both long dead, of course, as all the best icons are.

This is my last day in the People’s Paradise. The train out of North Korea leaves Pyongyang at 10.10am this morning. It arrives in Beijing at 8.33am tomorrow morning. No US passport holders are allowed to take the train out of North Korea; they have to fly out.

In the train, I have lunch with a British woman who lives in New York (she has a British passport). She was at the big military parade on Kim Il-sung’s birthday. The one we were not allowed to go to. She was with another foreigner who reckoned some of the giant rockets on display were not real: they were possibly made from wood. She does not know; he did not know; I do not know; this is North Korea; I only mention it as an observation from someone who was there.

She told me someone else she knows managed, accidentally, to go onto the ‘hidden’ floor in their hotel – the floor at which lifts do not stop. There was no decor. Just a bare concrete corridor and bare walls. The door to one room was slightly ajar. He looked through the crack. A man was sitting looking at a TV monitor. He left the floor quietly and returned to the ‘allowed’ parts of the hotel.

I also get talking to a man who is one of the three others I share the four-berth compartment with on this train from Pyongyang to Beijing. He was born in a Western European country (which shall remain nameless to disguise his identity). But he has lived in the US for many years. So he has both a US passport and a passport from the European country of his birth. Obviously, as he is on the train, he is using his European passport.

Last night, he was booked into the same hotel as me – the Yanggakdo in Pyongyang. He came into North Korea with a Kindle e-reader and a laptop computer which the border guards did not query because neither has GPS.

In my opinion, he was silly on the North Korean trip. He was not in my group, but he told me he had sat at the front of his tour bus, near the two guides, taking photographs of the North Korean countryside (which is not allowed). He had also, with a fellow group member, wandered out of their hotel one night unaccompanied. Again, this is not allowed.

Last night, there was a problem with the keys to his hotel room which escalated to the point at which he was taken off to a room in the hotel and interrogated for seven hours, from 8.00pm to 3.00am.

“Why have you been taking bad photographs to make our country look bad?” the questions started, before moving on to “Why have you been disrespectful of our guides?” and so on, round and round in circles for seven hours with five interrogators.

“You are not a real tourist,” they eventually said. “You have been taking photographs of people in the countryside and in the towns. They are all waiting downstairs to denounce you… We have talked to the other members of your group. They all say you are not a real tourist. You are a spy. We know you are here to spy on our country and take bad photographs.”

They brought in an IT expert with a laptop computer which he attached to the man’s laptop computer to search the hard disk. They then confiscated the hard disk. They then looked through all the still photographs he had taken and erased a lot. “Where have you hidden the other memory cards?” he was asked.

“I have no other memory cards,” he told them. But the questioning and re-questioning went on for seven hours.

It escalated more and more.

“You will not be allowed to leave the country,” they told him. You have committed crimes against the people of North Korea. Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

“You must sign a confession to your crimes,” he was told, “or you will not be allowed to leave the country. If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea, we will publish your confession on the internet.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

He eventually signed the ‘confession’.

“You have committed crimes against North Korea,” he was then told. “You must compensate North Korea. Do you have $10,000?”

When he made it clear he was not carrying $10,000 on him, they feigned anger that he thought he could bribe them.

“If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea,” they told him, “or continue your crimes after you have left our country or tell anyone this interrogation has taken place, we will publish your confession to your crimes on the internet.”

“They were frightening but not very efficient,” he tells me. “I had a video camera in my case and they never looked. I declared it at the border on the way in, but they never knew it was there. It had much ‘worse’ images.”

After he was released at 3.00am, he went back to his room and erased all the material he had shot on his video camera. He did this under his bed covers in case – as well as having sound bugs – the hotel room had video bugs.

I wonder what will happen at the border.

This could go one of two ways for me.

I am sharing a compartment with the guy.

Either I will be given a bad time because I will get guilt by association. Or I will sail through because the border guards will focus so much on him.

At the border, the first North Korean border guard comes into our compartment and goes straight for him.

“Camera,” he says.

Three other North Korean border guards come in. I go and stand in the corridor as they interrogate the guy, go through his stills camera, picture by picture, find the video camera in his case and examine that.

“My camera – my stills camera – takes videos and I have my video camera too,” he tells them, “but I took no videos while I was in North Korea.”

I think, listening to this in the corridor, that it must sound more than a little suspicious.

“You have more memory cards,” the guards say. “Where are your other memory cards?”

“I have no other memory cards,” he tells them.

“Do you have memory cards hidden in your hair?” one of them asks him.

They interrogate him for around 35 minutes. Then they turn to me:

“Camera,” the guard barks at me.

I give him my camera. He looks at all the photographs. There are 168 on the memory card. He erases 17 of them – one of the border at Panmunjom, mostly just photos of ordinary people in the very public Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang.

There are only three sets of photos on that memory card: Panmunjom, Kim Il-sung Square and the music concert we attended in Pyongyang. I had intentionally taken the Panmunjom photos so they could, if necessary, be erased. The other 900+ photos I had taken in North Korea are on another memory card in the rolled-up sleeve of my shirt.

The guards never ask if I have a video camera. Which I do, with five one-hour tapes filled-up.

Afterwards, the European guy tells me that, halfway through his grilling by the border guards, he realised that the European passport on which he was travelling in North Korea had an out-of-date visa for China in it. His up-to-date visa for China was in the US passport in his bag, which the guards superficially searched. They did not realise he had a second, US passport (remember US citizens cannot legally leave North Korea by train) and they did not check the dates on the Chinese visa in his European passport. But, he tells me, “I was shitting myself.”

The guards were paranoid, but not very efficient. However, they may have been hungry.

In another compartment in the railway carriage, a female border guard saw a chocolate bar in the suitcase of some Swiss travellers. She looked at their passports. “Swiss?” she asked. “Yes,” they replied. She unwrapped the chocolate bar and ate it, unsmiling, in front of the two Swiss. “It is good chocolate,” she told them.



Filed under North Korea, spying