The Chase: saluting one of the UK’s best quiz shows

The joys of Bradley Walsh’s presenting and scandalous contestant behaviour make The Chase a televisual treat...

It’s 5pm on a weekday. Freelancers like myself and other fine rarely-leaving-the-house folk gather around their TVs, enthusiastically anticipating an hour of top-quality quiz competitiveness with a sprinkling of strangeness and – with any luck – a dash of scandalous sourness. As they say, The Chase is on.

If you aren’t the sort of person who has access to a TV on a weekday afternoon, this brilliant quiz show may have completely passed you by. All 900+ episodes of it. Here’s why you’re missing out, and why I’d encourage you to head over to the ITV Hub as soon as possible to start catching up…

The Thrill Of The Chase(rs)

The stars of the show are The Chasers – a collective of quiz geniuses who take it turns to lord it over us with their wisdom, one episode of afternoon entertainment at a time. This gang of boffins are so intimidating that whichever one is appearing in any given episode has to make no fewer than five dramatic entrances over the course of an hour. 

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The contestants don’t know which Chaser they’ll be facing off against until said Chaser frightfully emerges from a door (with flashing lights accompaniment), bounds across an elevated walkway and plonks themselves on a throne of knowledge, which is positioned on a podium high above the contestant.

So, after the first contestant in the episode has done their solo cash-builder round (quick-fire questions against a 60-second time limit, with a thousand potential pounds earned for each correct answer), presenter Bradley Walsh will ask them which Chaser they’d like to face. This comes with a string of freshly-cooked-up verbal jabs. These are from a random episode I’m currently watching online for research purposes…

“Who will you be up against today? Will it be Anne Hegerty, The Governess, a nightmare on Elm Street? Or could it be Shaun Wallace, a night in alone? Could it be Mark Labbett, a night time snack? Or could it be The Sinnerman, Paul Sinha, a night in white linen? It’s a shocker that suit.” (This must be an old episode because Jenny ‘The Vixen’ Ryan, the latest addition to the Chaser roster, is absent from the intros.)

I always love Bradley’s introductions. Over the course of this show’s epic history, a narrative has grown around each Chaser, which makes things a lot more exciting than if Bradley had to describe them in literal terms. It’s much more interesting to have Frosty Knickers, The Dark Destroyer, The Beast, The Smiling Assassin and The Vixen that it would be to have ‘the one from Bolton’ or ‘that guy who won Mastermind that time’.

“I fancy Shaun,” says today’s first contestant, Twiz (pictured), a Cornwall-based cynologist (which is the study of dogs, as she explains to Bradley). She adds, “It wouldn’t be a night in alone, then, would it?” It’s a bit awkward, but Bradley laughs it off. 

This is often the point in the show when a contestant expresses their theory about which Chaser is the least intelligent and why they think they can take them down, only to be disappointed moments later when another one walks out instead.

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Bradley announces that it’s time to meet The Chaser. The lights go red. The dramatic music starts. And out walks… Shaun Wallace, aka The Dark Destroyer, aka The Legal Eagle, aka The Barrister, aka Grumpy Drawers, aka Twiz’s first choice Chaser! Her prayers have been answered.

As is tradition on the show, Shaun – after completing his duties of dramatic walking and serious sitting down – takes a moment to dish out some lively banter to intimidate Twiz.

“You work in dogs, I see”, Shaun says by way of an epic set-up, before finishing it off with a brutal putdown: “I’m best in show here.”

“Ooh, fighting talk”, says Bradley.

The ‘Team’ Format

“Can a team of strangers take on one of Britain’s greatest quiz brains and take home thousands of pounds?”

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That’s how Bradley described the format of The Chase at the start of this episode. As usual, he’s neglected to mention true nature of the show. Underneath the smiles and the advice and forced compliments, this really isn’t a show about teamwork. It’s every man or woman for himself in this game, but they’re forced be nice to each other by the nature of the format.

This is never more obvious than when someone takes ‘a minus offer’. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself there. I should probably go through the basic format of the show before detailing the devilish detail that often tears these so-called ‘teams’ apart…

Every episode has four contestants. First, each must complete the aforementioned 60-second ‘cash builder’. This is a solo round against the clock, with a running total of dosh collected for each correct answer. I’ve just watched Twiz do remarkably well in her cash builder, and she’s got £8,000 on the table by the time that Shaun ‘The Dark Destroyer’ Wallace walks out and makes his dog show joke.

Between Shaun and Twiz is a big screen divided into seven boxes (or, as they’re known in the parlance of the show, ‘steps’) stacked on top of each other. Twiz’s eight grand is plonked on the third step down. Shaun has to put some offers on the table now; one closer to him and one closer to Twiz.

In a minute, he’ll be attempting to ‘chase’ her down the board, as they answer the same multiple-choice general knowledge questions under big pressure (well, sound effects and lighting changes). Twiz’s goal is to get to the bottom of the screen before Shaun catches up. He starts at the top. If he catches her, she’s out of the game and goes home with nothing. If she successfully gets to the bottom, she’s through to The Final Chase.

As is tradition, Shaun puts out his lower offer first. If Twiz wants to start the ‘chase’ one step away from Shaun, she’ll have to cut her prize money from £8,000 to £2,000. And then comes the tantalising higher offer: move one step closer to Shaun and Twiz’s prize fund will go up to £28,000. Blimey.

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Bradley encourages Twiz to consult with her teammates. As ever, they all tell her that it’s up to her really, but she should either stick with the £8,000 or gamble for the £28,000 if she’s feeling really confident. No one ever tells someone to take the lower offer, because at the end of the episode the prize money all goes into one big pot. If the ‘team’ wins, the money is split evenly between them, regardless of what each player brought back to the team from their individual cash builder and first battle with the Chaser. Are you starting to see why the teams may not always be friendly?

The Minus Offer

This is where things get really heated. If a player has done particularly badly in their cash builder, and it looks highly unlikely that they’ll survive their one-on-one with the Chaser, said Chaser will sometimes put a ‘minus offer’ on the board.

To move one step closer to safety and the chance of winning big money, the contestant can choose to reduce their prize fund to a state of negative dosh. If they take it and get through, this sum will be subtracted from the ‘team’ total. So they’re essentially robbing other people of their hard-earned cash in order to get through. And then, if the ‘team’ wins in the end, this scandalous individual will take home a slice of everyone else’s winnings.

As you might expect, the camaraderie and pleasantry levels of a ‘team’ significantly drop when someone takes a lower offer. Sometimes, it even becomes a news story. Back in June, a player took a lower offer of -£3,000 in order to proceed to The Final Chase, and ended up taking home £13,000 that other contestants had earned.

Twitter was ablaze with outrage, and the tabloids picked up the story. They also took an interest when one player called another ‘a wuss’ for taking the lower offer. Apologies for using that sort of language here. I told you it could get heated.

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This all just adds to the fun, though: watching at home, it’s really entertaining to see people squirm and seethe, mostly silently, while putting a brave face on it to keep up appearances. All anyone wants in this game is to win cash, and someone taking a minus offer in order to nab a cut of everyone else’s cash is the ultimate proof of that. Teamwork isn’t even a factor.

The Final Chase

Whether today’s team hates each other’s guts or have managed to progress to the last stage of the episode without offending one another, The Final Chase is always a treat. This is where the quiz aspect of the show really comes into its own, as the team have to answer as many questions as they can in under two minutes (with no multiple choice options to aid them), as a unit. 

A strong team really needs a few different people (I don’t envy the rare individuals who end up in The Final Chase on their own), from different backgrounds, with different knowledge strengths. But above all, they need someone with confidence to say ‘pass’ quickly when it’s obvious that nobody knows the answer. A lot of seconds can be wasted by umming and aahing, wondering if someone else knows it. A quick passer can be the difference between winning and losing. It’s proper shouting-at-the-telly time if no one’s skipping past a question when clearly no-one knows it.

The tricky thing is that there’s no clear target at this stage. The contestants just need to get as high a score as possible, by earning one point for each correct answer. After their two minutes are up, The Chaser will have a go, answering a different set of randomly selected questions. If The Chaser beats the contestants’ score in 120 seconds, they all go home empty handed. 

This very last stage of the game – after the contestants have done their bit in The Final Chase – is excruciating. There’s very little they can do now. It’s just a question of whether today’s Chaser can nab more correct answers than them. And if The Chaser gets one wrong, the contestants get to have a crack at it. If they get it right, they ‘push The Chaser back’ one step.

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It’s easy to get caught up in the tension of this section, especially when you’ve seen a lot of episodes. If a team only manages 15 correct answers, you’ll know that The Chaser has a very strong chance of catching them and taking ITV’s money back from within their grasp. You’ll be trying to offer your own answers, praying for a ‘push back’, and betting you could do better than the hesitant, clueless bunch on the screen. It’s addictive stuff, and occasionally teams win really big.

The Joys Of Bradley Walsh

And, just to finish off, some quick words of praise for Bradley Walsh. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else presenting this show, not least because ITV would need to find another person who can deliver questions at such rapid pace without fumbling the pronunciations. It’s an impressive feat of reading our Bradders does every day. And, as there’s a timer at play in every round except the one-on-ones, you’ve got assume he does it in one take. (Well, mostly.)

Between all the questions, Mr Walsh also manages to inject humour wherever possible. He gets to know the players’ personal lives, always takes their side, and winds up The Chasers at every opportunity.

Bravo, Bradley. And bravo to everyone behind UK TV’s most underrated quiz show. Quiz fans who’ve yet to tune in are missing out.