Writing by Jamie McDonald. Illustration by Berenika Murray.
BBC One’s The Wheel is relatively simplistic. Seven celebrities encircle a frighteningly enthusiastic member of the public, each armed with a specialist subject – from ‘religion’ and ‘football’ to ‘CBeebies’ and ‘France’. When the contestant chooses one of these subjects, the celebrities are spun around them: whichever star they land on is required to help them answer a multiple-choice question on that topic. If they land on that subject’s ‘expert’, they win more money, but if they land on the ‘danger’ celebrity, lit in red, they sink into the ground and a new contestant is chosen. Having conquered all seven subjects, the contestant can play for the total prize pot with the help of one of the experts. Various other japes and jovialities are littered throughout but the core game is pretty bare-bones - the real draw being the huge stars and massive prizes (the phrase ‘huge stars’ is lifted directly from the BBC website. I don’t really know who many of the people are).
Is it idiotic to analyse a gameshow for its ideological underpinning? Probably. But numerous philosophers of the left argue that nothing – nothing – is free from ‘politics’. That is, every design decision and editorial choice made in any capacity, at any level, in any field, is influenced, either consciously or sub-consciously (or usually, both) by belief-driven, value judgements. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (himself a minor celebrity) views everything as ideological – the German toilet, he argues, is designed such that Germans can inspect their faeces for blood before flushing it, whereas the French toilet disposes of the awful reminder of our animal intestinal system as quickly as possible. Toilets are designed not in a vacuum but in an ideological space – German scientific curiosity and French cultural nausea contributing towards their respective toilet design. “The contemporary era” he writes, “constantly proclaims itself as post-ideological” (1), but any philosopher who tries to deny the political inherent in the everyday must confront this when they go to the loo.
Sorry, back to Michael McIntyre. Game shows occupy an interesting ideological space – offering ordinary people the chance to win what for them is often a life-changing sum of money, the ability to mix with the successful, and their oft-sought fifteen minutes of fame (although in the case of The Wheel, it’s an hour and it very much feels like it). What interests me about McIntyre’s contribution is the blunt symbolic architecture of his gameshow. Contestants literally rise up out of the floor, and for but a brief moment, the world of the celebrity actually revolves around them. Carol Vorderman, Gyles Brandreth, and for some inexplicable reason, Former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, dutifully encourage them in their bid to win less than Michael McIntyre earns per episode (2). It’s genuinely slightly upsetting to see someone come on one of these shows so they can pay off their debt or start a small business – both of which should be both possible and actively encouraged by the Government to whom we pay tax. Nobody faced with the indignity of catastrophic personal debt deserves to have to ask Danny Dyer the answer to the question about gardening.
When the contestant fails to answer a question correctly, the studio almost autonomously bathes them in a crimson glow, and they descend onto the ‘contestant wheel’ back where they belong: concealed from the higher classes. This wheel also spins, obviously, and because it contains just three people, it does so at a much faster (and, one imagines, much more nauseating) rate. We, the working class, are permitted a glimpse into the revolving horror of the lower wheel. Filmed from above, they grimace through unimaginable pain until finally one ascends so Claudia Winkleman can tell them they’re wrong about pottery.
On a mildly more serious note, what The Wheel demonstrates very well is the hierarchical consumer culture in which we live. It is not enough to simply quiz: even after a pandemic-induced peak, the prizemoney-less Mastermind pulls fewer than half the viewers of McIntyre’s hit show. Richard Osman once said that the prize money on Pointless was relatively low in order that the contestants come on to actually play the game, rather than chase the money. The other end of the spectrum, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which by its very title indulges the risk-taker within, is a show less about answering questions and more about the concept of value and the possibility of losing it all. The Wheel awkwardly straddles the middle ground – offering an amount of money that for most would be genuinely life-changing (prizes hovering around but often rising above £50,000) but not enough money that the game can ever quite justify doing away with the novelty of some large, rotating mechanism. It is the personification of pure consumerism, bolstered by a team of ever-grinning personalities.
It's also weirdly entertaining. The lack of any coherent premise means the show revolves (literally) around one man – Michael McIntyre, who spends around half the hour slot engaging in congenial banter with celebrities you’re vaguely familiar with. For a moment, it’s possible to forget we’re spinning on a wheel of our own: an almost irreversibly dying planet cursed by endemic starvation and endless conflict. Consumer society is the great distractor – as long as we have the chance to appear on The Wheel, or, at least, live vicariously through its contestants – we can remain blissfully unaware of the horrors of organised capital. We are no longer required to contribute, intellectualise, ruminate, relax, think, need or want – our thoughts are provided to us by opinion journalists, spokespeople, saleswomen and conmen. There are no adverts during The Wheel, for The Wheel is an advert in and of itself, for the blissful joy of no longer having to care.
I quite like The Wheel. Nestled between the unfolding psychodrama of the news and the cut-price remake of Saw that is Casualty, The Wheel permits us to switch off for an hour, forget about Ukraine and Syria and Boris Johnson and the global pandemic, and simply and mindlessly consume.
Slavoj Žižek (2009). First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.
Not sure if this is actually true. I do know he has a net worth of £80 million and lives in a £10 million house so presumably he gets paid quite a bit. Please don’t sue me Michael.