And your specialist subject: deception

Perjury, rigged results, a Presidential condemnation - Robert Redford's Quiz Show uncovers a scandal that rocked Fifties America. By Sheila Johnston
Click to follow
Again and again, Hollywood has pored over history to identify that exact nodal point when America was first deflowered. In the Seventies, it was Watergate; then directors finally began to grasp the nettle of Vietnam. For Spike Lee it was the slay ing of Malcolm X, for Oliver Stone - that old Sixties retread - JFK, 'Nam, Jim Morrison and everything.

Robert Redford's new film, Quiz Show, puts the fall from grace in the late Fifties, somewhere between the mass betrayal of the McCarthy hearings and the agony of My Lai: the moment the American public discovered that most, if not all, the hugely popular quiz shows were fixed in advance - that television, the great new household god, could lie. "It really marked a period of innocence in our social history," Redford claims. That's as maybe - but the quiz-show scandals of the Fifties did form a watershed of another kind. Once upon a time in America, less than four decades ago, the egghead was ever so briefly a media star. Now it's almost unthinkable.

It all began when The $64,000 Question was launched in 1955 in a fanfare of showmanship. Members of the ordinary public stepped forward to field brainbusters on specialised subjects. A very big deal indeed was made of the secrecy surrounding the questions: elephantine Fifties computers spewed them out at random, or else armed guards would flank a banker bearing a sealed box from the depths of his vaults. Above all, the stakes were unprecedentedly high (the game from which it was spun off was called The $64 Question when it went out on radio: a poor relation).

It became the top-rated show of the year. Revlon, the sponsor, watched its sales rise by 200 per cent within a few months. Soon there were over 30 of the things competing for airspace and accounting for 50 hours of network programme time a week: Beat theClock, You Bet Your Life or (my favourite) Tic Tac Dough, a pun on the American name for Noughts and Crosses. As the craze reached its zenith, the five top-rated programmes were all quizzes.

The rewards awaiting a quiz wiz were large and sweet. An opera expert was sent to Italy for a special performance at La Scala and an audience with the Pope. An elderly female baseball expert became a sports commentator for CBS. But the biggest celebrity of them all was Charles van Doren, the scion of a distinguished family of New England writers. His father was an Ivy League academic and poet. His mother was a novelist. His uncle was a prominent historian. Blessed with dashing good looks, Van Doren became the star boffin of Twenty-One, the programme spotlighted in Redford's movie. He made the covers of Time and Newsweek, which trilled "learning has returned to fashion". For the first time, America's folk heroes were intellectuals.

There have been several theories for this unlikely cult of the grey cells. One critic argued that the Soviets' successful launch of the Sputnik precipitated an American campaign for better education, the better to beat the Reds in the space race. But in Van Doren's case another explanation suggests itself: the late Fifties were also, after all, the dawn of the teenager as we know it - the era of Elvis, The Wild Ones and the juvenile delinquent. Van Doren supplied anxious parents with a more desirable role model: soft-spoken, respectful of his father, an eligible bachelor. "He was the kind of guy you'd love to see your daughter married to," recalled David Enright, the producer of Twenty-One, in a recent interview for American television.

It wasn't exactly the producer's original intention to rig the shows (although Redford's film does at times nudge towards a conspiracy theory, Oliver Stone-style). The sponsors got greedy. Revlon kept close tabs on the links between contestants' ratings and product sales. Joyce Brothers, a contestant on The $64,000 Question, fell foul of Charles Revson, the owner of Revlon, over her refusal to wear make-up. "He told one of the producers, `Get rid of that bitch or you're fired'," Brothers says today. As soon as a player slipped from grace, the response was brutal: he or she would be "stiffed" with a killer question the producers hoped he wouldn't know.

And then they made another discovery, like so many other television practitioners in their wake: the "real" unembellished product made for deadly dull television. Archive clips of the first-ever edition of Twenty-One in 1956 reveal it plunging into farceas the two contestants kept getting the simplest questions wrong, locked in a goalless draw. To ensure weekly flights of brilliance, producers began to involve them in the deception, coaching them in a scripted scenario.

It was not just a matter of being slipped the answers, according to Herbert Stempel, one of the players on Twenty-One. Each contestant was given a larger-than-life character to play: his was Joe Everyman, the GI veteran with bad teeth and an ill-fitting suit. "The whole idea was to make me appear as a nerd, as you say today; a square," Stempel recalls now. The hardest part was not remembering the answers, but his minute stage directions - the exact moment when to rub his chin or mop his brow.

Soon Stempel's 15 minutes of fame were up, and he was required to take a dive - to make way for Van Doren. To ease his departure, the producers offered him a job on a TV panel show. When they welshed on the promise, Stempel went to the newspapers. "At first I thought it might be a crank," says the syndicated columnist Jack O'Brien, "but everything hung together." O'Brien's story was spiked by lawyers for lack of evidence, but then a contestant on the daytime quiz Dotto was spied cramming her answers from a notebook. Soon all the shows were under investigation. Witnesses originally denied the allegations, but the case was proven. It was later estimated that two thirds of them, including a contrite Van Doren, had perjured themselves in court.

Quiz Show argues that there was an ethnic bias against Stempel (played in the film by John Turturro), the abrasive working-class Jew, and in favour of Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the smooth, patrician Wasp. The fall of Stempel marked, according to Redford, the death of two cherished national beliefs: in the intregrity of television, but also in America as a meritocracy, where gifted individuals could succeed regardless of race or inherited privilege. Even President Eisenhower agreed: the quiz-show scams were "a terrible thing to do to the American public".

It took a long time for the shows to rally from the shock. Eventually the format came back, but translated: "They put it in a ghetto area, the daytime, and feminised it" to appeal to the housewife audience, according to the communications studies expert Matt McAllister. Rather than identifying the opera Puccini never completed, you now had to name something you buy at the hardware store - Turandot versus turpentine. "Instead of shows about intellectualism, we had shows about shopping," McAllister says. Often they were based on chance, not skill: game shows rather than quizzes.

We would be wrong to mourn the demise of the old-style quiz unduly. As the Washington Post observed, the early shows were more about "total text-book recall" than intellectual agility. When you watch those starched and behatted Fifties studio audiences obediently applauding a housewife who has learned the history of boxing by rote, it doesn't seem to have much to do with the life of the mind. Besides, by the time of the scandals, television was maturing as a confident, vigorous pop-culture form in its own right. It didn't need the borrowed robes of academe.

But something had changed. Van Doren, who was initially reluctant to join the deception, had been won over on the grounds that his success would help glamorise intellectualism. With his fall, the American dream of self-improvement through diligent study,the belief in the joy of learning, suffered an enormous blow. "Academe dropped a notch and never came back," Redford says. "Showbusiness kept moving up and now pervades every part of our society." The odd star boffins still pop up today, but they tend to be scientists: Arnold Schwarzenegger as a brilliant gynaecologist (!) in Junior; Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein in the forthcoming IQ; and, in real life, the physicist Stephen Hawking.

By chance, Quiz Show opens in Britain on the same day as Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, a film about the nature of modern celebrity. The contrast is telling. Once a mild-mannered professor of literature could ascend the Parnassus of media stardom. These days to achieve comparable media exposure, you have to be O J Simpson or Forrest Gump.

n `Quiz Show' opens on 24 February. A documentary about the scandals will be shown on the BBC on 4 March