Outside Edge: Owen Slot meets the 'game show spin-doctor' Howard Huntridge

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The Independent Culture
HOWARD HUNTRIDGE spent his childhood in 1950s Doncaster. There wasn't much to do in 1950s Doncaster, so he and his three brothers would spend their days making up games - something Huntridge has been doing ever since.

Huntridge has become a game show guru. His fascination for and understanding of the format is such that he says he can fast-forward through a new show and tell you exactly what it's about in three minutes. And that's when it's in Dutch, a language he doesn't speak. A Dutch television company was having a few problems with a new show, so it hired Huntridge as trouble-shooter, to give the show a tweak or two and make it work. He saw the contestants occasionally looking mystified, analysed over-complications in the format and just simplified it. 'You can tell what's going wrong through looking at people's eyes. Usually you're right, even if you don't speak the language.'

Huntridge describes himself as a 'game show spin-doctor'; he talks a lot about 'honing the format', which he does on any game show in any European country to which his company, Fremantle Talbot, decided to send him. One of his greatest successes was the simple surgery he prescribed for Wheel of Fortune. 'They were mixing a Q and A game with a word game, a strange concoction,' he says disapprovingly (elementary, you can't mix game show genres), so he took out some of the questions and let contestants get to the wheel-spinning bit much quicker. Two million viewers were added overnight.

After his Doncaster training, Huntridge mastered the game show art in California, inventing shows and selling them to the national networks. His favourite invention was a married couples' confrontational game ('If you get a confrontation between husband and wife, it's good because it's what happens at home'), though later he moved on to trawling the American channels in search of pilot shows that would work back in Europe.

Now he can pick up a game and tell you in what country and at what time in the day the show will be a hit. The Spanish like relationship games and newly-wed games, the French prefer something slow (Countdown is big news), while, against everyone's expectations, Blind Date has gone to No 1 in Turkey (which he predicted when he sold it to them). With arranged marriages the norm, he says, the Turks just couldn't resist it.

Now Huntridge has a new operation, producing Supermarket Sweep, an early morning TV game show which has contestants in timed 'trolley- dashes' through a studio supermarket. Al Howard, Sweep's American inventor (also responsible for Sale of the Century) had his trolley-dash flash of genius in the 1960s and it's taken since then for it to be honed to a format Huntridge believed worth buying.

The No 1 rule of game shows, he says, is home-viewer participation. That's why he hates 'junk like The Main Event and Gladiators'; they break the rule. And that's why he believes he's onto a winner with Sweep. 'The trolley dash is not a chariot race, we've ironed out the Ben-Hur factor,' he says. 'Even then the viewers can join in and scream 'Don't forget the custard powder' at the television set.'

'Supermarket Sweep' starts on Monday 6 Sept (ITV 9.25am)

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