game for a laugh? come

Trendies in search of high camp, old ladies in search of Bruce Forsyth. James Rampton queues up with the game show groupies

acruel, decidedly non-PC joke used to do the rounds at the BBC: "What has 82 legs and no teeth? The front row of a studio audience." The traditional image of a studio audience is of an OAP coach trip up from the South Coast - all Tupperware sandwich-boxes, dodgy hearing-aids and false teeth. Peter Fincham, managing director of TalkBack Productions, makers of panel games such as They Think It's All Over and Loose Talk, confirms it. "This will look terrible in print, but every producer's worst nightmare is old people - they can't hear and they don't laugh. The cliche is that pensioners are bussed in from Brighton and that producers see them queuing up outside and say, `Shunt them in quickly before they die.' Do you remember that very funny episode of One Foot in the Grave where Victor Meldrew was in a studio audience with only other OAPs? That was spot-on."

Rory McGrath is a veteran of radio and television panel games such as Trivial Pursuit and A Word In Your Era. Relaxing with a drink in the green room after a recording of BBC1's jokey new sports quiz, They Think It's All Over, he recalled close encounters of the elderly kind. "In the old days, you were put off by the creaking of Zimmer frames. They would come in for the warm, poor dears. They'd put on the kettle and in the middle of a routine, they'd shout out, `That's rude, what you just said.' If we had said then some of the things we said tonight [the material veered frequently towards the risque], we would have lost 15 of them just like that. We had an undertaker on hand, walking around with a tape measure, and a bloke selling batteries for the pacemakers." Some shows still attract a - how shall I put this? - more mature audience. The Generation Game magnetises people of a certain age (who block-book tickets weeks in advance), and the usherette at the London Studios - who was helpfully wearing a red T-shirt with the word "Audiences" on the front and back - said that Michael Barrymore also attracts a loyal and ancient following. "They start queuing around midday for an evening recording - just to be sure of getting in the front row. The same people come every week - don't ask me how they get hold of the tickets. They bring picnics - mainly sandwiches and Thermos flasks. Once, though, I caught a couple of old dears in the back row drinking a bottle of wine they'd smuggled in. I didn't chuck them out; they were just having a fun night out."

But the ageist stereotype does not hold true for all shows. In the long queue snaking round the London Studios on the South Bank waiting to be admitted to a recording of They Think It's All Over the other day, I ran into a trio of exuberant 15-year-olds, Joanne, Hai, and Julee. They were all dressed up to the nines. Joanne was sporting a cream shirt and a smart pair of tartan trousers, Hai was in a crisp denim jacket, and Julee was wearing a trendy T-shirt with a tartan shamrock motif. Giggling behind their hands, eyes sparkling with excitement, they are Audience Addicts. They have got themselves on to the BBC Ticket Unit's mailing list and are sent invitations to recordings of all new BBC shows.

Julee had spotted an ad in Smash Hits and signed up. Studying media at their secondary school in Lambeth, they claimed the shows were an academic aid. "You learn about television," said Hai, "about long, medium and close- up shots. It helps you understand how things are made." But the suspicion remains that they were lured by the bright lights, the greasepaint, and panellist Gary Lineker's legs. Joanne demurely said she liked another panellist, David Gower, because "He's got a nice voice." But Julee let slip that she was dying to be in the audience for 2.4 Children, " 'cause I like that boy in it". When pressed, she admitted she'd see anything featuring "nice men with nice chests".

This was a popular show. The tickets - advertised in Time Out - had gone in a day, and the queue outside was buzzing. For the girls, going to a recording was a social outing which they plan to repeat once a week - at least until their mock GCSE exams approach in December. They are choosy. Joanne wouldn't go to "religious stuff - we get enough of that in RE" - while Julee would draw the line at "something with Cilla Black in it. She gets right up my nose. She's got these annoying little habits - like the way she kicks her leg up on Blind Date [kicks leg up]. It aggravates me."

According to Joanne, their parents were glad that they were "getting out, not just loafing around doing nothing". However, admission to their gang is strictly by invitation only. "Our teachers said they wanted to come too," Julee revealed, "but they were too old. Miss Edwards, the PE teacher, asked to come, but we said no." In the studio, the girls whooped and hol-lered with the best of them, laughing along when the warm-up man asked a man in a neck-brace "Is it serious or can we take the piss?" and when a woman shouted out to panellist Roger Black "You're sex on legs." They went into paroxysms when comedian Rory McGrath tried to get the saintly Lineker to "tell that joke about the Nolan Sisters and the cucumber."

In the past, television companies went in for random invitations. But Fincham reckons that "producers are more selective these days. You go to an audience-booker and say, `Get me an audience of 18 to 35-year-olds.' Every producer will tell of dreadful mismatches between show and audience. At an early pilot for They Think It's All Over, we had a lot of seven- year-old kids in. The performers held back because they felt embarrassed about being too rude in front of children." But audience-booking is an inexact science. The producer Harry Thompson says that on Have I Got News For You?, a relatively sophisticated quiz, he sometimes has "audiences who don't have a collective brain. They wet themselves at any mention of `trousers', `pooh' or `willy'. But anything even faintly cerebral is greeted with total silence." There was no such problem at a recording of the gloriously-named Pets Win Prizes earlier this summer. The audience was full of young trendies in black, there for the unbeatable camp value.

If, to use the cliche of the century, comedy is the new rock'n'roll, then game shows are the new country and western. The woman sitting next to me, whom I didn't know from Eve, momentarily interrupted her cheering during a race between three praying mantises, turned to me and adopted a serious expression as she

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