Out of America: Questioning an age of innocence lost

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - I have a confession - I am addicted to quiz shows. The first volley of questions, and I am glued to the television or the radio.

Come to think of it, quiz shows - and the black- garbed cowboy Hopalong Cassidy - are probably my earliest conscious memory of things American, grainy black-and-white images on a late 1950s television set. Well do I remember those trembling men in booths with earphones, answering the dollars 64,000 questions. Of course, the whole performance was rigged, but who was I to know? I was hooked, and still am. Come 7.30 of a weekday evening here, and channel-surfing is apt to stop at the slick Jeopardy show on ABC.

The same goes back in England, for Mastermind or University Challenge. But where quiz shows are concerned, Britain is not a patch on the US. Here they make history. Where else in the world would a town have been named in honour of one? The answer is Hot Springs, New Mexico, which in 1950 rechristened itself Truth or Consequences after a popular radio programme, though in the interests of brevity the locals call it 'T or C'. Where else would shenanigans on a game show be held by some social historians to have been one of the great moral turning points of 20th century America?

If you still have doubts, just go and see the film Quiz Show when it opens in Britain next year. It recounts the astounding story of Charles Van Doren, scion of a blue- blooded New England academic family projected to fame, fortune, and the cover of Time magazine by his success in the 1950s game show Twenty One. He won dollars 129,000, a colossal sum at that time, before Twenty One was exposed as a complete fraud.

The handsome and personable Mr Van Doren, it transpired, was told the answers beforehand, to preserve a winning streak that generated ever growing suspense, audiences, advertising rates and profits for sponsors. The case was cracked by a Manhattan District Attorney named Joseph Stone and concluded in Congressional hearings that were the O J Simpson trial of the day.

The public was devastated. To that moment, you will hear pundits claim in deadly earnest, is to be dated the gradual erosion of Americans' trust in their institutions (and what institution is greater than television?) which continues to this day. Quiz shows were discredited.

Mr Van Doren was sacked from his job at Columbia University and laboured in obscurity at Encyclopedia Britannica before retiring to live as recluse on the family farm in Connecticut. Herb Stempel, the sweaty 'bad guy' who took a pre-arranged dive in 1957 to allow the telegenic Mr Van Doren to become champion, is basking in an Indian summer of celebrity. Mr Stempel knew the rules as well as anyone. 'When I realised who Van Doren was,' he told a recent interviewer, 'his father the Pulitzer poet, his mother famous, his uncle a famous writer - I knew I was a dead pigeon.'

Quiz Show, not surprisingly, has been a riproaring success, even if its director Robert Redford has found himself in hot water because of it. Much given to pontificating about 'the loss of innocence' caused by media manipulation and the blurring of truth and fiction in the name of entertainment, Redford now stands accused of doing precisely that in his film.

Unquestionably, he plays fast and loose with facts and people: Joseph Stone, for example, is written out of the plot, while other protagonists have complained that their characters have been distorted beyond recognition. To which Redford retorts that the need to compress - and yet preserve his story's 'psychological truth' - makes such failings inevitable. Set against JFK - the tendentious pseudo-history by Oliver Stone - Quiz Show is a model of impartiality and accuracy.

Far more important though, the real life quiz shows are flourishing. The shame of Twenty One is but a celluloid memory. Jeopardy thrives, without a whiff of scandal. Even the staid Public Broadcasting channel, whose most recent contribution to American culture has been a lugubrious 18-hour epic on baseball, is getting in on the act. This week, PBS launches Think Twice, its first prime-time quiz show since the late 1970s. It is said to be brash, brainy and fun. I shall be watching. Meanwhile, 37 years on, Herb Stempel has just challenged Charles Van Doren to a rematch - with no cheating. From the fastness of Connecticut, there has been no answer, nor probably will there ever be. But for us quiz show addicts, that contest would be heaven indeed.