What goes around - the Wheel of Fortune returns

GIDDAY NEW Zealand, and welcome. If you can answer these questions, you could be the stuff of game-show greatness.

1.Which celebrity couldn't spell awesome?

2. How did game shows in the 90s signal a small triumph for women's rights?

3. Where in the world is Sale of the Century's sliding Steve Parr?

If you've got the answers, you may have the smarts for a game show like Wheel of Fortune, which returns to our screens tonight (April 13) after a 12-year hiatus. If not, you've got some swotting to do because there is a lot more to know about small-screen gems such as Face the Music, Mastermind, Jeopardy, Blind Date, Celebrity Squares and by hokey New Zealand It's in the Bag, than just cheesy music and prizes. Much more.

New Zealand's iconic presenters and contestants say the shows are also about laughter, iconic moments, controversy and jangled nerves all delivered in a laidback way that celebrates the New Zealand spirit.

It's the Kiwi contestants who bring success to the programmes, says Simon Barnett, 41, who's presented "just about every game show going". There's nervousness and excitement. "You can imagine them ringing all their friends, their parents. Their wives, who say `don't forget to watch'."

Barnett will never forget one contestant who, on Face the Music in the early 90s, fainted and then disappeared into the bowels of the set.

"I could see his eyes rolling back in his head. I thought, this guy just looks really crook, you know? And then he absolutely, completely fainted in front of me and he fell off the set. And in the set, around the outside now this is true were these huge, big inflatable tubes. The whole set just enveloped this guy.

"He just completely disappeared... and the other two contestants, I kid you not, looked at him fall into what was effectively a bouncy castle and then they look straight back at me and wanted the next question. They just didn't care, they were just so anxious to win the points.

"I said `boys, you better stop recording, there's a guy who's fainted' ... We did have to stop recording and bring him round and he carried on. But he didn't win. But we gave him a consolation prize."

It's not always the ordinary folk who deliver the memories.

Former TVNZ sporting presenter Phillip Leishman presented Wheel of Fortune for about five years from 1991, and says boxing superstar David Tua made history by asking for O for awesome on a celebrity show.

"I was walking through the LA airport last weekend, and there was this guy wearing an O for awesome T-shirt," Leishman told the Sunday Star-Times from the US, where he is producing his golf show from the Masters in Augusta.

Leishman says Lana Coc-Kroft was one of a few Wheel of Fortune co-hosts in the world given a speaking role a fact picked up when they attended the game-show's 10th anniversary in the US in 1992.

"A reporter asked the hostesses `what's it like being on the show and you never get a chance to speak?' Lana told them she did, and the next day she was invited on to Good Morning America, the breakfast show, and interviewed about her role."

The most memorable image from Kiwi game shows, says Barnett and new Wheel of Fortune host Jason Gunn, will always be Steve Parr sliding across the screen on Sale of the Century. That simple gesture even inspired the name for Christchurch indie pop/rock band The Steve Parr Slide.

The Star-Times caught up with Parr, 52, in Brisbane where he works with home building company AV Jennings. He's chuffed at the band's name, and reveals the slide was his idea; he surprised the producers with it a few weeks into the show.

"On the 100th episode I went a little too far and literally slid past the podium and ended up on a heap on the floor. I just picked myself up and carried on."

He suspects foul play, but says mistakes sometimes pay: "I got paid about 400 by British television to put me on Bloopers."

Parr says that although Sale of the Century was one the most exhilarating experiences of his life, he doesn't miss the lack of privacy that came with it before the top-rating show ended in 1995. And he's still getting recognised.

"I work in a display centre for new houses, and probably every fourth person who comes in is a Kiwi and it's `gidday Steve, what are you doing here?"'

But when it comes to Kiwi hosts, Selwyn "What will it be, the money or the bag?" Toogood is the most remembered and respected.

"Selwyn, he's king and always will be," says Parr.

Toogood, who died in 2001 aged 84, hosted It's In the Bag on radio and then, for seven years until 1979, on television alongside a run of four pretty co-hosts.

"I was the first bag, if you will," says Heather Eggleton, 59, who describes the programme as a stage show observed by television cameras.

Eggleton, living on a farm near New Plymouth and still dabbling in film and television, remembers Toogood as a man who worked hard, and who always put on a shout for the make-up girls and tea ladies.

"I'll always remember the last show. It was highly emotional for Selwyn. He was piped into the Dunedin Town Hall. I've never seen him so nervous so I gave him one helluva wink, and that was it he got on with his work. An absolute professional."

Eggleton says memories of It's In the Bag will fade as those who enjoyed it die out. However, she believes the Kiwi love of gambling will always give game shows a place in our lives.

Former presenters say New Zealand is ready for the return of game-show madness, but Gunn says Kiwi expectations are now higher.

"It's no longer, insert pretty girl in a pretty dress. You can't get away with that now.

"Yes, they could spend our budget in an episode in America, but bigger is not always better. It's not the fact it's a game show, but it's a Kiwi game show. There's a natural Kiwiness about it. The contestants don't hold back on enthusiasm."

Ah, the contestants. Who can forget Ron Meijer, whose Australian twang momentarily cost him a $33,000 Mitsubishi Magna?

Meijer, 48, says he said Crosby, Stills and Nash. The Wheel of Fortune judges say they heard Crosby, Steels and Nash.

"I had the flowers from Lana, all the accolades, the audience was ecstatic. And then they said I didn't win it, and we had to re-tape the end. The audience left in disgust except for three people the next two contestants and one of their grandmothers," says Meijer, who lives in Motueka.

A little wrangling on the Paul Holmes' show gave Meijer his metallic green motor, but he's still smarting.

"It was gut-wrenching. I won a car, and 15 minutes later they took it off me," he said. "It's like winning Lotto and then saying `hang on mate, the ball was weighted incorrectly so we're going to take the $1 million back'. I still get angry.

"It was a bad experience for not only me but my family my wife was gutted, and it lasted months for her."

However, for Hamish McDouall, winning on Sale of the Century in 1989 and Mastermind a year later secured his future. The Whangarei writer and lawyer says the wins worth more than $90,000, and which came when he was 20 and 21 enabled him to see the world, and stay at university.

Among his haul, New Zealand: cash, the Mastermind chair, a leather lounge suite, video, spinning wheel, appliances, a year's supply of peanut brownies and a porcelain fantail.

"I think the fantail is under a bed."

Win, lose. The game show is about Kiwis putting themselves on the line for entertainment. And, as Barnett, revealed when he was playing for a car for a woman on a Wheel of Fortune celebrity show, it's all about running with the Kiwi sense of humour.

"I could see it [the answer] was `Papa was a Rollin' Stone'. I was so excited. I was almost wetting myself on the podium. I said G, and was buzzed out. R-O-L-L-I-N'. And I said G. I mean, what an idiot ... and I lost the car for this poor woman."


Sunday Star Times