A mammoth disappointment

With the excitement of Channel 4's Mammoth Autopsy, not to mention the recent unveiling of Lyuba, I find myself travelling back 14 years, to the time I had my only run-in with exceptionally preserved Ice Age giants. It was part of a strange TV show called 'Whatever You Want', and the Coventry Evening Telegraph (May 27th 2000) described my episode thus:

"Four history buffs will also be competing to be the first member of the public in the world to visit the woolly mammoth which was discovered frozen in Russia" 

A Mammoth Disappointment

I woke up at six-thirty in an unfamiliar room. My head was pounding, and strange images zipped confusingly around my brain. Two in the morning? Outside a strip club in central London? Standing with a safari park elephant keeper who’d just won a trip to Siberia to defrost a 23,000 year-old woolly mammoth? And a drunken businessman across the road who swore I was Steve McManaman? What on earth was going on?

And then I remembered. I’d had my 15 minutes of fame.

These days, anyone has the potential to be briefly famous. The speed at which it all happened to me was still surprising, though. Tuesday afternoon, I’m sitting in the palaeobiology lab in the LapworthMuseum when Jon, the curator, comes in and tells me Hat Trick Productions are looking for contestants on “Whatever You Want”, Gaby Roslin’s Saturday evening BBC1 game-show; Friday afternoon and I’m going to be on.

It all started here.

I'd never watched the show, but I knew roughly how it worked. Some people battle it out to win their dream prize, usually something along the lines of having Boyzone sing live in their living room, or getting to swim with dolphins. Apparently, my dream prize was to go to Siberia and help excavate an extinct relative of the elephant that had been dead rather a long time. The fact I was unaware that this was my dream prize didn’t seem to worry the researchers. They said that as long as I came across as being keen all would be fine. Filming was going to be the following Thursday, so I had six days to practise my lying.

You need to be at The London Studios, Upper Ground, London, SE1 on Thursday 27th April at 12.30.”

So I arrived at Euston station on the morning of filming to find a man holding a placard with my name (or an approximation of it) written on it. As he also drove a large car, the balance of probability suggested he was my chauffeur.

On arrival at the studios a researcher will meet you in reception and take you to the studio, so please make yourself known to the receptionist.”

I made myself known to the receptionist and sat down. Nothing happened for a while, until a tall, blonde girl appeared and told me to follow her. Eventually I was ushered into a small, green room and the girl vanished. This was the mythical and fantastically-titled Green Room, after-show hangout for all big-time celebrities.

My fellow contestants were already there: Sandra, a telephonist at the West Midlands Safari Park, Ryan, the elephant keeper at Longleat Safari Park, and Ian, an internet fossil dealer. I half-expected to find that they had all spent their whole lives dreaming of defrosting mammoths and would stop at nothing to claim the prize, but they turned out to be as bemused as me.

A non-mammoth at Longleat Safari Park.

Kelly, the main researcher, then came in and said hello, made sure we all had drinks and sandwiches, and began telling us what we were going to be doing.

Please bring with you the outfit that you would like to wear on the show…we may provide clothes for you if this is needed for the game that you will be playing.”

We were taken up to wardrobe. We didn’t know what humiliating challenge awaited us, but whatever it was, apparently we had to dress up as Arctic explorers to do it. Sandra and I were the yellow team, Ryan and Ian the reds. With garish puffer jackets, tight-fitting woolly hats and ski glasses we looked like the Ali G Appreciation Society, which seemed fitting as we’d just seen the cast of the 11 O’clock Show in the canteen.

After donning our costumes, we went off to see the set. It is said that TV makes things look the wrong size and it’s true - the whole studio seemed fairly compact and the audience seating area didn’t look too daunting. Gaby Roslin – also a bit different from her screen version – laughed at our being slightly overdressed.

Rehearsals were fairly vague, with the four of us being told where we had to walk on, where we had to stand, and how we should try to look. Then we got the chance to try out the mysterious mammoth game we were here to play.

Out rolled two large wooden platforms, covered in layers of cotton wool and fake snow. As pairs, our task was to be the first to collect six pieces of fake mammoth tusk, buried in the snow, and stick them together in the right order on a tusk-shaped template. Sounded fairly straightforward, but we had to do it in a certain way. All six pieces had to be collected before any could be stuck down; cotton wool layers had to be rolled and not torn apart; and both partners had to collect pieces from their side of the board. I managed to half-demolish the set when the platform Sandra and I were on suddenly began rolling away, and I also managed to tear apart various layers of cotton wool, but we were assured that all would be fine when it came to the real thing.
Mammoth tusk: the real thing.

We sat around for the rest of the afternoon, spying on the other competitors and working out whether any celebrities were going to be on. Then we grabbed a bite to eat, changed into our outfits and walked onto set.

You can bring guests, but we have to limit the number to four…They should arrive at the London Studios for 6.00pm and go to the main reception. They will be met by a member of the production team and taken to the bar, before being seated in the studio.”

The studio lights were incredibly fierce and it was a second or two before my eyes had adjusted. Crikey! There are three hundred people out there! And most of them are looking at us! We sat down self-consciously, still not sure what we were letting ourselves in for.

The warm-up man came on, trying to get the crowd going. By the time the first contest started he'd half-succeeded. On stage sat three small children dressed in Biggles-style flying gear, their task to smash plastic bottles against a large model aeroplane suspended from the ceiling. Whoever scored the most points got to name a Virgin jumbo jet.

Much smashing and missing occurred, followed by periods of clearing-up. Eventually, a winner was named and Gaby ushered on a motorbike and sidecar to whisk away the lucky child to the airport. Well, the motorcyclist turned out to be Richard Branson, and he gave holidays to Orlando to all three children, as well as a boy with leukaemia in the audience. What a gent.

I'd have called it Hunkerton Fitzpatrick.

The next event was a quiz involving two girls who liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer quite a lot and one sixteen year-old lad who was obsessed. It was memorable only for the fact that when he won (by a country mile), he ran around the studio for about ten minutes, whooping and hollering like a madman.

And then it was time to go backstage. Microphones fitted, we stood either side of a flimsy wood partition and waited for our call, at which point we were to run onto the set, waving and smiling. We managed the running bit, looked fairly pleased as we did so, but the waving was right out. Even my levels of self-ridicule have some limit.

We were introduced in the briefest possible manner – I was “Liam, a student from Leicester” – and before any of us had spoken a word we were manoeuvred into position for the game.

Not surprisingly, it was all over in a flash. I vague recall barging Sandra aside in my desperation not to be beaten, but it was too late. As we picked up the six fragments and ran to the stand to reconstruct the tusk, I could see that Ian and Ryan had nearly finished. Sandra and I began stabbing the pieces of tusk onto the Velcro, hoping that by sheer luck we might catch up. Then the crowd cheered and Gaby shouted “Stop!” and it was all over.

Building up the tusk was challenging.

We trooped offstage. The warm-up man made a derogatory comment at our expense but I could barely be bothered to respond. I’d managed to get on TV but then hadn’t spoken a single word to anybody whilst the cameras were switched on. I’d wanted to dazzle the watching television executives with my natural flair for the big screen. Instead all I’d done was smile a bit and then leap around haplessly in polystyrene and cotton wool for two minutes.

I was just feeling sorry for myself when I discovered what Ian and Ryan had to do to win the star prize. They were each to be given a block of ice with two toy mammoths frozen inside, and the first to free the mammoths with an ice pick would be declared the winner. This was going to be too funny to miss, so Sandra and I got permission to return to the studio and watch the mayhem from the side of the stage.

Gaby asked the two chaps a few questions as to why they really wanted to win ‘the trip of a lifetime’ and then edged nervously away as they took their places and put on their protective goggles. Three! Two! One! Go!

Free the mammoth! (image from an Ice Base tutorial)

Immediately, the set became carnage. Chunks of frozen water flew in all directions as Ian and Ryan began obliterating the ice. The audience, who by all rights should have been fed up with enthusiastic cheering by then, hollered for all they were worth. Sandra and I tried to be fair and shouted for both contestants, but just when it looked as if a winner was going to emerge, it all went a bit wrong.

Ryan had freed one mammoth and was in sight of the finish when he managed to knock a smaller block of ice, containing the second toy, onto the studio floor. Almost immediately, Ian did the same thing. They then began smashing the grounded ice, and the studio manager ran onto screen, calling a halt to proceedings. After a tense couple of minutes, it was decided to put the small – and now mostly melted – pieces of ice back on the table and restart the game.

Once the contest began again, it took about three seconds before Ryan won. The elephant keeper was off to defrost a mammoth!

We should finish filming the show by 10.00pm, at which point you and a guest will be invited to join us in hospitality for a drink.”

We all did this, before Ryan and I were whisked off to the luxury of our Travelodge near Tower Bridge. We propped up the hotel bar for a couple of hours until a crazy businessman latched onto us and persuaded us that we wanted to go into central London for a few more beers. Once in the taxi, it turned out that he wanted to find a strip club. Ryan and I were less keen and once we stopped at a rather dodgy looking venue, we decided to turn right round and drive back to the hotel. Ryan had to get up at 5.30 the next morning for his train (the Longleat elephants couldn’t last another day without him there to keep an eye on things) and we were knackered.

The show will be broadcast on Saturday May 27th on BBC1 at 17.30.”

And this was the strangest part, as it transpired there was no actual mammoth. Apparently, when Ryan went out to Russia, the frozen lump of permafrost didn't have a pachyderm in it, just a few bits of hair and teeth. I don't think that part made it into the final edit.