Michael McIntyre came up with the idea for his new TV show while sitting in the bath.
Surrounded by bubbles, soothing music and pina colada-scented candles (if his baths are anything like ours), the comedian developed the basic format for his new BBC One game show The Wheel.
“I was thinking about the evolution of entertainment television, and how there have been so many talent shows,” he explains. “And I just thought, there haven’t been many brand new formats for game shows, and they’re so well loved. So I thought, I’m going to try and think of one.
“So I thought of two in the bath,” he says. “Literally within moments.” One of them was The Wheel, which begins on Saturday. “I also had another idea, not so good, that one didn’t go anywhere. But that’s on the back burner!” he laughs.
Usually at this time of year, McIntyre would be gearing up for a new series of his Big Show; the phenomenally successful variety programme which has been a staple of BBC One’s winter schedule since 2016.
It’s a huge hit with viewers, and you can understand why. McIntyre’s endearing, family-friendly personality, fused with some ingenious features like the Midnight Gameshow, Send To All and Unexpected Star of the Show, make for a hugely enjoyable format.
But, the 44-year-old explains, the impressive viewing figures the show gets mask scepticism from some members of the public.
“I’m used to cynical viewers with the Big Show,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve met a single person who believes any of those things are real. They’re always like: ‘Come on, those Unexpected Stars know [what’s happening], you tell them don’t you? You tell them on Send To All, they know.’
“And I’m like, they don’t know! We’re not allowed to do that, and it would be too difficult to set up anyway. There’s always a slightly natural cynicism.”
Send To All sees a celebrity send an embarrassing message, written by McIntyre live on stage, to every contact in their phone book. Unexpected Star, meanwhile, involves a member of the public being lured to a particular location under false pretences, only to find out they’ll be performing live to the nation at the end of the programme.
The Big Show sadly cannot return this winter because having a full live audience currently isn’t possible. Other TV shows have tried to persevere without one, with mixed results. But the Big Show’s format depends so heavily on surprising or playing tricks on audience members that it can’t operate in the social distancing era.
And so McIntyre’s new series is effectively taking its place. The comedian recalls: “It came to me as a sort of human roulette wheel. A wheel is something that’s been used very many times in game shows anyway, the randomness and excitement of where it could possibly land. So I just thought of putting people on the end of it.”
Celebrities sit on the outer ring of the giant wheel and try to help members of the public, who sit in the middle, to win money by answering general knowledge questions.
The great and the good of the celebrity landscape make up the guest helpers. Gemma Collins, Roman Kemp, Gok Wan, Stacey Dooley, Chris Kamara, Pat Sharp, Maura Higgins and Richard Madeley all appear as the celebrity experts.
It looks like an enjoyable show to have filmed, which was confirmed by one of McIntyre’s sons who rode the wheel during a set visit and declared it “the most fun he’d had in ages”.
McIntyre jokes: “Having cancelled two Orlando trips this year, it’s turned into one spin of the wheel on a television set at Bovingdon Airfield.”
Saturday night television is, of course, notoriously difficult to get right, as the BBC’s former director general Greg Dyke pointed out in 2018.
“The problem for both BBC One and ITV is that getting a new show to work in such a competitive slot is incredibly difficult,” he wrote in The Radio Times. “Which means Saturday nights are mainly filled by old favourites like Casualty, Strictly and The X Factor, and new shows are usually doomed to failure.”
He continued: “If you look back to Saturday nights over the decades, only a few entertainment shows have taken off and then stayed… It’s hard to come up with a [successful] programme that was created in the last decade, with the possible exception of The Voice UK, which has been a moderate hit on both BBC One and ITV.”
It’s certainly true to say that the TV schedules are still littered with old favourites like Family Fortunes, The Cube and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? However, newer game show formats have launched recently and enjoyed moderate success.
The Hit List, presented by Rochelle and Marvin Humes, went down well with viewers when it debuted in 2019 and is now in its third series, while the Stephen Mulhern-fronted Rolling In It was recently commissioned by ITV for a second series. Whether any of these newer formats will stand the test of time, of course, remains to be seen.
McIntyre says he was hugely relieved that The Wheel’s format worked when it made it to the studio. Before that, during the planning stages, he says: “I was worried about everything, these spinning celebrities, how fast it would go, are there motion sickness issues and how does this thing even get built?”
He’s equally as concerned about viewer cynicism as he was on his Big Show. “I’m so worried that people will think in any way that The Wheel is fixed, because it’s completely random… The game only works when it’s completely random,” he says.
“And that’s why it frightens me, I said to the producers, ‘So we’re doing 10 shows, what if nine of them have no winners and it’s a disaster?’ But it’s the same thing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, what if everybody only gets a grand? What if everyone is in the 1p club on Deal or No Deal? It is what it is, you’ve just got to see what happens.”
Kate Philips, the acting controller of BBC One, says the series came along at precisely the right time, as network execs attempted to find formats which comply with current guidelines.
“A few months ago, when Michael McIntyre and Dan Baldwin [of production company Hungry Bear] brought us this show, we loved it straightaway,” she says. “But little did we know then it would be the perfect series to make in socially distanced times. Because that’s what it is, the set really allows that.”
The biggest drawback for McIntyre has been not shooting in front of a live crowd. “There is a studio audience but they’re not with us, they’re all in masks behind a wall,” he explains. “It’s a very bleak situation, I’m so grateful to them for coming.
“I love audiences, I did the Big Show in a theatre for that reason. I don’t want to be in a studio, the more people laughing, the more relaxed I’m going to be.”
Like every other celebrity currently promoting a TV show or film, McIntyre highlights that entertainment can be the perfect “escapism” from the ongoing pandemic.
“You look at how amazing Strictly is, it’s like a national service that TV show coming back on air and giving people something to smile about, nice warm colours, smiling faces, competition, and all the things that make that show so wonderful,” he says.
“This is my very small role to play in this really tough time that everyone’s going through, just to distract you for a little bit of time.”
Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel begins on BBC One at 20:30 GMT on Saturday.