At Late Night Letters and Numbers, hundreds of Fringe Festival attendees get together with paper, pens and pints to re–enact their favourite defunct television game show. They may not know it, but the simple games to which they pay homage have resonated across languages, continents, and generations.
The UK’s Countdown is one of the longest running television game shows. Over six thousand episodes have aired since its debut in 1982. That tally is dwarfed, however, by the French program upon which it is modelled; there have been over 20,000 episodes of Des Chi fres et Des Lettres, which has run since 1965. It is all the more reason to mourn that our national incarnation of the format was cut so short. In June of 2012, the SBS stopped production on Letters and Numbers after a comparatively measly 450 episodes. If the live late night incarnation is any indication, the people of Australia are unsatiated. In the years since cancellation, the cabaret quiz night has become a rallying point for diehards. The show is going on its fourth and fifth year in Adelaide and Melbourne respectively, and has just wrapped a debut season in Perth. It consistently sells out across the country and, while officially sanctioned, does not feature the original cast members. Rather, it is run by some savvy fans who snapped up the live performance rights while the program was still on the air, and showcases some of the biggest names in comedy at the festival. What kind of person parts with their money to see such a thing? It’s an amazingly diverse group of people of all creeds and ages, from parents with little children, to the elderly, to inebriated yobbos. “It’s remarkable how broad it is,” says the show’s host Nick Caddaye. There are a few possible explanations. “When the TV show was first on,” he says, “it was broadcast in the evening. But now, SBS are playing the reruns at three in the afternoon. You’re getting a weird cross section of people watching it.” It’s also re flective of the universality of the games. For the uninitiated, contestants draw nine letters at random and rearrange them to make the longest word they can. In the next game, they draw six numbers at random, and try and get them to add up to another randomly chosen number. You repeat them a couple more times, and then somebody wins. “It’s really easy to pick up,” says Caddaye. “ The puzzles are extraordinarily straightforward. Like all great games, it’s easy to learn but hard to master.” Unlike the ‘serious’ contestants on the original show though, Caddaye concedes that the comedians booked to play the live version – though entertaining – “aren’t always that good at it.” The show’s producer Julz Hay recounts one evening on which “Celia Pacquola was talking about being possessed”. “Then she asked for the vowels and constants, and it spelt out ‘ The Omen’ across the board.” Letters and Numbers is perhaps best remembered for its peculiar and hugely loveable hosts. The compare was the exquisitely coiffured Richard Morecroft, who carried himself with a gravitas not of this age. Somewhere between the comic and the colonial, he was politeness incarnate. The show’s mathematician Lily Serna, in what must surely have been a first for her profession, even became something of a sex symbol. There remain Facebook groups like I Love Lily Serna, Lily Serna to do a Swimwear Shoot?, and others with titles so lewd that they cannot grace the pages of this fine publication. Caddaye affirms that, “people are most disappointed when they come along to Late Night Letters and Numbers and find out that we have some old grizzled male comedian as our mathematician, instead of Lily”. “The television version is such a gentle game, and everybody is so positive,” laments Caddaye. “ They sit there having a jolly good time. Live, of course, there’s slightly more attitude.” The recent run in Perth, which was on very late indeed, apparently featured some audience members who were over-refreshed. One thinks the upcoming shows in Adelaide will, like the program being emulated and the city itself, be rather more genteel. Late Night Letters and Numbers The Science Exchange, 55 Exchange Place Until Saturday, February 27 (9.30pm) riaus.org.au/events adelaidefringe.com.au