Some TV programmes are works of art, each camera angle honed to perfection, with an eye on digital posterity. Other shows are churned out to fill airtime, week in week out, in the hope that a decent-sized audience will tune in. Pointless is in the latter category, a conveyor belt of a quiz churned out to fill the teatime slot on BBC1, and rightly popular too. More than 800 episodes have been screened since the show started in 2009, and 210 more are currently in production. And that means a lot of seats in the audience to fill, which seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.
Yes of course you can come, said the email from the agency, here's your free e-ticket for next week. Recording takes place at Elstree Studios, beside the cavern where they film Strictly and just up the drive from the Big Brother House. It doesn't take long to get to from St Pancras, plus a sharp walk down Borehamwood High Street, past the Tesco car park where George Lucas filmed Star Wars. They always over-ticket TV shows in case not everyone turns up, so it's important to arrive early enough to get a place but not so early as to drain your life. Ten minutes early would have done in this case, but half an hour early turned out to have a bonus later.
Once the cheery queue staff have done their stuff it's time to thread in past security, no patdowns required, and queue up outside the toilets. You are advised to 'go' at this point, which is better news if you're a man than a woman, purely in terms of available space and potential length of wait. After a suitable pause the crocodile is led on down a narrow covered walkway between two of the older studio buildings. It's not at all glamorous back here - much of the gap is stacked with portakabins - but it doesn't need to be because this side of the enterprise won't ever be appearing on TV.
Pointless is filmed on Stage 8, a slight comedown from the days of Television Centre, but a large enough (and importantly air-conditioned) space shrouded in black drapes. And OMG there's the actual set, or rather a swirl of hanging tubes and fabric above a cluster of podia, not especially impressive in real life but readily transformed into a glittering backdrop via the magic of TV. Rising in the centre is the giant accumulator tower, or whatever name you'd give to an electronic cylinder that flashes downwards. And there's Alexander's lectern, and ooh there's Richard's desk, plus a complete crew standing all around to make things work.
Only the first half of the audience gets to sit in the swoosh of plastic chairs on the studio floor, while those who arrived slightly later join some more ordinary seats stacked a few rows behind. End up on the back of the front section and you'll appear in several overview shots, especially when the boom camera swings rapidly overhead, so watch out for the back of my head on TV when the latest round of filming is aired. It's mobiles off and no photos please, for copyright reasons, unless apparently you're the slightly whiffy man to my right who grabbed a trio of snaps while nobody important was looking and has presumably already uploaded them to Facebook.
It's not long before the warm-up man comes out, his job to keep you awake and perky during the breaks in the three hour shooting schedule. He's not bad, indeed you'd hope not by now because he's had almost 150 shows to hone his technique. We practice the mounting "oooh" of excitement as the scoretower drops, and various appropriate levels of applause, before performing for the approval of the floor manager. During recording he'll be standing at the back and clapping when we're supposed to clap, while a handful of camera crew stand poised to pan, zoom and focus. And yes, there's an autocue, with lettering so large it's barely possible to read four words beyond what you're reading out, which must be hard.
Before long out walk the day's first set of contestants, that's four sets of two, familiarising themselves with the layout of the lecterns. They stand patiently while the make-up team lock-spray their hair into position, or alternatively pat down their bald heads to avoid undue shine, before eventually Xander and Richard emerge to unprompted applause. Yes Mr Osman is indeed as tall as they say, as is evident when the pair go over to meet the contestants a few minutes before they'll pretend never to have met them before. Positions taken, spotlights set, and the umpteenth recording of the month gets underway.
Alexander beats with his hand while the theme tune plays, while Richard taps his fingers, none of which you'll see on screen because graphics are swirling in their place. But then the script is up and running, delivered as if the experience were fresh rather than utterly formulaic, and mixed with off-the-cuff banter that's sometimes very clever indeed. And this chemistry between the two lead players is why Pointless still works after seven years, this and the fact we can all shout out answers at home - something we've obviously been forbidden from doing in the audience.
The first question has clues that are a bit of a mouthful, so a number of quick repeats are needed to ensure that all the dialogue has been recorded properly. Somewhow it's a lot tougher to come up with the answer in the studio, even though we're not the ones being grilled.... I know the second one down, it used to be on Channel 4 in the late 90s, what is it what is it? The contestants have a tough baptism after this question has been displayed because they have to talk about themselves for a minute (or two) before being asked for an answer, diverted onto jobs and hobbies when they'd much rather be mulling over potential answers. One duff offering with a thoughtlessly high score and your screentime will be minimal.
Between rounds the stage hands come out to whittle down the podia one by one, with appropriate electrical skills to ensure the wires still work in their adjusted location. The most awkward juncture is before the head-to-head where blue and yellow surrounds have to be added, which gives the warm-up man slightly longer to tell his jokes. This must be pretty distracting for the contestants too, because they're not the target audience of his japery but have to listen all the same. Still, the "What's My Sandwich?" game goes down well, indeed the floor manager and our two hosts also chip in with a guess, before lambasting the selected audience member for his M&S lunch deal choice.
We'll be in the studio for twice as long as today's two episodes will appear on screen, so quite a lot of what we're watching will get cut out. Unscripted chats last longer than you'd expect so that only the wittiest segues need be kept, plus some of the remaining filler if the show looks like running short. I note that contestants get to think for as long as they need, in the early rounds at least, their unhurried bluster to be edited out later. And you know that bit in the final round where the last pair give three answers and these appear typed up on screen almost instantly? In real life it takes 30 seconds, this to ensure that each film actor or capital city has been spelt properly, which is another piece of magic ruined.
During our recording all the stock phrases are trotted out - will the next contestant step up to the podium please, and by 'country' we mean a sovereign state that's a member of the UN in its own right, but you have at least won a Pointless trophy. A reference is made to the 2016 party leadership elections, and to one of Richard's recent tweets, which may look quite out-of-date by January when these episodes are due to be transmitted. And between episodes the sound engineers have a sense of humour and play music relevant to the questions that have just been asked, hence a nice dash of 1998 Britpop, and a Eurovision favourite, and the theme tune from that movie one couple knew inside out.
It doesn't take long before you think you know some of the contestants quite well, especially those that come back for their second chance in the second half of the recording. That Essex couple couldn't have been from anywhere else, and the Northants pair let fly a risqué anecdote whose unspoken conclusion has us all a-titter. There is a point in proceedings where Alexander and Richard sign books that fans in the audience have brought in, or in one case a CD, so do bring yours if you're keen and coming. But Londoners are in a minority in the public seating, with most couples and groups driven in specially from rather further afield, perhaps as a birthday treat, or even flown in from as far as Northern Ireland or Australia.
We're delighted when the session ends with the Holy Grail, a final round with three Pointless answers! This time the applause is entirely authentic - they won't need the cut we pre-recorded earlier - and a foreign holiday can now be taken. We file out into reality again and switch our phones back on, passing the next audience already queued up by the railings for the next recording marathon. It's been a pleasure to spend three hours in the presence of professionals, but they've still got three more to go, and most of next week (and most of September) to get this latest batch of quizzery in the can. If you fancy watching for yourself then tickets are still available, and it's a nice way to get a smidgeon of your licence fee back whilst being pointlessly entertained.