An Interview With “The Bank Job” Creator David Flynn
We’re working hard to bring you the biggest news and interviews from the game show world, and given our continuing effort for BuzzerUK, we’ve been watching Channel 4′s The Bank Job closely. We’ve got an interesting response from readers who have watched, so we wanted to be sure to talk to someone involved in the George Lamb hosted show. We were lucky enough to have the chance to speak to The Bank Job‘s creator David Flynn about the logistics of shooting a game show in a real bank, comparing this to other shows by David including Pointless and Million Pound Drop, and what influenced the changes he made to the second season. We’ve also got exclusive information on what to expect for the finale.
My text is bold and labeled AD. David Flynn is listed as DF.
AD: Thanks a lot for talking to us today, David. We really appreciate it.
DF: No problem at all.
AD: This first part just comes from my American perspective. When The Bank Job was first announced…when we first heard about the bank heist theme, just from the American perspective, my first thought was, “Well, it’s just going to be a set that looks like a bank.” I was unbelievably impressed to see it was a real bank. It was great to see. I don’t think we’d see that in America. What was it like putting that together?
DF: There’s a reason game shows are typically made in studios.
DF: It’s incredibly difficult to do in a real location. We really liked this idea of doing the show in a real bank because it felt…it would feel different. It would feel much more like an event and there’d be a new level of excitement in this real space with real history to it.
The first challenge was finding the right space, and there aren’t that many empty banks around. We had a great locations guy looking for us. In a way, we were probably at the stage of, “OK, if we don’t find somewhere in the next week we’ll have to a studio,” and then this bank turned up and it’s right in the heart of the city of London. When we walked in, the first thing I thought was, “Oh christ we’re going to really have to make it from a bank now.”
DF: It is really impressive and there’s so much you can do with it. From that moment it was really about the logistics of how we make something work in terms of running a game show from the bank. What we needed to do is build this vault within the bank itself, and it’s made to match the bank…but work for us in a game show sense. We had to work with the way the bank looked in order to do this. The bank itself is grade 1 listed, which is a UK thing. I imagine you have a similar thing in the States…it’s basically protected because it’s such an old building. It’s protected so you can’t put anything on the walls, hang anything, damage it at all. It’s a criminal offense. Our set designers had to work quite carefully to how to put it together, so it has harmony with the bank itself but doesn’t damage it.
Being in the heart of the city of London there’s no parking so there’s no place to put the truck…to do the live show. Not only are we in a real location but we’re also live, so we had to build the gallery within the bank itself. We found some rooms and soundproofed them and built it on that ground floor…the old bank manager’s offices. basically. We had to bring the satellite dish on and put it on the roof because all the buildings around there are quite tall. It was a bit of a crazy, major operation but well worth it because I think it gives it a different feeling that it’s in this real space and it feels like an event of a game show.
AD: Definitely. Again, I don’t think many people really expected it to take part in an actual bank. It makes it more unique and memorable than a typical studio quiz show. Beyond the look of the show, as a producer, how much of a different task was it to do inside this physical place, like the bank, instead of a TV studio?
DF: There are challenges from the producer’s point of view from doing it in a real bank. You have to work quite hard with lighting
and sound cues to get the same effect you might have in a studio environment…because you’re in this huge, vast space. You have to play with sound and light. It’s almost harder to get the same effect. In the second series we worked really hard on making clear visual and audio cues for each of our moments because of this space. I think there are challenges from the pure logistical point of view. This bank is sort of in ruins so outside, what you see on screen…there are quite a lot of areas you can’t go in, that are dangerous to [go in]. You have to work around that.
Once you have it all set up it becomes more like a studio record in the sense that our cameramen are there, cameras are set up, crane is set up so we can get sweeping shots. Once you’re sitting in the gallery you quickly forget and get into the game which is what it’s all about. I think it’s everything around that that’s made more challenging by being in this real space…not least that there’s only one set of toilets and they had to be unisex difficult for any crew.
AD: *laugh* I can imagine. Did you have the basic idea of the show first and then put it in a bank, or did you have the bank idea in mind first and then the ideas flowed with it?
DF: Actually it’s the former. My team here are constantly trying to come up with game shows. We’ve done shows like Pointless and Million Pound Drop. We’re constantly trying to come up with the next game. Essentially we spend a day playing games and trying out new games and seeing what we enjoy which is not the worst way to spend your day.
DF: Really, The Bank Job, before it took on its bank setting, had three different iterations and three different settings, none of which quite worked right and it was a long time to develop the game play to work right. Simultaneous to thinking we got there on the game play, we had the idea for this world that works. On game shows you try to have something at their center which is recognizable…which becomes your star in a way. Whether it’s Golden Balls with our golden balls of cash, or Pointless with the cylinder in the center or Million Pound Drop with the million pounds in cash and trap doors. It’s more than just a question show and there’s something physical at heart and it makes you stop when you’re changing the channels. The big thing for me was the idea of these safety deposit boxes. It’s something from the world of banking you recognize, but it was felt like something we could really make work from the game show tension point of view. That was, for me, the moment we’re saying, “We have this game we know that works but we have the world to set it in and the objects to set it in.”
AD: This is the first show I can think of…well Million Pound Drop works a lot with social networking, but The Bank Job was the first one that I can think of that really just used the online game to get people. You had to play the game and do well at it even before you got to apply. Was it tough finding contestants that played the game well online, but translated well to television?
DF: Yeah…having done Million Pound Drop we wanted to move things forward with The Bank Job and how we use online to interact with the television show and bring in the audience…a step forward form how we did it on Million Pound Drop. On The Bank Job we took what was a huge risk, really. We launched this online play-along which is, for the first time, the only way to apply to be on the show and you have to perform well to get your place, which felt like a huge risk. Unlike Million Pound Drop, to unlock the application form, you have to perform well. The big risk was if we got this game wrong…the show’s screwed. It was all due a month before the show. You just had to do it or not. There was no middle ground. You either bite the bullet and say, “This is what you’re going to do,” or you don’t. So we did.
Firstly the big risk was our time scale was quite constrained. We had eight weeks to turn this game around and a month before the show when the game launched. It couldn’t drop back any further because we needed to cast this thing. Secondly, if the game is no good then no one’s going to watch the show. People will go, “Well, this is no fun so I’m not going to bother watching the show.” The third thing is we had to make sure there was mass audience. As you said, it was all about getting the right contestants. If ten geeks played their game in their bedroom and then applied to the show, we’d struggle getting the contestants you care about. It’s good to have a few geeks in there but you want a good mix…a good spread of the country. It was a good risk.
What we figured it is if we can hit around 5,000 minimum in the first week we’d be OK. We launched and we were getting 4,000 applications a day which is huge for a show that no one has heard about. I’ve never had anything like that on any of my shows. I think the reasons for that are a couple of different things. The game is very addictive. Myself and my team worked very deeply with the team to build this game and the digital team and Endemol to make sure it was a genuinely addictive thing. We also, quite interestingly…when we came up with the idea of casting for this show through this game we hadn’t worked out the end game, so we worked it in tandem so it would work on TV and online as an end game. It comes across…it works as well as it does on TV and it does online.
The other thing we did was then promoted the show and game heavily in a way you wouldn’t promote an online thing. We had live trails on the back of our Christmas strip of Million Pound Drop and we trailed this game that was launching just before the break and after the break we’d update with some of the stats at that moment, and I think that’s why so many people started applying and getting through. But the strangest thing was that…possibly I don’t think most people don’t know how to apply to TV shows. I think they want to but they don’t know how to. This made the process visible. Even though it was more difficult than most TV shows to apply for we had more people doing it because they could see the process.
AD: You at least get some knowledge base of who’s playing since you know how these people perform beforehand. You know the type of player they are. That has to speed up the process, I’d imagine.
DF: It does because…there are two aspects to that really. The first is we know this is a game of strategy and a game that you can play many different ways. No two ways are the same. We wanted contestants who could talk intelligently about what they are doing from the start. Since they played the game online they already had a strategy going in. We had some proper addicts coming on…people that have played over 300 times. The other aspect is the game records how you do. We know if you’re a fast player, a slow player, how tactical you are, and how smart you are. This helped with casting. It doesn’t stop anyone from being cast but we are able to look at how they did and feed that into the show itself.
AD: You brought up the end game, and I just have to ask. As I read your bio you’ve done quite a few shows that have had this sort of finale like Shafted; Golden Balls, which I was a big fan of; Divided which isn’t the same exactly but it has the same level of backstabbing. Which, Divided, by the way, has one of my favorite endings on any show ever. We really loved that show.
AD: We had a clip from Divided up from the second series where people were arguing after losing all their money for minutes after time was up, and we never had more hits for a video than that. But one of the strongest reactions we’ve had in years was the season one finale of The Bank Job where they basically shafted each other out of nearly a half million pounds. Were you shocked by that finale? I, at least, wasn’t expecting that.
DF: Yeah, we were absolutely shocked. That gallery, at that moment, was…the director was calling shots like normal and the rest of us were going, “Oh my god,” many times. It’s a mad game, this one. As you said it’s something we’ve used on different forms in Shafted and Golden Balls. I think the two things that were really different here is the amount of money involved and the fact we’re doing it live, and the three contestants that could win if you try to double cross each other. It gave a really interesting, different feel to it.
On Shafted or Golden Balls when people shafted each other, it’s a down moment. Here, you have the three in the lobby celebrating and in there it’s a kind of amazing atmosphere. You saw it on George Lamb’s face when it happened. He couldn’t believe it. It’s a funny game, this one. It does play with your mind. They’ve each got their own explanation and who knows the truth at the end. In the end, with those two together, I’m not sure there was going to be any other result, in retrospect.
AD: I don’t know if you can really say, but to me it was almost the possible outcome for entertainment. You saw them do that, but you saw the other three win. It was strangely gratifying. Did it work well for you in that regard?
DF: I think, with that amount of money, any outcome would have been incredibly powerful. Had one doubled crossed the other it would be, “I can’t believe what he’s done.” If they shared it would have been a lovely moment. What was interesting from a purely creative point of view was having done this similar end game in Shafted and Golden Balls, this was the one ending we could never have done because we never had the three people that could win the money. It had a different feel. With that amount of money, though, and live, it would have been amazing no matter what.
AD: It was definitely amazing, but I just could not fathom doing that to someone else. About £235K…that’s pretty good to me.
DF: When you put it like that there’s nothing else you can do and it’s mad that two rational human beings could do something else.
AD: That’s funny because, I believe it was on Twitter, but one of the contestants wrote that he could see it in the other’s eyes that he was going to Trash, and he didn’t want to give him all the money.
DF: That’s what he said afterwards, too…but it’s easy to say that afterwards.
AD: I don’t know if you can say this, either, or if you’re saving it as a surprise but are you bringing anything like that back at the end of the series?
DF: This series we are having the shows self contained on Friday’s and Saturday’s. The championship didn’t make sense. We will have a kind of finale with the best champions coming back. We haven’t decided just how that forms but I’d love to do that ending again.
AD: It’s something I don’t think anyone who watched will forget. It was very tense. We got to see the new series and I like some of the additions like the Bankrupt which makes it a lot tougher to decide what to do, and the Steals all the way through. How did you decide what should stay and what should go this series?
DF: We did the first series as a six night strip and there’s only so much tweaking you can do since you’re on night after night. We thought the Steals were so much fun it would be great if they were on earlier. The only reason we probably didn’t do that earlier in the series is that we didn’t want too much complexity up front for the viewers. The second series, it felt like they were very familiar and bringing them in would make the round very difficult. You want even the best players to be on their toes in the first round.
The Bankrupt is something we’ve toyed with for a while. For me it came from, actually, what you want with a ten episode run is some real moments of surprise and game variations and the Bankrupt does that. On last Saturday’s episode we had a contestant make £43,000 and leave, leaving his opponent in the vault with, I think over 30 seconds to make the money. She started making the money and hit with about 12 seconds £42,000 so she’s a grand off. Gets the next question right, still 10 seconds left, and hits a Bankrupt and that was such a moment. It was the surprise that suddenly your fate can be turned on its head that appealed to me about the Bankrupt. So all those tweaks came from us observing the game play and we asked how we can twist the knife a bit and have fun with this.
AD: We saw that moment. We were very shocked at it. On the first episode I think the Bankrupt was hit when someone had nothing so you had no idea how it would work or not. However, when you saw this happen, you knew it worked from the entertainment standpoint. It was one hell of a moment. It’s one of those moments, if this wasn’t live, that would have been spoiled in promos. What was the decision like to go live instead of taped, since most game shows of a similar format decide to go to tape? Why the switch?
DF: I suppose that comes from originally making Million Pound Drop. The original thought of doing Million Pound Drop live was that the audience has started becoming a little knowledgeable and cynical about game shows. Millionaire, in its time, felt like an amazing live event even though it wasn’t. Now it’s if someone won big you’d have heard about it. I loved the idea of Million Pound Drop originally that we, even as a production company, don’t know if we’ll give away a million tonight. It gives a real reason to watch and makes people watch now because anything could happen. To us it felt the same for The Bank Job. It was actually happening right now, that I could make it down there myself in a week’s time, the questions are all things that happened this week…there’s something that live gives you that makes it a more compelling watch. To me there’s something that goes beyond the real and practical. There’s something inherently exciting about live because you know it’s happening right now and it’s what makes these primetime shows more of an event than a daytime show.
AD: No, I understand what you’re saying. I remember when Million Pound Drop came to America, those who saw the original British version were confused about the lack of live play-along of any kind. They made a lot of strange decisions but it felt like it was missing something not being live. It’s like you said. If someone won big, we’d have known. It’s the inherent way publicity works for shows. Do you think you need the live interactivity in game shows now to connect to audiences?
I think what the play along gives us is a sense that there’s an entire community watching. Even if you aren’t playing I think you feel part of something bigger than just a game show experience. I think there’s something above and beyond the ability to just play along. We’ve done this show pre-recorded as well as live, and it works pre-recorded. I don’t think live is an absolute must-have, but it needs unexpectedness. As long as you feel like anything can happen…that’s the most important thing.
Photo and video courtesy Endemol and Channel 4