Living the dream: Paddy Duffy

April 18, 2011 in Culture, Quiz Show

Secret Fortune is a BBC/National Lottery game show that is broadcast on BBC One, on Saturday evenings.  Donegal native Paddy Duffy is a writer, working on the second series of the show.

I’ve written previously about my dream to someday invent the next Who Wants to be a Millionaire (and thus make my fortune).  With this long-standing ambition in place, you’ll guess how excited I was to find out that Paddy Duffy, an old friend and fellow alumnus of the NUI Galway Quiz Society, is currently a question writer on UK quiz show Secret Fortune. I had a little chat with Paddy last week and asked him to tell us all about it.

I admitted to Paddy that I hadn’t been too aware of Secret Fortune. I tend to change channel whenever I hear that a program related to the lottery (any of them) is coming on next. How does it work?

“So, as you do know, it’s in sync in with the National Lottery. People can win anything from £100 to £100,000, with 24 monetary values inside 24 envelopes.”

I interrupted at this point.  This sounds awfully like another, well-known TV show that I hate…

“Well the (prima facie) closeness to Deal Or No Deal is definitely something to be overcome, but the similarity begins and ends with numbers and opening things, thankfully!”

“In the first round, you get six questions with four answers. For each question, the contestants pick four random numbered envelopes.  Each of these will have a cheque for a mystery amount inside.  Now, the computer knows what envelope contains what so it links each number to one of the four multiple choice answers. The more right answers you get, the more money you’re likely to win ultimately, as you get to keep the envelope you selected after each question.”

Can you give us an example of some questions you’ve written?

“I’d love to give you some questions but the amount of secrecy surrounding them is a bit hilarious.  But, speaking generally, examples of questions used would be ‘Which of these Hollywood actors is tallest?’ or ‘Which of these companies was established first?’, that sort of thing.”

“The questions can really be quite fiendish, and that’s where it’s been great fun for me. There’s no such thing as just a good question, it has to be a good question with four plausible, well-spread answers, and it also has to be ‘fun’.”

The question itself has to be “fun”?

Boris Becker: "fun"

“Well, for instance, if you were writing a tennis question, Boris Becker is a more ‘fun’ option than say, Stefan Edberg.  Apart from being intrinsically wrong or right, answers also have an entertaining quality i.e. if a certain name comes up on screen, will the contestants be able to riff about them/it for a few seconds? For me, this is a challenge which makes it quite a different experience from simply writing ten rounds of ten and ‘off you go’!”

That makes perfect sense, now that you explain it. Anyway, let’s get back to how Secret Fortune works.

“In the second round, the contestants whittle down their six remaining envelopes to one by giving answers related to the least, like “Which of these football stadia is smallest?” or “Which of these singers is younger?”  Again, as long as you keep picking the best answer, the more money you win (as you get to hang on to the better envelopes).”

“At the end of the show, the contestants have one envelope remaining.  Whatever’s in that is what they win.”

This certainly sounds better that Deal or No Deal. And more “fun” too, if I may.  At least in Secret Fortune you need intelligence and tactical awareness to do well, as opposed to dumb luck. But I digress.

How does one get a job as a quiz show writer, Paddy?

“Well, I only got involved two weeks ago, as a writer for the second series.  I found out about it by ‘dumb luck’ through a friend.  I applied with a CV, cover letter and some sample questions and, hey presto, a phone interview and a meeting in Omagh later and it was all sorted!”

“We’ve written a massive stockpile of questions already, it’s just fitting them into the eight shows of the series that’ll be the fun part! The whole thing goes through an exhaustive process and questions can change wildly or just get straight-up torpedoed in a flash!”

And you still can’t give us a hint as to some of the questions you’ve come up with?

“No.  But I will have some gas stories for you in a couple of months!”

Finally, for those of us with dreams of someday creating a quiz show, have you gained any inside knowledge since you’ve started working on Secret Fortune?

“Hmmm.  Getting a show on TV?  It’s a byzantine route riddled with protocol I’m still trying to work out myself.”

Someday, Paddy. Someday.

As well as creating questions for a living, Paddy Duffy writes a weekly blog on Irish politics.  Check it out at:  If you’d like to find out more about Secret Fortune, visit the show website.

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