Wiped Out

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understandinguncertainty.org was produced by the Winton programme for the public understanding of risk based in the Statistical Laboratory in the University of Cambridge. The aim was to help improve the way that uncertainty and risk are discussed in society, and show how probability and statistics can be both useful and entertaining.

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[Times, 17th December 2011]

It’s all my daughter’s fault. She thought it would be a good idea to apply to be on Total Wipeout as a father and daughter team, so we sent in our forms with 10,000 others and forgot about it, and then the next thing I’m in Argentina risking my body and reputation. And sanity. All part of the modern academic’s job, of course.

For mature people who need it explaining, Wipeout is a TV programme featuring a colourful post-modern assault course. Its essential narrative involves getting (occasionally deluded) adults to big themselves up about how cool and strong they are, and then to utterly belittle them by beating them into exhaustion with fiendish devices that involve repeated falls into water and mud. This is all accompanied by a relentlessly derisory commentary by a studio-bound Top Gear presenter (who has never actually done the course). It is staggeringly popular with children, and those adults who have not grown out of slapstick. Like me. As my alter-ego is ‘Professor Risk’, I considered it an obligation under my terms of employment that I should apply.

The auditions were terrifying. Queues of egocentric applicants in fancy dress, each with precisely one minute to impress the producers. The horn goes, I run towards a producer, whom I note is dressed as a tiger. I identify myself as a Professor in the University of Cambridge, which he might have guessed as I am wearing full academic dress – suit, gown, mortar-board, OBE, the lot. I ramble on about how I do lots of work with schools and how Wipeout is a great example of the positive side of risk: just going for it full belt in spite of not being at all sure of the outcome.

Then, for reasons that escape me now, I try to stand on my head. I can normally do this OK but had not practiced with all the garb I am wearing, so I end up waggling my legs in the air, mumbling incoherently under the gown which has now completely covered me. The horn saves me from any more of this pantomime, and I rather unsteadily get myself upright and look hopefully at the producer: he says he has never seen anything like it in his life, and I am through to the next round of then audition. Then an obstacle course (also completed in gown and mortar board) after which yet more applicants get discarded, and a filmed interview. And so a few weeks later I find myself way to Heathrow to meet the other 19 contestants in the first episode of Winter Wipeout, all hoping to be the one who goes home with £10,000.

At first sight these other hopefuls seem to consist only of achingly beautiful young women and cool muscly men: I am 40 years older than the young contestant and I begin to wish I had applied for Round Britain Quiz instead. But amazingly they were all very friendly and utterly without pretensions – I have rarely laughed so much as in the 5 days we spent together. I think ours was the ‘odd-job’ programme: apart from me there was a penguin-keeper, a wrestler, a criminal detective, a teddy-bear-maker, a voice-over artist, a boxer and a professional poker player. A producer told me later that they only choose nice people who will look after and support each other – they don’t want the usual reality-show conflict. Just humiliation.

So we all flew off to Argentina for the weekend – apparently this is not to get around Health and Safety laws but for economies of scale as many countries film their own versions at the course outside Buenos Aires. But it is definitely risky, with frequent bruises and a couple of fractures last year, and there are numerous doctors and divers on hand. I then realize I have not completed the University of Cambridge risk assessment for field trips, but have no idea how I would describe this activity anyway.

The top 12 of the first course get through to the next and more punishing round - I had done my research and reckoned that I had to do around 3 minutes 15 seconds to get through, and so I had trained doing exactly this period of exercise, and then to collapse gasping in a heap. Not quite an Olympic regime, admittedly, but the best I could manage.

I have rarely been so terrified as waiting to start. There is no audience there, just the bored Argentinian film crew who has seen it all before. Best to try and forget the 8 million or so people who will watch it later, willing you to fail. And no practice. So I just set off, trying to avoid the moving obstacles that are controlled by some remote maniac. Then bang - into the water. Swim to the side, climb out and bang – in the water again. And again. And again. It then finally dawns on me why everyone looks so utterly exhausted doing the course : running along and being bashed is easy, it’s all the swimming and climbing out that grinds you down. But I keep muttering the mantra, ‘keep going, keep smiling, no swearing’ – even without sound one can upset lip-readers.

Then it’s time for the legendary Big Red Balls. Four huge padded balls that you can, in principle, leap over rather than plummet off without dignity, always repeated in slow motion, into the water below. I had studied the form: 2.5% of contestants had managed to get across, just 1 in 40, and they were young and fit, and I’m old and a bit fat, so I didn’t think I stood a chance.

But I am not going to say how I did – whether I cross those Balls, defeat the Ski Lift, reach the final to be shot out of a catapult through a ring of fire, and go home with £10,000. That will be revealed tonight on BBC1 at 6pm. But I can admit that I did survive, thanks to the padded body armour, although it was genuinely tough. They put my daughter in a different episode, and she survived too, but I am not going to say if she did better than me.

It’s taken 35 years of solid toil to build my professional reputation, and it certainly would be a shame to see it go down the toilet in a few minutes. But frankly the experience would almost make it worthwhile.

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