The Beast unleashed: GSN show brings quiz champion Mark Labbett to AmericaWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
They call him “The Beast,” and when you see him on a television screen, you understand why.
Standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighing in at more than 300 pounds, the mammoth quiz master named Mark Labbett is a titan of intimidation in his native Britain. Years of competing in trivia contests solidified his reputation as a virtuoso, leading to his role as one of the brains-in-residence charged with defeating contestants on the ITV network game show “The Chase.”
Sitting above his challengers with a manner befitting a monarch overseeing his kingdom, Labbett and his three quiz-brain counterparts have dispatched players for six seasons now, steadily growing an audience en route to becoming one of the most popular daytime shows in Britain. International versions of the show have begun to sprout up all over the world. And now, as “The Chase” comes to America via a new production on cable network GSN, Labbett — The Beast himself — has come with it.
But surely this “Beast” persona is simply a character for television, right? Labbett the person can’t be the same as that bombastic, sneering know-it-all who crushes contestants’ dreams with little remorse, right? It’s all an act, right?
Well … yes and no.
Turning the volume up
“Everyone always says, ‘How do you manage this character?’ I say, ‘What character?’” Labbett said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star.
“To me, the big secret is — I like to watch biography shows and stuff. And I remember there was a show about Stone Cold Steve Austin. And somebody came up with one of these lines — the simplest lines are the most profound — and they said, ‘The best wrestlers are themselves, but with the volume turned up.’ And I always took that line as, I’m basically being myself, but with the volume turned up, with the brakes slightly taken off. So, whereas in ordinary life, I might think it, but I wouldn’t say it, on telly, I think it, clean the language up and say it.”
The sheer size of Labbett, a former rugby player, also contributes to the intimidation factor.
“TV’s a visual medium, you’ve got to put on a show,” Labbett said. “I’m never going to be a very pretty boy, but I’m a very big boy — and being a visual medium, that’s the thing that comes across.”
Labbett’s nationality may also help him establish a rapport with new American viewers. From Simon Cowell to Gordon Ramsay, a slew of opinionated, mean-spirited Englishmen have appeared on domestic airwaves in recent years — a trend that Labbett is happy to capitalize on.
“That’s Hollywood. The very fact that they got tired of shilling Nazis as the bad guys, and they can’t use Soviets anymore. And almost by default, the Evil Brit’s become the next stereotype,” he said. “I don’t care. It’s paying me money; I can live with that!”
Cut to the chase
Such international fame has come fairly unexpectedly to the 47-year-old Labbett. His career path had swung in a very different direction prior to the 2009 debut of “The Chase,” as the Oxford graduate had spent the majority of his life as a math and PE teacher. But then again, given another of his lifelong pursuits, maybe it’s not so surprising after all.
“I’ve always been keen on quiz and game shows,” Labbett noted. “As a kid, I used to watch them. When I was younger, in my 20s, there were these trivia machines at bars where you paid money to enter and use the chance to win money. I was pretty good at them, and had a second income, in effect. So I’ve always been a decent player. I started playing on the national quiz circuit in Britain, and I think my best ranking was about 13th.”
Though his reputation as a quizzer was on the rise — with several appearances on other national game shows under his belt — Labbett was not one of the leading candidates to be cast when “The Chase” was originally under development in the UK.
“When they started looking for the people to do the show, they started off by trying out the winners of a show called ‘Mastermind’ in Britain, which is sort of like our gold standard quiz show, the equivalent of ‘Jeopardy,’” Labbett said. “The guys who won that show are pretty good players, [but] they’re not exactly big personalities. And so they then asked, ‘Who’ve you got on the national circuit who’s a decent player, but can be a little bit scary, confrontational, abrasive?’ And for some reason, they all pointed at me. I don’t know why, but they did.
“When I went along to the audition, understanding a little bit about theatricality — most of these guys turned up wearing a suit or something. I came out wearing a sort of Soviet army-style grey coat. And when I went in there, I ducked my head under the door frame; the coat comes swishing in after me like Darth Vader’s cape. And I chatted to the original producer, and they said, ‘You know what? You had the job at that point.’ And that was before they realized I could also answer questions.”
Coming to America
Labbett was one of the initial cast of two rotating “Chasers” who would compete against players in an effort to deny them winnings. He has remained a mainstay on the show ever since, even as the number of episodes and the number of cast members have both expanded. For four years, Labbett has remained one of the series’ most popular figures, his face and “Beast”-ly nickname becoming pretty synonymous with the show.
Despite Labbett’s success on British airwaves, his position as the domestic version’s villain was not guaranteed. When the American “Chase” was first developed last year, two pilots were filmed, testing two individuals in the role — one with Labbett, the other featuring all-time “Jeopardy” money champ Brad Rutter.
“Brad’s a really nice guy, and brilliant,” Labbett said. “But what it came to be was, they liked my character just a little bit more than Brad. And unfortunately, the drawback of being on American television is, you tend to be … a clean-cut, nice man or woman. And so, paradoxically, the kind of thing which may be good for shows like ‘Jeopardy’ made it difficult for him to be a Chaser. Because you have to have that slightly mean streak about you.”
Though in structure the American “Chase” is mostly identical to the original — a reduction in the number of players and some cosmetic changes aside — the new show has proven to be a very different experience for Labbett. On the ITV original, he’s one part of a larger cast. In America, he’s the show’s sole antagonist and, along with host and former “Baywatch” star Brooke Burns, the focus of the whole production. Not surprisingly, Mark admits to thoroughly enjoying the change.
“Obviously it’s kind of nice to have the increased role over here in America. It brings a different kind of pressure. In the British version, it’s fair to say that — much as we get on together and like each other’s company — there’s a competitive edge and we all want to be the best Chaser, the one that’s winning the most games. Here, it’s much more relaxed. It’s about producing the best performance.”
There are still more adjustments to be made for the big man in the days to come, not the least of which involves plugging American-sized holes in his encyclopedic trivia knowledge.
“While my knowledge of the rest of the world is pretty good, obviously there’s going to be a vulnerability to my game on purely American-style questions. For example, I got a question wrong on series one about a well-known ice cream company. And I was possibly the only person in the studio who didn’t know the significance of ’31 Flavors.’ And when I got it wrong, you almost hear every person in the audience going, ‘How could he not know that?’ And I’m going, ‘Never heard of it!’”
The chase is on
Labbett speaks very highly of the experience he’s had working with the show’s new American home.
“GSN, their support has been unbelievable. I can’t praise them highly enough. It’s like, the ITV guys back in Britain are saying, ‘Mark, don’t expect this is normal.’ They worry that I’m getting ideas about my station. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I kinda am!’
“The difference is, in Britain, it’s quite a mature show, and it’s very much just a job. You literally turn up, film the shows and go. And we were a sleeper hit for ITV, and it’s fair to say we’ve done literally no promotional work for the show in Britain, ever. You know, I think I’ve done something like two interviews in four years for the show. And we don’t do promos. But it’s all been word-of-mouth, gradually building up. We’re lucky; we’ve been building up an audience.”
GSN’s confidence in the future of “The Chase” is pretty clear — the network announced the series had been renewed for a second season a full month before its Aug. 6 debut. And for Labbett, whose year will be split filming episodes for both versions on either side of the Atlantic, that just means an even more hectic — and exciting — schedule.
“I think it helps that I’m single at the moment, because I think if I were married or engaged, then I’d be divorced very quickly. I was engaged a couple of years ago, to a young lady with slight jealousy issues,” he said. “I was in the car with Brooke driving back, and I just said, if I’d have shown a picture of Brooke to her, she’d have said, ‘You’re coming back to England right now!’”