Justin Lee Collins talks to Unreality TV about new show Heads Or Tails

by Gerard McGarry

Justin Lee Collins

If someone were to call Justin Lee Collins’ new gameshow a load of old toss, he might take it as a compliment – the show is called Heads Or Tails and is based on the long-lost art of coin flipping.

To celebrate the launch of the show on 20th December on Five, Justin will be attempting (with the help of the public) to make a new World Record for the most coins tossed simultaneously.

What we’re here to talk about today is that you’re spearheading an attempt to set a record for most coins flipped simultaneously.

Most coins flipped. Yeah, it’s a Guinness World Record attempt which is taking place in Covent Garden, Thursday next week (17th December2009) at 10am. So we’re trying to get as many people down – or up, depending on where they’re coming from – as possible for this monumental world record attempt.

How many coins flipped do you need to break the record?

Well, it’s based on numbers really, so if we can get a thousand people there, all flipping coins at the same time, I think that will be a world record. I’m not sure if there’s an existing world record we have to beat – this could be a first.

Well, I did a little searching before this conversation, and I couldn’t find any existing record.

There you go! We can’t fail!

Have you guys been in touch with Guinness? Do they have an adjudicator coming along?

Yeah, I believe we have an adjudicator coming along, I’m pretty sure we have one coming along – this is official Guinness business! And I’m a big fan of Guinness, I find myself on official Guinness business quite a lot!

Are there any weird rules – like, does everybody have to catch their coin?

That’s a really good question. It’s interesting, because this ties in with the game show, Heads Or Tails, which I’ve just done, which starts on Five on 20th December. I never dropped the coin once in eleven shows – we did ten shows plus a Christmas special.

I did a lot of flipping and I’ve yet to drop the coin. But on our show, if I had have dropped the coin, it still counted. If we were playing the game and you called ‘Heads’ and the coin dropped to the floor, it still counts. Now, whether that applies to our Guinness World Record attempt, I’m not sure. I think I’d have to go to Guinness to find out what the rules are. But if it’s like the TV show, if you drop it, it still counts.

This has got to be the first ever game show based on coin-tossing…

Erm, yes. As far as I’m aware, it is. It’s a brand new format that’s been piloted in several countries, but we’re the first to ever take it to air. It’s the most simple gameshow format that’s ever been devised, and that’s why I love it.

Do you know the show, The Cube on ITV1? I did the pilot of that show for Channel 4 and Channel 4 passed on it. It ended up on ITV1 with Phillip Schofield presenting it. So, this is the first game show that I’ve ever been involved with that’s actually made it to the air with me still involved.

What’s great about a game like Heads Or Tails is that it’s gimmick free – there’s no device, there’s no gimmick, there’s no conceit. You pick your number and once you pick your number I take a five pound coin out of my pocket and ask you the question, “Heads or Tails?” You give me your answer and I flip the coin. If you’re right, whatever’s hidden behind that coin comes into play – it could be £100,000. It it’s £100,000 we flip to win it, or we flip to move it into your bank or jackpot fund. At the end of the game, after 12 flips, however much money you found we will then keep flipping and try to double your money all the way up to £1 million.

It’s an incredibly simple device – and it’s on for an hour, so I’ve got a lot of time to fill. That’s great for me though, because it gives me an opportunity to do what I do. And that’s talk to people and try and connect with people and just have fun.

And each show, there’s only one contestant on each show – I love that. It’s not like Millionaire where you go as far as you can with one person, then they walk away. In this show I go all the way with one person at a time.

Sorry, what you said there was “I go all the way with one person at a time” – I’m totally quoting you on that!

Please quote me on that, it’s why I gave it to you! I demand to be quoted!

When I was reading over the concept for Heads Or Tails, I couldn’t believe that the show was so straightforward – I was looking for a trick or a gimmick.

The trick is, there is no trick. We make a virtue of the fact that this game is random. So I keep saying to the contestant – like at the start we have the pick a number section – pick a number, flip the coin.

When we recorded the show, we had some journalists up and they played the game, and each and every one of them got really into it, because when you’re up there under the spotlight, the simple question ‘Heads or Tails’ and the decision that you have to make, can be really difficult for the person who’s under the lights in front of the studio audience.

People get really involve with such a simple game that’s completely random. For instance, we invite the audience to shout out numbers or heads or tails or whatever. I remember at one show there was a man in the audience who was screaming at the top of his lungs, “SEVENNNN! SEVENNNNN! SEVENNNNN!”. And I stopped everyone and went to the guy in the audience and said to him “Seven, sir? Why number seven?” And he went, “I dunno…” I loved that, I absolutely loved that. People get so involved – they’re screaming numbers, they’re screaming ‘heads’, they’re screaming ‘tails’.

Up on the big screen, we have the history of what’s happened in the game so far. So the contestant will look at their history and see that they’ve had six flips and they only called tails once and it was wrong, but every time they’ve called heads, heads has always been right. And I’ll allow that to play out, because it’s interesting to see that process and what they’re thinking. But then I’ll stop and say “Gerard, just remember that this game is completely random. It’s heads or tails.”

We don’t try and dress it up with any science or any cod psychology. It’s all out there for everyone to see.

I think it’s great that you feed the contestant all these statistics about their coin tosses, then tell them essentially that it’s all random anyway. The statistics must give the contestant a feeling of control over something completely random…

And the wonderful thing is, you hear these wonderful things like people saying you should always go heads. They say, “I’m sure I saw a programme once where they sliced a coin in half and the heads side of the coin is slightly heavier.” And I’ll go “What the hell are you talking about, that’s ridiculous!” One side of a coin’s not any heavier than another side of the coin!

When I was first brought in to the production company who make this show to talk about the possibility of hosting it, we played the game in an office. I played the game with one of the producers on the show. And it worked, because you immediately think “Hang on a minute, Heads Or Tails, how long’s this show on for? AN HOUR??? Of just flipping a coin?” But when you play it, and you’re involved, you completely get into it.

Do you have the Millionaire-style tension music?

We’ve got what we call tension-grams and I have a magnificent shaft. I refer to my magnificent shaft a lot throughout the show. I’m not sure how much of my magnificent shaft is going to make it in, because it was on display quite a lot. But yeah, we have our tension music and this wonderful blue shaft of light. The lighting on this show is amazing – we have one of the top television lighting designers in the world – this guy does the lights for the superbowl.

I’d never met Al the lighting guy, but I’d heard we had one of the best. At the end of the week, a gentleman came up to me on the studio floor and introduced himself. He said “Justin, nice to meet you. I’m Al, and I just wanted to say that’s my shaft!”

He’s the man who very graciously lent me his shaft. But yeah, the lighting’s great, the tension music. It’s like Millionaire standing up, I suppose.

Let’s talk about your celebrity guests on the show and how they’re involved.

Well, they have to have a connection to the contestant. I could give you a list of celebrity names, people who came onto the show, and honestly it would seem like the most random list. But with the exception of the celebrity episode at the end of the run, each celebrity guest has a connection to the contestant. So they’re not just completely random celebrities just brought on for the sake of it.

For example, one of our contestants when she was a kid, she was a junior athlete and a hot prospect in one particular track and field event. And she was coached by someone very famous and very successful in that particular event.

Now, the lady contestant in question hadn’t seen her particular coach for about 15 years. She got to about 13, received a shoulder injury and had to retire from the sport. So, we bring out that famous celebrity athlete who coached her as a kid, who she hadn’t seen since she stopped training.

On paper, that celebrity guest would be completely random and you think “Why bother? That’s not a particularly good booking, what’s happening there?” But each celebrity has a connection to the contestant, and I think that’s important.

Yeah, normally when you see a celebrity guest, they’re there to flog something. I like the idea of them being connected to the contestant.

Absolutely right, the only reason they’re there is for the contestant. They’re not coming on to plug.

It’s weird, because there’s an element of chat show to this game, because there’s a lot of talking and connecting with the contestant. When the celebrities come out, we kind of have a plug-free chat, which is really nice, because they know they’re not coming on to talk about the book or DVD or TV show. They’re coming on purely to surprise the contestant and help them make a decision.

Also, we bring out surprise family members and friends, people the contestant isn’t expecting to see, so you get that nice Surprise, Surprise moment as well.

You’re probably best known for co-presenting the Friday (and Sunday) Night Project with Alan Carr. Are you two likely to work together again on a TV project?

I would say at this stage, it’s unlikely. Al’s one of my best friends. The Sunday Night Project will be back next year with new people. They’re recasting that show, so it’ll go on. It existed before me and Al, so it will exist after us.

Al’s one of my best friends, so I still see him socially. But working together, highly unlikely. He’s still contracted to Channel 4, I’m contracted to Five and when that contract’s up I may give telly work a rest for a while.

I’d read that you were thinking of taking some time out. Will that be a permanent retirement or will it just be a year or two rest?

I don’t know really. It’s difficult to say – we all make plans but how often do we keep to them? So I can sit here now and say in three years time I’ll be done with telly. It’s easy to sit and say that, but if we get to 2012 and I’m working on a show that I absolutely adore and someone says “We love the show and we want you to do more.” Am I gonna turn round and say “No, I had this three-year plan and I’m sticking to it. So long suckers!”

I don’t know, but the plan is to certainly step back and take a break from television and perhaps concentrate on musical theatre. That’s where my passions lie at the minute.

You did a show about that recently. Did that spark your interest in musical theatre, or was the interest there before you did the show?

No, it sparked the interest. It was a weird moment for me, mate, because we did it for a documentary series I did for Sky One. In the West End one, I auditioned for Chicago and I got the part and I did those three shows.

It was a weird thing when I stepped out on that stage. I’d wanted to perform when I was a little boy, but I was never specific about what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be an actor, or I wanted to be on telly. Then when I was a little bit older, it was radio and I loved radio and I did hospital radio. I never, ever wanted to be a stand-up comedian, but I ended up doing that for a little while.

Anyway, when I stepped out on that stage in the West End, something clicked, and it felt absolutely right and it took me back to being a kid. I has this feeling of “This is it. This is the thing.” They’ve asked me back to do a run, but it’s just a matter of time, and I don’t think I’m gonna have time to do it in the next two years.

Right, last question – your big catchphrase is “Good Times, Bad Times”. Where did that come from?

It may have come from Kris Kristofferson, who wrote a song called For The Good Times. I’m a massive country music fan, and that’s a classic song. Perry Como does a lovely version of it – if you go out and buy Perry Como’s greatest hits and that song’s on there, you should listen to it. (Here you go, readers and Perry Como fans)

It’s weird, because it was never intended to become a catchphrase. It was just something I said to be positive!

I’d always assumed it was a Led Zeppelin reference?

Well, there is that as well, because I do love Led Zep. It was just in there. It was just a message and it kind of stuck. But I have to credit Led Zeppelin and Kristofferson for it, particularly Kristofferson, because I’ve always thought he was a very underrated songwriter.

I’ve never really listened to his stuff – I promise I’ll YouTube him straight after this!

Aw, mate. Sunday Morning Coming Down is another one to look out for.

Isn’t that a Johnny Cash song?

No WAY!!!! It’s Kris Kristofferson! Johnny Cash did a version of it. There you go! I love Johnny Cash. Kristofferson has written so many songs that other people have made famous, but that was a Kristofferson song!

Justin, I could talk to you all day. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today!

You too mate, have a great Christmas!

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And there it ended. I have to add a little footnote to this article to say that Justin Lee Collins is just abuzz with positive energy. He has been totally added to my “Celebrities I’d Buy A Pint For” list!

Don’t forget: Heads or Tails: The Big Flip will take place at 10am, Thursday 17th December, 2009. For further information and competition rules, please see http://www.five.tv/headsortails.