Before They Were Famous

Good Game Guides - Articles



Fame. It's a fickle mistress. One minute you're the host of a popular ITV game show and the next you're doing amateur theatre in Godalming. But this Good Game Guide takes a view of the opposite side of the mountain. The North Face. The way up. For many wannabes, being a contestant on a high profile game show is a chance to be noticed by an agent, the newspapers or just have an extra 15 minutes of fame.

So we bring you our guide to celebrities who were on game shows before they were famous:


  • Stephen Fry appeared on University Challenge in 1980. His Queens' College, Cambridge team reached the final, where they narrowly lost to Merton College, Oxford.
  • Actress Miriam Margolyes appeared on the very first series of University Challenge (1962-3), representing Newnham College, Cambridge. She claims to have been the first person to say the f-word on British telly, after getting a starter question wrong.
  • Nicholas Crane, travel writer and the BBC's face of popular geography, was on the Oxford University team in the 1982 series of Now Get Out of That. He also (at least) once turned up to do a demonstration for the contestants on Survival Challenge which, not coincidentally, was hosted by his cousin Richard.
  • Documentary presenter Monty Halls (of Five's Great Ocean Adventures and BBC Two's Great Escape) won the 2004 one-off, Superhuman.
  • Before her acting career took off, Dame Maggie Smith was a hostess on Double Your Money.
  • Crimewatch presenter Rav Wilding lasted ten weeks as a contestant on 2002 reality flop Eden, and Johny Pitts was there from beginning to end.
  • David Spinx (EastEnders' Keith Miller) was a contestant on One to Win in 2000.
  • Not forgetting Janice Long who first appeared on 3-2-1 with her husband in 1978, later becoming a DJ for Radio 1.
  • He turned up on all sorts of things before graduating to actual presenting work, but we reckon one of Jem Stansfield's (Bang Goes the Theory, Planet Mechanics) earliest TV appearances, if not his very first, was as a technical expert on Scrapheap Challenge.
  • Consumer rights champion Dominic Littlewood appeared on The Other Half in 1999, two years before Faking It gave him his big break.
  • At the tender age of 14, Radio 1 DJ Edith Bowman sung 'Venus' on Grampian TV's New Faces copycat The Big Break in 1989. She didn't win her heat (coming joint fourth - a pianist won) but seventeen years later, ended up winning the Comic Relief version of Fame Academy.
  • On a somewhat similar note, Claire Sweeney belted out 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' in BBC North West's brief 1987 revival of Top Town and later finished as runner-up on the first Celebrity Big Brother (which was also tied in with Comic Relief).
  • Future Radio 3 and Classic FM presenter Natalie Wheen represented the Royal College of Music on It Strikes a Chord in 1967.
  • Konnie Huq was a contestant on Blockbusters in 1992, five years before she took up residence at Blue Peter. Her successor on the sofa, Radzi Chinyanganya, had made his television debut on the 2008 revival of Gladiators.


  • Arguably Steve Coogan came to fame partly due to his Krypton Factor observation round comedy skits.
  • Perrier-nominated comedian Daniel Kitson was a contestant on Blockbusters in 1994.
  • Ed Byrne appeared as one of the three singles on Blind Date in 1993. His answers were a bit rubbish and he was beaten by a fitness instructor/stripper who may as well have started every sentence with "I'm a stripper".
  • Maisie Adam took a minus offer on The Chase, and still lost.
  • Jordan Gray appeared on The Voice UK before she made it big as a comedian, and even got a record deal and released a single out of it.

Sports stars

  • Chris Rawlinson, top sprint-hurdler, made it to the last eight in the 1995 series of Gladiators.
  • Kelly Holmes, double-gold Olympian and last line of Britain's war defences, was scheduled to be a con-ten-derrrr in 1994. However, due to a sporting commitment, she had to pull out.
  • Louis Smith made The X Factor callbacks in 2009. He had already carved out a successful career as a gymnast, and won silver in the 2012 Olympics, followed by a Strictly Come Dancing glitterball.
  • It was almost inevitable that one of the competitors on Big Brother Celebrity Hijack would go on to greater things, they'd been chosen as high-flying young people. Contestant and boxer Anthony Ogogo won a silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, and in December of the same year announced he was turning professional.
  • Tom Moore, who ran a marathon in his back yard to raise money for the NHS, was a contestant on Terry Wogan's last Blankety Blank, the 1983 Christmas special.
  • The nation's favourite P.E. instructor and future guest Dragon Joe Wicks was on The Bank Job in 2012.
  • Kickboxer and controversial social media personality Andrew Tate was a contestant on Ultimate Traveller in 2010, and briefly on Big Brother in 2016.


  • Folk singer June Tabor captained the St. Hugh's College, Oxford team on University Challenge in 1968.
  • Jon Marsh, mainman of 90s pop-dance combo The Beloved ("The Sun Rising", "Sweet Harmony" - featuring Tess Daly in the video) was a Countdown octochamp in 1987 and made it to the semifinals where he lost to the eventual series champion.
  • Katie Melua won the "Stars Up Their Noses" talent-show segment of Mad for It.
Image:Sale of the century cowell.jpg
  • Top Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer wrote the theme music for Going for Gold.
File:Starforanight junior.jpgPublicity photo for the Star for a Night junior one-off, with Alexandra Burke at the bottom right.
  • Joss Stone won a junior one-off of Star for a Night in 2001. In that same junior one-off was Alexandra Burke, who won the 2008 series of The X Factor.
  • Olly Murs won a mere £10 on Deal or No Deal in 2007 and was told by Noel Edmonds, 'You do not have failure written over you'. This would prove to be prophetic as he later came 2009 runner-up of The X Factor. He later became the first, and to date only person to play the game a second time, when in April 2012, he returned to the Dream Factory as a celebrity contestant on Celebrity Deal or No Deal. Unfortunately his second battle with the banker ended worse than his first, as he left with 50p. In a twist of fate, had he swapped his box, as he did in his first appearance on the programme, he would have walked away with £10 a second time.
  • Shahid Khan, otherwise known as producer and rapper Naughty Boy, was more successful on Deal or No Deal, taking away £44,000. His winnings funded the home studio where he produced, among other things, Emeli Sande's zillion-selling debut album Our Version of Events.
  • Lola Young, from the first series of Got What It Takes?, stayed in the music biz. Five years later, she sang "Together in Electric Dreams" for the John Lewis Christmas advert.


  • Moira Stuart, the BBC newsreader who was originally an actor, was an Argond on The Adventure Game in 1980.
  • Alice Arnold took a remarkably similar path: the Radio 4 announcer and newsreader also started as an actor and one of her jobs was playing various alien characters on The Satellite Game.
  • Irish President Mary Robinson represented Trinity College, Dublin on University Challenge in 1966, alongside long-serving Irish senator and sometime presidential candidate David Norris.
  • Conservative front-bencher David Lidington captained the winning 1978 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge team on University Challenge and returned 24 years later to lead them to another victory on the University Challenge Reunited series.
Sebastian Faulks
  • Other University Challenge alumni include Clive James, Sebastian Faulks, Christopher Hitchens, politicians David Mellor and Malcolm Rifkind, historians Simon Schaffer (captain of the victorious Trinity College, Cambridge team in 1975) and Dr. David Starkey, journalist John Simpson, and children's author Robin Stevens.
  • Two government ministers and MPs came from the 1994-5 University Challenge series. Stephen Farry represented Queen's University Belfast. He was elected to the Northern Ireland assembly in 2007, becoming Minister for Employment and Learning from 2011-16. He later became deputy leader of the Alliance Party, and entered the Westminster parliament as member for North Down in 2019.
  • Kwasi Kwarteng won that 1994-5 University Challenge series as part of the Trinity College, Cambridge side, and generated headlines after using Miriam Margolyes's f-word twice on the programme. He was elected to parliament as the Conservative MP for Spelthorne in 2010, and occupied the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer for 38 days in 2022.
  • Aaron Bell was returned by the electors of Newcastle-under-Lyme in 2019. He already had a long and distinguished game show career - champion of The Krypton Factor in 2009, big winner on Deal or No Deal in 2006, winner of Only Connect with the Epicureans in 2010, and University Challenge runner-up with St John's College, Oxford in 2001.
  • Future Conservative minister Michael Gove appeared as one of a team of journalists ("The Wordsmiths") on Top Club in 1990.
  • On the other side of the house, Labour's Hilary Benn represented Holland Park School on Top of the Form in 1970.
  • Andrew Collins (pundit and 6 Music DJ) appeared with his family on Telly Addicts.
  • The late newspaper columnist and presenter John Diamond was a contestant on Countdown in 1986, winning two games.
  • Columnist and Nuts editor Pete Cashmore (not to be confused with the entrepreneur of the same name) was also on Countdown. He was champion of series 38 in 1997, and later sold his 20-volume OED for £1000 on eBay.
  • Labour party politician Kerry McCarthy appeared as another contestant on the daytime stalwart Blockbusters in 1983.
  • John Bercow, Speaker of the Commons from 2009-19, made his television debut on Crackerjack in 1975.


  • Anthony Morley was a contestant on God's Gift in 1996. He was convicted of murder in 2008. By coincidence, his victim, Damian Oldfield, was in the audience for Morley's show, having previously been a contestant himself.
  • John Cooper was convicted of two double murders in 2011. He had been a contestant on Bullseye in 1989, shortly before the second of these double murders, and the episode was used during the trial as evidence that his appearance at the time matched the description of a suspect given to police.

Members of the public

  • Teenager Janice Nichols became something of a phenomenon thanks to her catchphrase "Oi'll give it five", delivered in a broad Brummie accent, on Thank Your Lucky Stars.
  • Before appearing as a Housemate on Big Brother 4 and becoming one of Sky's Brainiac team, Jon Tickle appeared on Blockbusters in 1991.
  • Josef Kollar was a contestant on Countdown in 1982 before he became one of the regulars on Gogglebox.


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