Noel, moles and manifestation: What Deal or No Deal was really like

The iconic game show is back from the dead seven years after Channel 4 closed its money boxes. Tom Nicholson examines why the show was such a hit and how it can be just as successful this time around

When Channel 4 imported Deal or No Deal from the Netherlands in 2005, I was obsessed. I went to my mate’s 16th birthday fancy dress party as host Noel Edmonds, complete with Deal or No Deal box and stick-on goatee. I’d organise paper-based games of Deal or No Deal at the back of my history class: one classmate was the player, another The Banker, and I’d be in charge of revealing how much was in each box. 

It wasn’t the mysticism that drew me in, nor the increasingly X Factor-ish sob stories the contestants told Edmonds through the series; it was the simple tension of whether a normal person could judge when their luck would run out, and balance the weight of probability with their own daring. 

If you never watched it, Deal or No Deal – which is revived by ITV after seven years away, today – looks daft. There are 22 boxes, each worth a different amount of money from a penny to £250,000. The contestant opens them one by one, revealing which amounts they don’t have in their own box – that one is opened last. Unless, of course, they take a deal offered to see whether they can be tempted to stop playing the game and give up the chance of a bigger prize. Between 2005 and 2016, only nine people took home the jackpot.

Within the lore of Deal or No Deal – and it was one of the few teatime game shows to have actual lore – that jackpot was the personal fortune of a shadowy character called The Banker. He was just a voice on the end of a Bakelite phone, occasionally beginning calls to Edmonds following a disastrous round with a cackle. 

Games of random chance don’t tend to make for great TV on their own. Tipping Point is not in the same league, and The Wall relies on Danny Dyer remonstrating with that nutty, capricious wall. 

Deal or No Deal stood out against its competitors like Weakest Link and, later, Pointless by sidestepping the usual general knowledge quizzing format and flipping the dynamic from playing contestants off against each other to building a group of fellow travellers who hoped for the best against fate.

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Stephen Mulhern takes over hosting duties on ITV (Photo: Remarkable Entertainment/ITV/Rachel Joseph)

Games of chance are hard to get right – see ITV’s disastrous Red or Black – but you can see a little of it in The Wheel, which picks its contestants at random, and the elements of chance in The Wall and Tipping Point. At its height Deal or No Deal tapped into the same bit of the British psyche as the National Lottery, while tickling the bit which likes high camp too.

Because what made Deal or No Deal truly great was its unrelenting campness.

At the centre of it all was Edmonds, prowling the Bristol studio, blown-out hair resplendent and goatee sharp. Forget Swap Shop, Noel’s House Party and the short-lived Noel’s HQ, which crossed Oprah-style philanthropic stunts with Daily Express-style railing at PC gorn mad: this was peak Edmonds. 

Paul Gorton was 22 when he applied for Deal or No Deal in 2011, freshly unemployed and living at his mum’s house in Warrington with his girlfriend. His plan was to go on the show, make some money, and hopefully get spotted by an acting or modelling agent. “So I was like, this is a win-win situation: new career, and I’ll go and win 250 grand while I’m at it.”

Edmonds wasn’t exactly warm or witty with contestants, but the show needed to be sold by the kind of superstitious man who in 2008 claimed to have been visited by two “melon-sized orbs” which he said were his late parents. “Conventional photography can’t pick them up but digital cameras can,” he said at the time. 

The mystic elements were there from the start. Deal or No Deal had only been on for a year when Jon Ronson went behind the scenes in 2006, and found that many of its contestants looked to self-invented systems to work out which order they’d open the boxes in once they sat in what Edmonds referred to on air as “the crazy chair”.

“Some people were guarded over their tactics,” says Gorton. “Like, if I steal your tactics, then you won’t be able to win. This is such a random game! You can’t even have a strategy.”

Cooped up together in the hotel and green room in Bristol (the same contestants stay on the show for a week), there were two main topics of conversation. “The one classic was how much would you deal on?” says Gorton. “And the other topic of conversation was the mole – or moles.”

There were widespread rumours among potential Dealers that the production team were on the lookout for intel from the hotel. “It’s so weird when you’re outside of it, you go, how did I believe that? But when you’re in there, you go, ‘Do they? Have they got ears everywhere? Have they got microphones in the bedrooms?’” 

It seemed to have some merit, though. “You would kind of give a little bit of information away to someone privately, but then Noel would bring it up on the show. And it puts you in this weird state of paranoia. And because that hotel and that studio are your new worlds, you believe everything goes on in there.”

Gorton had mentioned to another contestant that his goal was £15,000; on his turn in the crazy chair, his first offer was exactly that. “As soon as it came through, I didn’t think about the money, I just thought to myself: ‘Oh my God, the mole is real’.”

The group stuck together nonetheless. “Everyone was just being nice there, there was no beef. And there was no bitching or anything, because there’s no competition. So there was no fighting, no squabbling.”

Boredom and a lack of distractions fed a sense of togetherness. “You’re just in a hotel room, and then you go downstairs and then you all have breakfast together, and then you all have your chats and you develop your little cliques, and then they have the dynamic, which is beautiful, of the mummy and daddy of the group… Honestly, it was so weird how ingratiated you become to our little cult.”

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Edmonds ‘manifested’ his Deal or No Deal job after the demise of Noel’s House Party (Photo: Channel 4)

Deal or No Deal was commissioned many years before “manifesting” became a household term. But Edmonds manifested it into existence. When Noel’s House Party started to curdle in the late 90s, he took it quite tetchily. He had enjoyed 14 million viewers at its peak, but by 1999 it was down to fewer than six million. “History will prove that House Party was one of the most successful entertainment shows of all time,” Edmonds said in a valedictory statement after cancellation, before blaming Ronan Keating’s talent show Get Your Act Together for dragging his figures down.

Having not been on TV for some time, Edmonds was introduced to former journalist Bärbel Mohr’s book The Cosmic Ordering Service by his reflexologist. Its tenets are simple: you write down the thing you want – not too specific though, because the cosmos doesn’t work like that – and wait for the cosmos to deliver it to you. 

Edmonds wanted to return to TV, and by the power of cosmic ordering, he returned to TV with a show which involved projecting a story and a meaning onto a series of boxes being opened in a more or less random order. Edmonds met any scepticism with breeziness. “Cosmos is just a word,” he told Ronson. “You can call it anything you like. You can call it Argos, or MFI.”

Deal or No Deal allowed Edmonds to reinvent himself: the increasingly strained wackiness he’d had to bring to Noel’s House Party was replaced by a kind of steely portentousness, as if he was presenting The Twilight Zone rather than a teatime game show.

“I don’t know whether that was just me, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off him,” Gorton remembers. “You know, some people are just born for the job that they’re in. He was born to be a host on that show. He did it so well.”

The twist the UK edition introduced was crucial, too. The boxes would be opened by other potential contestants, sequestering them all together in a Bristol hotel away from friends and family. That meant that come the recording, they really did feel each other’s highs and lows, and many looked for patterns and augury in recent players’ games. 

Gorton remembers that anyone not playing would have “eyeball conversations” with the player to attempt to wordlessly reassure them. When he was finally called to take the crazy chair, Gorton was “euphoric”. Then he switched into serious focus, and tried to remember his tactics. 

“Which is so silly, because there’s no strategy, there’s no game plan. How stupid can you get? Trying to have a strategy for something that is literally 100 per cent chance.”

The complete randomness of the game invited players to apply their own rituals and logic. One player Ronson met decided that box number 18 would most likely hold the £250,000 because by getting rid of all the numbers which corresponded to the letters of his name, with “A” equalling “one”, and so on. Then he took the remaining five boxes and put them in order of which had the highest cash sums in on the previous week’s games – and then, for good measure, reversed that order. 

He did not win the £250,000. Nor did Gorton – he’s reluctant to say what he won, but admits “it wasn’t a lot”. The day before his go in the chair, though, he had had the top prize in his box – one of four times he had the £250,000, and four times he had the 1p prize.

The world into which Deal or No Deal returns has, in a strange way, caught up with it. Horoscopes, tarot and manifesting – cosmic ordering by a different name – have all hit the mainstream and become a part of millions of people’s lives. Finding meaning in an apparently random and uncontrollable world is second nature.

Edmonds was recently heard shouting at a local councillor about a cycle path outside his New Zealand home, and suggesting that she and her colleagues “need your heads cut off and your brains replaced”. It seems unlikely that intense, quasi-religious fervour which made Deal or No Deal will be channelled by new host Stephen Mulhern – whose slightly plasticky vibe doesn’t make him an obvious candidate to take up the New Age shaman’s staff. 

But if it can tap into some of the magic Gorton felt, it might have a chance. “You’re hooked,” says Gorton. “Your comrade, your family member, is on that podium, and you feel everything they feel.”

Deal or No Deal’ begins on ITV1 today at 4pm