British television: ‘Room 101’ an game show with a purpose

I am a fan of British television. I go through phases of what shows I like to watch, but I always eventually come back to “Room 101.”

“Room 101” is a game show, whose title is based on the room of the same name in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Room 101 in Nineteen-Eighty Four is used to torture people with the things they most fear: Room 101 is a bit different.

The premise of the game is this: Three celebrities come on the show and play three rounds, which have themes like “Modern Life” “Family” or “Wildcard.” In each round, each celebrity nominates something that they find loathsome and repellent and makes a case for having it consigned to Room 101 forever. One of the things I like best about the show is that when they ask the question, “What winds so-and-so up about modern life?” a diorama representing the problem arises from a box next to the celebrity’s chair. Sometimes the artist’s representation of the problem is so very different from what the celebrity thought they put in that their face is a study in amazement.

The things the celebs want to put in Room 101 vary from the innocuous – say, scented candles – to the dangerous: people who insist on crossing the street against traffic. You never know what’s going to show up, which is part of the charm of the show. One celebrity will put in “Arms Dealers” as a problem under “Modern Life” and the next may nominate “Mothers and Toddlers’ Groups.” The contrast is part of the fun.

And since the people nominating stuff to leave the world forever are performers, they argue well. They can make an incredible case – for example, the actress Sheila Hancock’s plea to remove scented candles from the world forever involved her setting up an entire scene. She shared how everyone gave her scented candles as gifts; how guilty she felt about never using them; so when someone suggested that she surround her bathtub with them, she decided to give it a try. Then she showed the burn scar she had gotten while reaching for the soap during that candlelit bath. I certainly would have given that round to her. But the host, Frank Skinner, loves scented candles and takes consigning things to Room 101 seriously, so he didn’t put them in there. Frank put in house guests instead.

I like the host, Frank Skinner, as well. He’s an English comedian, more from the folksy than the cutting-edge side of comedy. I think having comedians host game shows is a good idea: They seem able to keep things fun, so the show is never dull. I should really call him the current host, because Room 101 has been on television since 1994. Frank is the third host in 24 years.

Which is another one of the things that I like about Room 101. It’s been on for so long that you can go on YouTube and see old episodes that feature people I want to see. I enjoy hearing Stephen Fry on all occasions, and I once stumbled across an episode where he argues vociferously against Collector’s Plate – those hand painted plates that people think they are going to get money for – only to be presented with one that is painted with his image.

Needless to say, he folds.

What I think I find so interesting is what bothers people. I don’t like collector’s plates, but I wouldn’t want a world where people couldn’t have them. I do find it interesting how many of the episodes are about things that I don’t care about at all: for example, the proper way to walk as a pedestrian. People who talk about their dreams all the time. Giant cardboard checks for charity. Dream catchers.

If someone suggested getting rid of British television, though … I would put them in Room 101.

June Lemen is a freelance writer from Nashua. Her column appears the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Email her at