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The money or the bag? The travelling game show and the host that united NZ

Selwyn Toogood rolls into town in his Fiat “bubble car”.

By hokey! Selwyn Toogood and the great Kiwi travelling game show.

It takes a lot to shock us, but the following advertisement for a theatrical entertainment recently knocked us for six: “The Gameshow Network presents a live parody version of the classic Kiwi game show, It’s in the Bag. We’ve… scripted some of John Hawkesby’s most aggressive banter…”

John who? Lovely man. Consummate broadcaster. Could turn his hand to anything. But anyone with an ounce of historical sensitivity knows that Selwyn Featherston Toogood was It’s in the Bag.

Toogood is credited with originating the show on radio in 1954 and dragging it kicking and screaming (with delight) into the television age, hosting it on screen from 1973 to 1986.

The format, like that of all good quiz shows, was simple yet complicated. The simple bit was there were numbered bags containing prizes of varying value – from potato peelers to motorbikes, for instance. Contestants picked a bag, and neither they nor Toogood knew what was in it. He then offered them a cash alternative to the prize and they could take the money or the bag. He would increase the cash offer until they either took the money or he decided he had gone high enough.

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The complications came in the various segments: “The Thing”, where the fewer clues it took to guess the answer, the bigger the prize; “Post Bag”, where people wrote in with a bag number and the amount for which they could be bought; “Travel Bag”, with the series’ grand prize; and the bit where he picked someone at random from the audience.

Toogood was a master – if that’s the right word – of the dad joke. One contestant was tempted with the possibility of a brand-new “polisher-scrubber” as a prize. Steadfastly, she insisted on taking the money, at which point Toogood revealed the polisher-scrubber was… a scrubbing brush. The wag.

It was regarded as bad form for contestants to take the money. And if you took the bag and got the booby prize, you had to staunch it out. The contestant who got the vegetable peeler in 1974 handled it magnificently, saying: “We needed one in the flat, anyway.”

When another contestant vouchsafed that she was a computer programmer – in 1974! – you felt Toogood was still coming to terms with the fact women had the vote. “How do you programme a computer, as a matter of scientific interest?” he asked her.

“It consists of writing a set of instructions for the computer to do something,” she replied.

“You’re going to make a wonderful wife for somebody, aren’t you?”

For a quizmaster, he could be a little slapdash on details. Someone was asked to define an oceanarium, or as Toogood spelt it out “o-c-h-e-a-n-a-r-i-u-m”. “Something to do with the ocean, I suppose,” ventured the possibly confused contestant. Near enough.

More than anything, if one is seeking reasons for the show’s success, It’s in the Bag worked because it connected with its audience in many ways.

It was helped by Toogood’s catchphrase: “By hokey!” It was truly national, being filmed live in small-town halls across New Zealand. The audience was included, not just as contestants but especially when Toogood asked them to help make up the contestant’s mind.

“What should she/he do, New Zealand?” he would ask, to which the packed hall would almost always respond: “Take the bag!” 

Watch an episode here, at NZ on Screen.

This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.

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