Memories of the past, ideas for the future

Keeping Jerry Lee on board

‘The Lyrics Board’ was a 1990s game show that pitted two teams against each other in musical battle. Each piano-playing team captain and their two celebrity teammates had to sing songs containing words that were revealed one-by-one on a game board. Points were scored by guessing the hidden song. The format sold to more than 20 countries worldwide, including South Africa and Russia. John Keogh, the accomplished musician, actor, director and producer who was team captain on the first three series, remembers a particularly memorable encounter with a rock ‘n’ roll legend.

“The original idea behind ‘The Lyrics Board’ was based on something that happened at a Christmas party for the children’s programme ‘Scratch Saturday’ where I was playing piano. As the night wore on, people started challenging each other around the piano: ‘Do you know this song?’ and they’d start singing it to the other person and then say: ‘Can you remember the next line of that?’. One would be trying to outdo the other.

“Andy Ruane, who presented ‘Scratch Saturday’ and Philip Kampff, who directed it, were at the party and saw this idea of people trying to remember lyrics to songs. They told me that was where they got programme idea from. It was quite a long time afterwards that they rang me and asked if I would do the demo for ‘The Lyrics Board’.

“It was a very simple parlour game. The basic rule was the words were revealed one-by-one to make up a line of a song. Say I pick number six and it is revealed to be the word ‘tomorrow’, I have to come up almost instantly with any line of a song with that word in it – like ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrow’. That way you hold onto control of the board. Bit by bit you reveal the full line. If you can hold onto the board and can identify the song you win a point. If you can’t get the song [control is] handed over to the other team.

“Aonghus McAnally was the presenter, Kevin Hough was on one piano and I was on the other. When somebody stood up to sing we’d both go finding the key and play with them. It was utterly like a party in a house. There was no band in the first series, just two pianos. None of our guests had any idea what we were doing, so it was explained to them only when they arrived on the day.

“Miraculously, we managed to get Jerry Lee Lewis. He was living in Ireland at the time and had rented a house not far from RTÉ in Foxrock. The producers said: ‘If he’s living here, let’s give it a try.’ We weren’t terribly hopeful but he came in to do the programme.

“From the moment he arrived he wasn’t quite sure. He was on medication at that time and he could be a bit vague as to where he was or what he was doing. Eventually I got him at the piano but the problem was I couldn’t get him to understand the rules of the game. He purely thought he was there to provide music. He didn’t realise he was part of a quiz. This was when the fun started because every time a song would come up he’d say: ‘I think I know that song.’ And he’d start to play. I’d say: ‘No, it’s not our turn. It’s the other team’s turn.’

“As the game went on he began to get a bit tired of this. On several occasions he rose from the piano and was about to leave, so I was clinging out of his sleeve. I was saying to him: ‘Listen, if we play our cards right we’ll get to do all the songs.’ I was sitting on his jacket to keep him from getting up because every so often he’d say: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, I’m going home.’

“When the half hour was over I almost collapsed with nervous exhaustion because [I was convinced] we were going to get within a minute of finishing the programme and he would leave. You can’t fill in for somebody as famous as Jerry Lee Lewis! I’ll never forget the tension that day. It wasn’t that he was being ungracious; he genuinely didn’t understand why he couldn’t sing. He purely thought he was there to perform. But it worked out, it was great, and I got a marvellous opportunity; because the two of us were at the one piano I got to jam with him, which was wonderful.

“‘The Lyrics Board’ was a great, fun programme to do. There was a competitive [buzz] to it. As it progressed it became a very big production. It was refined in Year Two by the producers. They enhanced it with musicians playing guitar, bass and drums behind us. The rules were modified. Most lines of songs will have ‘a’ or ‘the’ in them several times and it could become tiresome singing songs with those words in them. In Year Two, they became forfeit words so if you picked say number three and it was an ‘a’, straight away control went to the opposition.

“We were never told what the songs were. It’s extremely difficult to keep yourself fresh when you’re doing two or three programmes a day. If you’re trying to pretend you didn’t know the answers it would become very phoney and transparent. It was actually easier for us not to know because then you were in a genuinely competitive situation.

“The only time when you would have an idea would be if you got a big name in as special guest, say a member of Boyzone. We would always ensure if you had a big guest that they would get to sing one of their very well-known songs. Except for those manufactured three minutes, the rest was genuine.

“At some point they decided it needed a change. They got new people in after Year Three. It changed quite radically. I was very disappointed we were taken from ‘The Lyrics Board’ because I thought we were doing a very good job. The people who replaced us at the end of the day weren’t an awful lot younger. Linda Martin was the presenter and they brought in a lot of the guests who were in our series.

“Literally last week two people stopped me when I was out walking on Dún Laoghaire pier who said they loved ‘The Lyrics Board’ and [asked me] why did they finish it. Believe it or not I was in Kuala Lumpur when an Irish person shouted ‘The Lyrics Board’ at me in a market. It was phenomenally popular. People like to sing and they like to hear people sing. That fundamentally doesn’t change.”

John Keogh was in conversation with Jan Battles

Watch John in action in an episode of ‘The Lyrics Board’ from 1992, one of the TV50 Classics on the RTÉ Player.