Wwould i lie to you on BBC One – a great show! Everyone Loves It: The concept of outrageous yarns that may or may not be true has celebrities displaying gifts for comedic timing and off-the-cuff talk that we never knew they had. It’s a hit, which means it has to be counterfeited. Would it, Channel 4 wonders, perhaps work not as a panel game but as a game show, without the famous people and with audience members lying to win a cash prize instead? And we have the answer, since Channel 4 has gone ahead and made that program and called it You Won’t Believe This: no.
Punters arrive in groups of four, each required to tell a personal story on a particular theme, the first being “I have retired from civilization.” Someone explains how they once joined a cult, after which rival participants make up stories about the time they took a year-long vow of silence in a Spanish monastery, the time they lived as a goat in the Alps for a week and the time they left home to live in an underground bunker due to their fear of nuclear Armageddon. Only one of these people speaks the truth. If a fifth contestant, hearing all the stories, can identify which one isn’t a lie, they win £5,000. Pick a liar and the liar wins the five grand.
The gambler has help. You Won’t Believe This joins Hunted (Channel 4) and The Heist (Sky) in a new game show subgenre in which contestants must outwit the retired mainstays of Britain’s law enforcement elite: highly trained professionals who used to be the most cunning criminals of the country into a trap. and who are now making careers as so-called showbiz sleuths. Excitingly billed as “the interrogators” and given further mystique by the show’s industrial-chic set design – glass walls, bare bricks and cavernous empty spaces, like a Berlin nightclub on a silent Monday – it’s the starkly attired former cops to whom the storytellers must relay their experiences, real or fictional, as they answer questions and, if they lie, try not to be discovered.
A terrifying ordeal? Not really, because the experts have to hold a line. If they actually did what they presumably could do, and expose a liar by mercilessly zooming in on the discrepancies in their accounts, it would spoil the part where the gambler — and those at home — have to decide who isn’t lying. What is confusingly billed in the show’s press notes as “grilling their lives” in a “pressure cooker environment” is more of a rapid heat-up in a low oven, only causing minor hesitations and telling body language connoisseurs in an armchair to snack on. In a few cases, an absurd claim or a blatantly missing detail that the liar can’t hide fast enough with clever improvisation makes it clear they’re not the one, but most of the time it’s really hard to know.
The problem is that it’s also pretty hard to care about. No one is spinning the kind of elaborate yarn that would, in hindsight, be a breathtaking display of chutzpah once it’s revealed to be total bilge – that is, the kind of thing that would I lie to you? such a lark. The liars are discouraged by the prize money: the way to win is to keep your head down, don’t say silly things, and appear more blandly plausible than the other fibbers. Meanwhile, the people who tell the truth should also not have anecdotes with too many fascinating details, or they would be too convincing and betray the game. If you were to try and put one of these stories in the Guardian’s Experience column, it would have to shrink to a quarter of a page.
Since not much happens in the interrogation room, a lot rests on the host, Ellie Taylor, and she’s just right for that: on the other side of a soundproof window, listening next to the contestant who must discern which of the four interviewees is telling the truth. Taylor is their mischievous wingwoman, sniffing them about dubious claims and always willing to add a little sauce. She immediately forms a good partnership with the first gambler, 60-year-old Karen from Kent, who is extremely good with her skeptical arm-swinging cries of “Shut up!” and bursts of incredulous laughter.
Format tweaks that might make you feel less flat include adding a studio audience and removing the underwhelming interrogators altogether and letting Taylor and the gambler do it themselves. Right now they can relay inquiries through the hidden earpieces the police wear, but they almost never do because – like everything else in this weird hodgepodge of various other, better formats – it’s just a bit of an awkward faffia.