The Chase star The Vixen: It’s wild how popular it is in NZ

It was a long road to becoming the fifth Chaser on the popular quiz show, but The Vixen says the job is just perfect for her. By Donna Fleming.

Here’s a question for quizzing genius Jenny Ryan from The Chase: does she ever feel bad when she beats a team of contestants? Even the slightest bit sorry?

She has to think about the answer for a moment. “Sometimes. It’s tricky,” says the professional quizzer known as The Vixen.

“We get a lot of contestants who are really deserving, but we don’t give away money to people for being nice. You have to be an excellent quizzer or else catch us on a particularly bad day, and we don’t have many of those.”

But what about those who do really well, only for the Chasers to nail it in the final chase?
“There have been a few times where brilliant, deserving players have not quite done enough in their final chase to set a high enough target and you do feel a bit sorry for them,” admits Ryan.

She still feels bad about the time she faced off against a team that included a very clever young man called Charlie, who’d previously been on University Challenge.

“He answered most of the questions for his team. They got 24 or 25, which is a winning score most of the time. I thought they had me beaten, but I had one of those magical two-minute rounds where I knew everything and was on fire. I still feel a bit guilty about that.”

But Ryan did get the chance to apologise. “I ran into Charlie a little while ago – we happened to be at the same venue, watching a drag show. I caught his eye and put my head in my hands to show I still felt bad for him. And I did buy him a bottle of prosecco.”

Building the skills

It’s now just over five years since Ryan joined the hit show and she’s no longer the new kid, following the arrival of the sixth Chaser, Darragh Ennis, last month. She admits it took her a while to get the hang of being able to banter with host Bradley Walsh and the contestants and then “zone out” for the final chase segment, which involves rapid-fire questions.

“Part of the skill set of what we do is to forget that you’re on TV,” says Ryan. “You’ve got to know when to be in top-performance mode when you are chatting with Brad but then when to tune out. It is like being on autopilot. It took me at least the first series to be able to do that.”

The Chase couldn’t be a better fit for the 38-year-old from Bolton, a former mill town just north of Manchester. She grew up with a thirst for general knowledge, thanks to her grandfather Kevin Ryan. He looked after her before she started school and not only taught her to read and write but also encouraged her, when they read newspapers together, to look up details of subjects she knew nothing about. “The research skills I have in quizzing come from my grandad.”

The pair would also watch quiz shows together, and The Vixen says her grand­father, who died when she was 10, would be thrilled and proud that she now earns her living answering trivia questions on TV. “He’d be so envious as well.”

Ryan was a law student at Leeds University when she made her TV debut on University Challenge. She noticed that while the other contestants were nervous about being on camera, she felt completely at home. “It felt like being a quizzer on TV was my destiny. I love quizzes, but I also love television. So The Chase is perfect for me.”

Landing the job

Still, to get there, she had to serve her time behind the scenes, working as a question writer on programmes such as QI and The Weakest Link. She also tried her luck as a contestant on several shows, her team winning on one called Only Connect.

She was doing well on a spin-off of the popular Eggheads quiz show, which was hunting for a new general-knowledge genius to join the panel of experts, until she was knocked out by another quizzer from the Greater Manchester area called Anne Hegerty. Hegerty went on to join series two of The Chase, after it launched in 2009, and recommended Ryan when producers were looking for someone new to join her, Mark Labbett, Shaun Wallace and Paul Sinha in 2015.

After months of exhausting auditions, Ryan finally landed the job. “It was really daunting to walk out on set that first day. You can’t help thinking about how many people watch the show around the world and you don’t want to make a fool of yourself.”

It’s no surprise that The Chase is a hit at home in the UK, but she’s still a little blown away by the fact that millions of Kiwis watch the programme and know who she is.

“We just feel like it is a parochial little British show, so it is absolutely wild to hear how popular it is in New Zealand. It’s really interesting to see how it resonates with people around the world.”

Ryan reckons the secret of the show’s success is its high-octane format and her “superstar” fellow Chasers – “absolute icons of the quizzing world”.

And then there’s host Walsh, who plays a huge part in drawing in viewers. The affable actor and TV presenter is great fun to work with, says Ryan, and a lot smarter than he lets on. “He plays up the Everyman, slightly dim character, and we tease him for that. But he’s actually incredibly smart. There are a lot of times when he will tell you interesting facts about things, which don’t make the edit. He knows a lot.”

One of her favourite parts of being on the show is being able to surprise Walsh. “It’s very funny sometimes when he’s reading the final chase questions at speed and you can almost see a micro-expression on his face when something comes up and he’s thinking, ‘She’s not going to get this, ha ha.’ And when I answer, his jaw drops and he almost falls off stage. I love those moments.”

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