We think enough time has gone by to bring this up. Y2K and Princes ‘Let’s Party Like It’s 1999’ are distant echoes in our memories. Was there really a Rickety Wheel? And what really happened to the Millenium Whiskey?
The Rickety Wheel
But first we must go back further in time to the reason why there was a rickety wheel. And let’s face it, there was very little reasoning going on.
The origin of the rickety wheel is rooted in Children In Need. No doubt there was an idea to spin a wheel to dish out prizes.
A rickety wheel is a perfectly sensible suggestion on television. But there are things to consider when it comes to radio.
I can imagine the conversation between my Dad and Sean – “Sean, I know what we’ll do. We’ll do a rickety wheel on the radio.” “Don’t be stupid” would have been the rational response from Sean. But Dad wouldn’t have given up. “You don’t understand, Sean – it’s brilliant because it’s stupid.”
No one will ever know what was said at the time. Ideas flowed thick and fast between them. And neither knew what was an actual suggestion versus an attempt to make each other laugh. Regardless, the old Derry tradition of the rickety wheel was brought to BBC Radio Ulster.
Terms and conditions, anyone?
The BBC has strict guidelines which all competitions must follow regarding fairness and favouritism. Heaven help the poor individual who tried to maintain order in the middle of this lunacy. The competition would run at Christmas. And listeners would donate the prizes. The weirder, the better.
My favourite prize was a ferret. It was promoted as a thoroughbred ferret and the best that money could buy at the time. The owner had only one stipulation – “I want to see who wins it; I want to call to their front door.” “Why” was the innocent response from Gerry.
“I want to look them in the eye and see what kind of a person they are. If I don’t like them, they are not getting the ferret,” came the response from the ferret breeder. “Fair enough,” Gerry replied. He understood that some stones should remain unturned on live radio.
Gerry Kelly enters the fray
Excitement amongst the listeners started to build as the deadline for the rickety wheel approached. And this started to reach fever pitch as each of the fantastic prizes were announced. The production team had the job of sorting everything out. Dad did his best to add confusion. He would state rules in a tone that sounded like he wasn’t making them up. Sean would attempt to keep him right.
The day of the Rickety Wheel dawned. And a special guest was asked to join the carnage. The guest was usually Gerry Kelly who tried to carry on through the pantomime of a competition on live radio. Most callers would challenge Gerry and Sean over the prize they had won and what the rickety wheel actually said. The unsaid joke being that no one could see the wheel on the radio.
There were hyped callers, protective prize donators, a nervous production team and a hysterical Gerry Kelly. But strangely enough, Gerry and Sean used the clickity-clackity of the wheel to maintain order.
Rickety wheel goes off the rails
The Rickety Wheel peaked in December 1999. The country was in a frenzy between the Millenium party coming up and the scaremongering around all the computers breaking due to the Y2K bug. Many companies had special launches to celebrate the turn of the millenium. Including Bushmills who released an exclusive batch of Millenium Whiskey. An unknown amount of bourbon barrels had been filled with the finest Bushmills whiskey in 1975. And a batch of 2,000 bottles was created. Obtaining a bottle was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
A bottle (with a unique number) was donated as a prize to the Rickety Wheel. A frenzied listenership debated the wonders that this bottle held. Would it be sweet, would it have a bite, would it taste like soap, would it taste like water – who knew?
Liquid of the Gods
Gerry, Sean and Gerry Kelly started talking about the whiskey, asking the very same questions. The competition started, with all the prizes laid out. Between the messing, the wheel spinning and the callers – things got confusing. A caller won the bottle, but it had been misplaced – a regular occurrence. Minutes later, there was an accusation that the bottle had been opened. Between the strong denial and the hysterical giggling, very few outside of the radio studio could work out what was happening. The facts of the matter were that the competition was out of control. And the whiskey was missing.
Strangely enough, the scandal rolled onto the Friday show as the rickety wheel was usually on a Thursday. The missing bottle of Millenium whiskey was now a news item. No one knew what had happened.
I had been listening to both shows and laughing at the usual chaos. Treasa and I were living in Dublin at the time and had plans to come up for the weekend. As per usual, we landed up and went out for a bite to eat on Saturday night with the family.
Excitement and conversation were flowing as we all landed back into the house in Derry after another great night’s craic. I walked into the kitchen and picked up a strangely, beautiful bottle from the dresser. “Is that the Millenium whiskey?” I said. “Do you want some?” was the mischievous reply from Dad. Most of the bottle had already been polished off. Likely on air. But we had enough for a glass each. And yes, it was as smooth as honey. I have never tasted whiskey as nice since.
Listen here for a taste of the chaos on the day before Rickety Wheel Day. The carnage is building as no one understands how the prizes work: