Ricky Young revisits the gonzo variety shows of yore thanks to Challenge TV
Given the unpredictability of my Humax PVR, and its tendency to withhold or distribute channels based on what appears to be little more than malice, it recently came as a very pleasant surprise to be given telly’s number-one receptacle for obsolete game-shows, Challenge TV. Zooming forward through the days on the EPG was a delight, promising hours and hours of shiny-floored fun.
I’ve always loved a game-show. The natural buffer between the news/human-interest of the early-evening and the drama or comedy of 8pm onwards, game-shows were something light, something flashy, something you could have your tea in front of, something you could watch with your gran. Something that could get you involved without being too taxing. Something with questions, and prizes.
Little slices of glamour beamed directly into your home in half-hour chunks; a perky theme, flashy titles, charismatic host, inventive format, gags, quiz, games, raucous outro – the works! Incredibly plain people given a quick glimpse of the good life, to which the tanned, funny man in the nice suit held the door. Primary-coloured sets edged with glitter. Scoreboards, prize-funds and running totals of cash won. Glamorous assistants and jokes about the missus. Lordy, I watched them all. Game-shows were great!
These days game-shows exist in prime-time only as post-modern revivals or teatime grinds, their place in the schedule taken by stranded soaps and chiding instructionals.
As popular-culture memories now sit archived within Channel Four’s Clips’n’Cunts shows, allowed out in four-hour batches on bank-holidays, game-shows of the past have become a few easy shorthands. Blockbusters? A ‘P’, please Bob. 3-2-1? The tortured clues. Bullseye? That bloody speedboat.
This can’t be their ultimate fate, though, can it? These programmes filled hundreds of hours of primetime, and were watched by millions of loyal viewers, week after week. They must have had something going for them. I fancied turning irony off for a few days, and plunging headlong into Challenge TV, taking what it would throw at me, and reporting back. Let’s face it, it was either this or Shoah.
Shall we kick off with Bullseye? More familiar now as a punchline dribbling lazily out of Iain Lee’s face, it exists in popular memory as shoddily soporific Sunday afternoon filler, albeit a SSSAF that ran for fourteen years and entertained 17 million people at a time. Watched today, it makes for unsettling viewing, mainly because Jim Bowen is nobody’s idea of a game-show host. Worse than that, he’s nobody’s idea of a human being – a sinister northern Golem in a bad suit, shuffling around the set, saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time, over and over again, and imbuing the entire affair with dozens of half-second pauses that start to echo and loop in your mind so they feel longer and longer every time.
It’s got a solid format; darts-based, of course, and one that – for a show in this genre – suffered remarkably little tweaking over the years. The prize-board gives a quickfire and hilarious glimpse into late-80s consumer avarice, and the final game is so low-wattage that if none of the three sets of contestants want to risk their winnings to try and win Bully’s Star Prize, there’s nothing compelling them to – the show just ends! (It happened on occasion, too.) Jim, as is common at the time, edges the contestants off the set with the refrain ‘we’ll have a drink upstairs later’. Unlike everyone else, he makes it sound like a threat.
And yes, there’s no way of getting around it: in the first episode I watched, two female friends won a speedboat. Don’t even spend one second thinking about the questions such a thing raises, or you will go mad.
We move on to some 1992 Blockbusters, shown on Challenge in handy double-eps, ideal for following contestants from show to show. For twelve years it settled many people’s desire to watch two sixth-formers battle a lonely no-mates via the medium of yellow hexagons, and it’s a much spikier show than the cosy teatime treat I remembered, something I’m putting firmly at the door of host Bob Holness. For a good number of years he was Britain’s favourite uncle, but I’ve not enjoyed an episode yet, because the avuncular air of legend is wafer-thin – he’s irritable, he’s petulant, he’s mean – and he’s a gobshite. On at least two occasions he actively sabotaged a Gold Run for tiny rule-infractions that usually get ignored, just because he appeared to dislike the contestant. When his little asides get ignored or sniggered at, he gets all haughty until the bile leaves his system. In short, he’s difficult to watch, and after dipping a toe into Blockbusters – happily including the two episodes where a teenage Konnie Huq turned up as a contestant and got trounced – I’ve not gone back.
I wasn’t going to watch any Strike It Rich, because, you know – Barrymore – who gives a fuck? But my duty to Mostly Film – Europe’s Best Website – saw me take the plunge. It ran for thirteen years from 1986, and was once the fifth most-watched show in Britain! The episodes I watched were 1999-vintage, however, with tabloid implosion a year or so away. From the get-go, things aren’t looking good; Barrymore is clearly off his game, he’s slurring his words and looking a fraction out of phase with the goings-on around him. And yet, when faced with a couple of spirited old dears to spark against, all the bits of business suddenly deliver and he visibly straightens into the Barrymore of old, providing ten minutes of unabashed, unscripted hilarity before the strictures of having to play the game have him glaze over again, and the energy fades, as well as the fun.
The episode that followed was something different. As before, among the three sets of contestants we spot a couple of perky-looking ladies-of-an-age – so far so good. But as Barrymore tries to connect with them, they mention that they knew a former Redcoat colleague of his who has recently died. There followed three or four minutes of some of the most unsettling telly I’ve ever seen. (“*Who* died? Don’t remember the…*who* died? When? Oh, him. Wait, he was a Redcoat with me? But, he was thirty years older…Ernie? That Ernie?…. “ and on and on.) Watching Barrymore’s features shift uncomprehendingly as he fails to prevent real life crashing into his foggy showbiz dreamscape was deeply uncomfortable. That he was still on telly at this point can be understood – why such obviously unsuitable telly made it to air remains another question entirely.
From plunging the depths, the only way is up, and that means Bruce Forsyth and Play Your Cards Right. Did you know, when both this and Family Fortunes were being prepped in 1980, Michael Grade tried his damnedest to get Brucie and Bob Monkhouse to swap shows? While I bend to no-one in my admiration for Lord Bob, such a move would have been a terrible idea for both parties. PYCR is ideal Brucie material. The format of the questions (where “one hundred X’s are asked Y, and would they say Z?”, one set of contestants takes a stab, the other guesses higher or lower than their answer) requires a great deal in the way of pondering from the contestants, meaning Bruce gets to contort his wonderful face into dozens of sympathetic shapes. His finely-honed sense of hysteria means the show’s USP (the higher/lower card game) is packed with genuine excitement. Higher than a three? A *two*! Noooooo!
Challenge’s policy regarding which episodes they show is presumably an arcane, incredibly complex document written with scheduler’s blood upon Associated-Rediffusion telex paper. Episodes from different eras often show up in the same slot; continuity isn’t important for game-shows, of course, but it does rather handily highlight format changes, and they’re rarely for the better. 90’s PYCR is definitely weakened by the pointless elimination round at the start, not to mention the tweaking of the rules in the final game so there’s no suspense-giving final hurdle, just a dismal cash-grab. You shouldn’t mess with perfection, Bruce!
“Ted Rogers.” I’ll bet he does! etc. That’s right, it’s the big one, that dread Spanish import that ran for a decade and was such a hit it went out on Christmas Day for four of its first six years. I must confess, I didn’t hugely take to 3-2-1 as a kid – it took up a whole hour of Saturday night, and was filled with boring bits, like songs and dancing. The idea was that it was three things in one, a quiz, a game and a variety show, but the rules and – yes! – format changed so much over the various series that the name was soon meaningless. A perfunctory quiz (or two) to whittle down the contestants, then onto the meat of the matter: various cabaret or pop acts coming on, doing a turn, and then delivering a clue for Ted to dangle in front of those still in the game, each one heralding a prize; ‘star’ (hooray!), or ‘booby’ (boo!).
Almost designed to be looked upon by history as a convoluted mess, thirty years distance had me treating it fairly kindly. After all, if Ted’s going to give us a) a bit of the quickfire repartee that wowed them night after night at the Ace of Clubs in Warrington; b) a question with the answer ‘Clement Atlee’; c) Jonny (or ‘John’, as was) Logan treating us to his latest single; d) a spirited bit of hoofing from The Brian Rodgers Connection; and e) a set of clues whose wilful opacity means they’d be better off rolling a dice, then who am I to complain?
In all honesty, Ted comes across as a bit needy – very much of the school where it doesn’t matter if the jokes die on their arse (and plenty of them do), there’s another one along soon – and this gets a bit grating after a while. But Variety was old-hat in 1988, and by that point so was 3-2-1.
The only real complaint I could have about my skip through the archives is that there wasn’t enough Bob Monkhouse. Charisma and quips aside, he could control a game-show like no other host – Brucie had ‘I’m in charge!’ as a catchphrase, but only because he so often wasn’t. I’d have loved some Golden Shot, some imperial-phase Family Fortunes, or the greatest gameshow of the 80s, Bob’s Full House. The only Challenge TV sighting was the late-90s Wipeout, a daytime filler of little consequence, and Bob’s sharpness (and health) isn’t what it was. One episode was enough.
You can still watch a fairly traditional game-show on a Saturday night, if you don’t mind it shilling for the Lottery. The format changes every quarter; some are fun, some are not. All of them, however, feature slick hosts, massive sets, banks of strobing lights, masses of artificially ratcheted-up tension and prizes in the hundreds of thousands of pounds. If that gives you a headache just thinking about it, give Challenge a go. Not everything will match your memories, but big deal. Have a bath, get into your jim-jams, have fish-fingers and chips for tea, then phone your mum and ask her if you can stay up and watch The Price Is Right and that you’ll go to bed straight after, you promise.
And this is for the game! Higher than a three? Ah, they’ll be fine! It’s higher than a three.
Oh. Oh dear.
Ricky Young lumbers ungainly round various parts of the interspazz as Hankinshaw