Weaver's Week 2017-10-01

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"I used to watch that with my Granny. It was one of the best quizzes in my view."

William G. Stewart


William G. Stewart — The People's Quizzer

William Gladstone Stewart was born, of that there is no doubt. Accounts vary as to when this event happened. Most sources have said 15 July 1933, but some put it two years later. Nor do we know for sure where Stewart was born: Lancaster has been mentioned, so has Habrough in Lincolnshire. This lack of precision would have irritated Stewart, he made everything look like it's running smoothly.

Orphaned at a young age, he was moved to Sidcup, raised in a children's home, and educated at Shooter's Hill grammar school. Dreams of becoming a cowboy movie star never came to pass. Being of the age to be conscripted, Stewart served two years with the army in Kenya. After demobilisation, he planned to join the merchant navy. Just as with Nicholas Parsons, the navy's loss would be showbiz's gain.

An industrial dispute meant Stewart had a summer to fill, and he applied to work at Butlin's holiday camp. Expecting to work in the kitchens, the talent-spotters saw potential in the lad, and made him a Redcoat, the camp's entertainers. "I was in my early 20s and partly there for the girls and I am glad to say the girls were there," he would later say. During his season at Pwllheli, guests included the Tarbuck family from Liverpool, and their son took part in the camp talent contest. Young Jimmy might become a Redcoat himself one day.

Situation: Comedy

The next year, Stewart became a "driver's assistant" at the BBC, moving scenery from the workshops to the studios. He was there on the first night of programmes from Television Centre. The BBC believed (and still believes) in staff development, and allows anyone to train up to the next level. In the studio, and on the job, he learned the director's trade, on shows such as Hancock's Half Hour, and slowly descended the credits reel. His first director's credit was 1965's Call It What You Like starring Eric Sykes.

Moving to ITV, Stewart directed The Frost Programme (1967), and then produced or directed (or sometimes both) many hit variety shows and sitcoms. Credits include Father Dear Father (1968-73, and a film in 1973); The Many Wives of Patrick (1976-8); My Name Is Harry Worth (1974); two series of Love Thy Neighbour (1975-6); and a revival of The Rag Trade (1977-8). Some of these shows were re-shot for export to Australia, again with Stewart behind the camera.

Stills from Bless This House, with Sid James bottom left, future wife Sally Geeson bottom right.

His masterpiece was Bless This House (1971-6), a vehicle for Sid James and his studio family. Stewart had worked with Sid James on Hancock's Half Hour, and knew that Sid James would give his all on stage, however lax he might appear in rehearsal. Bless This House proved one of ITV's most reliable shows, and went out on a high.

Stewart continued to make sitcoms, he set up Regent Productions for that purpose. Lady Is a Tramp (1983-4) and The Bright Side (1985) went out on Channel 4, and The Nineteenth Hole (1989) was a return to ITV.

A fortune for one family

A career in sitcoms and light entertainment helped to make William G Stewart a television legend. For this column, it was the game shows that cemented his place. Sent by ITV to secure the rights to Family Feud, Stewart came back with a job to do. He would produce the show himself, and make a very tidy packet from it.

Stewart's agent asked how much he wanted to produce Family Fortunes. He said £1250, his going rate for a week on a sitcom, out of which he might get one episode. The agent contracted Stewart at £1250 per show. They made game shows at a rate of knots – still do, of course. In a week, Stewart is going to make something around £10,000, maybe 15 grand.

They'll knock off the whole series in about three weeks, and Stewart is going to be invoicing for £30,000. This broke ATV's salary cap, but the company agreed to overlook the spend so long as "William G Stewart" has to be the first name asked to produce every renewal series.

Family Fortunes Our host said...

This is fine, Family Fortunes is a massive hit, brings oodles of money into ITV, brings oodles into ATV, and Stewart strikes up a working relationship with host Bob Monkhouse. Until it went sour. Stewart is a no-nonsense producer, and felt Bob's repartee sometimes went a bit too far. Jokes were cut out, they'll never work in family viewing time.

The relationship soured, and Bob Monkhouse felt that the show would be better with a different producer. He's the star of the show, the public love him, couldn't do this without him. So Monkhouse declines Stewart's services.

Except, there's this clause. "William G Stewart" has to be the first name asked to produce every renewal series. Even if Bob Monkhouse doesn't want him. So Stewart is paid £1250 per show just to stay away from the studio, and someone else is paid a similar amount to actually produce the programme.

Later, around the time the film Twenty-One came out, Stewart said that he'd only once been offered a bribe. "I wrote back and said every man has his price, but mine is not 10 quid. I don't think anybody's got my price."

The People's Television

Central had this talent on their books, and another massive light-entertainment programme to produce. The Price is Right came over in 1984, and it was another of William G Stewart's babies. Calling on his experience at Butlin's a quarter-century earlier, Stewart raised the crowd's temperature into a screaming, rolling boil.

He'd get them to stand up and sing patriotic songs, warm their voices to cheer loudly, and then – and only then – bring out Leslie Crowther. He turns to the right and collects a microphone. He turns to the left and takes a cue card. Then, he utters his first words on the programme.

The Price is Right Wendy Partridge, come on down!

The music swells, and Leslie encourages Wendy to descend the stairs from the audience and onto one of four podia at the edge of the stage. Wendy looks tremendously happy to be here: she could win a brand new car, and has already got a Price is Right medal. She's cheered on her way by the rest of her coach party, for Wendy has come with twenty friends, all wanting her to do well, and cheering her to the rafters.

And that was William G Stewart's genius. He knew how to whip the crowd into a frenzy, and how to bottle that excitement. Even better, he knew the best way to get two hundred and fifty strangers to cheer for someone they'd never met: have twenty people who do know Wendy to lead the cheers.

The Price is Right And you'll all cheer for Leslie, and you'll do it now!

We reviewed Crowther and Stewart's The Price is Right in 2013. Here are some more nuggets from a wild show.

Leslie is already ramping up the tension, he lets the contestant hear advice from the audience. He gives time to think, time for the audience to play along in the studio. Time for the audience to play along at home: what point is this show if we can't think, "Wendy, you eedjit!"? But there's not time to think "oh get on with it", no obvious stalling to pad out the programme.

The Price is Right was a chance for the common person to dream of a better life. For some it had been the football pools; if the odds were far enough in your favour, enough money to spend! Spend!! SPEND!!! This show, like a fifth dividend, was for when the odds are merely in your favour, merely enough to splash out on something nice – a holiday, a tumble dryer, a mini-stack stereo with twin cassette decks. These days, the lottery fills that role: two pounds' worth of hope to last all week.

The Price is Right

The showcase prize is described by Voiceover Man in a sober fashion. Two nights at the Ritz, tickets to a top show and the hotel's tea-dance. There's some luggage, a camera and slide projector with a free-standing screen. And then there's the highlight, for which Voiceover Man moves from calm to really, really excited. It's the QEII! Four days in New York, and returning faster than a bullet on Concorde! This blog chooses to be like Bugs Bunny, we don't do excited, and this prize has us going, "I want one of those!".

One down, fourteen to go

While working on The Price is Right, Stewart received a letter. It's from a John M Lewis of BT, outlining a simple elimination quiz. Twenty-to-One would have twenty contestants and reduce them to one, by nominating around the circle. Stewart saw some potential, and sent a cheque for £200 to develop the idea for a year. "Best money I've spent in my life," he later said.


Fifteen-to-One, as it became, arrived on Channel 4 in January 1988, where it would remain for the next sixteen years. Very little changed during the life of Fifteen-to-One, it was always a daily drama in three parts. The opening stanza, where each player proved their worth against a pair of questions. The rapid-fire middle part, where players would nominate each other out of the game. And the daily final, with the regular decision to take a question and run up your own score, or nominate an opponent and hope to usher them out.

He originally planned to be the producer, and to invite someone else to host the show. But such stars as John Stapleton of Watchdog and Jonathan Ross of The Last Resort proved unwilling to commit, and Stewart took the job himself.


The set became a game show trope: the Semicircle Shooting Gallery. Fifteen players arranged around the edge of a semi-circle, taking potshots at each other. Initially, we noticed it was a wide open shot, much broader than the intense focus of Mastermind. Later, we saw the set's influence – directly copied by The Weakest Link, indirectly copied by Dirty Rotten Cheater, and an influence on Question Time With Nigel Farridge. And can we make a line from Fifteen-to-One all the way to the subtle brutality of Reservoir Dogs? Perhaps.

Throughout, Stewart hosted with a dapper elegance and charm. He was always in a smart suit, and there was very gentle pressure for other contestants to dress neatly. This charm was demonstrated in the show's prizes. Nothing so vulgar as cash, not for this programme. After some modern art in the early series, Stewart sprung for some classical antiques, ancient pots or sculptures or masks. No other show offered antiques as prizes.


For many contestants, the prize was to appear on television, and perhaps to have Laura Calland read out your potted biography. ("Leonard is a chartered accountant from Haslemere. In his spare time, he enjoys theatre and bridge, and walking in the South Downs with his wife and three children.")

Stewart knew each question, what alternative answers would be acceptable and what was just on the wrong side of fine. He wrote many of the questions himself, his specialities were history and current affairs. Every time there's a cabinet reshuffle, he would be cheered, because there's another two dozen questions for the taking. "Who is the Home Secretary this week?" seemed to crop up with great regularity. It's part of the "general knowledge", a loose body of facts that are shared amongst members of a culture; the "general" refers both to the breadth of subject and to the way it is assumed to be common knowledge.

While on Fifteen-to-One, Stewart met his third wife, the voiceover talent Laura Calland; he'd divorced Sally Geeson in the mid-80s. He's survived by a total of five children from his three marriages.

Fifteen-to-One Kevin Ashman, William G Stewart, and Laura Calland on the Millennium Quiz.

Do you know where your towel is?

Had this column been around in early 1994, we would have covered the travails of Don't Forget Your Toothbrush. The new show, starring Chris Evans from The Big Breakfast, was becoming a disaster in the making, and it hadn't reached the screen yet. Two pilot episodes had failed, miserably, described by Channel 4 boss Michael Greed as "flippin' amateur hour". It looked as if Evans would have to return to Lockkeeper's Cottages with his ginger tail between his legs.

The saviour of mid-evening television was William G Stewart, who knew just what would work, and just what could go. By the time it hit screens, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush was a coherent programme. Let's be fair: Toothbrush could not have worked without Chris Evans, he had put in the hours, learned from Swap Shop and Grandstand, and was utterly at home on live television. Stewart added the light entertainment oomph, he mediated between Chris Evans' superego and the viewer at home. When Evans tried to make a similar show on his own, we got Red Alert.

Don't Forget Your Toothbrush

Stewart also pulled out the stops on Wanted in 1996, getting the balance just right between tension and slapstick. Without his guidance, the second series was a bit of a mess. William G Stewart was the second person to present Countdown, hosting a Christmas special in 1997 when Richard Whiteley played Carol Vorderman. He also hosted Famous People, Famous Places for Thames in 1992, featuring many of the contestants he knew from Fifteen-to-One.

Stewart didn't offer an opinion on these later shows – he avoided The Weakest Link, and never caught up with Pointless. There was a rare misstep on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, of which he said:

"It seems to me that ITV are starting with what they're going to give away, and then build the programme around it. But if they discovered a great format, then they wouldn't have to give away £1m to attract an audience. My instinct is that it won't work: it's just all hype."

Stewart sold Regent Productions to Fremantle Media in 2000, and Fifteen-to-One came off air in 2003. His last big quiz was on The National Lottery The People's Quiz in 2007, where he starred as a proper Quiz God alongside Olav Bjortomt, Mark Labbett, and eventual champion Stephanie Bruce.

The People's Quiz And something something something Top of the Klass with Myleene Klass.

There were reports that he'd been approached for Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, but had been rejected as "too old to insure". We will never know if he'd have done better than that talent-show winner from Pwllheli; Jimmy Tarbuck withdrew early in the 2006 series.

We've had a letter. It's from a Mr. Stewart of New Malden

In his personal life, William G Stewart had hobby horses. He had worked for Tom Driberg MP in the 1960s, and would later suggest that Driberg had been blackmailed by the KGB because he was homosexual. A 2009 documentary about Driberg was Stewart's last major television engagement. He also advocated for court proceedings to be opened up, by routinely televising everything that goes on. He repeated the fact that the new millennium began in 2001, and wanted to iron out some of the anomalies in television license fee rules.

Stewart was best known for his passionate views on the Parthenon Sculptures, or Elgin Marbles. These artworks were removed from the Parthenon in Athens, and sent to London under the patronage of the 7th Lord Elgin. He arranged for them to be displayed in the British Museum. Stewart advanced the case that these works would be best displayed in Athens, near the Parthenon, where they can be appreciated with all the other works from that temple.

Such was his passion that Stewart advanced his opinion on Channel 4's Without Walls series of arts lectures in 1996, and on Fifteen-to-One in 2000. For the latter, he was ticked off by the broadcasting regulator.

Even after finishing Stewart read the papers, and would often write letters to the editor. Some of them were on his pet topics. Many were reminiscences about people he'd worked with, often addenda to obituaries as his contemporaries passed on. Some letters were witty observations about life, this from The Independent of 24 October 2000.

Sir: On New Malden station a poster says leaves on the line might lead to services being delayed or cut. One paragraph reads: "Cutting certain services will allow us to put more carriages on other services. The more carriages, the heavier the trains, which means they cut through leaves more easily." Am I missing something? How does sticking on another carriage make the weight on the track greater in any other sense than that more carriages go over the leaves? Surely more carriages would go over the leaves if no services were cut at all.

And some letters were about his past career, this to The Times.

Sir, There was only one thing wrong with Giles Coren comparing the line-up of the three party leaders in the television debate with the play-off on Fifteen-to-One ("No sound or fury to this blankety blank debate", Opinion, April 17 2010). None of those three would ever have got to a Fifteen-to-One play-off.

See you in the next series ... oh.

Have a wonderful Christmas, and see us again in the new year

William G Stewart comes from an age of social mobility. He was a young man, brought up in council care, and who wanted to make something of himself. He had the timing to jump on every ladder he could – the grammar school, Butlin's redcoat, the BBC. And he had the ability to scale those ladders and make great achievements.

He never forgot the lessons of a difficult upbringing, he always kept the popular touch. Almost instinctively, Stewart understood how to appeal to the masses. It's a rare gift, and television is better because he could share it with us.

More than once, he called Fifteen-to-One "the Rolls-Royce of quiz shows", because it just ticked over. It worked without appearing to work, silently cruising through the contestants like a limousine effortlessly ticks through the traffic. Most of this credit went to the production team, and the writers of sharp questions. Stewart was a master of preparation, he could assemble a great team, and he could lead them to the heights.

William G Stewart made his mark on television. We will not forget him.

This Week and Next

Special thanks to David Boothroyd, Louis Barfe, and all at Alan Kellogg's.

This column really enjoyed How The Big Breakfast was made, from the Talking TV podcast series. Charlie Parsons and three producers recount how Planet 24 got the commission, how they got on air, and how they produced two hours of that each day on a shoestring budget.

Counterpoint had its final on Radio 4 this week. The questions in the final are much more difficult than in the heat. This blog might normally score ten, but can only claim 5 points from a possible 24: we knew Justin Beaver and Katy Perry, and guessed that the missed cue was from the cymbals.

Specialist subjects come next, and Steve Lodge advanced from 1 to 11 when he took "Dance with the Devil". Mark Grant chose "Revolutionary songs", and his score moved from 2 to 12. We didn't expect to hear the World Service tuning signal, and we assume that the clip of "Let the anvils ring" was lost in rights hell. "Radios 1, 2, 3, and 4 at 50" was the topic for Richard Searle, moving from 5 to 15.

Yes, they could have given everyone TEN POINTS! and saved half the show. But where's the fun in that? The quickfire buzzer round saw a strong start from Steve Lodge, but then Mark Grant (an accountant from Sydney) got the question about the Sydney Opera House.

The final scores: Steve Lodge 13, Mark Grant 14, Richard Searle 20. He becomes the 31st champion of Counterpoint. A new series begins in summer next year, and in this slot next week is Quote... Unquote. Don't forget to miss it.

To University Challenge, where Imperial (James Pollard, Ed Waddingham, Istvan Kleijn, Juan Rubio Gorrochategui) met Strathclyde (Ian Brown, James Flannigan, Alastair Logan, Paul Dijkman). An early lead for the London side, repulsed by the Scots, and a two-starter shootout at the end. Strathclyde won by 145-125.

More action on the finals board for Mastermind, won by David Love on Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He gave a masterful performance, a total of 28 is as good as we've seen this series. The runners-up weren't too far behind – Teresa De Billot was perfect on British Oscar winners, and Cliff Houghton recovered from missing his first question on Everton. Both scored 26, and they take positions 2 and 3 on the high-scoring losers' board. After nine episodes, that could still be enough. Les Morrell scored a very respectable 21.

Over to Only Connect, where Dandies (Oscar Powell, Jack Bennett, Lewis Barn) played Gaffers (Graeme Kerr, Alan Oliver, Owen Davies) – former football coaches. Yes, that's Mr. Powell and Mr. Bennett from University Challenge the other year. On question 1, the Dandies fire the Five Point Klaxon, but in error. On question 2, the link is "things from 1984", so another chance to endure "Agadoo". What is this, Top of the Pops?

Songs about baby animals is the link in the music round, but somehow they couldn't clear "Chick chick chicken". Not that the royalties were too expensive, they just couldn't air that song before the watershed. A low-scoring first round (2-2) soars into action, as the Dandies put away FIAT, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, and something about prime ministers that we didn't quite understand because we got what the setters were thinking of. 10-3 turns into 20-7 following the walls, and 25-10 the final score. These Dandies could go far.

BARB ratings in the week to 17 September.

  1. Whoa! Doctor Foster (BBC1, Tue) the most-seen show, pulling 8.75m viewers. Paul Hollywood's Grate Breadxit Burn-Off (C4, Tue) continues to trend down, falling to 8.1m.
  2. The X Factor (ITV, Sat) does 7.4m, and Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1, Wed) 5.15m. Tipping Point Lucky Stars (ITV, Sun) entertained 3.05m.
  3. Cannonball (ITV, Sat, 2.66m) is just more popular than University Challenge (BBC2, Mon, 2.63m). Radzi Chinyanganya and Frankie Bridge make more sympathetic and entertaining hosts than Jeremy Paxman. Lego Masters (C4, Thu) finished with 1.75m.
  4. The Great Friday Nerd-Off saw Only Connect and Mastermind (both BBC2, not Wales, 1.75m) comfortably ahead of The Crystal Maze (C4, 1.3m).
  5. The digital tier's big three returned. Celebrity Juice (ITV2, Thu, 1.175m), A League Of Their Own (The Satellite Channel, Thu, 865,000), Taskmaster (Dave, Wed, 700,000).
  6. More interesting stories beneath them. Duck Quacks Don't Echo (The Satellite Channel, Thu, 230,000) might not be doing enough. Masterchef Australia (W, Fri, 250,000) did very well. Bromans (ITV2, Thu, 420,000) put up very respectable numbers, sed una hirundo haudquaquam aestivat.

The autumn kicks in, as Strictly Come Dancing has its results show (BBC1, Sun). Celebrity Showmance (ITV2, Wed) pulls the eye out of "Mail", and Sing (The Satellite Channel, Fri) has Cat Deeley.

Some less palatable news. Alphabetical is back (ITV, weekdays), but so is Quote... Unquote (R4, Mon). BBC1 shows support for white supremacists (Wed). And that's The Unbelievable Truth (R4, Mon).

But can we tempt you with a special edition of Y Talwrn (R Cymru, Sun)? The return of Your Face or Mine? (Comedy Central, Wed)? Katherine Ryan on Tipping Point Lucky Stars (ITV, Sun)? Ah, knew there's something...

Photo credits: LWT, Central, Regent Productions, Ginger Productions, Yair-haklai (CC-BY), ITN.

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