Weaver's Week 2005-08-28

Weaver's Week Index

'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'


The Prize Is Right! - 28 August 2005

This week, we begin a short series tracing the history of game shows on ITV.

The Prize Is Right!

On September 15, ITV will be marking its fiftieth anniversary. That's half a century of Bruce Forsyth and Bob Monkhouse, 2600 weeks of Leonard Parkin and Trevor McDonald, 200,000 different commercials, and almost a million episodes of Emmerdale. And there have been some game shows along the way. So many that this column is able to bring you not one, not two, but three articles, providing a brief overview of ITV's first fifty years. This week, we're charting the history of the big money quiz on ITV.

In the beginning, there was the word, and the word was "A one thousand pound prize!" On ITV's opening night, Hughie Green invited five lucky contestants to come on stage and play Double Your Money (made by Associated-Rediffusion). The format was familiar from exposure on Radio Luxembourg, the host would ask questions that doubled in value each time, with a potential jackpot of £1000.

More was to come. Michael Miles hosted Take Your Pick (A-R), which gave us the famed Yes/No Interlude, and shouts of "Take the Money" and "Open the Box" as contestants weighed up the prospect of a fabulous holiday against the chance of winning a slice of lemon. Freshly squeezed, of course. Pick had also been plucked from the Radio Luxembourg schedules, but Criss Cross Quiz (Granada) was a straight lift across the Atlantic. Famed as Tic Tac Dough over there, the noughts-and-crosses quiz for money really helped bring in the audiences.

And there was even more! Dotto (ATV), a quiz about joining the dots to make a famous face, gave away the largest prize in ITV's early years. The Sixty-Four Thousand Question (A-R) looked indistinguishable from Take Your Pick, except that the contestants could specify their own subjects, and played for a top prize of 64,000 sixpences (then £1600, now £25,000), later increased to 64,000 shillings (then £3200, now £50,000). And Twenty-One (Granada) was a game where contestants aimed to answer multi-part general knowledge questions, hoping to score more than their opponent.

It was all too good to last, and two events conspired to bring the quiz craze crashing to a sudden close. American shows had provided the inspiration to almost all the ITV hit series, and when the Twenty-One Scandal broke over there, it was almost inevitable that the UK brethren would also suffer. Indeed, allegations once circulated - though they were never proven - claiming corruption in the British version of Twenty-One. The companies were limited to just three game shows per week, with a maximum prize limit of £1000, and each show had to be self-contained - there couldn't be any more returning champions. Though inflation would chip away at the prize amounts, the spirit of these restrictions would remain in place until 1990.

The second nail came with the publication of the Pilkington report in 1962. The BBC had complained that no-one was watching its shows any more, and that ITV was putting out a load of tawdry tat. While the BBC gave its audience what it thought they needed, a diet high in starch and low in entertainment, ITV went more for the spirit of the music hall every night. The report concluded, "It is certainly true that ITV seems to have the preponderance of quiz shows, Westerns, murders, and Professor A.J.P. Taylor" (the last being the most popular popular historian, the Simon Scharma or Neil Oliver of his day.) The Pilkington report showed a distinct bias to the paternal, "what's good for the people" attitude of the BBC, as opposed to the "what the people want" demotic of ITV. The Independent Television Authority, regulator of ITV, was told to ensure that there was "a proper balance and wide range of subject matter" and "a wide showing of programmes of merit". So no wall-to-wall game shows, then.

The most popular programmes - Double Your Money, Criss-Cross Quiz, and Take Your Pick - ran on through the 60s, there was little space for new programmes to take their place. Abracadabra (Associated-Rediffusion) gave away "as much money as a winner can hold", but that was in pound notes, so only about £125. Perhaps the next show to be remembered more for its prizes than its format was Sale of the Century (Anglia), where Nicholas Parsons asked general knowledge questions hoping that someone would win enough money to compete for a new car. A small new car, and it had to be a British one, otherwise the IBA would moan about how much money they were spending on the prizes. Promoting British cars on television was allowed through on the nod by the IBA. A similar catch-22 befell Bullseye (ATV / Central), which wasn't helped by an apparent agreement to give away at least one speedboat per series. By the eighties, Bruce Forsyth's Play Your Cards Right (LWT) was making a car available each week, though only giving one away each month or so, and Family Fortunes (ATV / Central) had hit on the novel idea of allowing roll-overs - if the thousand-pound jackpot wasn't won in the first week, it rolled over to the second and so on until it was won. The contestants changed, but the prize increased.

Until 1984, all the post-Pilkington game shows had been relatively reserved affairs - for all the chanting of "Higher!" or "Iiiiiin one", there was a taxing quiz element somewhere in each show. In the year made famous by George Orwell, the prize really became the star again. The Price is Right (Central) was an hour of glitz and rampant consumerism with an atmosphere that broke out of the television screen and engulfed living rooms across the country in a frenzy of purchasing power. The aim of the game was simply to win as many prizes as you could, by competing in some entertaining games. There was no variety act to sing us a number, just an hour of commercialism, interrupted only by two lots of commercials.

The Price Is Right was, at this stage, still limited to relatively small prizes, leaving a top showcase price of around £3000. Later in the 80s, Strike it Lucky (Thames) met the same limitation, but relief was in sight. The Thatcher government removed many of the restrictions on the ITV companies. They no longer had to clear all their programmes before transmission with the IBA, but would be regulated after broadcast by the Independent Television Commission (ITC, now absorbed into OFCOM.) Many of the restrictions on prizes would be removed, allowing Bob Monkhouse's revival of The $64,000 Question to offer a top prize of 64,000 tenpences £6,400; now £10,000.)

It took some years for the prize cap to be lifted fully, and the quantum leap didn't happen until 1995's Raise the Roof (Central) started to offer a house worth a six-figure sum each week. The gloves were off, and it was only a matter of time before someone would come up with an idea that made big-money quizzes look attractive again. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (Celador) was that idea - the programme celebrates its seventh birthday next week - and bore a resemblance to Double Your Money. A host who knows the answers, a prize structure that doubles each question, the opportunity to walk away after any question. Things hadn't changed that much.

ITV's first foray into a potentially unlimited jackpot was 2000's The People Versus (Celador), which could have kept one contestant on screen for many programmes at a time. It could also have been a darned sight more interesting than it was, and the 2001 daytime version was far superior. ITV gave The Vault (Kingworld) three bites of the cherry, and became one of very few programmes to give away a million pounds when Karen Shand rang in to win a million. This year's The Big Call (Granada) gave away lottery tickets rather than cash, resulting in a top prize of £178,086. Due up later this year is a show with the working title of Infinity, which promises a prize that could be as large as you want.

The largest theoretical prize offered so far was on the channel's most memorable quiz ever, Shafted (Initial). In theory, one player could win the not insignificant sum of £102,000,000; in practice, they were limited to a mere £2.5 million. The combination of Paul Farrar's music sounding like bodily functions, hand gestures that verge on the obscene, and host Robert Kilroy-Silk, made the whole programme into something of a comedy.

Unlike certain other reviews of ITV's history, we'll not be neglecting the output directed at children. The best bits of CITV, and a brief overview of talent and people shows, follows next week.


Where appropriate, the web version of this column now contains links to Wikipedia articles.

Robert Currie has been swotting up on the Life and Times of Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was, of course, "The Young Pretender" in the Stewart -v- Hanover uprisings of the early 18th century. Robert does decently well, scoring 10 (0).

Beth Maclure will tell us about the Life and Work of Edward Hopper. He was a New York painter of the early 20th century. The round is full of questions about details of the pictures, and we don't get a good overview of his work. 12 (3) is the score.

Ian MacKillop offers Parliamentary Scandals Since 1900, starting with John Stonehouse and Jeffrey Archer. To save Mr Archer writing in, we know he didn't resign, just didn't contest the October 74 election. Mr MacKillop goes like the clappers, and has obviously enjoyed his research. 14 (0) is a good score.

Jane Ramella has the Life and Work of Nancy Mitford. That's the lady who invented "U" and "Non-U", which we later learn was more satirical than serious. Ms Ramella's score of 5 (2) doesn't feel like a winning start, and she finishes on 12 (4). And goes away smiling, always an encouraging sign.

Mr Currie talks about how the job of the police has changed during his 27 years in the force. His general knowledge round never gets out of second gear, and the final score is 16 (1).

Ms Maclure confirms that most people know of Edward Hopper's work, but less about the man. Her general knowledge round starts off well, with some useful guesses, but there are a lot of passes between the correct answers. Her score of 23 (7) keeps her in contention.

Mr MacKillop suggests the British public makes too much of its sexual mores, and comes in for some stinging questioning from Mr Humphrys. He finds this round to his liking as well, finishing on 27 (0).

This Week And Next

Thanks to museum.tv for assistance in researching the ITV history this week.

Esther Rantzen has ruled herself out of the Countdown running, preferring to appear in a new show of her own. She'll run a guest house in Provence, alongside a gentleman celebrity (Rowan Atkinson, somewhat bizarrely, has been mentioned in that project.)

The Daily Moron's front page yesterday claimed that Des Lynham was going to be the new face of Countdown. Lest we forget, this paper tried to convince everyone of a game show where people tried to stay healthy in the face of germs. And they would have got away with it, if it hadn't been for us pesky kids. "This sounds like a rather large amount of rubbish." - Thomas Scott. (Further details of the Isolation spoof.)

Former BBC director-general John Birt gave a speech at the Edinburgh festival this week. He suggested that television should aspire to higher intellectual standards, and the current obsession with reality shows wasn't good for the nation. Rumours that Mr Birt has been hitching a ride with his mortal enemy Mr Doctor, travelling back in time, and giving evidence to the Pilkington Committee, have not been adequately explained.

A little time-travel of our own shows that next week's highlight is ISIHAC In Edinburgh, Radio 4 on Thursday, and the most recent Raven final is repeated on CBBC. It'll all get better once the autumn schedules kick in the week after.

To have Weaver's Week emailed to you on publication day, receive our exclusive TV roundup of the game shows in the week ahead, and chat to other ukgameshows.com readers sign up to our Yahoo! Group.

Back to Weaver's Week Index

A Labyrinth Games site.
Design by Thomas.
Printable version
Editors: Log in