Saturday, 26 December 2009

Legacy Shows

Well, here we are at the end of the Noughties, and what better time to give a little consideration to the eternal question – what was all that about then ? You're right, its a big question, so lets narrow our parameters a little. In fact lets narrow them a lot, and just consider one tiny aspect of this much larger question. What lasting legacy will the Noughties bequeath to the field of TV quizzes, to match or even surpass that of previous decades?

I’ll explain what I mean. Without going into a rambling discourse on the history of the UK television quiz show - you can find one of these on my web site if you’d like to read it – just google Dave Clark’s Quiz Pages and you’ll find it – each decade has left us something tangible behind. So we’ll start with the 40s. Now, in all honesty I don’t think that any TV programme of any genre has survived from the 40s schedule until the present day. However, on good old radio 4 , in 1947 Round Britain Quiz began, and it still returns for a new series every year, making it comfortably the longest running broadcast quiz in the UK. Its not a quiz for members of the public, with only the great and the good being invited to join teams from various regions, but its format has been influential. The heart of the quiz is in using general knowledge to solve several clues, and then finding the connection between the clues. This may make you think of Only Connect, and if you want to think of a show you may have influenced, then you won't find a much better one than that.

The 50s saw the birth of commercial TV, but there are no TV quizzes hanging on grimly from this decade. However, in 1953, Brain of Britain began on BBC Radio as part of a wider programme called What do You Know ? It established itself as the premier General Knowledge quiz on the radio, a title which I amongst many believe it still holds, and the list of winners reads very much like a who’s who of quizzing. The phrase itself “Brain of Britain” is very often applied in an ironic context by people who not only have never heard the show, but didn’t even know that it was on the radio. Has it been influential though ? I don’t know. The 5 question – first one wrong and your go is finished – format has not been mimicked, as far as I know, by anything other than a late sixties TV version.

The finest legacy we have from the 60s is University Challenge. Is it the longest running quiz show currently on TV ? I think that it probably is. The current, second incarnation of the show has been running every year since 1994. That 15 year unbroken stint may well be enough. However if you add Bamber Gascoigne’s 25 year stint from 1962 – 1987, then its been going for over 40 years. The finest team quiz on British TV, as I said in a post a couple of months ago it has added the phrase “Starter for Ten” to the English Language. If you want to be remembered as a decade for a particular quiz show, then you couldn’t do much better than UC.

Not that the 70s are exactly to be sniffed at. In theory, the closer we get to the present day, the more shows may still be running. In the case of the 70s, we have two to mention. Firstly, and inevitably, Mastermind. If you’ve followed my blog any length of time you’ll already know that I am totally biased in favour of Mastermind, so I’ll just content myself with the facts – that it started in 1972, and has run every year since in one form or another – 1998 – 2000 on Radio 4, 2001 on the Discovery Satellite/Cable channel , 2002 Celebrity Mastermind on BBCTV, and from 2003 until the present day on BBC2 under almost exactly the same format as the first 25 years. So far, and not including the current series, there have been 35 champions. Again, the list is an illustrious one, although it does include the odd teacher from Ealing via Port Talbot who got lucky.
Also from the 70s we have the Krypton Factor. The original, Gordon Burns - presented Krypton Factor lasted an impressive 18 years, from 1977, until 1995. Then at the start of the current year, 2009, lo and behold, it was resurrected. The Krypton Factor is worthy of mention, because a general knowledge quiz was the final round of the show for many years, even though the number of questions were curtailed in later series so that you couldn’t win the show just on this one round. The idea of an all-round challenge is a very seductive one, and it has been used in other formats more than once since the Krypton Factor first hit our screens.
Of course, maybe we shouldn’t ignore that granddaddy of celebrity panel quizzes – A Question of Sport, which first saw the light of day in 1970. On reflection, though, its probably better to keep panel games/quizzes separate from our considerations.

The 80s. Ah yes, the decade of Trivial Pursuit, and quiz machines in every pub, and also the decade that . . . well, actually, its difficult to think of hardly any quizzes that started in the 80s, which are still on. You see, our archetypal 80s survivor, Countdown doesn’t meet the criteria of a quiz, as it does not ask General knowledge questions. Or any questions as such at all. Of course, 4 years after Countdown Channel 4 introduced their finest quiz, and possibly the greatest TV quiz ever, 15 to 1. But alas, that ceased to be a good 6 or more years ago, and so cannot be seen as the 80s legacy. Which only leaves . . . um . . . Going for Gold . Actually I’m not even so sure that it even leaves this much. The show was revived last year, but I have no idea whether it will ever be back again, and so nay well be defunct again. Perhaps Family Fortunes, then ? It began in 1980, and ran for the next 22 years. All Star Family Fortunes – the celebrity ? revival seems to be going strong. Least said about this the better, although you have to admit that the format has been influential. In this year both Guesstimation and the enjoyable Pointless both used formats which were reminiscent in some ways of Family Fortunes.

But hang on, now we’re getting closer to the present day, shouldn’t there be more, rather than fewer quizzes still going strong ? You might think so, but look at the 90s. Can you honestly name any quiz show, still in production in the UK, which first saw the light of day between 1990 and 1997 ? There might be one out there, but I can’t name it. Alright, Ken Bruce has been doing his Popmaster quiz as part of his radio show since 1996, and very good fun it is too, but its on the radio, its not a show, only part of a show, and its my blog so I make the rules. However, when the 90s did throw up its legacy quiz in 1998, what a quiz it was, and what an impact it made. I refer, of course, to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. In format I suppose its genius is its simplicity. Its original enough, yet reminiscent in some ways of Hughie Greene’s old double Your Money. Just with more money. Lots more . Oh, and a phrase which would become part of everyone’s common vocabulary – Can I phone a Friend.

A lot of what has happened since has been bit of a reaction to Millionaire. Its taken TV execs a lot of time to realise that Millionaire is a non-repeating phenomenon. Which basically means that it came along with the right blend of ingredients at exactly the right moment, and there’s no point in trying to do the same with anything very similar, because its not that time any more, and even the slight change in ingredients necessary to avoid plagiarism can work against audience appeal. Which is why shows like The Vault, The Syndicate, The Chair, Come and Have A Go. . ., The People’s Quiz etc. were not a great success. Some of them weren’t good, some of them were, but none of them had anything like the viewer appeal of WWTBAM.

So much so that the legacy shows of the Noughties, I guess, naturally turn out to be very different to Millionaire. In 2000 the BBC unleashed the full terror of Anne Robinson on an unsuspecting public. The BBC got lucky with this show. I don’t know if they predicted the rise of Mean, or whether they deliberately encouraged it, or whether they just got a break, but the fact is that the show’s bitchiness caught on, and the show has never been off TV since. Influential ? You bet. Look at the shows where meanness and nastiness between contestants has been encouraged since – and there’s been a few – Shafted, Divided to name but two. One of the things that has made TWL successful has been anchoring it in the early evening, where it doesn’t need to get a mass audience, and isn’t seen as competing against Millionaire. Once 15 to 1 ended, it was always likely to attract a loyal audience.

The same can be said of our second legacy show of the noughties, namely Eggheads. You might like it, you might not, but you have to admit that the whole pro- am format of the show is something very original. There have been a very small number of people throughout the years who have gained varying degrees of celebrity through their appearances on quiz shows in the past – Irene Thomas, and particularly Fred Housego come to mind. Yet Eggheads quickly made household names out of the original 5 Eggheads – Kevin, Daphne, Chris, Cj and Judith, and doubtless will do so for Barry and Pat as well. As yet the influence of its format has been slight. As far as I know ITVs The Chase is the only show to pick up the pro – am baton and run with it.

Can you be said to be a legacy show when you only started a couple of years ago ? In the case of “Only Connect “ I sincerely hope so. There are a number of quizzes I never want to miss, and this is one of them. Can it run and run ? Time will tell. If it weren't for my arthritis I would keep one pair of fingers crossed.

So in ten years’ time, what will we look back on as the great successful legacy shows of the Twenty – teens ? Who knows ? One prediction I think I can make with some security , though, is that whatever they are, they will be something quite different to what we’ve seen before. I may well be wrong, but I don’t think that this difference will be in the size or scale of prize, but in the format of the show itself. If I knew what this meant exactly, then I’d be creating TV shows instead of just writing about them, but as yet there has been no interest expressed in the quiz game I invented for April Fool, entitled "Count Your Beans".

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