Sunday, April 21, 2019


One month ago, the quiz show “Blockbusters” came back to British television, again. This time, it is on Comedy Central, hosted by Dara O Briain, and while all the elements that have lodged the show in our collective memory are there, it just doesn’t quite feel the same, just like the last few times it has been revived.
For the few left that don’t know, “Blockbusters” tests whether two heads are better than one, asking general knowledge questions to a solo player and a duo. Players pick questions from a 5 x 4 board of letters, with each letter beginning an answer. The team that can draw a line of correct answers across the board (vertical for the solo player, horizontally for the duo) wins the game, going on to play the Gold Run for a big prize.

Few general knowledge quizzes are also games of strategy: you are essentially playing Noughts and Crosses against your opponent, blocking them from making their line, forcing them to take the long way around. If you reached the Gold Run, which is against the clock and with more initials per answer, you could block your path with a wrong answer. (For the record, the French version of the show was named “Parcours d'enfer” – “Course of Hell”.) Add in the possibility that the show could run out of time half-way through a round, at a crucial moment in the game, and you add cliff-hangers into the mix, the host providing “the story so far” when the show returns next time.

“Blockbusters” began on American television in 1980, lasting only two years. Hosted by the amiable Bill Cullen, presenter of more game shows than anyone in TV history, and the duo playing as a “family pair” (the first episode had identical twins, with identical moustaches), it was less brash and immediate than “The Price is Right” or “Wheel of Fortune,” and the two-against-one format just looked unfair – when it returned for a short run in 1987, it was one-on-one instead.

However, “Blockbusters,” when remade by Central Television for ITV, became a hit on British television, like American formats “Call My Bluff” and “The Match Game” before it (the latter became “Blankety Blank,” which I have previously talked about here [link]). It began in 1983 as the first British quiz show to play out five days a week, and the first to allow play to flow across episodes and create cliff-hangers, often used on American TV shows, but never here. Making the show into a “pre-University Challenge” by having sixth-form students as contestants, winning prizes for themselves and their school, and playing it after ITV’s afternoon children’s slot, built a loyal audience. The encouraging, authoritative hosting of the show by Bob Holness made the show solid and seamless from the start.
Apart from the student contestants, everything that made the British “Blockbusters” truly memorable were in its presentation, including the various fuzzy gonk mascots on the contestants’ desks; the continuing use of hexagons as a motif, with more stuck to the set with every series; and the “hand jive” the audience did in time with the theme tune, the clapping and waving routine having been started by a bored contestant that was waiting for their turn.

Its opening title sequence, which I take pleasure in describing, was extremely memorable. The Central Television logo, a white disc shadowed by a rainbow, fades to the planet Earth, as seen from space. As Ed Welch’s theme tune builds, a solar eclipse forms behind Earth as two hexagons pass in front like alien ships, one falling into the next shot of a cityscape of hexagonal tower blocks. We fly alongside a hexagon ship through the cityscape, looking like “Blade Runner” without the rain. The theme tune is reminiscent of the da-da-da-dum of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, only more pumped up. After flying down “Broadway”, and after the flashing lights of the game board are seen on screen, three hexagon ships approach a citadel, which opens a portal in its side. Flying through an art gallery-like hall of landscapes, the ships smash through the game board at the end of the hall and into the neon-lit studio, where they fly towards stone pictures of famous mythical figures (and Albert Einstein), finally passing over a frieze of Zeus. Peter Tomlinson says, “and now, here’s the host of Blockbusters, Bob Holness,” the audience cheers wildly, and the greatest opening titles ever made for a television programme, designed by Graham Garside, come to an end.
The first incarnation of “Blockbusters” ended on ITV in 1993, but was picked up the following year by another channel, Sky One, with Bob Holness continuing as host, and everything else staying much the same, because there was no need to change what worked. Despite the gap, they started the first show by telling you what happened to the players from the previous episode – apparently, one had been offered a place at UCLA.

The show came back again in 1997, for BBC Two, with Michael Aspel hosting, more purple used on screen and on the set than blue, older contestants, and a different theme tune that sounded like the first one, but played with the wrong notes. This is the start of trying to replicate elements from the original show without paying the extra for the copyrighted originals. Sky One tried again in 2000, with a MIDI keyboard version of the original theme, the set of Aspel’s version, more blue, and Liza Tarbuck as host. Challenge TV, a game show channel that had been replaying the original, aired “All-New Blockbusters” with a CGI opening reminiscent of the tower blocks, and the theme now played on electric guitar. This year’s Comedy Central version returns to using students, but adds a sudden death round before the final Gold Run, making every episode self-contained, as if they cannot expect people to tune in more than once, and if they are doing the hand jive again, it is because they are nostalgic for it, and not because they are doing it ironically.
No version of “Blockbusters” has lasted longer than one series, apart from the original, which lasted for ten. Recreating what triggers the nostalgia for the original is difficult if the best version of those elements were in the original. If you want the original, you can watch the original, as playing the game was only part of the fun.

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