Sunday, April 23, 2023


Despite having seen many episodes of the game show “Catchphrase”, I had not realised it began with a rule that contestants could not buzz to “catch the phrase” in a computer-generated image until a bell sounded, as confirmed by an incident in the first episode of its second series: the first image appeared, the words “HOT TIN ROOF” shown in tall, blue letters, and the image of a cat is then rendered in ovals and lines that takes the computer two seconds to generate. The first contestant, Dot, buzzes in to guess, just before the bell sounds. The host, comedian Roy Walker, tells Dot that she was slightly too early, offering the other contestant, Andrew, the chance to answer, correctly guessing “cat on a hot tin roof”. Dot went on to win a holiday and £430.

While the second series introduced a second-half, fastest-finger-first “Ready Money Round” that did not use the bell, its use in the initial rounds was not dropped until 2000, fourteen years after the show began on ITV, and just as Walker was replaced with Nick Weir, who is now in charge of entertainment for Royal Caribbean cruise line. But the unwritten reason for the rule made itself clear upon watching “cat on a hot tin roof” back a couple more times: the bell signals when enough of the computer-generated image had been rendered to give the contestants a reasonable chance of getting the answer right.

“Catchphrase” is one of those game shows that, like “Call My Bluff” and “Every Second Counts”, is in fact an American game show that was cancelled after only months on air, only to then have a lengthy run when transplanted to the UK. The original US two-word-titled “Catch Phrase” was among the first game shows to use computer graphics, initially by Limicon Inc. of Toronto, Canada, albeit rudimentary images that often relied upon contextualising words placed on screen, and not far away from the quality of the first screensavers for PCs. These were recycled for the UK version before slowly being replaced by more colours and movement, less reliance on text, zooming in and out of images, and now full 3D animation.

The distributor supplying the US “Catch Phrase” promised TV stations a replacement game show by the distributor if ratings didn’t work out, which happened after just three months. Just as Roy Walker introduced the second series of the UK version by thanking its audience for making it the biggest new game show of 1986, the US producer was trying to shoehorn the “catch phrases” into a “Wheel of Fortune”-style roulette wheel game of chance, a pilot show of which failed to sell in 1987, and again two years later when retried with married couples. 

What was missing was the glue that held the UK “Catchphrase” together: the catchphrases. “Say what you see”, “keep pressing, keep guessing”, and “it’s good, but it’s not right” were all originated by Roy Walker and used by subsequent hosts, and as iconic as show mascot Mr. Chips - the US version had the originally-named Herbie, but had no equivalent of encouraging the contestants if they gave a wrong answer, or buzzed in too early.

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