A familiar Saturday institution finally came to an end in 1999. Gladiators had been an ITV staple since 1992, but seven years later it had run out of steam. Therefore come the end of the 1998 series, it was announced that it was to end, with four final programmes going out in December 1999 to wrap the whole thing up – one even managing to go out on Christmas Day. Nonetheless, despite Gladiators’ decline and the failure of Ice Warriors, the action game show was still felt to have legs, and in September 1999, much of the Gladiators production team were moved on to a new show, Grudge Match. The concept here was that two friends who had fallen out over a disagreement got to settle their arguments once and for all – as the title music had it, “Don’t get mad, get even!”. Barry McGuigan refereed Gladiators-style games involving the protagonists, but nothing seemed to work here – nobody could decide whether the show was supposed to be taken seriously, which much of it being quite ridiculous, but some rounds were little other than boxing matches; not the sort of thing you really wanted to see as light entertainment. This was another one-series-only commission.
But what of the lottery draw? The failure of The National Lottery Big Ticket had not stopped the BBC thinking of ways to broaden the appeal of the programme to people who had no intention of buying a ticket, with the old format now wearing very thin indeed. Trying to involve the lottery itself was more trouble than it was worth, so in February 1999 there was a new format that, for the first time, put the draw second place. We’ve Got Your Number was a rare (for the time) entertainment commission from Bazal Productions, later to become Endemol UK and at the time most famous for their lifestyle programming. However the arrival of light entertainment wunderkind David Young saw a concerted attempt to expand in this direction.
Brian Conley was the new host, in a format that used the draw as the springboard for other, independent ideas – so, for example, if a family had a dispute, they would promise to decide one way or the other depending on what balls came out of the machine. The new series seemed to be a success, with viewing figures rising, but there wasn’t to be a second run as Conley signed an exclusive deal with ITV. However the show’s replacement proved to be a real long runner, and it was all thanks to the success of an ITV programme.
By the summer of 1999, the light entertainment industry had been overhauled by the launch of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. On its debut on ITV screens in September 1998, the show didn’t seem to be much of a hit – a simple question and answer format, which owed much to Double Your Money and The $64,000 Question. What’s more it was presented by Chris Tarrant who had been at the helm of some of the biggest LE flops of recent years. Yet a combination of Tarrant ratcheting up the tension and smart scheduling, which saw ITV screen an episode every night for a fortnight, turned it into an event, which in turn became a smash hit. Some episodes got close on 20 million viewers; massive figures in this day and age.
The show was produced by Celador, who were then asked to repeat the success at the Beeb with their new lottery show. Winning Lines, which started in June, owed a lot to one of Celador’s previous series, Talking Telephone Numbers. A series of numbers were generated and viewers were able to participate if those digits matched their telephone number. This seemed an obvious fit to go alongside the lottery, and when original host Simon Mayo was replaced by Phillip Schofield in 2001, it proved itself as a sturdy quiz that, for the first time, pulled in an audience for whom the lottery was less important than who won the prize holiday in the studio. Winning Lines then alternated with The National Lottery Stars, a revamp of the original format that saw Dale Winton welcoming two or three big name musical acts each week. Both proved to be long-running and successful. However the same could not be said of the next lottery series, launched in November 1999, whose failure was all the more embarrassing as it was a highly-publicised show, considered by many to be the logical successor for Noel’s House Party.
Red Alert was the big light entertainment series that, it was hoped, would take the genre into the 21st Century. Big things were expected from it, as the production company behind it was Ginger Television – Chris Evans’ company who had already revolutionised the genre with Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush in 1994. And the new format owed much to …Toothbrush, specifically the edition in the first series where the entire audience were taken on a trip to EuroDisney. Each episode of Red Alert would end with an entire street being taken to a glamorous destination. It would also be broadcast live and mix games and comedy with musical guests. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, let’s start with the presenters. The main host was Lulu – a former staple of BBC1 Saturday nights in the 1960s and presumably considered the nearest thing possible to the Queen of Light Entertainment, Cilla Black. She was paired with stand-up comedian Terry Alderton, a much-tipped rising star making his primetime debut. Sadly, they never gelled, with a frosty and awkward relationship on screen, and neither were convincing as hosts; Alderton was overwhelmed, as could be expected from a man plunged into a complicated show with little experience, while Lulu had forgotten most of her presentational skills in the three decades since her last gig, and came across as miserable and humourless. Worse still came with the third host – darts commentator Sid Waddell was hired to replace regular voice-over Alan Dedicoat, and his Geordie accent and ludicrous turns of phrase were clearly meant to subvert the variety genre. In fact, they confused and annoyed the viewer, not helped by the dreadful sound quality that rendered him virtually inaudible. Sid was dropped after just one programme.
Technical problems dogged the production, broadcast from one of the largest television studios in Britain. The show was massively over-ambitious, with four streets battling it out to win the holiday, leading to some 400 contestants all angling to get into shot – of course, this had the side-effect of ensuring the viewer could never get a grip on who they were supposed to be actually focussing on, with too many people jostling for position in our affections. It just wasn’t possible to care who won because you didn’t know who anyone was. The games themselves also left a lot to be desired – the most notable being ‘Pump Up Your Postie’, where the entire crowd were demanded to jump up and down on their seats to blow up a giant inflatable, the sort of thing that even Noel’s House Party would have considered infantile. The final round was always botched thanks to Lulu’s ineptitude with the questions and the enormous studio set which meant most of the contestants couldn’t hear anything, while the musical guests simply turned up halfway through, interrupting the flow and making it even harder to follow. The whole thing was a mess, and a very public one at that.
After five shows and umpteen alterations to the format, Red Alert ended for Christmas, although it was always intended to return. When it did, in February 2000, there were major changes – virtually the only thing that had been carried over from the first incarnation was the name and the hosts. The studio set had been completely changed to a replica of the old Toothbrush setting. Lulu got a sofa and was entrusted in this version with simply introducing the bands, while Terry was on the other side of the studio and ran the games. Now it was a battle between two streets, both of which nominated three people to play the lion’s share of the games – so at least it was easier to actually get a grip on who we were supposed to be watching. The programme was also pre-recorded (apart from the lottery draws) and was more professional than the shambolic first attempt.
However, it was equally flawed as a piece of entertainment. The mechanics of the game had been simplified from the overly-complicated and noisy to the completely pointless and boring. There general knowledge questions, observation questions based on a film clip (a concept that was old hat on Screen Test in the 1970s) and, unbelievably, a round where the two streets’ hardest residents took part in an arm-wrestling bout. This was hardly the future of entertainment that Ginger had promised. When this incarnation came to an end after six weeks, it was patently obvious that this salvage operation had been unsuccessful – while it never suffered the same critical derision as the early shows, this had only been replaced by massive indifference.
So if Ginger couldn’t save Saturday night TV, who could?