TV Cream

It's Saturday Night

116. Don’t Get Mad, Get Even

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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?

Next Monday: The penalty shoot-out is the greatest ever endgame

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Des Elmes

    February 12, 2020 at 12:07 am

    Grudge Match’s hosts were Nick Weir and Lisa Rogers, who it’s fair to say were not Ulrika and Fash. Weir, of course, achieved notoriety when he replaced Roy Walker on Catchphrase and fell down the audience stairway at the start of his first episode, breaking his foot…

    For me, the best thing about We’ve Got Your Number was its title sequence, featuring the numbers 1 to 49 in all sorts of representations – 6 represented by half a dozen eggs, 11 by “XI” on a clock, 26 by a first-class stamp (blimey, was that all they cost only twenty years ago?), ending with ball 49 coming out during a draw. All right, it didn’t require *quite* as much effort as (for instance) Tomorrow’s World’s fried egg and ball bearings, but it’s still a pretty neat sequence. One can’t help but want to have it accompanied by Whole Lotta Love, though…

  2. Des Elmes

    February 12, 2020 at 3:58 am

    I’ve got quite a lot to say about Winning Lines, hence a separate comment for it…

    Although the ‘Lines did indeed owe a lot to Talking Telephone Numbers, it probably also owed something to an ever earlier Celador show, Everybody’s Equal – its first round was not at all dissimilar to EE’s, with the original 49 contestants being reduced to six via a series of timed mathematical questions. (Of course, not a few will better remember EE as Whittle with Tim Vine.) And, somewhat inevitably, there were shades of Millionaire too, particularly in the music (Keith and Matthew Strachan were geniuses) and in the Wonderwall, where the more questions you answered correctly, the bigger your holiday would be.

    The Wonderwall was, and still is, one of the best end games on any game show (certainly in Britain). Having the contestant find the answer to each question on said wall, and then give both that answer and its number, was both neat and novel. And the prize tree meant that the final outcome remained in doubt until the very end, even when it was clear that the round-the-world holiday wasn’t going to be won (whereas if the family playing Big Money had 120 or so with one answer remaining, or the couple gambling for Bully’s Star Prize had 40 or less with one dart left, there was only going to be one outcome, which you already knew).

    Not surprisingly, the ‘Lines ran for six series, longer than most other Lottery game shows. And it still had one or two series left in it when it ended, too, according to most game show fans. That said, it *was* a pretty expensive show (certainly for the Beeb), and also it ended at a time when Lottery shows were about to move away from containing things related to the draws in some way (with the notable exception of Dale Winton’s In It to Win It). And of course, the Saturday night landscape of 2004 was *very* different to the Saturday night landscape of 1999…

    Worth mentioning CBS’s version, too, hosted by none other than Dick Clark and featuring an increased jeopardy element on the Wonderwall, which was played for cash (up to a million dollars) rather than a holiday of some sort. Alas, it didn’t do as well as ABC’s version of Millionaire…

  3. THX 1139

    February 13, 2020 at 11:35 pm

    “Arm wrestling with Chas ‘n’ Dave?”

  4. Glenn Aylett

    February 15, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    Go back to the late sixties and early seventies, and the BBC could guarantee huge ratings with anything hosted by Lulu, Cilla Black and Petula Clark. All three were pop singers who appealed to the older generation as well as young people( Pet Clark even more so as she was considerably older than Lulu or Cilla) and often had a wide range of guest entertainers to appeal to all age groups. Also Cilla! was like an early version of Surprise Surprise in places.

    • Des Elmes

      February 16, 2020 at 6:20 am

      Safe to say that, thirty years later, anything hosted by Lulu could *not* guarantee huge ratings for the Beeb…

      Any opinions on Winning Lines and the other shows mentioned here? 😉

      • Glenn Aylett

        February 16, 2020 at 1:06 pm

        Lulu had undergone a bit of a revival by appearing on a Take That song, but her best days were well behind her, and it was over 20 years since she did a Saturday night show and it showed on Red Alert, where she seemed bored and out of her depth with the game show elements. The world had moved on since the sort of shows she appeared on 20 years earlier where she sang her latest hits, had a couple of musical guests and had a chat with a celebrity, same as people like Petula Clark and Cilla Black had moved on from these shows by 1976.

        • Des Elmes

          February 17, 2020 at 4:50 pm

          …Nothing to say about Winning Lines and the other shows, then?

          Obviously, the ‘Lines *wasn’t* hosted by someone strongly associated with Saturday nights, like Lulu, Cilla or Brucie. And it *is* fair to say that, brilliant as it was, the Wonderwall was probably never destined to be as fondly remembered as the conveyor belt, Grab a Grand, or the Eliminator.

          But it *has* to be considered a successful Saturday night show, since it ran for six series – not only longer than Red Alert and many other Lottery game shows, but longer than not a few non-Lottery Saturday night shows too (and not just the likes of Full Swing and Ice Warriors). *And* it found its way to America.

          Not long now, I should think, until ISN reaches 2001 and the start of Jet Set – another Lottery show that wasn’t hosted by a traditional Saturday night personality and was probably never destined to get the whole nation talking, but which still enjoyed a long run and so has to be considered successful.

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