The success of Doctor Who – with another two series already commissioned before the end of the run – and the failure of Celebrity Wrestling suggested in the mid-2000s that we could be optimistic about the future of Saturday night television; a quality series proved that a family audience still existed and, given well-made programming, would gather in front of their televisions to watch it.
ITV seemed unable to learn from its mistakes. Director of Programmes Nigel Pickard was famously quoted as saying his job was not in danger over “two poxy shows” – the notorious Wrestling and Stitch Up affairs – but none of the other series that replaced them in the schedules prove to be potential long runners either. The Big Call was a quiz hyped up as a possible new Who Wants to be a Millionaire, with contestants able to win 10,000 lottery tickets and a potential multi-million cash prize. If anything, though, it turned out to be the new Vault, with its overly-complicated format and a complete lack of any atmosphere, but with the added bonus of, surprisingly enough, celebrities. Rock Around the Block didn’t include any celebrities – but nor did it include much else either. Two neighbouring families attempted to learn a pop song in a week for no real reason whatsoever. The first instalment pulled in just 1.9 million viewers, surely a record low for a Saturday night show, and with crushing inevitability it failed to make it to the end of the run.
Nonetheless, over the next few years, Saturday nights were on the ascendant once again, albeit thanks almost completely to the combined ratings and press appeal of Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, The X-Factor (the most watched show in 2010) and, from 2007 onwards, Britain’s Got Talent (the most watched show in 2009). Fast forward to 2020 and four of those five programmes still have an important part to play in our weekend television. Doctor Who, now moved to Sunday nights, has fallen away in terms of ratings, but remains a key programme for the BBC, attracting worldwide sales and prestige. Of the other four, The X-Factor has struggled most in recent years. As audiences grew tired of scale and huge stakes and turned instead towards warmth and companionship (as evidenced by the rise in popularity in the mid-2010s of mid-week cookery competition The Great British Bake Off), The X-Factor has struggled to pivot to this new position. Strictly Come Dancing was always well placed to dial up the bonhomie, and other realty behemoths, such as I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! have successfully shifted the focus away from friction to fun. That The X-Factor has failed to do this, hints at perhaps a lack of humanity at the programme’s core. At the time of writing, its future looks in doubt with recent attempts to reboot it, including a second celebrity version (who now remember 2006’s The X Factor: Battle of the Stars?), failing to attract an audience.
When we first started tracing the history of Saturday night television, way back in 2001, the general consensus was that the night was becoming an increasingly barren wasteland, with no new series of any note catching on since the glory days of Noel’s House Party and Blind Date. We are in a similar place today. The golden years of the mid-2000s are behind us and Saturdays are back in the doldrums, overshadowed by Sunday nights – the home of Countryfile, Antiques Roadshow and big drama. In fact, Sundays now have what Saturdays used to have – a shape.
In writing these articles, we have returned time and again to one basic question: what makes a great Saturday night television show? It is our hypothesis that Saturday night television shows are a breed apart. They are higher octane, more outrageous and more intoxicating than their weekday counterparts. That’s not to say everything shown on a Saturday night is a “Saturday night television show”. ITV proved the point painfully with The Premiership. The reverse is also true, with a number of programmes containing all the elements required to become a Saturday night hit, bar the slot. For example, when asked what his favourite Saturday night show of all time was, Lionel Blair told us, with a completely straight face, “Sunday Night at the London Palladium“.
But what actually is the greatest Saturday night television show ever? It’s probably fair to say that Under Manning, Simply the Best, Sin on Saturday and Passport to Paradise wouldn’t make anyone’s shortlist. The cemetery of Saturday night television is piled high with the decaying cadavers of programmes too derivative, or just too plain bad to sustain an existence beyond their hesitantly commissioned first series. In 2005, we asked a number of TV professionals to give us their favourite programmes. This is what they said:
Ah … I am not allowed to vote for my own show so I’ll vote for Opportunity Knocks. I like TV that shows me stuff I am not expecting and Op Knocks occasionally did that. It also picked out the acts beforehand so that I didn’t have to sit and watch excruciating amateurs and conceited “producers” making fun of them when they don’t have any talent of their own. I liked the variety (now a dirty word) of the acts so that the look of the show was constantly changing.
– Paul Daniels, Magician and Presenter
Not really a big fan of Saturday night – only thing I generally watch is Match of the Day. But aged 10 I used to be a big Sale of the Century fan, although when Brucie did The Generation Game that might get a vote as well
– Will Bryant, Producer
I’m enormously proud of the many great programmes ITV has broadcast over the years, but if I had to pick one it would be the Parkinson show. It’s not just that he gets the best guests on TV, it’s that he brings a warmth and intelligence to the job as an interviewer that – even after 30 years – no-one else can match.
– Charles Allen, Chief Executive of ITV 2004-7
I would have to say The Generation Game, especially at the time we did it … there hadn’t been any, as we say, people shows. There’d been things like Double Your Money, Take Your Pick, those sort of game shows with just single people coming up and trying to take money, but there hadn’t been any show before with eight people taking part, playing against each other, doing different games every week. So that was the appeal of The Generation Game. Often we’d get two couples and we’d sit them on the side of the stage and as soon as the game started, if it was somebody doing something really tricky, the audience would start laughing in the theatre, and you knew everyone was laughing at home too as to what they were going to be asked to do. It was so ground-breaking in its day. It broke ground rules like no other show had ever done. And, of course, since then, you look at the shows that have been spin-offs from The Generation Game. If you look back, you’ll be amazed … “Oh gosh, yeah, that’s what The Generation Game did”. Maybe in a different form, they make a half-hour programme out of just one person or two people trying to do something, but it really is basically ordinary people trying to do something that they’ve never done before. Now the spin-offs from that have been immense.
– Bruce Forsyth, Entertainer
I vote for Doctor Who. As a child it was for me an appointment to view before that concept had been born, and the Daleks’ impact at the time has not been over-hyped in the wake of the recent revival. My father was a film cameraman and he took my brother and me to a BBC staff Christmas party for children, where there was a Dalek. My brother would not stay in the room, even when the top was lifted off and the Dalek shown to be empty inside. I remember having nightmares about the Zarbis (giant ant-like monsters) but I still wanted them to return, for the Doctor to fight them again. I lost touch with the series somewhere after the Tom Baker era. As for entertainment, I’ll let others judge Noel’s House Party, but early Gen Games with Bruce would be very high on my list.
– Michael Leggo, Magic Dust Media
Mid-period Larry Grayson’s Generation Game – Larry was less precious than Brucie, more subtle and bizarre. I preferred his relationship with Isla to the rather more seedy, one-way relationship Bruce had with Anthea (“Give us a twirl. And another one!!”), and Larry was quite happy to make a fool of himself at our and the contestants’ expense, something that has never been in Forsyth‘s make-up. The idea that literally over half the nation(!) would sit down on a Saturday evening and watch a confused old queen from Nuneaton play parlour games with a Highland folkie and two families from the Shires suggests that the ’70s really were as grim as everyone makes out. They were. But Larry’s Gen Game was The Only Fun In Town – and it has never been bettered.
– Martin Cunning, Managing Director, Eyeworks
The recent new series of Doctor Who has clinched it for me. It pioneered drama as entertainment on the night, and made sci-fi popular, and Russell T Davies re-invented the Saturday family audience show
– Peter Bazalgette, Non-Executive Chairman, ITV
I’d be torn between nostalgia for my youth and would plump for Brucie’s Generation Game. I think it was the daddy of them all really, you can trace its lineage through House Party, Toothbrush and Takeaway. Although it belongs solidly in the ’70s it still stands the test of time. But I think someone should stick up for Match of the Day. When we didn’t really have live football it was a godsend and I probably looked forward to it more than any other show each week. I also think there have been two perfect Saturday night shows in the last few years which both set out to deliver something specific on Saturday night and delivered brilliantly – but then I was in charge of both of them so you can laugh openly at my lack of modesty. The first was I Love The Seventies/Eighties which were rich treats for the audiences and designed around the viewing habits and lifestyle of young adults on a Saturday night. And the second is Strictly Come Dancing, which speaks for itself.
– Wayne Garvie, Head of BBC’s Entertainment Group
Well it’s a hard one and there are many contenders – but I think it would have to go to Pop Idol for being the first absolutely huge interactive Saturday night event show that lasted 21 weeks and engaged the nation more than any other show has done.
– Claudia Rosencrantz, President of international productions, Sony Pictures Television
Best Saturday show has to be any Morecambe and Wise. Do I really have to give a reason?
– Cecil Korer, original Channel 4 Commissioning Editor for Light Entertainment
I think the problem about best ever is it changes from decade to decade. The best thing now without a doubt – which is a long way ahead of everything else – is Ant and Dec’s Takeaway. It’s a young crowd, it’s fresh, original. It’s the dog’s bollocks of television. Going back, it would have to be Noel’s House Party. In its heyday it was brilliant, but they kept it on too long.
– Nigel Pickard, Chairman, The RightsXchange
Saturday night TV still remains completely different from every other night of the week. There is still no regular soap episode, and both the BBC and ITV continue to devote a huge percentage of the evening to light entertainment. Over the last 40 years, the evening’s offerings have probably been subjected to more criticism than the other six nights of the week put together. Much of this, surely, is thanks to the sheer affection and nostalgia that exists for those classic night line-ups of the past – people forever expect programming of a similar kind to classics like Dick Emery, The Duchess of Duke Street and Dixon of Dock Green.
What will attempt to fill their shoes on weekend evenings in future years remains unknown. But one thing’s for sure – everyone will be looking at them to see if they become the next in a long line of Saturday classics.