One evening a couple of weeks ago, apropos of nothing, I happened upon an episode of the British version of the long-running game show Play Your Cards Right from the 1990s, hosted by Bruce Forsyth. It was an instructive experience in the nature of the British television game show and how it contrasts with how this genre of television programme has come to develop in this country. Most notably of all, the “game” element of the show was conspicuous largely by its absence. It was a full ten minutes – into a half hour long programme – before so much as a card was turned, a fact that says a lot about the nature of the television game show in Britain.
If you’re British, you’re already more than familiar with how this all plays out. Bruce Forsyth is a British broadcasing insitution, of course, and Play Your Cards Right is very much framed as a vehicle for him. He walks onto the stage, makes a joke about last week’s studio audience, introduces his glamorous assistants – the, ahem, “Dolly Dealers” – and eventually, finally gets around to introducing the contestants, who then play a brief game of cards in the hope of winning a car or a relatvely modest amount of money. Watching this programme, I was very aware of the fact that I was on Bruce Forsyth’s territory, here. His house, his rules. And doesn’t he let you know it?
There is a significant point to be made here about the way in which the television game show developed in the the United Kingdom. Spooked by the notion that too much commercialisation could bring about the fall of the British Empire – as it turned out, that other institution was perfectly capable of collapsing under the weight of its own anachronism in the years immedately following the end of the Second World War – to the point that the 1962 Pilkington Report into the future of broadcasting in Britain was critical of the way that quiz shows encouraged consumption, exploited audiences’ voyeuristic tendencies (the genre was likened to “watching one man in a large arena being baited”) and rewarded trivial knowledge. Television regulators in Britain placed stringent rules in place over what could and couldn’t be done in British game shows, with the most significant feature of these regulations being severe limits being placed on the size of the prizes that could be offered to contestants.
This, perhaps, had one truly telling effect on the development of the television game show in this country. Without the lure of truly big prizes to be able to offer audiences – a state of affairs that was dealt with by some programmes using that most British of mediums, mockery, most notably for many years by the BBC’s Blankety Blank – the game show in the UK evolved into an undercooked form of light entertainment, pinning its audience ratings hopes on the appeal of its host, be it Forsyth, Michael Barrymore (in spite of his apparent attempts to engage contestants as being a more fundamental part of the programme in Strike It Lucky and Strike It Rich) and even, God help us, Paul Daniels. Eventual deregulation of these rules has led to something of a shift of the perception of game shows in Britain, but it’s credible to argue that television overall is now something of a dying medium in many of the ways in which we currently understand it and the formats of days gone by seem unlikely to return in the style of days gone by.
Yet from the country which gave us so many of the conventions of the game show as we understand it comes evidence that sometimes to retain a format is possible. The Price Is Right is a show that has been on the air in the United States of America since 1956, with just one major revamp to its format that came in 1972, after which the show was known as The New Price Is Right for several years. It remains a mainstay of network schedules on America because it is simultaneously a game that anybody can play from the comfort of their own home and because it follows a format that has become deeply ingrained in the American viewer’s psyche.
To watch an episode of The Price Is Right is a curiously joyous experience. From 1972 until 2007 it was hosted by the affable Bob Barker, and what is clear within thirty seconds of the start of the show is that Barker – or, indeed, his successor, Drew Carey – is categorically NOT the star of the show. Indeed, Barker is a blank slate of a host in comparison with the “celebrities” long associated with British game shows. The stars of The Price Is Right are the contestants, whose excitement at the twin concepts of being on the television I’m the first place and having the opportunity to win big prizes is immediately obvious.
Within seconds of the start of the show, four members of the studio audience are summoned forth to “Contestants Row” to bid on anything from a variety of prizes. The host, meanwhile, is merely a conduit for their energy. Sure enough, there will be some cheap laughs to be gained at their over-excitement, but what is more striking than anything else is the extent to which said contestants are merely thrilled to be involved in the game in the first place. After a second round which offers them the opportunity to grab a second, bigger prize, they then proceed to the “Showcase Showdown,” a game of, broadly speaking, chance which is cleverly disguised as a tactical play-off and gives the two winners an opportunity to play off to win their Showcase, which usually consists of an improbably opulent selection of prizes totalling thousands of pounds of dollars in value.
If there is one characteristic that holds The Price Is Right together as a format, it is that this is a programme that is ridiculous, and knows it. It shoves itself squarely into your face from the very beginning, with title music that is barely audible over the screaming of the crowd. The contestants are down in their row within a couple of minutes, and the game is off and running before you have a chance to so much as catch your breath. From here on, the pace is relentless and the viewer is swept through to the final round of the game without pause for thought. To British eyes, some of its practices odd, such as the extent use of product placement to the sheer ridiculousness of some of the prizes on offer, but that doesn’t detract from the sheer entertainment of the spectacle.
And this is why the game show format works so effectively in the United States of America, as opposed to here in the UK. I don’t particularly wish to skate too close to the line of national stereotyping, but, whether with or without a sense of knowing, the enthusiasm of The Price Is Right’s audience is infectious enough to carry the viewer along with it, whereas the British often came across as a little too uncomfortable to let themselves fully go. This, coupled with the fact that the original British version of the show, which was hosted by Leslie Crowther, did encourage its studio audience let its hair down and is more fondly remembered than the subsequent – and neutered – version hosted by, yes, Bruce Forsyth during the 1990s.
The game show in Britain may not be a dying medium, but it has changed almost beyond recognition over the last decade and a half. The success of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire saw British game shows change their narrative and, occasionally, conflict. This has brought some innovative thinking. Pointless, for example, is an innovative take on the “poll the public” idea so beloved of Family Fortunes and is an accessible yet fiendishly accessible quiz show. The days of game shows being used as vehicles for light entertainers seem to have come to a close.
Below is a full episode of The Price Is Right from June 1977.
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