‘You’ve won a speedboat!’ ‘But I live in a tower block….’
Was there any other game show on British TV that was ridiculed for its prizes as much as Bullseye was? Looking back today, surrounded by a plethora of shows offering hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds as prize money, the thought of coming away from the darts-based quiz with a small, cream-coloured caravan sounds less than attractive. Mind you, the thought of coming away from the darts-based quiz with a Bendy Bully was even less attractive than that but hundreds of people went on the show anyway.
(To be totally fair, during the early years of the show there was an Independent Broadcasting Authority ruling which put a cap on the value of prizes that they were allowed to give away, and to be even fairer in later series you could also win a brand new car or a luxury holiday, but even taking that into account there was still an overriding air of cheapness about the whole affair …)
Whilst we’re asking questions about the show, was there ever a game show on British TV that had so little atmosphere in the studio? There are several reasons for this, but let’s start with the audience. I appreciate that it’s hard to get over-excited about watching somebody throw a dart to win a set of dull brown luggage, but the audience weren’t marched there at gun point were they? They chose to go and watch Bullseye being filmed and, with the exception of the pilot episode, they presumably knew what the show was all about when they made that choice. So why are they so unenthusiastic about the events happening in front of them? Could it have been the lacklustre presentation of the show that dragged the audience’s adrenalin levels down – ok, so some of today’s shows go a bit overboard on lights, blaring music and the awful amount of ……waiting…..that…..the…..presenters…..do……before ……giving….out….the……answers (for added tension you understand)….but it was almost like Bullseye deliberately went the other way. Possibly the budget was even lower than we thought it was, and the production meetings were long, drawn-out affairs where ways were thought of to knock costs down even more. ‘Ok – so we’re down to one forty watt bulb over the oche, two others over the question area. I’ll give in to a couple of coloured bulbs over the prizes – which, by the way I’ve bought from The 99p Store this week. Nobody will know the difference.’
Adding to the overall drabness was the outfits. Whether it was a studio trend or just a coincidence I don’t know, but everybody on Bullseye seemed to be dressed in watered-down pastel shades, and the closer to beige the better. And not to be disrespectful of anybody who took part in the show, but based on looks alone, none of the contestants were ever destined to go on to work as supermodels. When you see those ‘Before They Were Famous’ shows where actors or presenters are shown appearing on Blockbusters or Blind Date in their teenage years, nobody’s ‘before’ clip was ever Bullseye.
So, the (largely depressing) scene is set – but how did the game work?
Three couples (each made up of an amateur darts player and somebody who couldn’t play darts but could answer questions) would compete against each other in a never-before-seen-on-TV (and for good reason) ‘throw a dart, answer a question’ type of quiz. Asking the questions was stand-up comedian (depending on your definition of comedian of course) Jim Bowen, whilst presiding over the darts portion was professional commentator Tony Green.
In the first round the question answerer would choose a topic from one of ten featured around the outside of a specially-made dart board. These were Spelling, Britain, Words, Books, Showbiz, Sport, Faces, Places, Affairs (pretty sure that was news-y things, not who was being adulterous) and Britain. The darts player would then have to hit the corresponding dart board segment to win money, and the closer he or she got to the bull’s eye, the more money was won. Then the non-darts player would have a go at answering a question on that topic, and potentially winning more money (fitting in with the low-key approach to prizes we’re not talking much here – no lives were going to be changed after competing on Bullseye). After each couple had gone three times, the ones with the least prize money would leave the contest, with a selection of consolation prizes, of which more in a minute.
From the eighth series onwards this rule was scrapped, and despite being humiliated by coming last there was no slinking off - they were made to struggle on through the second round as well.
Round two kicked off with the darts players throwing three darts each onto a traditional darts board. The highest score would give the non-darts person the chance to convert the amount of points their partner got into pounds by answering a general knowledge question. If they didn’t get it right, the second highest team would get a chance instead. After three rounds of this, the pair with the most money went forward to the final, and the other two teams would take their money and consolation prizes. Jim would send us off into the break by stating that he needed the two minutes of adverts to count out the money due. Two minutes for handing over a couple of fivers?
So – what were these sought-after trinkets that the contestants got to keep forever (or until their next car boot sale at least)? Well, apart from a set of Bullseye darts the men got a silver tankard, whilst the women were given a silver goblet (because we all drink from goblets, don’t we ladies?) and everybody (lucky, lucky people) got a Bendy Bully. Bendy Bullies, for those of you who have been fortunate enough never to have seen one, are the most revolting pieces of tat ever seen on British television. Modelled on the show mascot (a cartoon bull) who would appear on the screen from time to time mooing something incomprehensible and grinning inanely, it was the kind of thing that you could use to scare your children into behaving themselves. One of Bowen’s catchphrases was ‘You can’t beat a bit of bully,’ which was as creepy as it was nonsensical. Part two would begin with either a celebrity or a professional darts player throwing darts to raise money for charity. That was as interesting as it sounds. Let’s move on to the final round.
Bully’s (yes, the revolting animated bovine) Prize Board was unveiled for the thrilling end game; made up of a large red bull’s eye, surrounded by small red and large black segments. This time the question-answerer got a chance to wield the darts as well (‘Have you ever played darts?’ ‘Nope, never even held one in my life.’ ‘Excellent. The final round will depend on you being able to throw them accurately and consistently.’) and a prize was won for every red segment they landed a dart in (decanters, video players the size of a sofa etc., etc.). Bowen would roll out another tired catchphrase here ‘Keep out of the black and in the red; there’s nothing in this game for two in a bed,’ meaning that if a second dart landed in an already claimed segment the prize would be lost, and it would have to be hit for a third time to get it back (the team only had nine darts to throw in total). Bully’s Special Prize was given if a player hit the bull’s eye, and the lucky contestants could be walking away with a dishwasher or that aforementioned set of dismal suitcases. That was not all however - oh no. They were then given the chance to gamble for Bully’s Star Prize (‘Better than a taupe pull-out, revolving kitchen cabinet? Surely not!’); if they took up the challenge both players got three darts and between them had to total over 101 on a bog-standard board. If they won the prize was revealed whilst the theme music played and the atmosphere in the studio was a tenth livelier than it had been. If they lost (‘And here’s what you could have won!’) the prize was revealed whilst a sad version of the theme music played and the atmosphere in the studio was even more wrist-slittingly desperate.
Jim Bowen stood at the helm of Bullseye for 14 series, from September 1981 until July 1995 (a stab at a Dave Spikey revival on the Challenge channel in 2006 lasted just a few months). Whilst the cars, caravans and speedboats are now rotting away in scrapyards up and down the country, just think how many ladies are sat at home RIGHT now, still sipping from their silver goblets. And how many Bendy Bullies are still sat proudly on shelves. They’re probably indestructible. That’s how Bullseye will live on: through Bendy Bullies haunting children’s dreams for decades to come.