‘Life is the name of the game, and I wanna play the game with you. Life can be terribly tame if you don’t play the game with two.’
The name of the game in this case wasn’t actually Life, it was The Generation Game. Or to be more precise, the first outing of this much-loved BBC Saturday night game show was entitled ‘Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game’ – because it was a game show played by two generations of the same family, and it was hosted by Bruce Forsyth. Self-explanatory really.
So, rather than appearing on the show with a partner or spouse as was more common at the time, The Generation Game was looking for mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, uncles and nieces or the occasional grandparent and grandchild, which usually elicited ‘aaaaaahs’ from the audience at the old timer/fresh face combo.
Based on snappily-titled Dutch show ‘Een Van De Aacht’ (which means ‘One of the Eight’) The Generation Game was commissioned for the BBC by its then Head of Light Entertainment, Bill Cotton. Bruce Forsyth had previously been the host of ATV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and when he moved to the BBC he brought with him an idea that had featured on that programme. Beat the Clock had involved married couples competing in daft games against the clock to win cash prizes, and this was developed into family members of differing generations working together to win money for the inception of 1971’s new Saturday night show.
It was during this show that many of his still-used catchphrases originated. ‘Good game, good game’ and ‘Didn’t they do well?’ referred to the contestants’ performances, and ‘Give us a twirl’ was said to his co-host (read: ushered people on and off the set, and read out the scores) and later, his wife, Anthea Redfern. It was also whilst presenting this show that Brucie introduced his fans to his ‘thinker’ pose, which he would strike in silhouette at the beginning of every week’s episode.
Four generational couples would appear every week; two different rounds would be held with two couples competing in each. One of the games that they would have to play would take the form of some kind of quiz, where the players might have to recognise pieces of music for example, but the part of the show that was most look forward to was the demonstration round. This would consist of an expert exhibiting their skill (this could be anything from wicker basket making to hanging wallpaper) before the contestants had to try and replicate it. Obviously they got no practise at this, and were then given less time than the professional to complete the task, thus ensuring they were rubbish at it, and therefore gave the audience a good giggle. The demonstrator would come back on stage after their pathetic attempts and mark each person out of ten, and the scores could often depend on how amenable they were – theoretically you could have made the world’s worst marzipan swan, but if you were enthusiastic and shrieked a lot whilst doing it you could still achieve top marks.
After the two games the couples with the lowest scores would be eliminated, with the winners meeting in the final (Grayson referred to it as the ‘end game’), which was a theatrical number of some sort. You thought they fared badly trying to make a passable jug on a potter’s wheel with no previous training? Watch them not be able to remember the lines of a three minute farce whilst tripping around the stage in a badly-fitting satin costume! It was also a good excuse to make sure a bit of cross-dressing went on; what could be funnier than a man forgetting his words whilst dressed as a woman? (Quite a lot if you ask me, but the audience always found it hysterical so maybe I’m wrong.)
Whichever pair was judged the victor then went forward to the famous conveyor belt round (yes, that’s right – it’s the cuddly toy bit) where the pair would sit behind said conveyor, and watch a succession of vacuum cleaners, games, travel irons, cushions, musical instruments, luggage, tools, kitchen equipment, radios and other vaguely hideous nick-nacks pass before them. Often an innocuous looking item would actually be a front for a more impressive prize, such as a holiday, but it was the large cuddly toy that sent the audience into apoplexy, for reasons nobody seemed to really understand.
In 1978 LWT (desperately trying to find something that could knock The Generation Game from its top of the ratings ladder perch) offered Bruce the chance to defect to them, and present a show called The Big Night. He did, but the BBC was ready for the challenge with a new Generation Game set, a new theme tune and a loveable new host hidden up their sleeves, who burst onto the new series with a brand of camp all his own.
Larry Grayson was already a well-known TV comic, having previously appeared in his own programmes Shut That Door! in 1972 and The Larry Grayson Show between 1975 and 1977, but The Generation Game took his popularity to new heights. Blending slightly naughty humour with a pre-planned air of incompetency (he would often pretend he couldn’t remember what was going on, and when he took part in the games he would be hopeless) the audience took Grayson to their hearts and ratings soared. The Big Night was taken off the air after three months of coming second to the BBC1 show. Larry had real chemistry with his co-host Isla St. Claire, referring to her as ‘my Isla’, and their banter brought a warmth to the programme.
Brucie may have thought he had a fine line in catchphrases, but Grayson spent most of his time saying little else: ‘Look at the muck in ‘ere,’ and ‘Seems like a nice boy!’ would raise a titter throughout the audience whenever he said it, although it was ‘Shut that door’ which most people still connect most readily with his name.
The show saw its highest viewing figures during Grayson’s reign, although if we’re being really fair the biggest audience of 23.9 million was reached during an ITV blackout so people in Britain had no choice other than to watch one of the two remaining BBC channels on air. By 1981 The Generation Game was still hugely popular, but ITV’s Saturday night rival Game for a Laugh (featuring the comedic ‘talents’ of Henry Kelly, Matthew Kelly, Sarah Kennedy and Jeremy ‘Here comes PC’ Beadle) was getting bigger audiences. In 1982 Grayson made the decision that he’d rather get out whilst the going was good, and left the show, and after Jimmy Tarbuck turned the host’s role down in favour of ITV’s Live at Her Majesty’s the Beeb ended The Generation Game’s successful 11 year run.
Those of us who loved watching bemused people trying to dress a mannequin in a swimming costume in under two minutes were left bereft until 1990, when the BBC decided that it was the right time to bring the whole shebang back to British TV screens, including not only the original theme music, but the original host as well. Yes, that’s right – Brucie was back! This time he was accompanied by the perma-smile of Rosemarie Ford, which allowed Forsyth to introduce the audience to his new catchphrase ‘What’s on the board Miss Ford?’ whenever he wanted to know the scores.
On the odd occasion that Brucie was unavailable for the show, controversial ‘comedian’ Jim Davidson would stand in for him, leading to a full-time take-over of the host role when Forsyth left again after four more years of intergenerational fun. Davidson had three co-hosts (although with Davidson’s attitude towards women he very probably referred to them as his assistants); Sally Meen, Melanie Stace and Leah Christiansen (who also appeared on The Price is Right). ‘What’s on the screen Miss Meen?’ never really caught on, and I think the surnames of the latter co-hosts proved too difficult to rhyme with – although I’m sure if Jim had said ‘Smack me round the face Miss Stace’ nobody would have complained that much.
In 2002 The Generation Game turned off the conveyor belt for good when its ratings fell behind the new talent show Pop Idol. It was revived on a couple of occasions, including once with Graham Norton and celebrity contestants, cunningly titled ‘Generation Fame’, and then as part of Comic Relief in 2011, featuring David Walliams and his mum against Miranda Hart and her on-screen mum Patricia Hodge. Didn’t they do well?