Just a few months after the sad passing of Sir Bruce Forsyth, the BBC decided that it was time to welcome back the show which rightly earned him his status as the undisputed king of Saturday night. The ever-charming Mel and Sue launched the new series on Sunday 1st April and instantly made the show their own while still tipping their invisible cap to the much loved original. These strong echoes of familiarity began as soon as the opening titles rolled and we were treated to an updated version of Bruce Forsyth’s Life is the Name of the Game; as Jonathan Ross once said “Not just a great theme tune, but words to live by!” Smashed by critics and with falling audiences however, the BBC may need to reflect upon the future of the show and how to make it relevant to a 21st century audience. For this it’s a good idea to go back to the very beginning and remind ourselves of the magic of this legendary series.
Based on a Dutch game show which simply translated as One Out Of Eight, the rights to what then became The Generation Game were promptly bought by BBC Head of Light Entertainment Bill Cotton for a pittance. The two hour game show from Holland became a forty-five minute entertainment extravaganza. Bruce Forsyth had originally been promised a chat show but on seeing a tape of One Out Of Eight he instantly fell in love with the concept. With the strict mission to thwart ITV’s was renowned popularity on a Saturday night, Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game was put out right at the start of the evening to pull in viewers who would hopefully remain with BBC1 for the whole night of the formidable Saturday night schedule which included The Two Ronnies, Parkinson and climaxed with Match Of The Day.
For six years, Bruce and The Generation Game reigned supreme over the Saturday night schedule and proved to the BBC that viewing figures were ‘the name of the game’. Such a fast paced game show had never been seen on British television and no matter how much of a supreme entertainer he was, Bruce couldn’t be in two places at once and required an able assistant to help contestants play the game. Former model and dancer Anthea Redfern was hired to assist in the games that required an extra pair of hands. In the days of the sexual revolution, Anthea became somewhat of a sexual icon and Bruce himself managed to secure the star prize of marriage to the woman of the moment. It was TV’s first real life on screen romance when added a new dimension to the show.
Whether it was the potters wheel, Morris dancing or cake decoration, Bruce had the ability to jostle the contestants and find the perfect balance between banter and ridicule. A consummate entertainer, Bruce thrived on the unpredictability of the show and truly loved it when things went wrong. Creating organised chaos was his bread and butter so therefore eccentric contestants would always become his comedy stooges. This formula made The Generation Game one of the most popular shows on British television and helped to cement the BBC’s Saturday night dominance. Yet in 1977 Bruce was about to drop a big bombshell and controversially movie sides to Michael Grade and London Weekend Television for Bruce’s Big Night, leaving The Generation Game without its familiar star at the helm.
Instead of attempting to find a direct replacement for the all round entertainer Bruce Forsyth, the BBC wanted a fresh start for the Generation Game. Comedian Larry Grayson had gained a following in northern working men’s clubs throughout the early seventies and had since enjoyed modest success with the ITV variety series Shut That Door; inspired by his notable catchphrase. Unlike Bruce, Grayson wasn’t the multi-talented showman which viewers had grown accustomed to and felt more comfortable playing the fool rather than the superior leader of the pack. Therefore when participating in games, Larry would often be seen to fail which made the audience love him even more.
To complement Grayson’s comedic ineptitude, the show required a symbol of competency to steady the ship away from farce. This fell to Scottish singer and actress Isla St Clair who had previously dabbled in educational television for regional Scottish television. An accomplished entertainer, Isla was able to more than make up for Grayson’s lack of versatility and this became one of the most popular parts of the series. A dysfunctional television marriage made in heaven, Larry and Isla enjoyed over four years of success with The Generation Game until they opted to go out on a high in 1982 while the show was still popular. This left the BBC in a quandary about the future of one of their most successful shows.
After a thirteen year absence, Bruce Forsyth returned to the show which first earned him the title: Mr Saturday night. With a new co host in model and dancer Rosemarie Ford, Bruce had all the ingredients to bring The Generation Game into the nineties. Both coming from dance background, Bruce and Rosemarie quickly developed on screen chemistry which meant that the singing and dancing finales became increasingly elaborate, showcasing their entertainment skills. With the added advantage of 1990’s interactive and vibrant graphics, Bruce prepared the Generation Game for the twenty first century. Yet just four years into his successful return, Bruce once again decided to call it a day.
Comedian and entertainer Jim Davidson was riding high as one of the BBC’s biggest stars thanks to the much loved snooker game show Big Break alongside snooker legend John Virgo. With a definite rapport with the public, he seemed the perfect candidate to inherit the show and had even taken the helm a year previously when Bruce had gone down with illness. His lovable, cheeky chappie persona gave him carte blanch to joke with the contestants in a similar way to Bruce, while his lack of versatility was able to bridge the gap between him and the contestants. Like Grayson, Jim Davidson was never frightened to show vulnerability especially when it came to participating in the games. While Bruce always had an air of authority in all staged activities and used it to comic effect, Jim was a man of the people and thus proved that you didn’t need to have a significant talent to play the game.
For over seven years, Jim reinvented The Generation Game, putting his own stamp on what was now one of the most prolific shows on British television. As he did in his personal life, Jim got through an unprecedented amount of female co-hosts beginning with GMTV’s Sally Mean, model Melanie Stace and Lea Kristensen. Yet no matter who was ably assisting him, Jim remained the larger than life jester who provided the glue to pull the whole show together. Just at home joking around with members of the public as stitching up household names, Jim’s laid back image made him instantly engaging on every level. Yet by 2002 the format had run its course and a mutual decision was made to bow out on a high.
So, who knows what lies ahead for this iconic show? Maybe it’s too early to judge Mel and Sue’s overall suitability to the format? Yet if the above ingredients are present for future shows, there’s no reason why The Generation Game can’t go on to dominate the television schedules once again. Anyone for a cuddly toy?