Obituary: Bob Holness, unflappable and always dapper host of student daytime quiz favourite Blockbusters

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Born: 12 November, 1928, in South Africa. Died: 6 January 2012 in Pinner, London, aged 83.

n Bob Holness, radio and television presenter – notably of Blockbusters. Born: 12 November, 1928, in South Africa. Died: 6 January 2012 in Pinner, London, aged 83.

Bob Holness was best known as the host of Blockbusters, the television game show much enjoyed by students. It was the highlight of a distinguished broadcasting career that spanned almost 60 years. He was the affable and genial host of the show – always dapper in smart suit and tie and was unflappable even when things went wrong. Blockbusters lasted 11 years and was a popular afternoon show.

Holness invited the teenage contestants to choose a letter on the board and they then had to answer a trivial question based on that letter and make their way across a line on the board. They progressed on to the “Hot Spot” and then went for the “Gold Run” round. If that was all done successfully, they won. It was not exacting or testing, but it was entertaining and drew in a regular audience of 11 million viewers.

Holness was under much pressure in the studio: each series was filmed over an eight-week period with up to five episodes being made in a day. That alone meant Holness had to retain an air of energetic enthusiasm throughout each recording. The students (and the viewers) always had a titter when the contestant said: “Can I have a ‘P’ please, Bob?” Later the students sniggered knowingly when they asked the presenter for an “E”. Holness preserved a good rapport with his young audience and rather enjoyed playing the role of the benevolent uncle.

Robert Wentworth John Holness was born in South Africa, but his parents moved to Kent when he was seven. He was educated at Ashford Grammar, but the family then returned to South Africa where Holness got stage jobs in Durban. Notably he made his debut on South African Broadcasting Corporation in 1955 and played James Bond in Moonraker on radio.

In 1961, married with two of a family, Holness returned to the UK and was soon a familiar face in afternoon game shows. These included Take A Letter, Top of the Form and Junior Criss Cross Quiz, an early form of Blockbusters. His television work was mostly seen on ITV, but he was also a popular figure on BBC Radio 1 and 2. He fronted Late Night Extra, where his fellow presenters included Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan.

With the arrival of commercial radio in the early Seventies, Holness moved to the London- based LBC and co-hosted the early morning news programme with Douglas Cameron. The show was a resounding success and he was named independent radio personality by the Variety Club in 1979 and 1984.

Blockbusters started in 1983 and was based on an American programme. It only had a mediocre success there but the charm, wit and courtesy that Holness brought to the show is considered the reason for its success here. It lasted until 1994 and became a cult show – ending with Holness giving an army salute to the camera.

Another feature of the ending was the “hand jive” performed by the contestants as the credits rolled. This was first seen in 1986 after one of the contestants – bored after sitting through filming several shows while awaiting his turn – burst on stage with a robust jive.

The programme maintained an endearing quality and was seen throughout Scotland in the prime slot before the 6pm news. There were many gaffes – which Holness played up to with relish. He asked a student “What ‘L’ do you make in the dark when you are not sure of the consequences of your actions?” Back came the answer “love” rather than “leap”.

When the programme was axed Holness was “flabbergasted” and much saddened when no show was found to match it in popularity.

Holness returned to radio in 1991 and presented Radio 2’s Saturday evening light music programme Bob Holness Requests The Pleasure with the BBC Radio Orchestra. On the BBC World Service he presented the request show Anything Goes, which was known to be a particular favourite of Aung San Suu Kyi while under house arrest in Burma. From 1996 until 2002, he hosted the BBC’s long-running panel game Call My Bluff on television.

Holness was always keen to dismiss the widespread urban myth, started by New Musical Express, that he had played the haunting saxophone solo riff on the Gerry Rafferty hit Baker Street in 1978. In fact it was played by the Dumfries-born musician Raphael Ravenscroft.

Bob Holness, who was lover of jazz, had suffered a series of strokes over the past two decades and he is survived by his wife Mary, whom he married in 1960, and their son and two daughters.

Alasdair Steven