BBC Scotland’s WonderBall has its critics, but at least it’s not a remake like new Blockbusters, writes Aidan Smith.
Somewhere in the cuttings library of this newspaper there is a story with my name on it concerning Gerry Rafferty, his song Baker Street and its memorable saxophone blast. It remains my biggest blunder in journalism (so far).
Knowing I was about to interview the great Paisley troubadour, a colleague inquired: was I aware that the soaring refrain had been played by Bob Holness, host of the popular TV game show Blockbuster? No, I didn’t, but I was certainly going to ask Gerry about this. Only what I said to him was this: “Tell me how Jim Bowen, host of the popular TV game show Bullseye, came to parp the sax on your most memorable song.”
Somehow I’d mixed up Holness and Bowen. I can plead ignorance, saying that I didn’t really watch either of their programmes, believing that TV game shows had peaked some time previously with The Golden Shot, but that isn’t much of an excuse. Gerry laughed but was non-committal. I don’t think he was aware of the fevered speculation concerning Baker Street’s saxophone but he was amused by it.
Holness’ involvement, I discovered later, was an urban myth. By announcing the name of Bowen, who foisted speedboats on humble – and landlocked – contestants hoping they might have gone home with a new fridge-freezer and a year’s supply of sausages, I’d created a suburban myth. Thus, whenever someone mentions Blockbusters, I cringe.
They’re mentioning it a lot right now. The show returns on Thursday with Dara Ó Briain as host. I guess the first time a contestant asks “Can I have a P please, Dara?” we’ll be expected to wet ourselves. And when someone requests “Can I have an E please, Dara?” the desired response will be everyone blissed out on a wave of nostalgia. But is this enough to justify Blockbusters’ reboot and, furthermore, ensure its success?
The portents aren’t good. Recent revivals of The Generation Game, The Krypton Factor and Bullseye itself were dire. Remakes of any kind of programme are tricky because the originals can often be very much of their time – a more innocent, modest time – and this is especially true of game shows.
We are no longer intrigued by ordinary people – sometimes people from our very own town – turning up on the goggle-box in the hope of winning a prize. Reality TV has lowered the drawbridge, providing access to a telly studio for all. All you need are professionally enhanced eyebrows (men, too) and a poignant backstory to be revealed during your second or third week to tinkling piano accompaniment.
Nor are we impressed anymore by the prizes. This is an acquisitive age and everyone has everything they need and much that they don’t. We’ve all got gigantic tellys and have been to Disneyworld and we all own speedboats. Well, I know I do. Two, actually.
Are you ready for the Crackerjack! revival? I’m not. A game show for kids and more besides, it can’t possibly hope to match the raw power of the original. When Leslie Crowther declared “It’s Friday, it’s five to five, it’s ... ” and the young audience screamed the name of their favourite programme at him, it blew my mind. Such noise, such anarchy, simply didn’t feature in the mid-1960s when children were seen and not heard and routinely belted. Crackerjack!, though, gave my primary school the courage to protest, and about issues far more pressing than climate change. The lateness of our lunch deliveries, exacerbated by the lumpiness of the custard, would provoke mass banging of the tables with spoons, a brave and beautiful racket. But this revamp, I predict, will fail. Doesn’t anyone have new ideas for game shows?
Well, there’s WonderBall on the new BBC Scotland channel, although after the first few editions the newspaper which most wants to see the station fail was asking if it was “the worst game show ever made”. In defiance, I tuned in right away. I wanted to love it. Alas, I can’t.
Worst-ever is a bit strong. WonderBall is not the most greedy or most garish or most America-aping there’s ever been. The contestants are not mad-eyed with money-lust, there’s no pointless destruction to flaunt the size of the production budget and the host is not oleaginous, all of which would put it in contention for the Dusty Bin or cuddly toy of game shows, were they all involved in competing with each other. And it cannot be the worst-ever if this is a world which will mic up someone like Robert Kilroy-Silk and tell him his everyday persona won’t be sufficient and that he’ll have to be extra-creepy and mean and snake-like. (It is such a world, and that one was called Shafted).
WonderBall’s presenter Catriona Shearer is no one’s idea of creepy and mean and snake-like but the programme is couthie and polite and nice and at any given moment looking like it might dissolve into the atmosphere due to its lack of excitement and, for a new channel which is being radical in other ways, surprisingly old-fashioned.
But in its favour it’s not an old show. It’s not a rehashed Top Club, the hoary Grampian quiz where Stonehaven sea-anglers pitted their general knowledge against wife-swappers from Lossiemouth (that’s a joke, of course – everyone knows Buckie is the swingers’ capital of the north) and it’s not a disinterred Superscot, the BBC Scotland test of all things tartan-trimmed with Jane Franchi in her choker cracking the gags (that’s another joke – there weren’t any).
As with the new channel as a whole, let’s not judge WonderBall right away.
For did you know that Catriona Shearer sang the fantastic wordless vocals on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky and, not just that, laid down the thunderous guitar riff on Black Sabbath’s Paranoid?