Life Changing? No, Just a Gameshow

Something odd has happened to British television in the last couple of years. The gameshow, once a staple of primetime television, has disappeared from our screens.

Or has it?

Do you remember the days when you couldn’t move for primetime gameshows? Some of television’s biggest hits were built around the gameshow format – Blankety Blank, The Generation Game, Family Fortunes, Strike It Lucky, 3-2-1, Bullseye etc. On any channel, on any given evening, the schedule of family entertainment would begin with a gameshow.

Today apparently we live in more sophisticated times. Where a former club stand-up asking achingly easy trivia questions from couples from Hull doesn’t cut it as primetime entertainment. I’m sure television executives would like to believe that times have moved on, or that tastes have changes.

Except they haven’t. Gameshows are more popular than ever, but for some strange reason – perhaps a lack of intellect in the general public – neither the viewers of these shows nor the contestants seem aware that this is the case.

Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity, The X Factor, Big Brother, Masterchef, Dragon’s Den, The Great British Bakeoff, The Apprentice – all these television programmes have something in common – they are nothing more than tarted-up gameshows. In many cases the contestants completely fail to realise this.

The talentless halfwitted karaoke singers that play The X Factor seem to think they are involved in some life-changing search for a future star. In reality they are playing a singing game, albeit one where the hosts are allowed to heckle them. There’s nothing important or life changing about what’s going on here – they’d do better if they played it for what it was. Real stars, real talent, is built on hard work, not singing someone else’s tired song to a tame backing track. The same could be said for The Apprentice, where ever contestant acts so earnestly and importantly – can you imagine someone on Bullseye with that attitude?

Meanwhile BBC News seems equally oblivious to the status of these programmes as gameshows. Auntie’s news – which really isn’t the force it once was (but that’s a different blog post) – will often report the goings on in Strictly or The Apprentice as though this is of any worth whatsoever. Can you imagine this a couple of decades ago? Brian Hanrahan reporting from Play Your Cards Right – “I counted the cards out and then counted them back in again.”

We live in increasingly superficial times. Where someone can make a career out of getting drunk and being sick in an Essex nightclub. Where having plastic breasts and a revolving door policy into one’s knickers is all you need for a book deal and a bright-pink fashion line. Where flagship science programmes spend their budget on dramatic helicopter flybys of their host stood on top of a mountain, it’s becoming the cliched money-shot of the genre.

There is some hope though. I welcome the silly simple pleasure of Total Wipeout. There’s a show that knows exactly what it is. This is a gameshow. A big silly gameshow and it revels in it. I hope the gameshow does return, the good ones anyway. Saturday evenings are poorer without the likes of the Generation Game or Family Fortunes. The brash obscene spectacle of the X Factor, or Strictly, which parades half naked lasses1 as family entertainment are a long way from real family friendly shows.

I have to admit that in my youth I was never a big fan of gameshows2, nor perhaps would I be an avid viewer now. But I can’t help but feel we’ve lost some innocent fun on TV. I feel we’re exploiting stupid people as some kind of freakish spectacle without them knowing what they are taking part in. If they had to ice a cake in two minutes they’d know what they were getting into, but making them dress like a hooker and sing a Celine Dion atrocity seems to be giving them expectations way beyond a cheque-book and pen, or a speedboat.

3-2-1 might have been some rubbish we had to sit through before we got to Dempsy & Makepeace or Knight Rider, but at least it didn’t dominate the schedule. Today the gameshow has taken over our screens, puffed up by its own self importance. We have two hour shows, followed by results episodes and spin-offs on minor channels. We never had Blankety Blank’s Little Blank on BBC2, but we get this kind of nonsense now. Our primetime channels are so full of these hidden gameshows there’s no space for quality dramas or movie premiers.

So perhaps I’m not being really honest. I don’t want gameshows back because I particularly enjoyed them. But more because I remember a time when they knew their place. When they were the light and fluffy first course in an evening’s entertainment that would encompass some real variety. Today there isn’t anything else on – the weekend is entirely dominated by the gameshow, unless you count Downton Bloody Abbey, but that’s a whole other blog post with a lot more swearing.


1I’m all for attractive naked women, just not on shows marketed at families.
2Little did I know I would marry the daughter of the producer of The Generation Game