The game shows that refuse to be beaten - in praise of 'Celebrity Squares'
The last time game shows experienced a genuine game-changing moment was in 1998, when Who Wants To Be a Millionaire exploded onto television.
Here was a game show that made the original American versions of The $64,000 Question and The Price is Right, with its lavish giveaways of sports cars and yachts, look like an episode of Quicksilver with Bunny Carr.
But even the prospect of ordinary people becoming instant millionaires before the eyes of the viewing public lost its lustre eventually. Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (there was never a question mark in the title, by the way) came to a low-key end on ITV in February, although it continues to thrive on America’s ABC network. Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Terry Crews took over as its new host just this week.
Chris Tarrant, who hosted the UK version, the original of the species, throughout its 16 years, put the show’s decline down to contestants becoming increasingly risk-averse due to the difficult economic climate. In the old days, most players were willing to gamble, say, £64,000 on the chance of turning it into twice that amount. In the programme’s dying years, however, the instinct was to take the money early and run.
So where are television game shows to turn when jaded viewers are no longer even faintly excited by the prospect of seeing others get rich in the blink of a commercial break? The answer is back to the more modest days of the 1970s, the decades in which TV game shows hit the peak of their popularity.
That old warhorse Family Fortunes, which was hosted at various points by Bob Monkhouse, Max Bygraves and Les Dennis, was revived in recent years under the stewardship of Vernon Kay, although it’s now called All-Star Family Fortunes and features celebrity clans playing for charity.
Mr & Mrs, a relic from the steam age of television that’s undergone more regenerations than Doctor Who, is also enjoying renewed popularity; again, the emphasis is on celebrity contestants. Even Catchphrase is back with chirpy Stephen Mulhearne filling the role once occupied by dreary Northern Irish comedian Roy Walker.
The BBC also plans to revive perhaps the greatest 1970s game show of them all, The Generation Game, which was hosted by Bruce Forsyth, then Larry Grayson, then Forsyth again and finally Jim Davidson. Miranda Hart was initially announced last month as the host of the new version, only to quickly deny she’d be doing it.
In the meantime, ITV has dusted off and given a spit and polish to another 70s favourite, Celebrity Squares, which used to be hosted by Bob Monkhouse, something of a game show specialist. Monkhouse having shuffled off his mortal cue cards some years ago, the new man in charge is Harry Potter and Life’s Too Short star Warwick Davis, who turns out to be a natural at it
Celebrity Squares — basically a giant game of human noughts and crosses where two civilians win money by guessing whether the answers given by the nine famous faces inside the squares are true or false — is sparkling fun from the word go.
It helps that the show does exactly what it says on the (square) tin, in that the celebrities don’t contravene the Trade Descriptions Act.
I’ll be surprised if Celebrity Squares isn’t a hit all over again. It may even spark the exhumation of some more old game shows.
Alas, we’ll probably wait in vain for a relaunch of that other Monkhouse masterpiece The Golden Shot, which always climaxed with a contestant firing a crossbow to win cash. Even in the 70s that was seriously weird.