With the rise of game shows slowly but surely escalating during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the BBC were keen to make their own mark.
Seeking inspiration, the then head of light entertainment, Bill Cotton had seen a Dutch game show, which in English, translates as One Out Of Eight. Hosted by Miece Bauman, the two-hour show was a combination of variety and games which featured contestants attempting to copy a professional doing part of his or her everyday job.
Interested in producing a shorter version for British TV, Cotton called in Bruce Forsyth (22nd February 1928 - 18th August 2017) to see him. While Forsyth had a chat show in his sights, Cotton showed him the Dutch show and asked if he would be interested in making a pilot show. Although Forsyth had reservations that this could be squeezed into a 45-minute format, he did suggest upping the time length to 55 minutes. The pilot was given a go-ahead and would be produced by James Moir and Colin Charman. The show would comprise four games (sometimes three) among eight contestants. The games were a combination of practical and mental knowledge, resulting in the end game which would commonly include a performance of a play, dancing, performing, singing and impersonations. Others included popular favourite, the potters wheel. Either of the winning couple (depending on who answered the best of three questions) had the chance to go through to a conveyor belt of prizes. The winner had 45 seconds to remember as many goodies as possible, which they would take home.
The pilot was recorded in the Spring of 1971, with recording completed by May. Accompanying Forsyth was his hostess Anthea Redfern (born 15th April 1948), who would memorably give a twirl of her latest outfit in the first few moments of every show.
However, the pilot was not as successful as Cotton, the producers and Forsyth had hoped. The general consensus was that it moved at too slow a pace and lacked fluidity. Following a Summer tour, Forsyth returned to record what was intended to be the first show in late September – complete with his own self-penned 'Life is the name of the game' theme song.
However, the September recording was fraught with problems including delays and too much stopping and starting. Following a review of the recording, it was decided that with some speedy editing, the Spring pilot would be shown instead. The only problem was that the pilot was too long for the allocated slot. In the days when recording was only a couple of nights before broadcast, the editing team had to work extremely hard to get the end product in the can before airing on 2nd October 1971. Fortunately, following recordings ran far more smoothly, with the production team taking on board lessons learnt. Guests for the first show included Clodagh Rodgers, Bernard Cribbins and Vince Hill.
Bruce quickly made the show a big ratings winner, complete with signature catchphrases “Didn't they do well?”, “Nice to see you, to see you, nice” and “Good game, Good game!” At the start of each show, Bruce would adopt his characteristic fighter pose before coming on to greet the audience.
While the majority of The Generation Game escaped the BBC's episode junking policy of the late 60s and early 70s, the first series was largely wiped and remains missing to this day. Also missing is the lone May Bank Holiday special from 1972, which included guests Miss Clacton, Miss United Kingdom, Miss Blackpool, and Miss Llandudno. The only available complete episode is the first one from 2nd October 1971, albeit in the form of a 16mm black and white film print. Clips from the show do survive, in the 9th September 1972 compilation.
Which heralded a new series from the following week. The show built on the success of its first run with a wide variety of games and challenges including ventriloquism, wrestling commentating, Gilbert & Sullivan style singing, and market stall sales of china. At this point in time, contestants could still be father and son/uncle and nephew, mother and daughter/auntie and niece, etc – as opposed to what would generally be the custom of male and female pairs. Guests for this season included Alfred Marks, Bill Pertwee, Lionel Blair, Roy Castle, Amanda Barrie and Melvyn Hayes.
Although there was no Bank Holiday special, The Generation Game returned for a third series in September 1973. Dropping in from the guest list were the likes of Aimi MacDonald, Frankie Howerd, Hugh Lloyd, David Jacobs and Fanny Craddock.
The third series boasted one of its most memorable Christmas specials, which was popular enough to warrant a later repeat in 2008. The day before its original broadcast, Bruce and Anthea were married at Windsor Register Office.
This series was given an extended run, with the last programme airing on 26th January 1974. And likewise, Series 4 would run from 14th September 1974 to 1st February 1975. A slew of games including chair making, tower carrying, and market selling kept the audiences glued to their tellies during the colder months.
The fifth season of The Generation Game was shorter than previous runs, notching up 16 episodes between 20th September 1975 and 1st January 1976. A change would be made to the conveyor belt game with the introduction of a comfy chair for the successful finalist to recall his or her thoughts (although dimming the lights meant a little bit of extra pressure!) and also a superimposed countdown clock of 45 seconds in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.
Bruce and Anthea were absent for the 29th November edition, with Roy Castle and Jenny Lee Wright deputising. This year also saw the sale of a board game based on the show.
The 1976 season began broadcasting on 4th September with a previous season highlights show. The season featured a slightly rearranged version of the 1975 titles, with clips in four separate screens, as opposed to one large central screen.
A milestone was reached on 23rd October, with the 100th show. A special cake was provided by Ken Slatter, wheeled on in Bruce's opening speech. This season would see a slight change in the conveyor belt round, when Bruce himself would read the list of prizes, as opposed to a voiceover. This would be the case again for the following year, although the 1978 season would revert back to a voiceover announcer declaring the passing prizes.
Bruce was again off ill part way through the run, although rather than get a replacement host, the 24th November 1973 edition was screened on 20th November 1976. With the season running until Christmas Day 1976, viewing figures were again high (the Christmas show gaining a respectable 9.7 million). A Bruce's Choice repeat would air on Bank Holiday Saturday, 7th May 1977.
The 1977 series (the last for Forsyth and Redfern) began with the usual compilation of highlights from the previous series on 3rd September 1977. The regular show followed a week later on the 10th with guests including future 6th Doctor Colin Baker, Madeline Smith and Alan Curtis. A new title sequence (again using clips from previous shows) debuted, as did a new cloud-based set design from Paul Trerise.
Redfern would miss a number of episodes in October and November, due to maternity leave and also the birth of daughter Louisa. Bruce and Anthea proudly announced the birth of five-day-old Louisa on the 12th November 1977 edition, with specially filmed cutaways of mother and daughter in hospital. Jenny Lee Wright again stood in for Redfern until 26th November 1977.
The later months of the year were well known for various industrial disputes at the BBC, and The Generation Game was no exception. The 19th November 1977 edition was only partly shown, with the games replaced by blank screens halfway through. The remainder of the episode would ultimately be broadcast on the 31st December clip show (featuring the Brother Lees final game and the conveyor belt). Meanwhile, the 10th December show was the only one to not feature the usual conveyor belt (again, on account of industrial action). Instead, the contestant would look at the prizes on a series of shelves, with the camera panning over each one in the 45 seconds.
Aside from a Bruce's Choice repeat on Bank Holiday Monday 1st May 1978, this would be the last regular season (until the 1990 revival) to feature Forsyth. He left the show to firstly work on a stage variety performance, The Travelling Music Show (which ran from March to July 1978) and was then wooed by ITV's promise of his own Saturday night vehicle later that Autumn. Despite a promising ratings debut on 7th October 1978, the ratings for Bruce Forsyth's Big Night dropped from the following week (Episode 2's viewing figures missing the Top 20), and despite various tweaks in show length and scheduling, it wasn't enough to book a return commission for the following year (although two specials would air in April and September 1980).
The Generation Game, meanwhile, was to continue, as Alan Boyd hunted for a replacement host. Various names touted for the role included Cilla Black, Kenneth Williams, Roy Castle and Jimmy Tarbuck. However, it was to be awarded to Larry Grayson (31st August 1923 - 7th January 1995), who had only recently broke through into mainstream TV in his late 40s with his own show on ITV. Boyd had wanted a contrast to Forsyth's more dominant, confident presenting style, and Grayson's more unassuming, laidback persona was what he was looking for.
A pilot was filmed on 8th June 1978, featuring Grayson and his new sidekick, Isla St Clair (born 2nd May 1952). The pilot featured an instrumental version of the original Forsyth theme and retained the Forsyth-era conveyor belt music. The pilot was by no means smooth, with various camera wobbles, fluffs and missed marks. While it never saw the light of day in full (save for clips used in the 1st September 1979 edition), the pilot was still convincing enough to secure Grayson for a 15-episode run in the Autumn of 1978.
Larry's TV debut would air on 23rd September 1978 with a new theme tune (in which a close-harmony would sing of Larry's 'Shut That Door' catchphrase), a new consolation prize of an engraved door trophy, and a new conveyor belt theme (an instrumental jazzy piece based on the theme tune).
Larry quickly made his mark on the show with a new set of catchphrases (“Shut that door!” “I don't care...” “What are the scores on the doors?” “We take the route to the loot!”) and tales of Slack Alice, Everard and Apricot Lil. He frequently attempted to take part in the various tasks and games, with hilarious results. Isla would take a more proactive role in the show, linking the games with brief explanations. Celebrity appearances were still frequent and even greater than before, with contestants invited to guess famous disguises (in monster or school pupil form, for example). A new innovation was to have a celebrity stepping out from what was called 'Larry's Room'. The opening episodes would feature random CSO photographs of a palatial room or a close-up of feet (Larry's pet hate), but later instalments would see the likes of Basil Brush and Marti Caine appear in the room.
Viewing figures for Larry's 1st season were very healthy indeed – regularly surpassing the 10 million mark, with the highest ratings reaching 17.55m for the 2nd December 1978 edition. With that in mind, the following year brought its very first Easter special (16th April 1979) with themed fun and games including Morris dancing and Easter Egg celebrities.
Having proved to be a great success, Larry and Isla spearheaded the Autumn 1979 season with a special edition filmed on location in Scarborough. The opening episode was a mix of previous highlights and locals taking part in outdoor games. The 1979 season was to prove to be the motherlode of ratings. The ITV strike of 1979 meant no rivalry for the first few weeks of Larry's second season. Viewing figures frequently surpassed the 20 million mark, with the 22nd September edition taking the most watched programme that week. The show achieved its highest ratings for the 20th October edition, with a massive 23.85 million looking in to games including a finale of contestants imitating the likes of Groucho Marx and Magnus Pyke with the Brother Lees.
While ITV returned from 27th October, the remaining ratings were still very strong, attaining audiences of around 17 to 18 million (the highest being 18.90 million for the 24th November edition, which again was the most watched programme that week). Christmas and Easter specials were commissioned (the Easter Special airing on 7th April 1980).
Part of the charm was the occasional production blunder for audiences, with one of the most notorious being the 29th September 1979 edition which featured a malfunctioning end game door that Larry struggled to open, close, and ultimately keep upright.
Among the guest list roster for this season was Paul Daniels, the Wurzels, the Krankies, Les Dawson, Pam Ayres and John Noakes. End game challenges included magic tricks, hoedowns, orchestra conducting and marching.
ITV would do its best to affect the competition. In 1980, the rival channel launched Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, which managed to reduce the ratings for Tom Baker's final season of Doctor Who.
However, viewers continued to stick with the 1980 season of The Generation Game, with its 1st episode (30th August) taking pole position in the charts (12.85 million). Four weeks later, the 27th September episode would achieve the most watched show again, with an impressive 17.35 million. The guest list this time included the likes of Leonard Sachs (overseeing a Good Old Days challenge), Peter Davison, Bernard Hepton, Keith Chegwin and Maggie Philbin. Finale games for this season included jazz orchestra performing, news reading, and singing with a ladies chorus.
Christmas and New Year's specials were produced (the New Year's special being a compilation of show highlights) as well as the final Easter Special for 1981 (Monday 20th April) which would feature a young Debbie Flint as a contestant (who successfully made it to the conveyor belt!).
Having done four seasons of The Generation Game, Larry announced that he would be leaving in December 1981. While ratings were generally still good for the final 1981 season, they had been affected by ITV's new show (ironically produced by Alan Boyd), Game For A Laugh. There were still plenty of games to get through first though, with memorable end challenges including Highland dancing, a Hi-De-Hi skit and a pirate play. The last proper edition was the Christmas Day episode, with a clearly emotional Larry bidding viewers farewell. A follow-up compilation episode brought the show to an end on 3rd January 1982.
While possible names (such as Jimmy Tarbuck again) were put forward for a continuation of The Generation Game, the show was ultimately rested until 1990, when Bruce Forsyth would make a comeback to introduce a brand new generation of viewers.
Screencaps, copyright BBC