Weaver's Week 2017-08-20

Last week | Weaver's Week Index | Next week

Bruce Forsyth died this week. He was an entertainment legend.

Bruce Forsyth

This column has already published a retrospective of Bruce's career, which we split over two parts last November. It doubles as an obituary for this hugely talented man.

We thought long and hard about whether to continue our series about Nicholas Parsons this week. He is a living legend, and would it be in poor taste to talk about one legend so soon after the passing of another. That, and we don't want to jinx him. In the end, that old showbiz adage won out. The show must go on.


The Life and Career of Nicholas Parsons (Part Two)

Last week, we started to review the career of Nicholas Parsons. We saw his early comedy work with Arthur Haynes and Benny Hill, and charted his success on radio's Just a Minute. This week, it's to Norwich for the quiz of the week.

Sale of the Century

Anglia for ITV, 1971-83

Here's how the show works. Nicholas Parsons reads out general knowledge questions, and contestants compete to answer them on the buzzer. Money is added for a right answer – £1 at the start of the show, later £3, and towards the end "now the questions go up to five pounds". Wrong answers cost that much money, and questions won't be offered to other players.

Every so often, the questions stop, and there's an instant sale: some item of household goods is offered at a small fraction of its retail price. The first player to buzz in and take the "instant sale" wins the prize, but has some money deducted from their total.

At the end of the show, the winner gets to spend their cash in the Sale of the Century, buying a very desirable luxury item for about £100. Everyone leaves with the goods they bought in the instant sales, plus any cash left over.

Sale of the Century Most people still watched in black-and-white, hence the gaudy colours.

We've stumbled across a very early episode from 1972. It's all filmed in front of "Sale of the Century" curtains – literally, pieces of cloth with the show's name printed on. These days, they stick digital graffiti over the picture, in the 1970s they designed their logo into every shot.

Nicholas spends a couple of minutes talking to the contestants at the start of the show. This wouldn't last. Every second you're talking to the contestants is a second you're not playing the game. He has to adjudicate on some sloppy questions, such as:

Q: Yorkshire is divided into three areas, what are they called?
A: Ridings

But the question-writers want more information – West, East, and North Riding. A lot of information for £1. A better question to get to that answer? "Yorkshire is divided into three areas, name them all."

More time is wasted through the show. Nicholas has to explain how a lock-out buzzer system works, and explain how four seconds are allowed for a response, and explain that the contestants can't see each others' scores. He doesn't explain who the question-writers were: often, he'd written the questions. Some of the posers had come across from NBC, but he couldn't use them – Anglia viewers won't know about baseball elevens or the Santa Fe railway.

Sale of the Century

Another segment – the "Open Sale" – lasted for some years. Here, announcer Peter Marshall names a number of goods, and their knockdown prices – a teasmaid at £2.95, a dinner service for £2.40, a hairdryer for 82 new pence, and so on. Each contender names the items they want and the stated price, and has five seconds to name them.

With questions a little too difficult for the players, we run into a problem. After the instant sale, one is down to £1, and another to £2. Should the player lose all of their money, they'll be out of the game entirely. In turn, that means Nicholas is asking just one player to answer, the others don't want to risk complete elimination. Excitement has left the show, but Nicholas ploughs on and tries to make the best of a low-scoring edition.

After about eight minutes of not very much happening, our weekly champion has £29. She can't buy the golf equipment for £44, nor a solid teak dining table and chairs for £44. She could buy a radiogram-and-record player for £26, or a mink coat for £28.75. Or she could come back again next week, and add the two week's winnings together. And that's what the player does, she'll come back next week.

By the standards of 1972, it's fast-moving, but clearly needs some work. Nicholas is still explaining the rules as he goes along, and there was no tension after half-time. Both host and format can do better, and they did do better. Rules were tweaked, better questions set, odd pence dropped, the "open sale" abolished. And Sale of the Century grew into a television institution. Nicholas Parsons, three players, vam-vam-vam through questions as fast as he can.

Sale of the Century By now, Sale of the Century has a lovely art deco styling.

We look at another edition from 1983. The theme music is "Joyful Pete", an exciting and memorable piece, fizzing and zapping with energy and excitement. John Benson has joined as the announcer, and starts the show by describing the final prizes. This is what's on offer, this is what you could win. Tempted? Stay tuned.

Nicholas spends barely a minute introducing the players, every second he's talking to them is a second we're not playing the game. We're meant to understand a lock-out buzzer, and the "Time Up" indicator, through osmosis.

Some easy £3 questions rack up the scores – in two minutes flat, Nicholas inflates the economy by £36, as much as the entire episode from a decade earlier. The questions continue to come like leaves in a blizzard, and they get a little more difficult.

Q: Where would an explorer pitch his tent if all four walls faced south?
A: At the North Pole.

A tough question, but easy to explain, and clear as crystal. David Self is the question editor, and making tight questions is his forte.

With lots of cash around, the players are more willing to spend it in the Instant Sales. It's more exciting, and the result is in doubt till the end. A good quiz player might get on the buzzer, get the questions, spend so much money that they end up losing the main game to an adequate player.

Nicholas knows to make good television. While demonstrating the prizes in the final sale, he tells the player where to stand so the camera can keep a good shot. And he keeps the game flowing – a little aside here, a brief conversation about something, but lots of questions.

Sale of the Century Not every episode featured quiz deity Daphne Fowler.

Lots of questions. In the final round of this sample episode, with contestants who are not Daphne Fowler, Nicholas asks 37 questions in 169 seconds. This column's speedometer is defined by 100% (100 questions in 24 minutes), and here Nicholas reaches 315%. We still think this is the fastest any host has asked questions for more than a minute. Nicholas uses his skills to benefit other people.

End of the Sale

"Good news! Nicholas Parsons is retiring.
"Bad news! He's going into showbiz"
I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, circa 1983.

At one point in the 1970s, Nicholas Parsons held the world record for Longest After-Dinner Speech. He droned on for 7 hours, 8 minutes, 3 seconds. Nicholas took the record from Gyles Brandreth, and the two went head-to-head in separate rooms in 1978. The match was declared drawn after 11 hours. Gyles had the final word, a fact that will surprise no-one. He would witter on aimlessly for over 12 hours.

Antiques Road Trip Two motormouths, seen here in 2015.

Sale of the Century ensured Nicholas remained a household name. He appeared on This Is Your Life in 1978, eight weeks before Terry Wogan. But all good things must come to an end, as did Sale of the Century. It was cancelled in 1984, and after thirteen years, Nicholas was typecast as a quiz host. He accepted all sorts of engagements to keep in work – and there was a lot of it. "Cruises With the Stars" with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Sheila Steafel. Charlie Girl and a revival of Into the Woods in the theatre.

He did a series of ITV's Cluedo, and spent a single week guesting in the Countdown dictionary corner. (One week! Really?!) Nicholas also popped up on children's entertainments – he worked alongside Roland Rat for Babes In the Wood, and later worked with the superstar on Roland's Rat Race. He was the mayor on Bodger & Badger, and a vicar on Doctor Who.

Badger interrupts a tender moment between Miss Moon and the Mayor.

Never afraid to live up to his public persona, Nicholas appeared on Gunge a Game Show Host for the 1990 ITV Telethon, alongside Jim Bowen and Nick Owen. He also did serious work: Spongers was a spoof game show for World In Action, demonstrating that the welfare state supports the middle-class far more than the working-class.

Follow the Star, the Nativity told from the angels' point of view. Nicholas Parsons plays God.

We've not managed to find an episode of The All New Alphabet Game, a show Nicholas did for ITV's Night Network strand. This is most unfortunate, as it gave Nicholas a new and much younger audience. He worked with many young stars on The Comic Strip, and narrated the open-air theatre play Shove Over Shakespeare with Josie Lawrence, Paul Merton, Dame Sandi Toksvig, and Richard Vranch.

Which brings us to the most BSB show possible.


STV for Galaxy, 1990

Laughlines Five-star entertainment on BSB.

Nicholas Parsons is the host, alongside four of his children. Er, four up-and-coming comedians, of the sort who worked with The Comic Strip. On the sample half-episode we've got, the panel is Jeremy Hardy, Hattie Hayridge, Simon Fanshawe, and Kit Hollerbach. For 1990, this was stardust.

Laughlines is the unexpected cross between Blankety Blank and Wonky Donkey. Nicholas reads out the start of a rhyming couplet, for instance "He was taking a wedding photo and just about to go click..."

Laughlines Complete this joke — and it's got to rhyme!

The panel are to complete this couplet in their own inimitable style, and must be sure to finish on a rhyme with "click". Contestants will write down a rhyme for "click" and nominate one of the panel, hoping to match final words.

Now, what rhymes can you think of for the word "click"?

And what rhymes can you think of that you can say on television?

Exactly. The comedy doesn't come from the game. The comedy comes from the way Nicholas and his panel dance gaily around the double entendres.

Laughlines Simon Fanshawe and a jacket from 1990.

There is a game – £15 if you can pick someone who will match what you said on the card, doubled to £30 in the second half of the show.

After five rounds, the daily winner can play the headline game. What story might lead to an amazing newspaper headline, and finish with a word rhyming with the end of the headline? The winner makes four guesses, £50 for a match, £250 if they can sweep the board. Winner stays on to tomorrow's show.

The performers were of the Comedy Store / Comic Strip / Whose Line is it Anyway? stable. They were regulars on BSB shows, and on Channel 4. The yuppies of 1990 knew these faces, and the host was a familiar name.

Our sample episode gives an insight into the one problem with Nicholas Parsons' style. He is positive and encourages all of his fellow performers. At times, he comes across as oily and patronising.

During this show, Nicholas compares Kit Hollerbach (Californian) to Ruby Wax (from New York). "She's a very funny comedian," says Nicholas of Ruby Wax. Kit is unhappy about this comparison, based solely on the fact they're women from the other side of the Atlantic, but Nicholas doesn't row back on it.

Ouch. We're cringing on Kit's behalf. It's no surprise that she leaves her chair and goes to the other end of the panel, further away from Nicholas Parsons and closer to her off-stage husband Jeremy Hardy. Uncomfortable viewing, and it casts a cloud over the show – the entertainment stops being fun.

Laughlines Kit and Jeremy. Aw, bless.

This is Nicholas's one problem. By being lovely and generous and kind to everyone even if they're not present, he can accidentally rebuff those who are in the room.

A few seconds earlier, Nicholas offered praise to Simon Fanshawe, "giving a clean line and telegraphing the filth." That's the brilliance of BSB at its best: you don't just get comedy, you get an education of why it's funny.

Laughlines wasn't recommissioned after BSB was merged into KYTV.

The last quarter-century

"A type of fuchsia was recently named after me. When I found it in the garden centre, the label said, 'Nicholas Parsons goes well in any bed'. I still love coming up with new material."

Since 1990, Nicholas has continued to work – Just a Minute keeps him on air for almost half the year. All the television attempts we discussed last week came after Laughlines. Nicholas toured with The Rocky Horror Show, and his one-man show is a staple of annual Edinburgh festivals.

For Radio 2, he made a panel show Celebrity Gossip, and a short series How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear. There was a BBC4 doc on clocks, inspired by the tale of the clock Nicholas repaired in his youth. He made The Take – a comic history of television – on BBC Choice. He was in The Entertainers on BBC2, a fly-on-the-wall documentary following "stars of a bygone age". He popped up with Tony Robinson and Mark Austen on ITV's election coverage. There were longform interviews with Ed Doolan and Mark Lawson, and Nicholas was on Desert Island Discs in 2007.

Outside entertainment, Nicholas was Rector of the University of St Andrews from 1988-91, and president of the Lords' Taverners in 1998-9. The establishment has recognised Nicholas for his charity work and entertainment; he was appointed OBE in 2004, and CBE in 2014. A long-term supporter of the Liberal party, Nicholas turned down the candidature for Yeovil; his sacrifice paved the way for Paddy Ashdown.

He keeps himself sharp, keeps his brain in gear all the time, and gardening helps him keep physically fit. The present Mrs. Parsons will not let Nicholas retire, his income helps to support their lifestyle. He's made a virtue out of this decision, saying that you doesn't retire from showbiz, showbiz retires from you. At the age of 93, Nicholas is still performing, and shows no sign of stopping. We hope it's a very long time before showbiz retires this legend.

Nicholas Parsons Nicholas Parsons with Josie Lawrence, from this June.

This Week and Next

More from the file labelled competing on Strictly Come Dancing this year:

A full round of quizzes on BBC2. University Challenge had the first Oxbridge battle of the series, St Edmund's Cambridge (Zou Tang-Shen, Alex Knight-Williams, Sahaid Motala, Ryan Blank) went up against Magdalen Oxford (Winston Wright, Christopher Stern, Johnny Gibson, Sara Parkin). The first overseas students of the year will cause grousing at the Interior Ministry, as that body is in favour of barriers to learning. No problems for Magdalen, winners by 185-105.

Maggz Bennett won Mastermind, taking Duran Duran as her specialist subject, and scoring 24 points (1 pass) on the show. All four contenders – Dan Martin, Robert Butlin, and Alan Burns – scored 10 or more on their specialist subject, and all reached the 20 point mark. A couple of players snapped out answers as quickly as they could, sometimes overlapping with the last syllable of the host's questions. This speed earned them an extra general knowledge question before the buzzer.

Everything starts with an E on Only Connect, as the Eco-Warriors (Jonathan Kershaw, Brett Bostock, Peter Barlow) take on the Escapologists (Frank Paul, Lydia Mizon, Tom Rowell). Eco-Warriors get off to an excellent start, three three-pointers on their own questions plus a bonus to reach 10 in the Connections round. Escapologists hit back with a nine-pointer in Sequences, including the glorious set "q-cumber, r-dvark, s-planade, t-side".

The game swung on the walls, and on one specific group. Escapologists offered "Irish presidents", which is different from "Taoisigh"; the head of state is not the prime minister. Eco-Warriors were perfect on their wall, and won the game by 27-23. With two high-scoring losers from the first seven heats coming back, we'll surely see the Escapologists again.

BARB ratings in the week to 6 August.

  1. Coronation Street (ITV, Mon) the most popular show, seen by 7.3m. The Chase Celebrity Specials (ITV, Sun) the top game, 2.7m.
  2. Catchphrase (ITV, Sat, 2.65m) is just behind, and University Challenge (BBC2, Mon, 2.35m) took third place. Cash Trapped (ITV, Mon) began its new series with 2.3m.
  3. Celebrity Big Brother launched (C5, Tue) to 2m. Only Connect and Mastermind (BBC2, Fri) were both below 1.5m, hurt by the athletics on Eurosport and BBC1.
  4. Top digital shows? Coach Trip Road to Zante (E4, Mon, 370,000), QI XL (Dave, Wed, 305,000), Room 101 (Dave, Wed, 300,000).
  5. With no Love Island, ITV2 returns to normal – top show was A Bug's Life (Sun, 605,000). And, just for comparison, Game of Thrones continues to dominate, seen by 3m this week.

Schedule changes so we can pay tribute to Bruce Forsyth. Channel 5 repeats The Bruce Forsyth Story (Sun), and a special edition of The One Show (BBC1, Mon) remembers the great man.

New: Streetmate (C4, weekdays) is now hosted by Scarlett Moffatt. Monkman and Seagull's Polymathic Adventure (R4, Mon) features two of last year's University Challenge stars and some knowledge. Lego Masters (C4, Thu) and The Crystal Maze (C4, Fri).

Back: Dragons' Den (BBC2, Sun) with two new dragons. Celwydd Noeth (S4C, Thu), the fib-spotting show. And finishing: Celebrity Big Brother (C5, Fri).

Photo credits: Indigo Television, Anglia, STV, BBC, Radio Festival.

To have Weaver's Week emailed to you on publication day, receive our exclusive TV roundup of the game shows in the week ahead, and chat to other ukgameshows.com readers, sign up to our Yahoo! Group.

Last week | Weaver's Week Index | Next week

A Labyrinth Games site.
Design by Thomas.
Printable version
Editors: Log in