Monday, 11 March 2013

Hitting the target - The history and development of Bullseye

Thursday night sees the last episode in the first ever series of Bullseye which has been shown by Challenge TV over the past couple of weeks, but the game show which was there at the end is a world away from the first episode of the first series. In and around studios of television companies of the late 70's, game shows were in production or going into production at that time the BBC had The Generation Game and the new to air Blankety Blank to name two. Throughout ITV of all the franchises, they each had a show in production from the major contributors such as ATV and Thames, the likes of Celebrity Squares and Give Us A Clue were astride the schedules. The more minor companies like Anglia would have one or even two shows offering big prizes, on the one hand Sale of the Century with Nicholas Parsons and the other Gambit with Fred Dinenage.

With these shows flying about set Andrew Wood thinking about what was the perfect game show, taking time to look at their nuances. The appeal of the shows were something in themselves, regularly they were topping the television ratings. But what was making people write in to take part on a regular basis, was it the taking part? The competition or just winning the prizes? It was clear that the format itself was important, the more clearer the better for the viewer to follow at home but also for the host to understand the rules as the programme went along. The problem with so many going into production was that ideas were being used up ten to the dozen, whether imported from American formats or thought up to make original ideas, premises of shows were the same but tweaked to suits their own style and rules. Wood's idea was to come up with something that had never been seen before in any game show before, to feel familiar but be new enough to surprise people.

What was come up with was a format which was not seen before, the 1970's had seen darts become a major television sport in its own right and because of this more and more people were playing in pubs and social clubs throughout the country. Overtime Wood developed this idea into a format, however with great competition from other formats being invented and also imported, it was really hard to get an idea seen to a head of light entertainment at any channel or company at that time. So Wood decided to go a name who had been a presenter of a successful show which was Norman Vaughan previously host of the Golden Shot, knowing that Vaughan might have some clout to get the Bullseye idea seen. As far as a deal went, Wood said if Vaughan could make the new idea seen by someone and if it goes into production that he could present it but if you don't get the presenter's job that Vaughan would be given a cut of all future revenue accruing as being a co-creator of Bullseye.

Thanks to Vaughan's links to ATV in Birmingham, the Bullseye idea was seen by Jon Scoffield, the station head of Light Entertainment at the time. The brief synopsis on a piece of paper presented to Scoffield was “A contestant throws a dart at a categorised board and is then asked a question on whatever he hits.” Scoffield took a look at it, rather then just baffling the presentation by giving an explanation by Wood, Scoffield just requested the idea to be seen as it went along just like it would almost be on the screen. The idea Scoffield liked, but the kick in the stomach was to come for Vaughan when Scoffield said he didn't like Vaughan for the presenter's job. Now having being the co-creator of Bullseye meant that Vaughan would taking a cut of any earnings from the programme, so the search was on for first a presenter and secondly a producer plus a director. The original plan for the presenter was to get Birmingham-based comedian Dave Ismay to film the pilot in 1980, Ismay had been a warm-up man for many of the ATV game shows and had made appearances on other shows such as 3-2-1 and the Golden Shot. Being around these shows meant Ismay could get a feel for how they worked and see how the hosts of each of them worked. Such was his closeness to The Golden Shot, he had seen the master of the game show Bob Monkhouse close at hand. So he seemed a natural choice to be the host, though a director was still needed.

Peter Harris, a well respected director of many types of shows had been working at ATV since the 1960's. In his time, he had directed Crossroads, helped launch Tiswas in 1974, at that time of the early 80's, he was most famous for directing the Muppet Show since 1977. This gave him lots of acclaim and is created on helping Jim Henson's creations come to the screens for a family audience, but come 1980 he had moved on to launching another of ATV's new game shows when he was the first director of Family Fortunes. So having launched that show and made it a success, Harris was called to Jon Scoffield's office to choose what he wanted to do next and there he was given three choices. One was Runaround, newly brought to ATV to possibly relaunch on Central Television in 1982 where Lewis Rudd, the new head of children's television had brought it with him from Southern Television, some unknown format, but possibly Chris Tarrant's O.T.T. which was in development and also Bullseye. Harris chose Bullseye because he was brought up in a public house during his formative years, so thought it was a good choice to take in this case.

The parts of this jigsaw were coming together, but then something was to happen which was throw the planning into chaos. With Dave Ismay, the host of the pilot for Bullseye, Peter Harris had met up with him to finalise details on when the pilot was to be filmed. But when Harris stated the dates, Ismay said he could not do them because he was on a cruise line entertaining the passengers. With the dates stuck and the studio time booked, there was no real way they could cancel the dates. So they offered it to Jim Bowen, famous at that time for his appearances on The Comedians and also as the comic foil for Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson on Thames Television's children's programme You Must be Joking. Bowen accepted the position as host, so it was on to development of the format. Though when finally Bowen met Harris, it was a great relationship as presenter and director, but on the first sighting of each other, Bowen was impressed by Harris who was immaculately dressed himself at the Grovenor Hotel in Birmingham. It was only after a while when Bowen had cottoned on about arriving at a coloured pink hotel building and seemingly flamboyant character, that they were going to hone the format to Bullseye in a Gay Club. But this broke the ice between them both and they got the format ready for the pilot to be filmed.

The series itself went to air on Monday the 21st of September 1981, but these were not the first two episodes to be filmed which were shown first, actually it was the third ever episode filmed. By their both their own admissions that the first two were awful with Bowen being too nervously, fluffing the rules of the game and the nadir of when talking to a couple during the contestant's introduction when told that a person had been unemployed for two years, naturally Bowen had replied “Smashing...” without out no malice with the contest themselves looking daggers at Bowen for doing so. With that the decision to boost Bowen's confidence that the episodes would be scrapped and wiped, thus getting the production crew on his side. With the episodes having been filmed, they had to give the contestants who had won the prizes on both of them to them. One of which they won a caravan on, so they had to give it to the contestants. Compared to the cost of doing this, the value of junking the first two episodes filmed was far greater.

Looking back at the first series of 1981, using the original titles of Bully coming down from his pub sign to play darts, though the titles are different in one significant feature. During the titles there are lots of women with nipples prevalent, whether this was a nod to the cheeky pub nature of the game or an in-joke by graphic designer Chris Wroe, by the third series these images have been edited out where cue to pressure from high up the command chain or just a change attitude at when the programme was being broadcast on a Sunday afternoon in difference to a Monday evening slot. Though the basics of the game are there, the rules themselves seem over complicated. In the category board, the partner of the dart player has to pick the value of the question they want their dart playing partner to hit, ranging from ten, twenty, thirty or fifty for the bull itself rather just a category and the value of the question being for instance twenty pounds plus the bonus amount as well.

But well even before for the game has started, a nearest to the bull board is used to determine the order of play, the board consisting of concentric sections is also called upon if there is a tie, making sometimes the gameplay in these early editions hard to keep up with. Though the pound for pounds second round is a strange affair as the darts players through for the highest scores, rather then being on a pounds for points basis like in later series, the dart players partners can choose question to the value of twenty pounds, fifty or one hundred and one pounds. Whether this was a nod to the start darts scores of 301 or 501 for instance, is not quite revealed during the game play. But it is possible for a couple to have only won maybe only thirty pounds when they get to the prize board, meaning that couples will want to always gamble for the star prize every time with it being a brand new car, caravan or even a speedboat compared to winning the ubiquitous prize of a clock for every room in your house. The first series was seemingly to encourage the players to go for the star prize every time with every little jeopardy of an big amount of money accrued or prizes won at all.

During this series Jim Bowen is charged with doing everything as in asking the questions and taking care of the scoring as well, but sometimes with so much to do he has to rely on other off camera to help him with this, plus also inadvertently putting off players by making jokes of them and when they are throwing, though this seems like putting them at ease, most times it has the opposite effect. Bowen in this first series, does seem jittery about what he is meant to be doing at times, not quite knowing what's coming next. One significant event was to happen during the first series, which was to shape the whole programme from then on. During the series, the voice-over had been ATV Today's Nick Owen out of vision introducing the contestants and also with Bowen doing the scoring, it seemed that the show need some help from someone in the darting know. On the thirteenth edition came Tony Green, then a professional darts player but also as a darts referee as well.

It was this meeting with Harris and Green's own personality which lead to him joining the programme not only for his distinctive voice but also his darts refereeing as well. Out of vision for the first couple of years, Green's role grew bigger and bigger eventually becoming a foil for Bowen's jokes. But by doing this, it showed that the programme was more professional and also had respect for the darts players themselves. The charity throw which Green had been a part of was slowly changed away from just professional darts players in series three, with also celebrities who played darts coming into the mix as well, with them getting a sixty point head start to help boost up the funds if they were to score a relatively small amount of points to be coverted into pounds for charity.

The celebrities who came on were an eclectic mixture from George Best and Jimmy Greaves from the world of Football, 'Mighty' Mo Morland from the Roly Polys, Kenny Lynch and Jimmy Cricket plus from Bullseye own world co-creator Norman Vaughan and also former voice-over artist for the programme Nick Owen, who by 1983 had joined TV-AM. This type of thing combined with best darts players of the day, who by now were household names made Bullseye a hit with viewers. But this was not always so, in 1981 when the programme was placed on Monday evenings after Crossroads, they inherited an audience of thirteen million viewers, but slowly the viewers started to ebb away and by show six, the viewership was down to just over six million viewers but something remarkable happened from show eight as the viewers returned, if it was through sheer curiosity to see how bad this game show was or at that time Terry Wogan would say about it on his Radio Two show, thus people being curious would switch on it see what Terry was going on about and somehow they stuck the show.

Bullseye in itself had been become a 'cult' game show before people had even thought of the term, such like The Golden Shot had been moved from Saturday nights to a Sunday afternoon slot. Bullseye benefited from the same thing happening to it, it its own world even strange things couple happen oblivious to the host even. In the episode where George Best throws for charity, after the programme come back from the advertisement break, in the audience are a group of pensioners passing around a tupperware tube of sandwiches to feed themselves between them. Surreal this may seem, but these things endeared the programme to its viewership, by embracing a warts and all approach to being a game show.

This itself was almost being an anti-game show, wanting to more rougher them some of the more expensive productions going into studios such as LWT's Play Your Cards Right or Punchlines, more homely then Yorkshire's 3-2-1. In earlier series, the losing contestants would get a brass dart shaped chalk holder and also a set of darts plus whatever money they had won, later getting a keyring as well. But like with Yorkshire's 3-2-1, the programme wanted something unique to give away as a constellation prize, the Kirkstall Lane based production gave away a ceramic Dusty Bin to contestants, so it was decided that Bullseye should go down the same route and Peter Harris decided the programme should give away to contestants a 'Bendy Bully', though at first Jim Bowen thought this was not a good idea as it seemed that it would be rubbing salt into the wounds of losing contestants, by giving them something which appeared to be a bit of tat. But Harris decided that it was a good idea to do this and after having graphic designer Chris Wroe make up one as a trial model, he gave the go ahead to mass produce the item to give them away to every contestant who played the game. This in itself became another cult item, for the programme to build its reputation on.

"101 with six darts, three for you and three for you..."

With success comes decline, by the mid 1990's the show was starting to look somewhat dated against newer shows, even with more of a risked gamble introduced to the end game of just winning 'Bus Fare Home', the viewers had been drifting away from the programme and a move to Saturday teatimes did not help the production at all, with the programme beaten by twenty year-old repeats of Dad's Army and what ever else the BBC had to offer and they had to offer a new type of game show which had never been done before one based on a burgeoning sport, that was Big Break. All the traits were there in that show for the BBC which Bullseye had been doing ten years earlier. Even Carlton developed Tenball, a derivative of snooker and pool to replace Bullseye, in a move which had seen ITV going from stone age to space age in just two weeks. By now the schedules were dominated with brash, flash shows done on bigger budgets or Gladiators being only one example. Seemingly Bullseye was old hat, but until when ITV revived it for one week to take in the Gameshow Marathon season in 2005 to celebrate some of ITV's best ever game shows hosted by Ant and Dec, so popular was the edition of Bullseye it came back for the next series of the Gameshow Marathon presented by Vernon Kay.

With the rise of Challenge TV on cable and satellite television at that time, this lead to two new series of the programme presented by former contestant of the show Dave Spikey, who by now had become a successful comedian, regaining a cult audience once again the Bullseye story had gone quiet until Challenge TV had moved onto the Freeview platform in 2011, with them showing old editions of the programme from the early 1990's and the audience who remember the show came back to it once again prompting the purchase of the third, fourth and fifth series of the programme from 1983, 1984 and 1985 respectively. Eventually in 2013, they started to showed the first two series of the programme and as I write this, they are coming to end of series one.

But one thing can be certain, for all of its years its been a 'Super, Smashing, Great' ride to get where the programme is today and with talk of the original format being tweaked again, it may not have been the last we've seen of Bully yet...