Like a nan with a faraway sparkle in her eye, gameshow Blockbusters has lived a life. It’s crossed continents, had foreign flings, smuggled diamonds in its knickers across wartime borders, and regenerated more times than the Doctor.
As we welcome a brand new incarnation to the fold, courtesy of Comedy Central, join us in a skip through the gameshow’s lively past…
The American one
This is where it all started. The hexagons, the letters, the general knowledge and the Gold Run (only they called it a Gold Rush). The NBC original set the uneven team numbers up with the premise of seeing “if two heads are really better than one,” a hypothesis that, despite years of experimentation, is yet to be verified by peer review.
Host(s): veteran gameshow host Bill Cullen (1980-82), followed by comedian and impressionist Bill Rafferty (1987). Both favoured a classic look: a pale suit in an earth tone plus a smartly striped tie.
Contestants: Adults; one pair of family members and one lone maverick, all three sitting in uncomfortable proximity. In the Rafferty-hosted version, there were only two and not three.
Theme music: A jazzy horn number that really makes you want to move.
Title sequence: Cheap, cheerful and employing the kind of insistently flashing lights that the CIA might use to activate a sleeper agent.
Set: For Cullen, golden hexagons that gave him the air of a tiny bee against an oversized honeycomb. Excitingly, the Gold ‘Rush’ contestant podium didn’t only stand on a hotspot, but behind a mini podium that split off from Cullen’s master podium at the press of a button in the manner of a spacecraft separation. This set dripped money. Speaking of which…
Prizes: Plenty cash. The Gold Rush could bring a contestant or team $2000. The Super Gold Rush could earn them a whopping $5000. You could walk away from a game of Blockbusters in the US with tens of thousands of dollars, but not a branded encyclopaedia – so tell me, who were the real winners?
The real one
Aka the proper one, the actual Blockbusters. On ITV, presented by Sir Bob Holness between 1983 and 1993. They filmed five episodes a day for a week and only let the audience do the hand jive on Fridays, just before going-home time.
Host: Sir Bob Holness. I just said that. In a pale suit and smartly striped tie.
Contestants: In a twist to the US original, school pupils between the ages of 16 and 18, competing for cash, stuff, and prizes they were supposed to give to their school (but there’s no way those 24 branded mugs and extra-large tub of instant coffee made it any further than Sue from Cheshire’s mum’s Keep Fit club).
Theme music: The real Ed Welch one, aka the proper one. A sci-fi miracle with a here-comes-the-news-style pulse that stirs the very soul.
Titles: The early version featured computer-generated hexagons flipping over in space to reveal areas of general knowledge: drama, science, engineering, a choo choo train, the armadillo. The later version was a hexagon-based cityscape that gave Ridley Scott the idea for Blade Runner.
Set: Arty-looking classical frescos featuring Zeus, the god of turning into swans.
Prizes: £5 or £10 per correct answer, and a 12 inch portable television with radio and cassette player or similar if you succeed in the Gold Run. The consolation prize was a Blockbusters encyclopaedia—destined only ever to be used to look up rude words—and a t-shirt.
The first Sky One one
Also presented by Bob Holness for a year after the show left ITV in 1993. This version was more a continuation of the classic series, with an added ‘bonus question’ feature.
The host: We’ve covered this. Bob. Holness. Are you getting enough vitamin C?
Contestants: Sixth formers again, but 90s ones, so they don’t know very much but do wear Manic Street Preachers t-shirts. Also, the mascots are a big deal by now.
Theme music: The classic.
Title sequence: The sci-fi city featuring hexagons rushing past skyscrapers as if they’re late for work. Which they are. Because their job is being on Blockbusters and it’s just about to start.
Set: The classic.
Prizes: The same deal as before, including the school prizes hidden behind certain letters. Mugs that said ‘Can I have a T please Bob’ and urinal cakes that said ‘Can I have a P please Bob’, except not that last one because I made it up.
The BBC Two one
This one arrived in 1997 and is famous for featuring writer-director-actor Stephen Merchant, who went by a down-to-earth ‘Steve’ at the time. How fame has changed him.
Host: Michael Aspel, still favouring a nice grey suit and smart tie.
Contestants: In a twist – adults. Grown-ups with cars, jobs and mortgages but, evidently, not better things to do. Still in the same two vs one configuration.
Theme music: A soundalike piece composed by Henry Marsh and Paul Boross.
Titles: A giant golden head flaking hexagons like an eczema sufferer and thinking about such matters as combine harvesters and war.
Set: Quite snazzy. The contestants are sitting in slightly less uncomfortable proximity, and it’s a lovely gold and purple, like a sort of UKIP TARDIS.
Prizes: The consolation prize was a fountain pen. A sample star prize was a day out at Britain’s premier centre for the circus arts. Fair dos.
The Liza Tarbuck Sky One one
In 2001, Sky One had another pop at the format, giving it a new set, new titles, slightly new theme music and a new presenter for the new millennium.
Host: Actor and broadcaster Liza Tarbuck, eschewing pale suit and striped tie convention by opting for a cheerful blouse.
Contestants: Still two against one, still sixth form students (though by now, only posh schools called it sixth form. Everywhere else it was years 12 and 13)
Theme music: Still the original by maestro Ed Welch, but updated for the twenty-first century to make it slightly… plinkier.
Titles: Athletes wearing leotards and shorts, who can control glowing letters and hexagons with their minds. Basically a 1970s Thames Television children’s sci-fi.
Set: Aggressively violet.
Prizes: Sticks mostly. Some jam.
The Gameshow Marathon one
This ITV Ant and Dec series ran from 2005 to 2007, with Vernon Kay taking over proceedings for series two. It interspersed talking heads VT with Fern Britton reminiscing about old gameshows with re-enactments of said gameshows using celebrity contestants.
Host: Vernon Kay, in a nice suit and tie but, this being ITV and not The Beatles, in need of a comb through his hair. In this version, the audience laugh at lines like “let’s just hope it’s a prize mountain and not a prize molehill” and Kay mocks both the Blockbusters hand jive and the concept of literature, making the ‘ooooh, get you’ noise when a contestant suggests they can read.
Contestants: Celebrities, so: Jamelia, Ben Shepherd, and Pauline from EastEnders.
Theme music: The proper one.
Titles: Vernon Kay leaping Forrest Gump-like into old gameshows through the magic of special effects. In short: a travesty.
Prizes: A home entertainment system. A sea scooter. A full-size indoor table tennis table. They all went to the viewers, which was probably a tax scam. The consolation prize was a Blockbusters dictionary and rugby shirt.
The Simon Mayo Challenge one
In 2012, Challenge revived the show under the banner All New Blockbusters, including celebrity specials (one of which featured original contestant and former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq).
Host: Novelist, radio presenter and film reviewer Simon Mayo, continuing Tarbuck’s dangerous ‘n’ casual approach to style by wearing a sharp suit and shirt and no tie.
Contestants: Back to the US and BBC Two format of adults. Still two against one.
Theme music: An electric guitar-heavy version of the original theme, like the Blockbusters theme tune had borrowed its older brother’s Def Leppard album and started wearing a bandana.
Titles: Blue and yellow. Highlights include: a brain, a globe, the inside of a piston engine.
Prizes: Not too shabby. The consolation prize was a Blockbusters e-reader (moving with the times) and gold run prizes included a holiday for six to a five-star Cornish resort and a weekend in a Northumbrian spa hotel.
The Comedy Central one
AKA the new one. Presented by Dara O Briain and currently airing on Thursdays at 8pm on Comedy Central. Twenty episodes and two celebrity specials are on their way. There’s a new sudden-death playoff feature and the whole thing is very jolly and jokey.
Host: Comedian and broadcaster Dara O Briain in a grey suit and once again, no tie.
Contestants: Sixth-formers but Generation Y ones so they’re answering questions about Airbnb rather than Plato’s Republic.
Theme music: An update on the original “so catchy and life-affirming, it’s basically the This Is Me of 2019,” says O Briain in episode one. He’s not wrong.
Titles: Abstract, narrative-free and a bit like Tron. A lack of both sci-fi city and armadillo.
Set: A kind of theatre-in-the-round idea where you can see the audience chortling at all the jokes.
Prizes: More money than the old days – £20 per correct answer, but the spot prizes are tongue-in-cheek rubbish (a wearable blanket) rather than properly good. The top prize is a holiday to Barcelona though. Consolation prizes are a Blockbusters hoody and a reusable cup because the environment is on fire.
As well as…
The board game ones
The quiz books ones
The computer game ones
The interactive DVD game one
The online slot game one
The ones you dreamed (Bob Holness was your mum. Your teeth all fell out and he caught them in a sieve.)
The international remake ones, including:
Australian (Bonzabusters), French (Les Blockboostairs), Germany (Die Bloc), Indonesia (This one feels uncomfortable), Israel (I’d better stop before I lose my job), Italy (Alright, just one more: Bunga-Bungabusters), Netherlands (Clogbusters?), Paraguay (Los Blockbusterz), Saudi Arabia (nope), Sweden (Naked Jungle), Switzerland (Blocks-of-Toblerone-Busters) and Turkey (Baklava-busters? Or am I thinking of Greece? Either way, apologies).
Blockbusters continues on Comedy Central on Thursday nights.