Series 4 – 1994-1995

A new set of animated opening titles (with a clever audio pre-roll of birdsong heard over the BBC1 globe) ushered in the fourth series of shenanigans at the Great House. This was the first time viewers had “seen” the village of Crinkley Bottom, and one feature of the sequence was a slight alteration each week involving visual representations of the many locations in the village. 

These would mostly be the Lizt and Newt pub (featuring Frank Thornton’s disturbed reactions at the show starting), the Vicarage (featuring Bernard Cribbins and June Whitfield’s regular characters) and the local cinema.

Also embedded within the new opening was a “coming up” sequence for the first time. This was part of changes that upped the pace of the show, removing the need to include these items in Noel’s opening monologue, and no doubt helping meet the return to the original running time of 50 minutes, down from an hour for most of series 3.

Other animated segments without any live action footage filmed such as Pru’s wool shop
(as shown below) and the offices of the Crinkley Bottom Observer would see the light of day in series 5 when the coming up sequence was axed. 

The new style of titles nicely matched the existing animated sequences for NTV and Wait Till I Get You Home, and were accompanied by a new, rockier and punchier version of Ernie Dunstall’s opening theme tune that was arguably better than the original.  It replaced the original opening bars with the roar of an electric guitar puncturing the quiet of the Crinkley Bottom countryside, and also imported part of the closing theme to give the theme a less abrupt finish.

This change was accompanied by the shift to a much later slot of 7pm, no doubt to accommodate the new National Lottery draw at 8pm from a few weeks into the run.

Initially assumed that the House Party would pay host to the draw, a compromise was met with the 19th of November show replaced by an hour long special from Television Centre hosted by Edmonds to launch the Lottery draw.

Following the cliffhanger at the end of series 3 the house set was redesigned, and whilst in the most part visually very similar to the original design it was in fact a complete rebuild. 

In effect it saw the drawing room space moved to the other end of the house (coinciding with the axing of the “game at the start”, another casualty of the new running time) but had the effect of moving the door to a much more natural location at the centre of the studio. 

The Grab-a-Grand booth also had a new home underneath a balcony that meant just the perspex walls had to be slotted into place for the item.  There was also a new “back door” on the far left of the set, which predictably was only used sporadically, and even switched from an outdoor backdrop to a brick wall corridor after its debut.

The full length of the new set played host to the new white-knuckle-ride gunge tank, known within the show as the “trip around the Great House” as the g-word was used notably less on air but in contrast the sticky stuff took took over more and more of the show. It was a very impressive and no doubt hugely expensive visual effects construction which became more ambitious as the series went on, notably a few shows in with a more climatic finish in the fireplace, but also with the use of numerous special set designs and props.

This led to the ride getting stuck on two occasions – once when flying footballs lodged between the car and the wall (with guest John Motson ad libbing beyond the script to great effect),
and on another the ride came to a complete halt just before the conclusion with some flying debris lodged in the rail. 

It also coincided with celebrity gunge votes being abandoned entirely, with the trip being used the majority of the time for people pulled out of the audience.

Other items were given a change for the sake of change, notably The Big Pork Pie swapping the lie detector for a three-pronged jury, proving unpopular enough to be ditched after show 1,
although the premise resurfaced over a decade later via “Would I Lie To You” (see also Edmonds bragging about the House Party paying host to items others would stretch out
over a whole show). 

It was surprising that such a successful feature was meddled with and then canned so quickly, though it was clear the production team were coming up with ever more innovative ways to pull people out of the audience so perhaps it just wasn’t needed anymore.

The Number Cruncher (always announced as such despite being called Number Crunching on-screen) introduced this series caught on surprisingly quickly with the audience despite it quickly becoming clear that the sole purpose appears to be gunging the occupant (with a slim chance they’d walk away with a fairly small cash prize). It did however represent a second OB per show,
a sign of a big budget that was often visible on-screen in this series.

The ever-increasing regular cast made numerous cameos that often involved little more than turning up. One exception to this was the romantic role of Noel’s new neighbour, initially played by Caroline Langrishe and later to greater effect by Vicki Michelle, who was a key part of the series for the next two years.  Local mechanics played by Cannon & Ball, a plumber by Gary Olsen and finally John Challis as, presumably, Boycie, were this year’s additions
to the “semi-regular” roster. 

The Gotchas were still on form, particularly the fictitious “Life” series on ancient history with Lesley Garrett and a slow-witted Judith Chalmers standing out in particular.  One notable failure was the Annabel Giles “hit”, in which she spotted the hidden camera in the car and (admittedly quite entertainingly) had a long conversation with it saying she was “appalled you think I would fall for this”.  It wasn’t the first Gotcha to be rumbled but to be done so early on in the process and followed by a fairly outlandish plot involving silly costumes wasn’t a high point
for the format.

A similar moment in Derek Jameson’s Gotcha, where the victim claimed to have rumbled it, was turned into a positive that later formed the climax to the series.  The phrase “you’ve got to get up early in the morning to catch me mate” was taken as the inspiration for three further Gotchas – one of which involved Noel himself guesting on the Jameson’s Radio 2 show, and the big reveal taking place (of course) very early in the morning with a fake evacuation from the Jameson’s hotel.  

NTV stepped up a gear from the classic format of hidden camera hit followed by front room command performance, and as such now had its own dedicated producer (former TV-am kids presenter Mike Brosnan).  Now effectively setting up victims in live Gotchas the results were ambitious but mixed, with a trip across the channel to fool the victim proving underwhelming,
and an attempt to double the victim as the Number Crunching contestant faring even less well.

There were however some memorable setups including a viewer’s car being offered up as a prize in a competition, and the street concert tour starring June Robinson spanning the whole show, with a grand finale on the Trip Around The Great House.  In another, viewer Colin Leonard who went to the cinema every weekend to avoid being on NTV found himself inserted into the plot of the film with a live scene from Crinkley Bottom. 

This was an amazing technical achievement and is rightly remembered as one of the standout moments of the entire eight-year run. 

It’s past the halfway line of this series where there’s the gradual increase in traits that would become prevalent in the show’s later years. 

Whether they be attempts at a plot to thread a single episode such as “Sprot For All”, or the soon-to-be recurring habit of dropping things on the audience from the ceiling without warning.

Amongst the increased numbers of audience members being gunged were two older and slightly larger women who had trouble getting in the dodgem car, leading viewers to wonder if Health and Safety were properly across these sequences. 

There were also two occasions this run when random and otherwise blameless audience members were sent on the Trip without the usual “relative gets their own back” anecdote to provide the reasoning, which felt a little uneasy to watch. 

The tipping point to “if in doubt, gunge” may have been at the end of show 12 with Blobby barging through the front door, cornering Edmonds in the Grab-a-Grand booth and showering him with foam for no given reason, leaving him struggling for breath and unable to speak to close the show.

The programme’s pace continued to increase with more editions struggling to get everything in before the Lottery was due on air.  The viewer at home was able to play the game themselves by noting when the credits faded up at the bottom of the screen – if it was during Grab-a-Grand, you knew they were in trouble.  One notable edition featured the credits finishing entirely during the grab followed by Noel rapidly wrapping up the programme, unsure if he was
still on air or not.  

The latter part of the series saw a lot of experimentation with the format. 

As well as the themed editions, Grab-a-Grand had already changed the entry question to one posed during the actual show (usually around something that occurred on the programme the previous week) and replaced the sports star with an audience member to do the grabbing.  Towards the end of the run it was given a number of further variations variously involving balloons, boxing gloves and even combining it with NTV and the Number Cruncher. 

One variation, with the booth exploding and the notes spraying all over the audience, clearly inspired the production team…

Despite the wobbles, a strong series finale saw virtually every feature turned around as a surprise for Noel.  Unlike the previous two runs, this year’s revenge was left to the final show, meaning it was hardly unexpected – even leading to Noel sitting down to eat a banana at the start to avoid anything happening.

It was however hugely entertaining to see him go with the flow as section after section was revealed to be a surprise, with the inevitable “Trip Around The Great House” acting as the climax followed by a duet with Vicki Michelle.  The entire show overran considerably putting BBC1 on a ten minute delay for the rest of the night – clearly expected and signed off in advance but still a considerable coup to be allowed to delay the Lottery draw.  

Fans of the series have often debated the merits of series 4, with it variously lauded at the creative peak of the programme and also as where the cracks begin to show. In truth it is probably both. The picking apart of the format of the first three years and subverting viewer expectations is hugely entertaining, but it does somewhat leave you with nowhere to go. 

The finale – sometimes suggested as the best ever edition – was enough to push the flaws to one side. Had this been the last series, it would be remembered as a triumph. However, there are four more yet to come…