“Where’s that other bloke who used to live here? Wore funny shirts
and made me laugh. Are you his dad?” (John Challis, Show 2)
The underlying anxiety of any entertainment show is knowing when to retire popular strands to prevent them from going stale.
Whilst it couldn’t be argued that items such as Grab a Grand and Wait Till I Get You Home
had probably run their course, series 6 faced the challenge of finding items to replace them.
More changes at the top saw Saturday Roadshow and House Party stalwart Guy Freeman
now Producer, having taken over the role towards the end of series 5 in an effective job swap with Jonathan Beazley.
The changes were visible from the outset, with the introduction of a new set of titles which for the first time depicted the Great House in real life.
Shot in the grounds of Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire these were filmed to a cinematic standard, with various impressive helicopter and steadicam shots touring the grounds.
The titles told a “story” with three changing segments each week – a mini sketch on location (removed after show 6), a short routine from a door guest in one of the approaching cars, and a last gag inside the house. Darkness fell as the titles progressed, and the sequence concluded
with a rush towards the new front door before it opened, inviting viewers inside.
The new theme tune itself was a contemporary and upbeat composition from the pen of Stephen Green. It combined a dance-oriented beat throughout with orchestral strings accompanying a more traditional light entertainment melody. This allowed multiple different versions to be heard throughout the show accompanying the various features – such as an energetic dance version introducing The Hot House, a rhythmic undercut playing as time counted down in the money cellar and a jaunty child-like strings version
opening My Little Friend.
The new opening was a sign of the show’s ambitions to reinvent itself as classy and sophisticated, a bold ambition 5 years into the show’s history.
Whilst there was nothing in particular wrong with the new titles or theme, they lacked the humour of the previous opening and the quirkiness of the original. For many watching it will have just signalled that this wasn’t the old show they knew anymore. Ernie Dunstall’s guitar-lead theme did however survive as the intro to NTV.
The changes continued in the main studio itself now christened as the Great Hall of the Great House, with the set receiving its second complete rebuild. Again more or less following the original design, the main change here was to massively upscale most of it. This coincided with the move of the programme to TC1, the biggest studio at the BBC’s disposal, and one which clearly reflected the changes to the programme’s style throughout series 4 and 5.
A notable visual change was a porch built on the main entrance to match the new location footage. For the first time there was no permanent gunge tank as part of the design as this element of the show became more freeform. The studio audience were positioned behind medieval wooden tables with plastic fruit for added effect.
This was in fact new bespoke seating built as part of the new set, which for the first time was connected seamlessly to the set itself allowing Noel and others to reach the audience via the main staircase. This gave the host free access to walk between each row for the first time, and later in the run new tricks would be seen such allowing certain seats to rise or fall, or later have mini gunge tanks lowered from the ceiling.
Thanks to plastic seats and proper drainage, those poor audience members could now have as much thrown at them as possible, though the provision of plastic sheets from show 2 suggested some weren’t too happy about this development. Finally the cheerleaders were replaced by “villagers” who were often seen in prominent positions around the audience
in various fancy dress costumes.
Despite an air of confidence about the revamp, there’s the underlying problem of replacing long standing items with newer ones that would ultimately not last the full series.
Exhibit A: “The Hot House”
An attempt to further draw out the positive spirit of the Atlanta Olympics and reintroduce the “game at the start” from series 1-3, this item pitted two sports stars against each other on exercise machines in sport events they weren’t normally known for, to test their heart rate.
This was hugely strung out during show 1 before being massively simplified as this element added nothing to the game itself. The objective eventually became a simple race to the finish, with the fastest in with the prospect of winning a golden spinach tin that looked like
a severed Gotcha.
The feature lasted longer than many would recollect, though after Christmas it saw the added
(and somewhat inevitable) element of gunge to guarantee its death knell.
A cock up with one drenching lead to long-standing Visual Effects Designer Dave Vialls getting gunged as punishment, pulling the carwash gunge tank from series 3 out of retirement.
Exhibit B: “One Minute Of Prime Time”
Heavily trailed from show 1 but not appearing until show 3, a trio of wannabe performers from a chosen town would each attempt over the phone to persuade Noel and a panel of villagers to let them perform their special talent on television for a whole minute, with an O/B truck travelling to their house with the eye-grabbing addition of GPS tracking.
The most entertaining part of the feature became Noel speaking to the callers at the start in a fashion not dissimilar to the old days of Swap Shop. The main problem was the generally fairly ropey quality of entertainment on offer.
The feature bore a slight resemblance to “Party Pieces” from series 2 and 3 albeit done live and drawn out over a whole show becoming even more farcical by the week, with some acts not even given the full minute at the director’s behest.
There are rumours that the winning participant was chosen in advance, with a visit to Leeds paying host to one Ross Lee, the off-beat performer in a halfway house between Channel 4’s
“Surf Potatoes” and CBBC’s “Chute!”.
When visiting Newcastle however, the late John Myers as his alter ego “Morgan In The Morning” was less than successful in enticing the show to visit 100-102 Century Radio.
The death knell rang when a visit to Glasgow made the mistake of appealing live for acts during the show instead of the previous week, resulting in just two options to choose from. One in a noisy wine bar, and another failing to give a description of whereabouts in Glasgow he was, to the point of the O/B vehicle being unable to find the location.
The common ground between the two items were that they appeared to be more focused
on the hi-tech equipment than the entertainment value.
Both segments were ditched two thirds into the series, to be replaced by more padding
with the studio audience, at one point even resorting to a game of Pass The Parcel.
The only new feature to make it out of series 6 (in fact to the end of the programme entirely)
was “My Little Friend”, an item clearly intended to replace Wait Till I Get You Home in the
“VT with kids” slot.
This segment featured inanimate objects talking to impressionable schoolchildren, often leading to more of an “awww” reaction than that of laughter, but the feature would be developed to greater effect in future series (on one notable occasion frightening the crap out of two unsuspecting participants).
More single episode plots popped up this series such as “The Legend Of Crinkley Bottom” in show 12 and a week earlier, a more successful attempt to satirise ITV’s “Monarchy” debate,
asking the question “Should There Be A Mr Blobby?”.
Noel was assisted by Sue Cook and a returning Nick Owen (having been drenched as representative for Luton on “Prime Time” a few weeks earlier) along with a celebrity panel including Pete Waterman and Nina Myskow who had partaken in a similar smaller scale debate over the Mr Blobby single back in series 3, suggesting that the series was now re-hashing items
that had been done once before in the show, but more drawn out in the absence
of other format points.
This edition was however a better parody of the ITV programme than a bit of fluff on a Saturday night had any right to be, but it’s unfortunate it was in the same edition as an NTV
featuring a House Party superfan, again suggesting the programme was eating itself.
Following a number of one-offs in the last series including Boyzone and Manfred Mann, the Great House now paid host to regular live music performances.
Many of them were suspected to have been used as bargaining tools for Gotchas (Boyzone,
Status Quo, The Bee Gees, Paul Young) which were received with not so surprised reactions, questioning the contrivance further.
The performance by the Bee Gees took place on the same show as an appearance from boyband 911, whose own number was shunted right to the end of the show, leaving barely enough time to reach the first chorus.
An energetic performance from Cyndi Lauper however caught Tidybeard by surprise, leading to interest from Richard and Judy the following week.
As well as on the circular stage a number of guests at the door this series would also double as thinly-veiled plugs. The worst of these was right at the start of the series with filmed inserts from Charlton Heston promoting his film “Alaska”, followed later in the series by front door appearances from Harry Enfield, Liz Dawn, and Bruce Forsyth all sharing the sole purpose of plugging their festive videos.
Series 6 was another run that saw fewer and fewer appearances from established regulars. This year’s Tony Blackburn count totalled just one (as part of an NTV hit), and Vicki Michelle’s character made a final couple of appearances that essentially completed her story.
Bert the Bugler on the other hand was extremely prominent in the early location gags
for the new titles, but was reduced to a handful of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances
in the studio at the start of episodes.
Meanwhile John Challis made his curtain call in the series finale.
The void was filled somewhat by the arrival of Noel’s brother Liam (dressed much as you’d expect), putting to one side Noel’s denial of having a brother in the last series on introducing his “nephew”, or even further back, Ken Dodd’s appearance in series 1 as Noel’s brother “Berasent”.
Liam was a new role given to Barry Killerby, following Mr Blobby’s apparent full time transfer to Live and Kicking. In the first show Liam appeared to be a one-gag blunder but the following week was given the job of smashing food with a mallet into the audience for no real reason. Unless it was a forced homage of the derided US comedy act Gallagher – geddit?
This rather odd quirk aside, once the Oasis gags had been exhausted the character of Liam ended up working fairly well as a stooge for Noel, partly because of Killerby’s endless energy but also because of their already established chemistry, having bounced off each other – literally – for many years. Blobby did inevitably return to the series a few weeks in, but the character of Liam by definition helped put a lid on the quantity of the pink and yellow one’s appearances
Taking the place of Grab A Grand was another game involving phone callers and a lot of money. A development of the “Noel’s Hole” item from the last series, “Cash For Questions”, named after a Conservative Party scandal of the period (but sounding rather mundane shorn of context) was where a guest would be sent down into a cellar with no lighting but infra-red cameras to help the caller guide them to the money bags they wanted to grab.
The qualifying question for the phone in competition provided by Professor Dearie as played by Brian Blessed, “prodding his probe” into household objects for viewers to guess. Notably, following the disastrous attempt to contact John Miller in Glasgow the previous year, callers were now dialled prior to the item going to air and randomly selected from a number of lines.
This was done via people sitting on (and flying off) a huge spinning wheel in the studio underneath the performance area, though this was replaced mid-run by a giant inflatable dice.
YouTube comments have suggested this was due to an injury suffered by one of those sitting on the device.
The reaction to the newer items from long-standing critic of the show Garry Bushell wasn’t positive, with the show at least managing to laugh at this by suspending in a mini torture chamber as punishment.
After being briefly dropped at the start of the series the Crinkley Bottom Observer was resurrected a few shows in along with the old header, after a brief rebrand in the previous series as the Murdoch inspired “C.B.O”. Other than this NTV and the Gotchas were the only surviving “old” features.
Both will be explored in greater detail in Part 2…