Sometimes in an idle moment I find myself getting sucked into those television channels that exist in between real channels. The ones that dig through the trenches of television history looking for expired or dirt cheap rerun rights to fill the dark hours between 1am and 6am. On a night when I can’t sleep and have exhausted the BBC’s almost infinite supply of current affairs programs I sometimes find myself dipping into such a channel. They’re the grouting that hold late night schedules together, formed of a curious mixture of pure chalky nostalgia, delivered in pale colours and wonky aspect ratios.

On a quiet night you may find yourself tempted to linger on such a channel. Absolutely do not do this.

These channels seem to be made up of 2 parts old Have I Got News for You episodes, and all other parts old gameshows. Play Your Cards Right. The Generation Game. Catchphrase (bwoooaroiiiing). They are simple, strange and old. I secretly quite like them.

The best thing about these old gameshows isn’t the game itself, it’s the prizes. Specifically, the bizarre aspirational fantasy they present. Prizes in old gameshows were far more imaginative that the big money payouts that fuel modern shows, they were often just a collection of stuff, and some of it was absolute shite. The Generation Game cheerfully hangs a lantern on this in its final round, in which contestants were forced to watch a conveyor belt of detritus, and were only required to take home only items that were worthy of recall less than two minutes later.

It was the sort of junk you can perhaps imagine gathering dust in a middle class British family home, if you were a producer in the ’80s trying to imagine what a middling income might allow for. A crystal set that’s too valuable to let the kids touch, for example, some silver cutlery that’d get dragged out on the odd special occasion if its owners even remembered that they owned them. A fondue set, for some reason. They represented that producer’s demented vision of what a typical gameshow viewer would themselves desire, and from this it’s possible to guess that the phrase “mid 30s + mid income w/ kids” probably appears somewhere on the early evening TV gameshow’s pitch sheet.

The assumptions that television shows make about their target demographics are interesting in themselves, largely because they’re painfully reductive and often seem to be based more on anecdotal assumption and prejudice than real data. If you consider the prize pool of an old gameshow as a sketch of the assumed desires of its audience, the strange tangents that even well-remembered (but poor) UK gameshows like Bullseye become that much more interesting.

A new kitchen. A holiday in Tenerif. A safe, reliable car. We can imagine that these are things you’d imagine parents trying to raise kids would like to be able to afford, but can’t quite stretch to meet. And then, out of nowhere, in a blaze of well-lit rotating lime and yellow glory, the sparkling £18k jet ski.

Our contestants John and Martha look on, grinning widely. This is almost certainly a shot taken from their reaction to a gurning runner somewhere behind the camera 45 minutes earlier, because that is the beauty of editing. It’s easier to imagine their slight frowns as a few basic, pragmatic questions flicker through their minds.

Where do we put it?

What will our neighbours think when they see THAT on the drive?

They’ll think a relative’s died and left us some money. That’ll be awkward.

Do pawn shops take jet skis? There’s that one on Arthur road, but there’s no way it’ll fit through the door.

Where is the sea from here?

Sometimes it’s not jet skis, it’s SPEED BOATS. On that occasion, the showrunners evidently couldn’t fit the thing in the studio, so they showed a video of two models piloting across some blazing blue stretch of the Mediterranean.

Martha rolls her eyes at John. Like you’ll be riding that thing topless across the waves, my love.

Whether these prizes represent some mad attempt to appeal to the youthful, excitable go-get-’em couple, or exist merely as the output of some aquatic boat store desperate to shift stock, giving free boats and jet skis to every gameshow going, it’s impossible to know, because this is a personal blog and frankly I’m not going to research this too carefully. It would ruin the question, and the magic of watching couples from the ’80s hugging each other in joy when they win. Finally. A JET SKI.

As I mentioned at the top, I wouldn’t recommend sitting around watching gameshows at stupid hours. I can feel life palpably ebbing away when I do it, which is unpleasant, but part of me is genuinely fond of them.

It’s for nostalgic reasons, fittingly. I remember being a kid and watching Who Wants to Be A Millionaire with my family, on couches or the floor with mum, dad bro and sis. And we’d guess the answers to each question, and dad’d be impressed that I got an answer I’d learned in history a week ago, and there would be genuine tension whenever the studio lights came down and the contestant of the moment had to choose whether to take the money and run or plough forwards. When the first contestant won the million, we cheered.

Gameshows, like Michael MacIntyre, are easily sneered at. Both, at their best, deliver formulaic but well structured entertainment, and none of it relies on scapegoats or cheap shots. They’re not dangerous, or innovative, or edgy, but the reason I’d defend both would come down to one simple sentiment. There should always be a place for entertainment that doesn’t hurt people. And within that remit, there can exist a place where Mr. Chips can wank off a snake as families choke on their evening tea.


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