Didn’t They Do Well?

Thursday, January 15, 2004 by

It’s 7pm on a weeknight, you want to wind down in front of the TV, but you find that once again you’re faced with a familiarly nondescript choice of viewing. Hard news on Channel 4, Force 10 soap opera on ITV1, antiquated role-play on BBC2 or endless aggrieved consumers moaning on BBC1. Wasn’t it like that yesterday – and the day before that?

7pm used to signal curtains up for the night ahead and the cue for an enticing overture of everything mainstream TV does best: a half-hour escape from the mundane into accessible, rewarding entertainment. It’s certainly been many a year since those twin staples of early evening viewing, the sitcom and quiz show, could be relied upon to deliver the goods and help chart the passing of the working week. So there were definitely grounds to be cheerful at the long overdue return of the latter in the shape of Didn’t They Do Well? About as conventional a schedule fixture as it’s possible to contrive save for restoring Wogan to its thrice-weekly verdant domain, this arrived carrying the promise of countless agreeable, light-hearted forerunners. Plus it represented the return, at last, of Bruce Forsyth to the place he has always belonged, BBC1.

Thankfully, the results so far have been anything but discouraging. Didn’t They Do Well? doesn’t just deliver all the above, it also goes a long way to redeeming the reputation of a further unfairly maligned genre: the archive clip show. The programme’s chief asset is, naturally, Bruce himself, back doing what he does best: helming a people-based quiz in front of an enthusiastic studio audience on a set large enough to merit plenty of over-the-top gesturing and exaggerated straight-to-camera pathos. History confirms that simply bolting Bruce onto whatever format’s going doesn’t equal automatic success (Hollywood or Bust for starters), but whatever horsetrading accompanied the man’s journey back across the networks (“I’ve crossed more channels than P&O!”) somebody somewhere thankfully took steps to learn from Forsyth’s follies. The upshot is a show that gives its host time and space to set the right tone, work up a crowd, and, most crucial of all, indulge in shameless patter and prancing about.

The programme’s other great strength lies in what it isn’t. Didn’t They Do Well? isn’t another glossy celebrity panel game, nor a reality-based quiz show, nor anything that trades in cultivating nastiness and envy between its participants. People aren’t competing in an effort to pour scorn and humiliation on each other; neither are they gregariously straining to revel in ever-increasing demeaning and undignified situations. Instead the show boasts a gloriously straightforward, unassuming format that – commendably – is refreshing as it is reassuring.

Three teams, each comprising two members of the public, are put to the test using footage from TV programmes, principally quizzes, from the archive. Questions take the form of either actual questions from classic shows, or a variation on the “what happened next?” approach involving telly personalities describing a person, place or incident with the subject left for the contestants to guess. And that’s it. There’s a bit of business involving a brilliantly Going for Gold-esque “What am I?” round set against the clock with “control” of the game passing between teams, but mostly events stick close to the template of teams of today vs programmes of the past.

Plenty of scope, therefore, for Bruce to freewheel a bit and gossip about the kinds of footage that come up, plus pass judgement on the teams’ respective performances. Lines like “You can’t make a phone call!” are about five years too late, but you can forgive him that for the charm with which he handles proceedings, and his obvious love for the game show format (“There will be a Brucie Bonus – where I go, my Bonuses go …”). Then there are the clips themselves: culled not from obvious sources, but shows as diverse as Pop Quiz, Film Buff of the Year, Ask the Family and Quiz Time Gentleman Please. Better still, each comes replete with a short burst of their respective and evocative title sequence and theme tune, and a bit of banter from the presiding host. In every regard, the packaging and selection of these clips – and by extension the whole point of Didn’t They Do Well? – is a masterstroke. There was even room for Johnny Ball discussing phrenology.

Throughout the show there’s also, as you’d expect, high catchphrase coverage. A wonderfully indulgent spread was on offer: “Did you enjoy that round? Well, let’s do it again!”, “It’s time to make it pay …” and “Do you want to try for that cash, or build up your stash?” were all rolled out with aplomb, but pick of the bunch were undoubtedly “Keep watching! Keep watching!” which Bruce jabbered excitedly during the Going for Gold round; “Let’s release those quizmasters!” conjuring up the image of a slew of hosts about to run amok around the studio; and the strikingly melodramatic, “Confirm!” whenever Bruce instructed the clips to disclose the answer to a “guess who?” question. All were devices which Bruce used to explain away the mundane mechanics and paraphernalia of each round, of course, but that’s how the game show was and ever shall be, and then as now they served to mark the progress of the contestants through the game, remind us of why Brucie’s such a great host, and above all ratchet up the tension where necessary.

The one concession to contemporary quiz-lore, and therefore the least effective segment of the show, came right at the end in the shape of an all-or-nothing final round. Unifying all the various elements of the programme into a single, crucial finale was textbook stuff, as was throwing in – at last – the prospect of getting hold of a tangible prize in the shape of up to £32,000. But the caveat of having the contestants risk losing absolutely all of their accrued winnings were they to run out of time or answer the final question incorrectly smacked too much of Weakest Link-style more-fool-you degradation. It felt out of place on account of being so obviously derivative, and for representing a very un-Forsyth like attitude to quiz show contestants. Besides, having Bruce say, “you go home with nothing” just sounded plain wrong. You never leave with nothing on a Brucie show – it’s just not done.

Thankfully this week’s contestants did choose wisely and land themselves a respectable prize. Everything came down to a question about physical geography supplied by Kenny Everett on Brainstorm – a choice clip which, given the resolutely quirky and imaginative offerings aired throughout the previous half hour, seemed somehow very appropriate. To wrap everything up, Bruce then made a point of offering, “My thanks, my deep thanks,” to his contestants – a gesture of gratitude you never see on quiz shows nowadays, and all the more affecting accordingly. There was also time for a doff of the hat to, “all the quizmasters of the past. Didn’t they do well? And, I must admit, I couldn’t do the show without them!” Hard to think of any other host, except the equally generous Bob Monkhouse, who would have used the closing seconds of their programme to go to such selfless lengths to deflect attention away from themselves. What a gent.

Indeed, he might not have the speed of delivery he once had, but Bruce is once again proving himself easily superior to what few other quiz and game show presenters are still doing the rounds. Blessed with a format that feeds his strengths and masks his very few weaknesses, this is a show worthy of the great man’s presence and of its precious place in the schedules. Besides, any programme that opens with clips including Angela Rippon confiding, “I had a smashing time – but that’s another story,” followed by Larry Grayson announcing, “I’m cockahoop” demands to be watched. As a youthful David Vine on Quiz Ball was shown confessing: “We’re not going to have a big egghead quizhead tonight – we’re just going to have a lot of fun.”


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