The next episode of the rundown. And a concerted effort not to bang on about everything for so long. We’ll see. And so, resisting the temptation to pretend Does China Exist? is at number 25 as an April Fool prank, here are the next couple of programmes.
26: The Weakest Link
(Shown 2923 times, 2000-2021)
Now, here’s a programme that seemed to mark a sea change on how popular quiz shows could break out of the confines of telly, and become an entire self-contained industry.
Not that TV quizzes hadn’t led to spin-off merch before, of course.
But The Weakest Link took things to a level never seen before. Alongside compilation tapes, the inevitable board games and question books, there were (equally inevitable) CD-ROMs, games for the PlayStation AND PlayStation 2, a VHS compilation of Anne Robinson put-downs, novelty dance records, collectable action figures of the host’s appearance in an episode of Doctor Who, and a money box.
All stemming from a quiz programme that quietly arrived on BBC Two’s early evening schedule on Monday 14 August 2000.
The premise was summed up suitably succinctly by the Radio Times for that week: “Anne Robinson hosts a new series of weekday elimination quiz shows. Contestants face quick-fire, general-knowledge questions to win a top prize of £10,000.” Devised by former South London GP Fintan Coyle and club comedian/actor Cathy Dunning, the format was certainly one that could attract an audience – making contestants work together in each all-contestant round-robin, as they seek to inflate a cash accumulator that rises with each correct answer, but resets to zero after an incorrect answer with the current accumulator total being lost. If a contestant ‘banks’ the current prize pot before their question is asked, it’s reset to zero, but added to the final prize pot – however, you’re also stopping that accumulator climbing any higher. That teamwork is offset by a voting round after each set of questions, a ballot that results in the contestants voting out one of their number. In theory, they’re voting out the titular weak link who’d cost them the most money, but as the field narrows, canny contestants can choose to vote out anyone they deem the biggest threat to their personal success. For anyone too young to remember it, it’s basically Among Us but with trivia. Except that when you’re kicked off the spaceship in Among Us, you’re not expected to go on camera to account for your actions in a post-match interview.
Eventually, the field is whittled down to two contestants, who must then take part in a penalty shoot-out: five questions each, whoever gets the most right out of five scoops the prize pot, and if it’s a draw it’s a sudden death question-by-question shootout. I don’t think that Israel Football Association general secretary Joseph Dagan got a credit at the end of the programme for devising that bit, but he originally invented the penalty shoot-out, so he should probably at least get a cut of those DVD sales. [UPDATE 11/04/23: See footnote 1 below.]
Of course, while the format of the programme was undoubtedly a unique one, the secret spicy sauce behind the success of the programme came from the acerbic nature of host Anne Robinson.
While the original intent was for Robinson to be firm but generally understanding with the contenders under her charge, before too long underperforming players could expect to be gently mocked by Robinson. Before much longer, the mocking retorts became much less gentle, ranging from cutting to downright insulting. I’ll admit here, this is why I never personally took to the programme. Seriously, comments like “Why are you dressed like a lesbian?” and “How many of your three boys have got tags on their ankles?” to people appearing on telly for the first time in their lives? What are you, Jeremy Kyle in a frock? No wonder it led directly to the election of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Yes, directly.
(Not directly, I’m exaggerating for comic effort. Smelly.)
Anyway, putting that brief moral aside behind us, it was a programme that was an absolute smash for the BBC. Just a few months after the programme first hit BBC2, show creators Coyle and Dunning were well on the way to becoming millionaires, and the show was soon set to be franchised out to Germany, Italy, Australia, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Israel, Turkey, Spain, Latin America, Sweden, Canada and Ireland, each installing their own Queen (or King) of Mean as host.
And, biggest of all, from April 2001, a primetime version of the series started airing on America’s very own NBC, with Anne Robinson travelling across the Atlantic to host. The “getting a Briton to play the villain” trope is written in ink, after all. Since the early days of television, well-regarded British TV personalities have made the trip to US only to return to the UK hoping nobody noticed they’d been missing – on one end of the scale, Peter Cook in The Two of Us and Morwenna Banks’ short stint at SNL, and the other Cheryl Cole’s cameo in X Factor USA and ABC’s The Noel Edmonds Show.
At least initially, NBC’s version of The Weakest Link was a success. After launching in April 2001, the series was an immediate hit, the three episodes airing that debut week (on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday) barged into the Nielsen ratings for the week, attracting audiences as high as 17.4 million viewers, and bettering the likes of Frasier, 60 Minutes and even Friends. Not too shabby.
However, it wasn’t to last. By 2002, American audiences found a new Briton they could love to hate in American Idol’s Simon Cowell, and by July of that year the Weakest Link was dropped from NBC’s primetime line-up.
That wasn’t the end of the series in the USA, however. Several months before the cancellation of the primetime version, NBC had started work on a syndicated daytime version of the series for local stations, which had started airing in January of that year. This time the host was George Gray, at the time best-known for hosting “an extreme version of The Gong Show”, and the newly-syndicated version ran for 324 episodes. (“Wow! It must have been a success!” – A reader.) Not really, it only lasted for a season and a half. Such is syndication.
Robinson duly returned to the UK, and resumed hosting duties for the OG Weakest Link. Not that they’d been left without their premier quiz show in the interim – BBC Two started airing episodes of Weakest Link USA on weekday evenings from May 2001, just a few weeks after their debut on NBC. There were enough episodes of that to last until April 2003, so not a bad bit of business for the Beeb. Not least at by 2002, as new Celebrity editions of The Weakest Link were going out on primetime BBC1, which really helped the brand to grow even further. And boy, it certainly did grow. The 1 March 2001 episode of The Weakest Link on BBC1 – an EastEnders special, broadcast as the warm-up act for an extended ‘Stenders episode featuring Mel and Steve’s wedding – drew a series-high audience of 11.4m viewers.
(With thanks to Daniel Webb for those details on the EE-special episode.)
Given how well-known the programme was in the early 00s, it’s a bit surprising to consider how the proletariat version of TV’s most caustic quiz didn’t make the move to teatime BBC1 until February 2008. But, to be fair, until that point the 5:15pm slot on the Beeb’s flagship channel was the sole domain of a certain antipodean continuing drama programme, the name of which escapes me right now. Whatever happened to that?
Given the reputation Weakest Link held, it was perhaps no surprise that it could easily be jettisoned into that spot in the schedules – by that point it had topped the weekly BARB ratings for BBC2 on at least 82 occasions – and it cemented that timeslot as the BBC1’s go-to location for popular teatime gameshows to this very day.
Of course, all good things etc etc and so on. On 31 March 2012, a new episode of the programme aired for the last time, though repeats of the show would continue on BBC Two throughout 2013. However! In December 2021 – right at the end of the period we’re looking at for the purposes of this rundown, remember (seems a bloody age ago, doesn’t it?) – the Weakest Link returned, hosted by the omnipresent Romesh Ranganathan. It doesn’t look like going anywhere any time soon, even if it’ll never hope to recapture that place in the national psyche.
[footnote one: QI KLAXON.
10 bonus points to Suze on the qi.com forum for the following addendum.]
(Shown 2930 times, 1969-1983)
This was always going to make the list, it was just a matter of where.
It feels redundant saying a television programme encapsulated the era when it was aired. After all, which era is it supposed to encapsulate? The middle ages? The year three billion? And yet, it’s a facile phrase that seems to fit especially well with Nationwide, from the “don’t expect to get too much” years of 1969-1983. Yes, there’s a skateboarding duck, but here’s the local news telling you the local coalmine is closing. Ha, a man who claims to jump on eggs, anyway the binman strike is about to enter week twelve. And so on. Give with one hand, knock your Bovril onto the carpet with the other.
Following in the footsteps of acclaimed current affairs show Tonight, and tasked with folding your local news into itself somewhere, Nationwide found itself needing to offer something new. And to do this, it offered something that those upstarts on ITV couldn’t match.
Over on ITV, each regional service was operated by an entirely individual company, so while each region was able to offer a local news service, there’d be no way they could put out a single nightly show that could flit around the regions, seeing what various parts of the UK had to offer. At least not until the ITV Telethon became a thing almost twenty years later.
The BBC, being one single entity offering a largely national service (at least to England) with regional opt-outs, could put everything into one nightly programme. Start off with a national presenter topping the programme and giving a round-up of Things to Come, have each region opt-out of the programme for their own local news bulletin (save for London and the South-East, which had a bulletin broadcast from the main Nationwide studio), then back to the London studio for a mixture of political analysis, consumer affairs, light entertainment and sports. Best of all, where stories of national interest (or at least curiosity value) were located outside London, the national network had the relevant regional studio ready to be thrown to. A unique mixture that their rivals couldn’t hope to match. An easy win.
Going by the words of contemporary critics, any such aims were perhaps a little too lofty, at least at the time of the first edition. Writing in the Daily Mirror, TV reviewer Mary Malone set the BBC’s new evening offering against its Thames counterpart ‘Today’ in an entertaining column that required two television sets to be on at the same time (video recorders? Pah!). Today became the main focus of the column, if only as a suitable target for ire over their sensationalist coverage of contraceptives in use at a secondary school, and using rock music to soundtrack war footage. Malone’s eye was clearly drawn more closely to the unfolding schlock on the light channel, leaving time for just the faintest of praise for Nationwide. “Responsible, incombustible stuff this; no town councillor can afford to miss it.”
Oof. Peter Black of the Daily Mail was able to go into a bit more detail about the lack of pizazz hampering the debut episode of Nationwide: the lack of any topical content that would befit the format. Noting that “technically, it was a good clean professional job. In content it was dullish because as always happens on a first night, there weren’t enough good stories about.”
Indeed, the story falling under the first Nationwide spotlight was one that was happening, well, nationwide. The national teacher shortage may well have been big news that night, but throwing to Glasgow, Newcastle and Birmingham from the London studio only to be met with “yeah, same here” hardly highlighted Britain’s rich regional tapestry. Fortunately, any early jitters don’t seem to have held the programme back, and in 1972 the programme’s scheduling was increased to five days per week.
Before too long, the programme would become a lynchpin of the BBC1 evening schedule, and become a target recognisable enough to be the target of sketches by, among others, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (“Well, everyone is talking about the Third World War which broke out this morning. But here on `Nationwide’ we’re going to get away from that a bit and look instead at the latest theory that sitting down regularly in a comfortable chair can rest your legs”) and the marvellous End Of Part One.
Despite making for quite an easy target, the Nationwide branding was deemed to have enough dignity to be sellotaped to the BBC’s coverage of various then-current events. So, alongside the vanilla version of the programme at teatime, viewers could also expect to see the “Nationwide BBC Election 70 Results Round-up”, the “Nationwide Referendum Result”, assorted “Nationwide Budget Specials”, compilation show “Launch Yourself with Nationwide” where Richard Stilgoe demonstrated building a dinghy.
Perhaps best of all, between 1979 and 1983 there was “The British Rock and Pop Awards: A Nationwide Special”. Imagine the Brits being given a “One Show Special” tagline today, eh? This actually span out of the Daily Mirror’s annual Rock and Pop Awards, which had been running since 1976. But from 1979 onwards, the paper teamed up with the ‘Wide and Radio 1 to let people see and hear the whole shebang.
The march of modernisation must never abate, however. Come 1983, and the programme was deemed a bit old hat, and on 5 August 1983, the nation went Nationwide for the very last time. In its place came a super new replacement programme that BBC bigwigs were sure everyone would love.
Spoiler alert: they didn’t. Despite a more urgent theme tune, flashy (for the time) graphics and a weird Rubik’s Snake logo, Sixty Minutes turned out to have been a bit of a binfire, the bright idea of combining the national news, local news and current affairs into a single entity fell apart when the BBC’s News department failed to play nicely with their Current Affairs counterparts, meaning each part of the programme was effectively a single entity. It lasted less than a year, and the BBC made the switch to individual national and regional news bulletins – a format still in use to this very day.
POSTSCRIPT: Mary Malone’s TV column looking at Today and Nationwide, as mentioned above, is worth reading in full. So, here it is:
I SUPPOSE you could call it an Indian summer. After the first flush of new autumn programmes, a pause while they get a grip on their generosity, No one was flinging any money away last night.
It was back to an old film, a repeat play and the die-hard favourites.
No doubt you were all worried about me. What could I make of a might like this?
Let me tell you now, children, I’ve made bricks without straw before, and I’ll make ’em again. It’s facility that has provoked a number of shrewd inquiries. Those who don’t ask why you do it usually ask how. Do you watch three sets at once? How do you remember it all? Why choose “World in Action” and not “Panorama,” a comedy and not Misery in the slums by Man Alive.
Well. here’s how: the first thing to master is mounting anxiety at the sight of the evening’s schedules. When in doubt, polish everything. Waxing the floor does wonders. Anxiety recedes in direct proportion to energy expended and has the added bonus of forcing spiders back to the garden.
Then make a cup of tea, switch on both sets, turn the radio up, and spread the day’s papers on the floor; anything may be useful.
It’s all in aid of that precious and essential moment when something goes “ping”; and an idea docks.
Watching two sets at once is for emergencies only. It is unduly stimulating and can give you the jitters.
But when the only hope is a bolt of lightning, I’ll try anything. I refer, of course, to the news magazines “Today,” ITV and “Nationwide” (BBC-1) — on both sets simultaneously.
“Nationwide” does go on. Its choice of topics is dictated by what is common — to bring in the regions.
Mention a fire, and you are good for two minutes. Or land preservation. Or housing. Responsible, incombustible stuff this; no town councillor can afford to miss it.
Meanwhile on the other set “Today” was busy coaxing little girls to say whether or not they felt their education on contraceptives was adequate.
The children were registering grave alarm over the lack, in the school curriculum, of clear and forthright instructions on the use of the Pill, the coil and the diaphragm. “It should start at eleven,” said one sweet thing, very firmly. The little darlings!
What has happened to the world since I grew up? This was not so much of a ping but more of a clonk. But the insatiable “Today” was not finished.
The Deep Purple group sang “Hallelujah,” backed by agony pictures relating their phonetic mouthings with aspects of war.
Starving Biafra to project a pop image; Vietnam horrors to titillate the viewer; Middle East bombing to sell a magazine item. Cynical and heartless.
The dangers of watching two sets at once are obvious. You are bored and insulted, patronised, indulged and infuriated at double the rate.Mary Malone’s View, Daily Mirror, 11 Sept 1969
Also, you go cross-eyed.
Phew. We got there, just in time for me to bugger off on holiday for a week. See you soon, armchair Britain.
9 responses to “The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (26 and 25)”
That edition of The Weakest Link on 1st March 2001 was an Eastenders Special, broadcast as the warm-up act for an extended episode featuring Mel and Steve’s wedding.
Thanks for that info – have updated the entry accordingly!
The American version of Weakest Link actually simplified the logo, which in hindsight should have been taken as a signal of where the country was headed. “The American people can’t understand curves!”
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British culture of the early 80s is of course, summed up perfectly by Brown Sauce’s I Just Wanna Be a Winner, in which Nationwide and its longtime presenter Frank Bough get a name check alongside Barbara Woodhouse, Alex Higgins and Claire Francis (for sailing rather than writing at that time).
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Missing from this list is the one off weakest link which aired on BBC Two at 10PM on Friday 18th November 2016 for children in need.
On closer inspection, that slot was billed on the BBC website as just “Children in Need: Appeal Night Part 2” and doesn’t even mention Weakest Link. Which sounds like a bit of a cockup on the Beeb’s part, as the 10pm On BBC2 slot is usually given to a one-off tie-in version of a popular programme, so what you’re saying sounds a lot more likely. Silly Beeb. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b083glxn
Amazing work with all of this!
Just to clarify on this point, the Children in Need Special was 2017:
Amazing work with all this! Just to clarify on this point, the Children in Need Special was 2017: