The evolution of UK quiz shows

Mark delves into UK TV quiz show history and explores how we've made an American genre our own...

Quiz shows have been a staple of the British TV schedules for decades. Over time, the various forms of address used in the genre have changed but the appeal largely remains the same. Whether you prefer brand-new daily editions or marathon repeats of vintage quizzes on channels like Challenge, we’re still watching these shows in our millions.

In contrast to game shows that are down to chance and skill, quiz shows are always a test of knowledge, making it easy for viewers to test themselves in the process. The difference is that we don’t get a prize at the end of it, so there has to be some enjoyability to it. From the accessible multiple-choice general knowledge rounds of The Chase to the “deliberately difficult” teasers seen on Only Connect, there’s an evergreen quality to the quiz format.

Still, we can see how UK TV quiz shows have evolved along with viewing habits and programming trends. As an essentially commercial genre, quizzes were initially approached in different ways by the BBC and ITV, with the former being more conservative while the latter was able to innovate with a mix of existing formats and entertaining new ones.

Even when they were basically remakes of existing American formats, UK TV quiz shows have grown and developed in a fundamentally different way than their forebears because of how broadcasting has developed in this country. In a multichannel age, the differences between BBC and ITV game shows aren’t quite as pronounced as they once were, but we’ve made our own tradition out of the genre.

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Seeing as how we’re talking about quizzing, let’s ask some questions. How has UK TV changed the genre? Why does it seem like quizzes have gotten more dramatic over time? And what makes a great quiz show? (All of these questions are accurate at the time of writing.)


Starter for ten

As a public broadcaster, the BBC’s basic remit is to inform, educate, and entertain, with emphasis on the former two. And so, the first televised BBC quiz show was 1938’s Spelling Bee, an adaptation of a radio format that pitted contestants against well-known television stars in a spelling quiz, which goes to show the much-derided “celebrity edition” has actually been around since the beginning.

But it was ITV who really pioneered the quiz show as a format in this country, embracing a more commercial angle in their quiz shows. Where the Beeb didn’t consider prizes to be a sensible use of public money, ITV was able to offer cash prizes within reasonable and, at that time, highly regulated limits.

Both broadcasters embraced the popularity of quiz and game shows as an alternative to increasingly expensive variety shows and they proliferated throughout the schedules in the following decades. Also, they both recycled formats, with the BBC porting University Challenge and Mastermind over from its radio stations and ITV redoing successful US formats, including Blockbusters, which became Britain’s first “daily” quiz show (stripped across five weeknights and, later in its run, on Saturdays as well).

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Given how many of the best shows have had iconic quirks and catchphrases, the genre has evolved to where format is king. Although they’re still primarily concerned with contestants’ knowledge, new quiz formats are considerably more complicated nowadays than they once were.

But more pressingly, the reality TV revolution has had a noticeable effect. Now, even non-scripted shows are given to more dramatic forms of storytelling, complete with heroes, villains, and thrilling editing and music choices.


What’s the format?

One of the major effects of the multichannel age, where familiar formats are revived or repeated elsewhere, is the rise of ever more unique selling points to each major quiz show. Long-running formats like University Challenge and Mastermind have gone largely unchanged over the years, but newer formats have many more ins and outs.

Again, the hybridisation of gameplay isn’t necessarily a recent development, but one which has become far more common. When Bullseye welded together the two great pre-Sky Sports pub pastimes of quizzing and playing darts, it became a blueprint that ITV still uses to generate quiz formats.

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The obvious breakout hit is the quizzing-and-penny-dropping extravaganza Tipping Point, but the channel has also experimented with oddities. The most memorable of these is the short-lived Freeze Out, a berserk table-top cross of curling and air hockey adjudicated by Premier League referee Uriah Rennie, who dispensed deadpan “ice judgements” about players’ scores from the wings, like Eeyore playing the weatherman from Family Guy.

In that case, the quiz element was totally forgettable outside of the persistent question, “how did this get made?” But outside of quiz shows bolted onto gimmicks, there’s genuine creativity to current shows like Tenable, which capitalises on list-mania by focusing on the best or first ten answers in a certain subject area, and Impossible, where contestants are able to eliminate wrong answers and each other using their general knowledge.

When a lot of quiz shows are designed to be stripped across weekdays, Blockbusters-style, the best formats are the ones that take the least explaining. From the title onwards, Pointless remains a brilliant inversion of Family Fortunes’ survey-driven scoring that rewards more obscure knowledge the most highly. More complex ones like Chase The Case or Cash Trapped don’t tend to last very long.

Weekly quizzes like Only Connect and Britain’s Brightest Family are free to ask questions that test lateral thinking as well as knowledge (on vastly different levels of difficulty, it must be said) for viewers who enjoy that sort of thing while keeping the format relatively straightforward. But for the big general knowledge shows, it’s all about being unique without being gimmicky.


Who are our contestants?

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With its working-class focus, ITV was able to popularise quiz shows as a platform for people who were largely underrepresented on the BBC. Ordinary contestants didn’t have to affect an RP accent and part of the entertainment value was in watching people who didn’t behave in the way that television stars usually did.

For a time, quiz shows were seen as “low” entertainment by the TV producing establishment for that exact reason. Before ITV became the light entertainment behemoth it is today, it lived up to its more representative remit quite nicely.

Representation has continued to improve over the years, but you see fewer of the more ramshackle performances that populated early clip shows and blooper compilations these days because contestants are generally more camera-ready. Beyond reality TV and rolling news vox pops, we’re all just used to being filmed and photographed by now.

That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that contestants may have interests other than the quiz. Nowadays, as a matter of course, budding actors, models, and presenters are encouraged to apply to these shows by agents, in order to generate footage for their showreels.

Often, it’s purely a case of casting contestants, as is obvious when watching Channel 4’s daytime quiz The Question Jury. Essentially combining the film 12 Angry Men with an argument at a pub quiz, the series puts together teams of seven contestants or “jurors”, who take turns at being the foreman and agreeing on unanimous answers to general knowledge questions.

There’s usually a good mix of jurors over the course of a week, but they tend to enjoy throwing in outspoken and opinionated players. If you haven’t seen the programme before, just watch the first episode on All4 and see how long it is before you want to throw things at the absolute dick who insists that Heath Ledger couldn’t have won a posthumous Oscar for playing the Joker, because he thinks the actor was overrated after his death, “like Amy Winehouse”.

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Still, the collaborative element and the general playability of the quiz makes for compelling viewing. It’s just that in this case, you’re able to argue along at home, instead of just answering.

As mentioned, celebrity contestants have been around almost from the beginning of quiz shows on UK TV, but while celebrity editions continue to fill the schedules, (with Pointless Celebrities being the most tongue-in-cheek of the current crop by its title alone) the regular contestants are similarly party to the trend of making formats more dramatic.


Who are they up against?

Logically, it makes sense for quiz show hosts to basically be on contestants’ side. Granted, they’re still asking them questions and in the interests of fairness, they’re not helping contestants out, but neither are they against them.

There was a spell back in the early 2000s when producers seemed to forget this, thanks to the distracting worldwide success of The Weakest Link. On top of its “quizzing-and-voting” format, which would typically end with the two weakest players tactically ganging up on the strongest in order to prevent them having a run at the prize money, it was hosted by Anne Robinson, whose “Queen Of Mean” persona was based on endless sarcasm and painfully scripted one-liners.

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In retrospect, it’s so fundamentally a quiz show for bastards that Russell T. Davies hardly had to adapt the format so that the Daleks could appropriate it for their broadcast deathmatches in his first Doctor Who series finale.

And yet because the show was popular, there was a spate of mean formatting and a slightly less common run of mean hosts. But as ITV learned when they axed their Robert Kilroy Silk vehicle and eternal HIGNFY punching bag, Shafted, quizzes are generally better when you don’t hate the host.

Quiz baddies still exist though, under names like Eggheads or Chasers. Effectively the White Walkers of quiz shows, these professional quizzers were usually contestants once themselves, but now they add the increasingly dramatic flavour of the genre by becoming either hissable heels or actual adversaries for the contestants to beat, instead of trying to outmatch each other.

Sticking with the example of The Chase, the end of that trend has seen Bradley Walsh thrive as a quiz show host, precisely because he’s on the contestants’ side. It doesn’t mean he can float an overly complex format like Cash Trapped, which was based on his original idea, but just calling the team “my team” and engaging in daft banter with the Chasers makes him one of the best in the biz right now.

Elsewhere, some quiz shows get going because they already have talent attached. Sometimes, these projects come out of other successful quiz shows, with Anne “The Governess” Hegerty fronting Britain’s Brightest Family and Pointless producer and co-presenter Richard Osman devising and hosting BBC Two quizzes like House Of Games and Two Tribes.

But where these hosts have previous quizzing experience, matches of great presenter and format like Harry Potter actor Warwick Davies and Tenable sometimes seem like a happy accident. It’s easy to spot the ones where the host has finished ahead of the format, as with Paddy McGuinness and BBC One’s recent Saturday night “quizzing-and-catching-balls” show Catchpoint, or Phillip Schofield and ITV1’s Sunday teatime “quizzing-and-circling-things” vehicle Five Gold Rings.

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What do they win?

As mentioned, commercial channels were once prevented from offering vast cash prizes by regulations, with the British version of US TV’s The $64,000 Question famously having 64,000 sixpences as its top prize. The subsequent deregulation of prizes understandably led to them becoming more important. From 1994 onwards, there were no rules against offering massive prizes, and by 1998, UK TV had its first million-pound prize.

Produced by Celador, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is a really nuts-and-bolts primetime format that nevertheless represents an enormous leap forward for UK TV quiz shows. Modifying the cash-builder model, it was just as simple as answering 15 questions and winning a million pounds, except that nobody managed it until the year 2000.

With waypoints originally set at the £1,000 and £32,000 marks, there was more of an element of gambling entailed in TV quizzing than before. While Bullseye offered contestants a chance to gamble the hi-fi and posh plates they had already won on the chance to win (usually) a speedboat, Millionaire’s dramatic editing, music, and studio setup wrung nail-biting tension out of whether contestants would risk what cash they had already won, especially during the later questions.

The most important question of “What would you do with the money?” becomes a dramatic setup from here onwards. Even though today’s daytime quiz shows are usually budgeted for modest prizes, shows tend to introduce contestants by their aspirations and then leave you in narrative suspense about whether they’re going to win a life-changing sum, or at least get to take their kids to Disneyland.

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It plugs into our own aspirational needs while also essaying conventions of drama and tragedy. While Weakest Link smoothly became a Dalek construct in Davies’ hands, Millionaire inspired Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A, which then returned to the screen in the Celador-produced Best Picture-winning feel-good flick Slumdog Millionaire.

But adding that mechanism handily keeps the budget from becoming astronomical, but the emphasis on what contestants have to lose more than what they have to gain, overlooking the fact that they didn’t have any money to start with. It’s the marked difference between Bullseye’s often mocked “Here’s what you could have won” and the colder but far more commonplace “You leave with nothing”.

It’s this sort of narrativisation that gets us seething at contestants who dare to take the minus offer on The Chase (in fairness, they are the worst) but also creates tension in shows like The Million Pound Drop, (later adjusted for inflation and teatime as The £100k Drop) which goes one step further by having the cash physically there.

It also leads to downer endings where “a lovely time” isn’t quite enough to be going home with. Even the late, great Jim Bowen would promise unlucky players their bus fare.

Sitting somewhere in the middle, Pointless finalists win the coveted trophy (somehow no less coveted for the fact that Piers Morgan got his mitts on one in a celebrity edition) before finding out if they’re also going to win the jackpot. Compare that to the importance placed upon future Egghead Judith Keppel’s £1 million win, which was spoilered and heavily publicised in advance by ITV in a bid to score a ratings victory over the final episode of One Foot In The Grave on BBC One.

The build-up of big cash prizes make sense for high-stakes, high-budget primetime shows, but the same narrative techniques have jumped over to daytime programmes too, even with smaller sums at stake. It’s not the only mechanic that has seeped into daytime either.

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Where and when?

A noticeable effect of multichannel broadcasting is the way in which quiz shows are designed. Bright, primary coloured lights and a black background are the main aspects of set design for both daytime and primetime shows, making these shows interchangeable in the schedule.

Whether it’s a repeat on Challenge or a quick look on catch-up TV services, producers are obviously aware that viewers may now be watching at 2 o’clock in the afternoon or 2 o’clock in the morning. If there’s a studio audience, they’re either shrouded in darkness or confined by the fourth wall. Popular shows are designed to travel to other formats, resulting in a slick, primetime-friendly style becoming uniform.

But there’s something else it’s reminiscent of. Impossible may unconsciously echo ITV’s 64,000 sixpences with its huge exclamation mark full of 10,000 one pound coins, but when they all tip out of the bottom for a victorious contestant, the pub fruit machine effect is complete.

Another side-effect of digital channels repeating shows is the expansion of shows to 45 minutes. With ads, that fills an hour on the commercial channels, but for all of the dramatic choices made with modern quizzes, they’re not exactly fast-paced.

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Half an hour is the perfect length for something like Only Connect, the lateral thinking quiz that precedes the more conservative University Challenge in BBC Two’s Monday night block of quizzes. Funnily enough, the half-hour shows have more varied and less dramatic sets too. You can persuade just about anyone that the way in which University Challenge shoots its set is unimprovable just by showing them that one scene from The Young Ones.

But in fairness, the longer slot also feels like a concession to complex formats (Only Connect has simple rounds but really non-simple questions, compared to something like The Chase) and commissioning budgets (one 45-minute show is better than two half-hours).


Can we play along at home?

Anyone who’s ever been on a quiz show will tell you that “it’s different once you’re there, and you’re not just shouting the answers at your telly”, but that doesn’t stop us shouting along at home.

The “What would we do in that situation” factor has only been intensified by the gambling element that has become ever more prevalent, and ITV has even stripped quiz elements across the rest of its daytime schedule, with repeated segments plugging enormous prizes for answering softball questions like:

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Which of these was both a hit single and blockbuster movie starring Will Smith?

A. Men In White

B. Men In Black

C. Meningitis

Outside of conventional broadcasters, we’re already seeing the rollout of TV quiz shows that allow us to directly participate from home. Introduced in 2017, the free HQ Trivia app is presented on devices in the same way as a TV show, with actual cash prizes for players who answer all 12 timed general knowledge questions correctly.

If you turn off the live chat function, it’s fun to play along, even if dividing the cash jackpot between the winners may be quite brutal. Speaking from personal experience, I have only gone all the way on HQ once, with the recent Danny DeVito-fronted edition. I answered all 12 DeVito-centric questions correctly, but so did about 4,000 other people, so all I got was 42 pence and a fuzzy screenshot of the star eating a big pretzel.

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In essence, quiz shows introduced audience participation to British television, and whether we’re under those studio lights or armchair quizzing, the evolution of the genre has trended towards getting us more involved. While some of our formats now travel around the world, many of our originals are quite enjoyably idiosyncratic.

From amping up the drama by turning ad breaks into cliffhangers and focusing on contestants’ personal aspirations, to engaging more and more specialised niches of knowledge, our quiz shows have gone further down the road of getting the audience involved in the action.

You should be entertained, even if you don’t know the answers. As audiences becoming ever more segmented, popular quiz shows still create talking points, from testing friends on questions they might have missed to the extreme of certain sites that manage to get daily 800-word articles out of whatever happened on The Chase.

Even with quiz shows trending towards the commercial middle ground in terms of style and modes of address, playability is still key. While quiz fans may feel that we’re overdue a great new format on UK TV, the quality of some of the current big-hitters shows that the genre is still in rude health.