Watching the first of Challenge’s double bill of Family Fortunes repeats, I was struck once again by how much the set resembled the original interior of the Odeon, Leicester Square. I was also struck by the fact that, immediately afterwards, ITV2 was showing an edition of All Star Family Fortunes. Vernon Kay is no Bob Monkhouse, but I was pleased to see that the designer on the modern version of the show is Richard Plumb, who also designed the original set.
I was also struck by the sheer glee with which Bob launched himself into the show. My old mate James Masterton made a great observation about the show opening. It’s all building up to the main event: Bob. First we meet the families. Then we see all of the prizes. All the while, the Jack Parnell/Dave Lindup sig tune is maintaining a simmer under the action. The heat is then turned up full, and is brought to the boil as Bob bounds down the stairs and proffers a hand to the audience at home, half in greeting, half as if we’re shaking on something. Then, Bob runs into the centre of the set, and does a lap of honour in front of the families, by way of greeting, then it’s into the opening routine. The whole thing has pace, tension and class by the bucketload. Now all we need is for Challenge to buy up some imperial phase Generation Games and we’ll be set.
I’ve decided that this blog is confused. Like its owner, really. Wild enthusiasm about entertainment history nestles alongside broadsides against the shower of shite running the country. It’s not the ideal combination. Consequently, the entertainment stuff will, from now on, be appearing at my new blog LE Confidential, while this one remains for personal jottings, random brainfarts and calling the Prime Minister a chinny wanker. I think that’s it just about covered. Magic darts.
From tomorrow, Challenge TV begins repeating series four of Family Fortunes. This is excellent news for light entertainment buffs, as the fourth run of the show was the last series hosted by Bob Monkhouse before he moved over from Central at Elstree (well, Borehamwood, strictly speaking, but everybody calls it Elstree) to the BBC at Shepherd’s Bush for Bob’s Full House and his superb BBC2 chat show. Monkhouse was, in British television terms, the supreme game show technician. Many entertainers host game shows reluctantly, regarding them as a lesser form of art. Bob Monkhouse never looked down on the genre. He loved the formats and the mechanics of the exercise, and there was nobody better at handling potentially nervous contestants and guiding them through the game. Sir Bruce Forsyth, at his Generation Game/Play Your Cards Right peak, came close, but Bob was the master.
This is not to say that Bob’s professional judgment was always spot-on. William G Stewart, the original producer of Family Fortunes, recalls one occasion where he had to lay down the law for the show’s host:
“I really liked Bob, but I was very strict with him. I would not let him do his blue jokes on a family game show. I said ‘This goes out on a Sunday evening just after Songs of Praise or something. You can’t do that’. One night, I was horrified. We had a celebrity edition and the 2 families were Lord Montagu and Lord Bath. It was for charity, but they wanted to do it because it was early in the spring and it was a plug for the houses for the summer. They were very happy about it. It was the old Lord Bath. They came along and there was a gag like this. The question was ‘Can you name one of the films of Humphrey Bogart?’ Someone came up and said ‘African Queen’. Bob looked up at the board and said ‘Can we see Johnny Mathis up there?’ I promise you. Everybody laughed. Of course they laughed. But in the break, I went up to him. We all knew. This was the sort of thing he would do. I said to the floor manager ‘I don’t care, that’s coming out, and Bob will do a retake saying can we see The African Queen?’. This happened on two or three occasions. There was another where the answer was Berlin. I can’t remember what the question was. He looked up and said ‘Can we see the city where the authorities have the inhabitants by the balls?’ A play on ‘wall’.”
Monkhouse took exception to his producer’s interventions and, at the end of the third series, asked Central’s head of light entertainment, Jon Scoffield, to replace Stewart. What Monkhouse didn’t realise was that Stewart’s agent Billy Marsh had, at the outset, negotiated an astonishing and binding contract for the producer.
“Billy said ‘What is the show?’ I said ‘It’s a 45-minute game show, called Family Fortunes, it’s going to be for 25 programmes or something like that’. He asked how much I was getting at the moment. I was getting about £1,200 a programme – this was a sitcom, you did one a week. Billy Marsh didn’t know that. He said ‘Will you be happy if I get you that?’ I knew I was going to do 12 a week, but I didn’t think he had in mind that I’d get that per programme. He turned round and said ‘I’ve got it – £1,250 a programme’. I was doing 12 a week. No producer or director to this day gets paid per programme for game shows.
“The thing about ATV was that there was an understanding, that if anybody’s salary was above a certain amount, it had to go to the board for approval. My salary was going to come out at £30,000 for this series, and the maximum was £25,000. So, Jon Scoffield came to me and said ‘How can we work it out?’. I knew that I was going to get it off the ground, and when it’s all up and running they’d get someone else in. I said ‘How about this – if I agree to take the £25,000 instead of £30,000, I have first option on every other series?’ Without a doubt, I was the highest paid producer in Britain by about eight miles because of what Billy had done.”
Stewart’s option meant that he couldn’t be ousted, or, that if he were, ATV would have to continue paying him anyway. Monkhouse wouldn’t budge, and, in the end, Stewart left the show, collecting a salary for not producing it. The option also meant that when Monkhouse left, to be replaced by Max Bygraves, Stewart was given first refusal of the producer’s job.
Why are Challenge starting with series four, rather than at the beginning? Unfortunately, the master tapes of most shows from the first three series were junked at some point after ATV became Central, with only three surviving in broadcast quality. Although the third series finished in the summer of 1982, several months into the first Central franchise period, most of the shows had been made by ATV, and were not archived by Central. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Monkhouse’s famous horde of VCRs was whirring away throughout the first three series, and that most of the ‘lost’ shows survive as domestic off-airs in his collection, now maintained by the good people at Kaleidoscope.
Family Fortunes was not merely notable for employing the highest-paid producer in the business to do nothing. It was also, as the above production schedule for the last week at the old ATV studios in July 1983 proves, the final show made by Central at Elstree, in studio D, before moving to the new Nottingham studios. The studios in question are now owned by the BBC, and are the home of EastEnders.