What we mean exactly by the phrase “reality shows” is no longer clear. Coined as Big Brother took off, the new genre (or, if you're being fastidious, sub-genre – they're all game shows, after all) referred to the handful of large-scale TV contests which placed the daily life of contestants centre stage, and brought questions of personality into the foreground far beyond the usual hurried courtesies exchanged over the buzzer. (“Now Adrian, a little bird tells me you're something of a whiz on the old Rubik's Cube?”) In recent years, however, that definition has expanded to mean just about any game show a channel considers too big to fail. Most people would consider Britain's Got Talent a reality show, despite there being only cosmetic differences between it and Derek Hobson's staunchly pre-reality jamboree New Faces.
Classification wrangles aside, “reality” remains one of the first words brought out in any modern debate on TV's declining standards. It's a convenient, universal shorthand for all that's considered moribund about modern programming: vulgar, derivative, producer-led, manipulative, money-grubbing. And while recent turns in the fortunes of various reality flagships have suggested that this genre is a fossil fuel increasingly close to being mined out, it's worth remembering that this debate has happened before.
In the early 1980s, the main issue was the scale of prizes. For decades the value of contestants' remuneration on both BBC and ITV quizzes was heavily restricted, to avoid the unedifying scenes of naked greed witnessed on US game shows. The rise of the “professional” contestant, as brash and slick as the compère, alternating between theatrical concentration when asked the question and gleefully applauding themselves when they got the answer right, was something we just weren't going to see over here. The Yanks even had a soppy-ugly word for the phenomenon: these weren't quiz shows, they were “desire” shows. Foreign language, foreign concept. We're made of sterner stuff.
If American techniques were off the menu, what chance had British channels of buying Ultra Quiz, a gargantuan Japanese trivia trail which began with 5,000 contestants and slowly whittled them down in a variety of increasingly cruel ways while touring the beauty spots of the Pacific over many weeks, before packing off the eventual winner with a “life-changing” lump sum? Such obstacles didn't stop both BBC and ITV representatives sizing up the format when Nippon Television put it up for grabs at the Monte Carlo Festival in early 1982. Calculators and napkins were employed to determine the likelihood of bringing an affordable version to our shores. “Maybe we could run an in-flight quiz to Jersey or the Isle of Man,” mused a BBC buyer. “I wonder if we could interest Cross-Channel Ferries?”
In the end, the show was sold to brand new ITV franchise TVS. Keen to distance itself from its regional predecessor, the rural-traditional Southern, TVS was quick to align itself with the sort of south of England viewer who was more likely to own a yacht than a potting shed, and Ultra Quiz was just the sort of big, loud, network-frightening entity which could help propel them into the nation's consciousness. A few judicious tweaks of the maximum prize fund ruling allowed for a top bounty of £10,000. (Soon afterwards, The Price is Right would similarly broach the agreed limit, but they used a different tactic: they just didn't tell the IBA.) Glamorous locations were sussed out, planes and boats chartered, Michael Aspel, Sally James and Jonathan King hired. The game was afoot.
On the morning of Saturday 16th April, 2,000 contestants assembled on Brighton beach for the first round, a mass “yes or no” marathon designed to sort the wheat from the chaff. The wheat would then board a ferry to France, answering more questions en route, with only the winners allowed to disembark at the other end. To provide a bit of variety, Eddie Kidd and assorted military men performed impressive stunts, Russell Grant competed with a “computer boffin” to predict who would make it to the next stage, Sally James wore a jumpsuit accessorised with a Panama hat, and Jonathan King shouted encouraging things like “He's got brain power packed in his head!”
Even the capable hands of Aspel failed to make that lot gel. As the quiz ambled from exotic location to exotic location (and, for the final, back home to Southampton), viewers dropped out faster than the contestants, and derision multiplied by the week. Even TVS controller Michael Blakstad had to admit the programme had been “quite awful”. Stuck with a costly dodo, TVS had a choice: silently bin it in favour of something nice and cheap with Fred Dinenage, or fiddle with the details and launch a second series. Stubbornly determined to prove themselves the equals of Granada and Thames, they went for the latter option.
The 1984 series of Ultra Quiz is the one most people tend to remember. Fronted by David Frost (“Hello, good evening, and a thousand welcomes!”), assisted by his TW3 compadre, the great Willie Rushton, it held together slightly more convincingly than the first incarnation, helped in no small measure by Frost's legendary connections. (When the owners of Leeds Castle refused to host the final there, fearing the large-scale silliness might dent its image, Frost secured the use of Arundel Castle instead, mainly by dint of being the son-in-law of its owner, the Duke of Norfolk.)
Despite Frost's mollifying assurance that the UK Ultra Quiz was “as different from the Japanese as karate is from cricket,” similarities with the cruel daftness of the original remained. On the beach at Deauville, twenty-eight contestants were buried up to their necks in sand, with balloons attached to strings held between their teeth, the release of which would constitute their answers to questions. Rushton, perhaps not the best choice of signing for a programme that relied on taking stupidity seriously, observed that the losing contestants, when they were dug out of their pit, looked positively relieved to be out of the running.
On went the circus, with a characteristic mix of jet-set glamour and Game for a Laugh buffoonery. In Paris, the remaining hopefuls were ushered into a high class perfumery, blindfolded, and asked to identify a series of increasingly rancid smells, under the watchful eye of TV production legend (and, appropriately, It's a Knockout instigator) Major Barney Colehan. Then came Bruges, a tour of California, and back to Arundel. Ratings this time held up pretty well – touching ten million in late August, despite stiff competition from the LA Olympics on the BBC – but then they had to. With a budget of over £600,000, TVS had a lot more than their fledgling reputation riding on Ultra Quiz. So when questions of decency arose, they were ready to tackle them.
Matters came to a head in a debate at the 1984 Edinburgh Television Festival, chaired by one D Frost. Putting the case that ITV's mania for game shows lowered standards was Jim Moir, BBC Head of Light Entertainment (the genre considered most directly threatened by the new wave). Price is Right producer William G Stewart put the case for the defence, cannily pointing out that ITV's ratio of quizzes to LE shows was the same in '84 as it had been in the “golden age” of '68. More vocal still was LWT director of programmes John Birt, who unsettled the audience by insisting the anti-game show agenda was a case of middle class snobbery. “Is the BBC interested in entertaining the working class?” he demanded. The names may have changed, but today's arguments over “reality” shows run on exactly the same lines as the “desire” show debate.
Ultra Quiz, meanwhile, plugged away for another year. Ultra Quiz '85 heralded yet another clearout of personnel. This time the master of ceremonies was Stu Francis, who, despite having “nice legs for shorts” as one reviewer sweetly put it, was indicative of the downward turn the show's fortunes had taken. Locations this time were very much restricted to the UK, a tour of windswept beaches and crumbling pier heads more reminiscent of the Radio 1 Roadshow than a slick globetrotting mental tournament. Gyles Brandreth, roped in to devise puzzles, wondered what he was doing with his life.
The modern reality juggernaut is run on much tighter lines than Ultra Quiz ever was, but there's a similar weakness at their heart. The sheer scale of the programmes is forever in danger of being undercut by their inherent absurdity. It takes a great force of will to keep the ship afloat, hence the overbearing seriousness that often pervades the likes of X-Factor. By treating a random MOR singing contest as if it were a war crimes tribunal, buoyancy is achieved, but only as long as the audience are willing to provide the necessary hot air. Lose them, as Ultra Quiz quickly did, and the enterprise comes crashing down under the weight of its own triviality. Today's craft may be capable of longer flights than the TVS model, but there's no guarantee they won't end in the same undignified way.