Worst to Best
Blankety Blank
Series Four

The early 1980s marked a turning point for the BBC, whereby it began to be dominated by ITV in the ratings. Populist shows like Game For A Laugh were riding high in the charts, and the dominance that the BBC had over its rival in the late 70s was now reversed. Nevertheless, Blankety Blank was still a regular fixture within the BBC's schedules, even if its days as a chart-topper were now behind it.


Series four of Blankety Blank aired from September-December 1981, and introduced new regulars in the form of Wendy Richard and Frank Carson, as well as showcasing a young, up-and-coming comedian by the name of Lenny Henry. Please join me as I rank the fourth series, from worst to blank...

17 Episode Fourteen

Guest Panellists (in panel order): David Hamilton, Judith Chalmers, Leslie Crowther, Carol Drinkwater, Jimmy Tarbuck and Rula Lenska.

Too much has already been said about the subjectivity of comedy in order to make any criticism of Jimmy Tarbuck valid. Yet, despite this, his appeal has always been something of a mystery here at The Anorak Zone. Maybe it's because so much of his routine revolves around showbusiness golf circles, making much of his act seem composed of elitist in-jokes that the plebs sat at home aren't privy to. Or maybe it's the belief that the best comedians, as a general rule, don't laugh at their own jokes - and when Jimmy cracks one, no one laughs louder than Jimmy himself.
     It's perhaps not coincidental that when Jimmy comes on the show, the teasing of contestants increases. Male contestants will have their weight remarked upon, whereas any female contestant who says anything even vaguely sexual will have it pounced on right away. It's a show that whiffs of the establishment, a backslapping circle where saying the words "Jimmy" and "Young" in close proximity is the peak of hilarity, and just the sight of golfing tees could make you lose full bodily control.
     Interestingly, following on from discussion in earlier articles about the strict "seating arrangements" on the show, this is openly acknowledged for the first time on the programme when Rula Lenska, sat in the "airhead" spot, gives a daft answer, only for Carol Drinkwater to say "Now I know why you're in that seat." Generally, though, the seating arrangements aren't quite as rigid this time around, particularly as there are even more comedians than usual - in the two episodes of the series where Lenny Henry appears with Jimmy Tarbuck, Lenny has to defer to "Tarby" and take a place in the "old fart" chair, top left.

16 Episode Twelve

Guest Panellists: Billy Dainty, Beryl Reid, Fred Housego, Shirley Anne Field, Roy Hudd and Patricia Brake.

This episode introduces a guest to the series who's one of the more curious "celebrities" from the run: Fred Housego, a London cabbie who won Mastermind and became something of a star in his own right. Fred got his own This Is Your Life edition in February 1981, back when the series had "regular people" on it on occasion, and by 1982 he had his own BBC2 series, History on your Doorstep, which was so popular it got a repeat on BBC1 that same year.
     It perhaps says more about the times than it does about Fred that such an unlikely series of events came to pass. Magnus Magnusson recalled Fred in his 1997 book I've Started, So I'll Finish - The Story of Mastermind as "the ‘gabby cabby' who won the Mastermind title in 1980 and thereby changed the perception of Mastermind as an essentially elitist programme." The idea that someone with a working class accent and massive brown lapels managed to shatter some quiz-based glass ceiling seems unfathomable in the modern age, but things were very different back then.
     Yet members of the public being elevated to the status of actual celebrities was something that really began to take hold in the early '80s. In fact, this wasn't even the first BBC quiz to air that week with a member of the public as a "celebrity". The edition of The Adventure Game broadcast just three days earlier had a spot for David Singmaster, a mathematician who was famous for solving the Rubik's Cube. (Confusingly, another Rubik's Cube aficionado, Nicolas Hammond, appeared as the "member of the public" contestant two weeks earlier on the same show.)
     Such things continue today, understandably so now there's far more channels and far more time to fill. Instances include shows like Celebrity Big Brother featuring people only "famous" via other reality shows, an incestuous turn of affairs that threatens to collapse in on itself. (Confusingly, Lateysha Grace, a girl who had been on reality television for two years and had released a single and written her own autobiography was placed into a regular series of Big Brother, but I digress...) Yet in an age where BBC1 was just one of three channels, and usually only broadcast from 9am-midnight, there seems less reason for this to happen.
     So it is that Fred is pushed into a world of one-liners where he doesn't quite fit. Terry noticeably doesn't make the same effort to involve Fred in proceedings, and it's an incredibly unfair situation, expecting a regular person to perform at the same level as experienced comics and actors. Billy Dainty also makes his debut on this episode (this was Fred's first recorded appearance, though it was broadcast second), a music hall entertainer with almost forty years experience. The very spiteful might suggest that if Fred heard Lloyd Price's single "Personality" he wouldn't understand it, but it's a no-win situation for the poor guy. He does slightly better here, but in his other series four episode, with Lenny Henry and Jimmy Tarbuck at full peak loudness, he's completely lost in the mix.
     Although this is almost the weakest series four episode, there's an argument to be had that it actually overachieves. Patricia Brake and Shirley Anne Field are good sports, but very much the previously-cited "supporting players" on the panel, while Beryl Reid is in one of her quieter moods. Billy Dainty's funny but has little to bounce off, and with Roy Hudd the nominated "wild card", it's a desperate state of affairs. With Housego's hiring producing, sadly, a misfire, it's an episode running with no real driving force... yet still manages to be a pretty diverting and amusing 34 minutes of light-hearted entertainment. Considering the in-built limitations this episode has, it has to be regarded as something of a triumph.

15 Episode Two

Guest Panellists: David Hamilton, June Whitfield, Derek Nimmo, Wendy Richard, Kenny Everett and Sally James.

There's definite fun in this episode, with Terry making mistakes, such as getting muddled up when introducing contestants, or dropping his question cards. There's also Derek Nimmo slating the show, and if you want to see Kenny Everett take his shirt off, then this is the one to watch. (Again, the "following in the footsteps" motif fits here, as Lennie Bennett had done the same the year before.)
     Yet as this is Kenny Everett, people are expecting one thing more than anything else, and, yes, he does indeed try to break Terry's microphone. This time, Wogan's body language, Kenny's handy pair of shears, and, following the failure of the bit, Kenny's cry of "That's funny, it worked at rehearsal!" all create the impression of something very contrived. Terry denying it was set up and pre-planned only make it seems all the worse.
     Perhaps the biggest issue with Kenny's efforts on the show is that he often detracts from what's going on, rather than adds to it. At one point he claims to be bored, and puts on a walkman to start listening to music, before broadcasting it through his mic and saying it's better than the show. Such things aren't really getting engaged with the series, or complimenting it. If you want to join in with the laughs and provide humour based around the game, then go ahead - if you want to sit there not taking part and just listening to music, then leave the show and listen to music at home.
     Such musings may seem to take it all too seriously, and there is perhaps a certain prejudice when DJs talk about music. Not only does their taste tend to be questionable, but there's always the suspicion that most disc jockeys don't, ironically, have much actual interest in or knowledge of music, certainly in that era. Kenny Everett was admired on the radio for his ability to create soundscapes, and known in music circles as the producer of some of the Beatles' Christmas fan club records. He wasn't known for promoting some of the more lacklustre efforts in ABBA's stable. (Lay All Your Love On Me, should you care.)
     All of which makes it again sound like Kenny is getting slated here at the Anorak Zone, and he isn't... well, not really. Kenny still hadn't been seen in his own BBC series at this point, though a Christmas special followed three months later, with a guest appearance by Terry. The first full series of BBC1's The Kenny Everett Television Show aired in February 1982, and, despite criticism from some that the BBC "tamed" Kenny somewhat, the series provided many laughs and happy memories, with some characters brought over from Thames, and plenty of new ones, too.
     It was a vibrant show, with a great run of sketches, and topped off with the end theme "Electro People" by Fox. It's still one that stands up very well today, and is why Kenny is still much-loved here, and elsewhere. But in terms of Kenny appearing on Blankety Blank and getting up to his antics... it's probably one to file under "not as funny as you might remember".

14 Episode Three

Guest Panellists: Roy Hudd, Katie Boyle, Russell Harty, Liza Goddard, Jimmy Tarbuck and Lorraine Chase.

There's a few chuckles in this episode, such as an elderly male contestant who thinks he has to leave the set under his own power, only to be knocked back into his seat by the revolving set. There's also Terry making lots of mistakes, and the slide panels in the "Supermatch Game" sticking more than ever. Then there's bits of trivia, such as the microphones of the panel being left on during the end credits so you can hear their conversation during the closing music.
      Yet there is a slightly tired feeling to this one, and the sense that many are trying a little too hard. While a lot of the contestants in this fourth series are real standouts, there is a definite sense that they've been encouraged to be "bigger" in their responses, and the excruciatingly awkward interviews between Terry and shy contestants of the first series now seems gone for good. So it is that a retired army officer bossing Terry about is fairly amusing, but feels too contrived, as does Lorraine Chase's insistence of a bird called a "budgerigard". It's all watchable fluff, though as Jimmy Tarbuck mentions a certain sport within ten seconds of speaking, it perhaps clings too rigidly to the middle-of-the-road.

13 Episode Seven

Guest Panellists: Jack Douglas, Pat Coombs, Patrick Moore, Carol Drinkwater, Jimmy Tarbuck and Sandra Dickinson.

A fairly bog-standard episode of the show in many ways, which is no bad thing. However, things are enlivened by Rachel, a middle-aged contestant who flirts with Terry and tries to grope him during the Supermatch Game. While such things would normally be frowned upon here, it's a massive dose of karma for all the female contestants that Terry has gone near the line with over the first three series.
     There's also the pleasure of watching the entire thing come apart at the seams. One camera appears to be faulty, as some shots are blurred and oversaturated, while others from different angles are fine. Best of all, though, is the question box falling apart when Terry leans on it.
     In terms of trivia for the fourth series, then Terry is a lot less secretive with the question cards. For the first three series, getting a glimpse of what was written on the back - is it typed or hand-written? - was a rare treat for Blankety Blank buffs, what today would be regarded as an "Easter Egg". But with series four he waves them about all over the place.
     Also on the subject of trivia, then the audience numbers for the show will be glossed over for this year. While the emergence of the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (BARB) meant that the ratings became more accessible and detailed, that was still in the future. With BARB only established in August 1981, then it offered, as The Stage described, only quantitative, not qualitive data at this point. In plain terms, what this means is that for 1981 BARB were just printing the top ten of each channel, with no viewing figures listed at all.
     While the available figures for future series are more extensive, the availability of statistics for this year was poor, so much so that only 10 of the episodes present could be traced. Of those 10, then 2 of them fell out of the BBC top ten, the other 8 made it, with the highest confirmed chart position being the second episode's No.2 spot. (This particular episode made No.7).
     What these chart placings mean in terms of the top ten of ITV, and how they translated into viewing figures is largely unknown. The book Television's Greatest Hits by Paul Gambaccini and Rod Taylor states that Episode 4.12 was watched by 15.3 million, while the BARB listings had it at No.4 on the BBC-only chart, but this is the sole piece of information in that regard. With a brand new company recording this information, then 1981 was something of a bust for fans of anal statistics. Thankfully, the following year BARB had really got up and running, allowing for a far more precise reckoning...

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