Didn’t we do well? Gameshows & the Iron Curtain


  The Generation Game 1974: The conveyor belt (start at 6.30″)

You’ve won a crystal decanter and glasses! (Big ooh from the audience). Back in the 1970s and 80s when the Independent Broadcasting Authority capped the value of commercial tv gameshow prizes at a few thousand pounds, this was a classy win. It’s easy to laugh at now and films such as Time Bandits (1981) mocked the materialist obsessions of Britain at the time. The young hero’s parents are more interested in decanters, two speed hedge cutters and blenders and the Devil’s parody show Your Money Or Your Life.

But reading about Intervision – the Communist Bloc’s answer to the Eurovision Song Contest recently, I was struck by the same prize turning up there, too. At the 1977 Intervision Contest – 19 year old Roza Rymbaeva won a decanter and six glasses, courtesy of the Baltic Shipping Company. “That was my first ever trip to Europe,” she recalled to the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg in 2012. “It was a huge responsibility representing such a giant country as the USSR. To return home without a prize would have been very unpleasant.”

The prize represented something different for those trapped in the world of Soviet propaganda. And yet was capitalist aspiration as it existed in Britain in the 70s, really that far from socialist dreams? Think of the wide-eyed delight of couples watching that conveyor belt of home accessories on The Generation Game. Or BBC1’s Double or Drop on Crackerjack where children answered questions while clutched teetering piles of British made Spears Games and cabbages.

In 1970 only a quarter of British homes had central heating and there were no stacks of DVDs, disposable electrials and high street fashion made in Asian sweatshops. Things were made to last and we mended them ourselves. I consult journalist and Outlaws Inc author Matt Potter, whose knowledge of British and Communist era game shows is truly magnificent.

Game show prizes he observes, “were more than just the stuff that they are now. They were passports to a new life. Decanters were for wine in a depressed island swilling with Watney’s Red Barrel…A music centre that played vinyl albums would have been considered a companion for life.”

Meanwhile behind the Iron Curtain the authorities combined contempt for this “decadent manifestation of American TV culture” with a need to incentivise the public and reward effortful service to the Motherland; starting with contests to celebrate sport, or best engineer or factory worker. TV shows, says Potter “had names like Festival Salute and Sports Family. Rounds of the gameshow involved things like learning languages from phrasebooks well enough to communicate with a visitor from communist Cuba, or devising helpful new systems of signage for traffic. They actually sound fantastic.. As if Dragon’s Den were about society-wide benefits, not individual entrepreneurship.” Ah the modern British obsession with entrepreneurship. Let’s come back to that later.

“And the prizes!” says Potter. “They were almost invariably without consumer value: Scholarships, medals, ranks, certificates. There were garlands of flowers “for the lady to go home with”. There were small wooden and metal trophies… emblems…monogrammed wearables..” Decanters and glasses.

Here in Britain, too, we had Blue Peter badges you could only get for serious achievement; the neo-Soviet trophy for physical and problem solving prowess on The Krypton Factor, or the prize of being shown on Take Hart’s Gallery with no returns of original artwork possible. When in 2006 news broke of Blue Peter badges being traded on eBay and abused for their privileges the only surprise was that it had taken so long. For what was it but entrepreneurial logic? And even the Scouts have a Merit badge for that now.

Which brings me back to not so much Dragon’s Den, but The Apprentice. Potter and I wonder how did we get to a situation when winning a job – a job!? — via humiliating manipulations, is a grand prize?

There’s something quite poignant about how Blankety Blank (launched in 1979) mocked the idea of big cash wins, and indeed banking, with its booby prize fake cheque book and pen. But today finding an affordable home to rent or buy is like entering some kind of extreme stakes gameshow. Like Time Bandits we are all trapped in a rigged game; encouraged by some politicians to think of ourselves competing with dodgy immigrants, benefit scroungers, in fact anyone except the banks and big business interests. Perhaps it’s time to take our eyes off the prize and focus on who makes the rules of the game.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Buy from street vendors or subscribe via the website.

Further reading

UK Game show records website

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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