Special Topics In Gameology

Only Connect

British Game Shows: Breakaway, All New Blockbusters, and Only Connect

The review series concludes with three more U.K. games, including the most delightfully nerdy of them all.

By John Teti • June 18, 2012

Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For our first edition of the feature, John Teti reviews the current slate of British game shows. The first entry introduced the series with a review of Pointless, followed by The Chase, Countdown, The Exit List, and Mastermind. This week, the series concludes with brief reviews of a few other U.K. games.


Elevator pitch: Help your team until the moment’s right to break from the pack.
Channel: BBC Two
Running time: 45 minutes
Host: Nick Hancock

American viewers may know The Weakest Link as that show with the nasty British woman that was on NBC for a year or so. (It lasted a bit longer in U.S. syndication, where it was hosted—quite well I might add—by current The Price Is Right announcer George Gray.) Link’s moment in the American spotlight may have been brief, but the show and host Anne Robinson stuck around on BBC until this spring, although Robinson’s routine had become fairly limp and rote in her last few years. Breakaway is Link’s de facto replacement, and as a game where team interests can be riven by infighting and individual greed, it shares some of the same tensions as its forebear.

In Breakaway, a team of six contestants must answer 30 trivia questions to win a pot of cash that builds up as they answer correctly—and collapses back to zero when they make a mistake. At certain points during the run, one of the contestants can leave the team and attempt to finish the rest of the journey himself, or with one other teammate, on the “breakaway” track (which, as an incentive, is more lucrative than the main track).

That’s the gist, but it gets more complicated—much more complicated, in fact, which makes Breakaway a herky-jerky affair. This show doesn’t have the elegant ramp-up or contrasts in pacing that Link did in its heyday, with its ever-shortening speed rounds and amusing, jokey interstitials with Anne.

Still, it’s a reasonably fun show that may find its rhythm, and I have to praise Breakaway’s set, which has the team advance down an actual, light-up track rather than advancing their progress on a TV screen. I love the physicality of it. This qualifies as a flourish in modern game show set design, which usually tries to accomplish with programmed light sequences and TV monitors what previous generations would accomplish with huge set pieces that actually moved.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I like when a game show set has moving parts. The Pyramid “trilons” used to swing around. The Super Password seating area would slide in from offstage. The entire Match Game contestant stage swung around on a turntable—hell, used to be you couldn’t design a game show without including some turntables. Union rules, or something.

I mean, look at this clip from 50 Grand Slam, a short-lived NBC quiz show from the ’70s. The game here was dry as old toast. Yet somebody on the production team said, “Hey, do you think we should have two enormous rotating mirrored cubes in the middle of the stage?” And someone else said, “Yes, obviously we should have that.”

Breakaway doesn’t have any moving parts, but it has a light-up floor that does some nifty graphical tricks. Eh, I’ll take it.


All New Blockbusters

All New Blockbusters
Elevator pitch: Two heads compete against one in a battle of connect-the-dots Q&A.
Channel: Challenge
Running time: 30 minutes
Host: Simon Mayo

Blockbusters is similar to Weakest Link insofar as it’s a show that proved much more popular across the Atlantic than it ever did here. The difference is that Blockbusters is an American invention, a Mark Goodson production that premiered in 1980 and lasted for only a couple of seasons on NBC. (The network briefly revived the show in 1987.)

The format is the same between both versions. The competition is asymmetrical: A lone contestant squares off against a team of two players. The game board is a 5-by-4 array of hexagons, each one with a letter inside. A contestant chooses a letter, and the host reads a question whose answer begins with that letter, such as: “What ‘T’ located on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario is the largest city in Canada?” Whoever answers correctly claims the corresponding hexagon for their side. To win, the solo player must make a chain of hexagons from the top to the bottom, while the duo are trying to form a chain from left to right (which is the longer dimension, thus mitigating the advantage of the two-person team).

U.K. Blockbusters aired for a decade starting in 1983 and has returned to the air in one form or another a few times since then, although none of these revamps has lasted long, and none of them has featured the beloved original U.K. host, Bob Holness.

The show is a great example of how a daily game show can acquire a lore and rich tradition by virtue of the fact that it’s on the air every weekday. When the American show Let’s Make A Deal premiered, the audience members generally looked like Joe and Jane Average. Then people started bringing signs, and wearing funny hats, and finally donning outlandish costumes in a bid to grab host Monty Hall’s attention and be selected as contestants. In its first run, the U.K. Blockbusters built up little traditions this way, too, like the trend of contestants bringing stuffed-animal “mascots” for good luck and the bizarre spectacle of the Friday afternoon “hand jive.”

The current incarnation of the show, airing on the British game show network Challenge, presumably benefits from this nostalgia among its U.K. viewers. As an American viewer, the show doesn’t especially grab me. I have some fondness for the original U.S. version, which featured the affable wit of all-time great emcee Bill Cullen, but Blockbusters doesn’t light up my pleasure center like it seems to do among viewers in its home nation.

I’m not knocking the show. Familiarity and nostalgia are important parts of the genre. Just like the words “Come on down!” might not make a British expat light up with memories of sipping hot chocolate at home on a snow day, the words “Can I have a ‘P,’ please, Bob?” don’t elicit a knowing smile from your typical American.


Only Connect

Only Connect
Elevator pitch: The old “What do they have in common?” game, nerded up.
Channel: BBC Four
Running time: 30 minutes
Host: Victoria Coren

Now in its fifth season, Only Connect is one of my favorites. Of all the British games I’ve watched for this series of articles, it’s the show I’d most like to see adapted for American television—and the one I’m most certain will never make it to these shores. (Prove me wrong, American TV producers. Prove me wrong.)

The game has four rounds, each of which presents a satisfying variation on the same premise, “Here are four things; how are they connected?” One group, for example, includes the following: Debits, Ant McPartlin, the bride at a Christian wedding, and the red light on a boat. What’s their connection? They’re all traditionally seen on the left side.

That example illustrates both the glory of Only Connect and its occasional frustrations for American viewers. The writers of the show seem to be inexhaustibly clever in the connections that they come up, and as such the play-along force is strong with this one. The show makes you want to get inside its head. However, there’s more of a reliance on British cultural references here than you might expect. As a very light anglophile, I at least knew who Ant McPartlin was—a member of the comedy duo Ant & Dec—but I had no idea that he always stood on the left. More often, the Britishisms are entirely lost on me. But then again, I shouldn’t feel too sorry for myself, as the contestants are often at a loss, too. This game is tough.

Host Victoria Coren is the perfect match for Only Connect, conveying both friendly hospitality and formidable intellect. This show operates in a mode that you just don’t see on American television: Not only is it smart and witty, but it’s immensely and unapologetically pleased with its own smartness.

To wit: Only Connect used to designate each of a round’s questions with letters from the Greek alphabet. At the beginning of the fourth season, Coren said viewers had complained that the Greek letters were too pretentious, and so henceforth the questions would be denoted with Egyptian hieroglyphs (as they are to this day). Whether the explanation was true or not, the message of the joke works equally well. Only Connect isn’t exactly elitist, it just believes that being an egghead is fun, and if you can’t see the fun in it, nobody on the show really cares. It’s a show about the highest common denominator, which proves to be a lot more fun than the lowest.

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290 Responses to “British Game Shows: Breakaway, All New Blockbusters, and Only Connect

  1. Aaron Riccio says:

    Yes, I suspect the cleverness of Only Connect all but ensures that we’ll never see it in America, a land where the most popular trivia revolves around how much something costs (The Price Is Right), the stupidity of your peers (1 v 100 or Family Feud), your ability to regurgitate meaningless facts on cue (Jeopardy), or, increasingly, some gambling-based variant of these. 

    Then again, if we’re getting clever questions, the one show I’d like to see back on television is You Don’t Know Jack — the writers are clearly capable of generating daily/weekly content for their online version, and although the Paul Reubens hosted version sadly tanked, it’s hard for me to believe that between gimmicks like the “screw” and the potential for live studio theme questions that this show can’t find a way to succeed. Give me my humor and give me my game show, but without going too far (ala Bunk). 

    • HobbesMkii says:

      You Don’t Know Jack is my favorite trivia-related whatever of all time. If it were ever to go live studio TV again, I think it really needs someone with Cookie’s level of sardonic wit to host. I have no idea if Tom Gottlieb is photogenic, but why not just use him?

    • Adam says:

      Absolutely agree. Paul Reubens was an excellent stand-in, but any of the other existing Cookies would probably be just as excellent. And if any theoretical show would be willing to revive the flagging giant mirrored cube industry, it would be something overseen by Jellyvision.

      E: As another thought, while it was brave of ABC to try it the first time around, I think the blossoming of cable networks would definitely give You Don’t Know Jack a better chance at survival.

  2. Merve says:

    Man, Only Connect is crazy tough. It’s the kind of show that makes the audience want to feel clever. When the contestants didn’t know the answer and I did (which happened rarely), I found myself yelling the correct response at my monitor. I have to admit: I love Victoria Coren’s sarcasm; she’s kind of a jerk, but in a friendly sort of way.

    On a very pedantic note, a show about “the highest common denominator” would be a show about infinity.

  3. HobbesMkii says:

    Teti, why don’t you make a Gameological game show?

    • stakkalee says:

      Would it be trivia?  Physical challenges? Singing ability?

      Teams or individuals? Cooperative or competitive?  Maybe just dump everybody on a deserted island and the last one alive wins?  That’s what I was hoping Survivor was when I first heard about it.  Damn you network censors!

      • HobbesMkii says:

         Well, obviously something needs to rotate. I feel like when that’s nailed down (figuratively), the rest will just fall into place.

        • stakkalee says:

          Everything.  Everything rotates.  The set, the host’s podium, the contestants’ seats, the audience, everything.  And everything’s mirrored.  And then the show is just 45 minutes of people trying to run in a straight line, like that game where you put your forehead on a baseball bat and spin around.  Filmed in VomitVision!

        • Aaron Riccio says:

          Yeah, in actuality, if nothing is nailed down, then everything can rotate, no?

        • Merve says:

          Needs more of the following:
          – fancy cars
          – bikini babes
          – fire
          – trips to Mexico
          – boats
          – jewelry
          – loud motorcycles
          – neon lights
          – Alex Trebek

        • Girard says:

           With your host, John Ro-Teti!
          ::John slides onto the screen, sitting in a chair which is spinning like a top::

    • Girard says:

       Didn’t he cop to wanting to be a gameshow host as a kid? His sartorial style and the tone of his delivery on the videos seem to indicate this desire was never fully extinguished… This could be a very fun idea.

      • HobbesMkii says:

         I certainly wasn’t suggesting it as a lark. Teti should start a Gameological Game Show.

        • Girard says:

           I wonder who would be contestants. I guess GS fans from Teti’s general geographical area?

        • HobbesMkii says:

           @bakana42:disqus I feel like one team would be GS contributors and guests from other gaming sites and the other would be fans.

  4. Chris Holly says:

    I enjoy the fact that Only Connect doesn’t seem to have a studio audience – it took me a few seconds to wonder why Coren’s “guzzling the haddock, and that’s not a euphemism” line didn’t elicit guffaws (except from me).

  5. Thanks for a fun series, shame it’s ending.

    The thing with the Only Connect hieroglyphs is true – we got so fed up with the criticisms over the Greek letters when they’re not particularly difficult to get to grips with and they’re a useful neutral label for the questions – that we couldn’t help ourselves.

    As the question editor for OC, if anyone has any questions then ask away…

    • doyourealize says:

      I enjoyed this series, too, but its passing can only mean something’s coming next, and I anticipate enjoying that as well.

      If only TV series (American, anyway) left their viewers wanting more, rather than letting everything good become stale (are you listening, The Office?)

    • Girard says:

       Offhand can you think of any questions you’ve dismissed as editor for being too obscure or too much a “stretch” to link conceptually?

      • Oh, thousands of them, to be honest. Of all the ideas pitched to us we probably only use 1-in-10 or so. Some are too easy but most are too hard; obviously the skill is to find four different references that don’t seem like too much of a stretch. While I can let through an obscure – but entertaining – reference pass in the 5pt slot, in general for the game to work you have to have very gettable clues in the 2pt and 1st slots or you’re just hitting the contestants over the head with the stupid bat.

        Even if you can find an entertaining connection, you have to be sure there is a logical way of the contestants deducing the answer. An example of fun-but-ungettable was one where the four clues were famous puppets with monobrows. (The clues concerned are left as an exercise for the reader.)

    • CNightwing says:

      I just have to say thanks for a job well done. I always wanted to apply to go on the show, but then I left the country :(

  6. Merve says:

    Okay, Disqus is being crazy today. Comments on this article keep disappearing and reappearing.

  7. Captain_Internet says:

    Challenge! I forgot there was a whole TV channel dedicated to this topic. There’s days of fun to be had with the Challenge show list and Youtube’s search function: 

    Particular recommendations: Bullseye (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6oYMmD0G2Q), Big Break , Goldenballs, and the anti-gameshow, Shooting Stars: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=794wdMAICSM

  8. CNightwing says:

    Why are these reviews ending? I love them.
    I would be happy to contribute more.. perhaps the reverse, a Brit reviewing US gameshows (or your versions of ours)!

  9. WhoDoesNumberTwoWorkFor says:

    Of course, with Blockbusters, as well as “can I have a P please Bob”, the enduring pleasure of “I’ll take an E please Bob” and “I’ll have U please Bob”…

    Only Connect is the most fabulousest of fabulous quiz shows – Victoria Coren and contestants Katie Stainer-Bramall and her lucky husband David are legends in my mind.

  10. Stuart says:

    We had a very successful (and initially controversial) version of The price is Right in the mid 80’s so ‘Come On Down’ is a catchphrase which is very well known in the UK, at least for anyone over the age of 35

    • Matt says:

      And I am glad that, despite it’s limited run and limited success, the phrase “You are The Weakest Link” has as much resonance in the USA as it does in the UK.