Blockbusters is a British television game show based upon an American game show of the same name in which contestants answer trivia questions to complete a path across or down a game board of hexagons. The programme premiered on 29 August 1983 on ITV and ran for ten series, ending on the ITV network on 19 May 1993. Blockbusters was revived for three additional series, the most recent of which aired on Challenge in 2012. A fourth revival, a comedy version hosted by Dara Ó Briain, premiered on Comedy Central on 21 March 2019.
Blockbusters was created by Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions and originated as an American series in 1980. The UK version was created after Central Independent Television producer Graham C. Williams spotted the show in 1981 and produced a pilot in 1982. The difference was that instead of adults, who appeared on the American edition, the UK edition was produced for sixth formers.
Bob Holness was the original presenter staying on for the first ten series of the first incarnation and a 1994 revival on Sky One. Holness commented in 1988: “When Central TV were looking for someone to host Blockbusters I was thought of. It was remembered that I’d done TV programmes of much the same sort, such as Junior Criss Cross Quiz which I compered in the 1960s and which was also a question and answer show. One led to the other.” A 1997 edition featuring adults was produced for one series on BBC Two with Michael Aspel presenting. Sky One brought Blockbusters back under its original rules in 2001 with Liza Tarbuck at the helm, and the Challenge series was presented by Simon Mayo.
The show’s first series, in 1983, was recorded at the Elstree Centre (which Central sold to the BBC in 1984). Subsequent series were produced at Central’s Lenton Lane Studios in Nottingham; however, at least one season (1989–90) was taped at Central’s Birmingham studios. The series was filmed in the summer months over a 6–8 week period, with five episodes being made each day.
In the final episode of each day, the contestants were allowed to do a hand jive during the end credits, therefore only appearing on each Friday’s episode. The hand jive first appeared in 1986 after one of the contestants was bored while sitting through filming several shows a day waiting for his turn. It lasted for the rest of the original series’ run. The hand-clapping sequence was referenced by Half Man Half Biscuit in their 1991 song “Hedley Verityesque”.
The original game board was powered using 40 slide projectors, each with its own set of slides for the different Letters and Gold Run questions, and took up the entire height of the studio. Slides were preloaded onto carousels with enough slides for about 3 – 5 shows. Carousels took about 30 minutes to change over. There were 15 different board combinations (5 sets X 3 games per match) which meant the same letter combinations would reappear. The letter ‘Q’ was only on one board, the letter ‘Y’ on two boards. All 15 boards followed in the same sequence but if the third game in a set was not needed (as it was best of three) the carousel would skip onto the Gold Run (missing the third board) and then onto the first game of the next set of three.
The original theme music was written by Ed Welch, who also updated the music for the second Sky series in 2001. The first Sky series kept the same opening titles used from 1987 on the original ITV run (as it continued to be produced by Central). The original theme in C major was an upbeat pop track incorporating piano, strings, drum machine and various other 1980s synthesized sounds reminiscent of the day – the four-note opening motif of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is mixed into the theme at the precise moment the composer’s head appears on a flipping hexagon.
The BBC version in 1997 used a piece of music written by Henry Marsh and Paul Boross. It is said by some that the theme is similar to the original theme with notes swapped around but for unknown reasons, the BBC either couldn’t or wouldn’t use the original theme; therefore, they composed a theme as close to the original as possible but different enough to avoid possible allegations of copyright infringement.
Rage Music created the version used by Challenge, which is an updated version of the original theme, primarily using an electric guitar.
The original 1983–86 title sequence featured flipping hexagons with various images on them running down an encyclopedia page. The title sequence used from 1987 to 1994 is a city, paying homage to science-fiction films such as Metropolis (1927) and Blade Runner (1982). In the 1994 Sky series the opening titles were cut short, not featuring the hexagons flying over the studio like the 1987–93 titles.
The title sequence used in the 1997 series with a complete different theme tune (although as mentioned above, it might have been similar to the original theme but with several notes swapped around) featured a golden head with hexagons showing clips. The title sequence used in 2000–01 featured people throwing and catching the letters that spell “Blockbusters” using the Ed Welch theme again.
The 2012 title sequence features references to all previous title sequences, mainly hexagons – but also with more subtle features like the golden head (as seen in the 1997 BBC version), and the planet Earth and a city-like structure as seen in the popularised 1987–95 versions.
Blockbusters spawned a number of items of merchandise. 12 quiz books were released from the show which also led to a spin-off: “Blockbusters Gold Run Volumes 1–5” being produced.
In 1986, Waddingtons created a board game version of the show, which was named Game of the Year in 1986 by The British Association of Toy Retailers. This led to several successful spin offs; a “Gold Run” Card Game, a Junior Blockbusters board game (a children’s edition) and a Super Blockbusters board game (essentially, a second edition standard game with its own set of “Gold Run” cards). A computer game version of the show was also created for the Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.
In 2006, a DVD Interactive Game version was released with Bob Holness reprising his position at the helm. The DVD is based on the same format as the TV show, with virtual set design and game graphics matching the original version of the programme.
In 2012, FremantleMedia’s gaming division launched an online slot game based on the British game show. The game is featured at many of the UK’s leading gaming sites including Sky Vegas and Bet365.