Crackerjack!

Crackerjack! was a British children’s television series that aired on the BBC Television Service from 14 September 1955 until 21 December 1984 (except during 1971). The programme title included an exclamation mark.

Through its long run it featured Eamonn AndrewsMax BygravesLeslie CrowtherEd “Stewpot” Stewart, Joe Baker, Jack DouglasStu FrancisPeter GlazeDon MacleanMichael Aspel, Christine Holmes, Jacqueline Clarke, Stuart Sherwin, Little and LargeJan HuntThe KrankiesBasil BrushGeoffrey DurhamBernie Clifton, Rod McLennan and Ronnie Corbett amongst many others.

Among the performers who appeared as singers/dancers, assisting the host with games, were Sally Ann Triplett (Series 26; as a member of the duo Bardo, Sally Ann represented the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest 1982), Leigh Miles (Series 26 & 27; Leigh was also a popular “Hills Angel” in the Benny Hill show), Julie Dorne-Brown (Series 27 & 28; later MTV VJ “Downtown” Julie Brown), Sara Hollamby (Series 28 & 29; now a television news and travel reporter), Ling Tai (Series 29), Petula Clark, Jillian Comber and Pip Hinton.

The show was introduced with the phrase “It’s Friday, it’s five o’clock. . . It’s Crackerjack!” or sometimes with “It’s Friday, it’s five to five. . . It’s Crackerjack!”

When Eamonn Andrews presented Crackerjack! the show was on a Thursday not a Friday. It moved to a Friday when Leslie Crowther took over presenting the show. Another children’s programme, Blue Peter, which was on once a week on Mondays, then went twice weekly filling the Thursday slot vacated by Crackerjack.

The shows were frantic, being broadcast live in front of an audience largely of children, originally at the King’s Theatre on Hammersmith Road, used by the BBC as the King’s Studio for live and recorded broadcasts until 1963, then at the BBC Television Theatre (now the Shepherds Bush Empire).

The format of the programme included competitive games for teams of children, a music spot, a comedy double act, and a finale in which the cast performs a short comic play, adapting popular songs of the day and incorporating them into the action. One of the highlights of the show was a section called Don and Pete, being Don Maclean and Peter Glaze in a silent-comedy-style section which saw the lead actors playing different parts each week, for example fishing, as sweepers, barbers, at a riding school, on a building site, on a farm, at a circus, window cleaners, bellboys, removals, etc.

One of the games was a quiz called “Double or Drop”, where each of three contestants was given a prize to hold for each question answered correctly, but given a cabbage if they were incorrect. They were out of the game if they dropped any of the items awarded or received a third cabbage. While the winner took his or her pick from a basket of toys, every runner-up won a much-envied marbled propelling pencil as a prize, which became so popular that in 1961 Queen Elizabeth was presented with Crackerjack! pencils for Anne and Charles.

In 1982, in a bid to boost flagging ratings, Crackerjack introduced gunge into its games and launched a new game called ‘Take a Chance’ in which the celebrity guests – one female, one male – could score extra points for the contestant they teamed up with. Failure to answer questions correctly would lead to Stu Francis and/or the celebrity guest being covered in gunge. Additionally, the male celebrity and Francis, even if they got a question correct, would usually get gunged regardless as punishment for laughing at their opponent, although female contestants who answered correctly were generally allowed to laugh at Francis and get away with it.

In the Don and Pete sketches, Peter Glaze, who usually played a pompous or upper-class character, would always get exasperated with his comedy partner Don Maclean’s wisecracks or apparent stupidity. Maclean would then give an alliterative reply, such as “Don’t get your knickers in a knot” or “Don’t get your tights in a twist”. Peter Glaze often uttered “Doh!” to Don’s wisecracks. Peter appeared in the show from 1960, in a double act with later presenter Leslie Crowther. In 1978, Bernie Clifton (and his ostrich) took Maclean’s place for the final two series with Ed Stewart. The stand-up routine was briefly replaced by that of Little and Large in 1972, when there was a series briefly hosted by Michael Aspel and Stuart Sherwin. When Stu Francis took over in 1980, The Krankies provided the stand-up wisecracks. Stu Francis also did a stand-up routine on occasion, using such catchphrases as “Ooh I Could Crush a Grape/Jump Off a Doll’s House” etc. Later series had similar content with Basil Brush, and magic performed by “The Great Soprendo” (Geoffrey Durham). During the earlier years (1955–63), Ronnie Corbett and Leslie Crowther had separate stand-up routines. Jo Baker and Jack Douglas also had similar roles when the show started, as well as the Balloon Man, making all sorts of things from balloons. Ed Stewart (presenter of the children’s radio request programme Junior Choice) also used his catchphrase “Byee!” at the end too. Perhaps the most famous catchphrase was “It’s Friday, it’s five to five and it’s Crackerjack” used at the beginning of each show.

It was an accepted unwritten rule that whenever a presenter spoke the word ‘Crackerjack’, the audience would shout “Crack-er-jack!” (or in the early years “Hooray”) loudly.

In the mid to late 1970s a talent-contest element was added to the show. The strand was called “Crackerjack Young Entertainer of The Year” and featured children from throughout the UK who had successfully passed audition stages, get their shot at stardom on the small screen. One contestant of note was Don Ward, who performed a series of magic tricks. Today he anchors the evening newscasts on KKTV in Colorado Springs. Although Ward did not progress to the semi-finals it was his first appearance on TV. The first “Young Entertainer” of 1977 was Tim Sweet, a pianist and singer, performing The Albert Hammond/Carole Bayer Sager song “When I Need You“. Sweet went on to be musical director for Larry Grayson and ended his career as musical director at the Hotel Burstin in Folkestone performing alongside entertainer Steve Terry. Eventual runner-up in the 1977 series was a 10-year-old female singer/guitarist, Déannè. Signing her first record deal just three years later, she has also continued to work within the music business, and has gone on to work with many top pop artists as both vocalist and songwriter. She also appeared regularly on ITV’s Tiswas throughout the early 80’s.

Also around this time the series embraced the video game era with contestants playing Pong for prizes.

Crackerjack! was cancelled in 1984 at the same time as many other long-running series, in an overhaul of the BBC Children’s department. In 1987 Stu Francis hosted Crush a Grape on ITV, which followed a similar format to his era of Crackerjack! It lasted for two series.

148 out of 451 episodes from 29 series survived in the BBC archives with 140 of them being all of the Ed Stewart (Series 19-24) and Stu Francis (Series 25-29) episodes and 8 of them being some of the Eamonn Andrews (Episode 12 of Series 3, Episode 16 of Series 6, Episode 2 of Series 7, Episode 3 of Series 8 and Episodes 1 & 17 of Series 9) and Michael Aspel (Episodes 12-13 of Series 18) episodes, none of the Leslie Crowther episodes are known to have survived.

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