The show is based on the Dutch TV show Één van de acht (“One of the Eight”), the format devised in 1969 by Theo Uittenbogaard for VARA Television. Mies Bouwman, a Dutch talk show host and presenter of the show, came up with the idea of the conveyor belt. She had seen it on a German programme and wanted to incorporate it into the show.
Another antecedent for the game show was Sunday Night at the London Palladium on ATV, which had a game called Beat the Clock, taken from an American game show of the same name. It featured married couples playing silly games within a certain time to win prize money. This was hosted by Bruce Forsyth from 1958, and he took the idea with him when he went over to the BBC.
During the 1970s, game shows became more popular and started to replace expensive variety shows. Creating new studio shows was cheaper than hiring a theatre and paying for long rehearsals and a large orchestra, and could secure a similar number of viewers. With less money for their own productions, a game show seemed the obvious idea for ITV. As a result, many variety performers were recruited for game shows. The BBC, suffering poor ratings, decided to make its own game show. Bill Cotton, the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment, believed that Forsyth was best for the job. For years, The Generation Game was one of the strongest shows in the BBC’s Saturday night line-up, and became the number-one game show on British television during the 1970s, regularly gaining over 21 million viewers. By the mid-1970s, desperate to end the BBC’s long-running ratings success on a Saturday night, London Weekend Television offered Forsyth a chance to change channel to host The Big Night.
Alan Boyd, producer of The Generation Game at the time, remembers that there were many proposals as to who should take over, with Bill Cotton having a brief discussion with his favoured choice Cilla Black, who wouldn’t consider the move and other names mentioned included Jimmy Tarbuck and Kenneth Williams. However, he felt he did not want the new programme to be comparable to Forsyth’s Generation Game (he did not want the audience to be able to compare the two shows to think that Bruce was better or that the new host was better), so he cast Larry Grayson to take over, with a new theme tune and scenery, and a new co-host, Isla St Clair. It worked, as The Big Night failed to beat The Generation Game and was off the air within three months.
The show reached its peak under Grayson. It attracted an audience of 25 million on one occasion, when a strike blacked out the ITV network, meaning the two BBC channels were the only ones the public could watch. Grayson’s apparent incompetence and inability to remember what was going on was carefully contrived. In 1980 a junior version was considered, to be titled The Younger Generation Game, with two young siblings of different ages in place of older contestants. It was not confirmed whether Grayson would have hosted this proposed spin-off version, and it ultimately was never commissioned.
The Generation Game was played in 2011 as part of Vernon Kay‘s 24 Hour Panel People—a charity marathon of game shows for Comic Relief. David Walliams competed with his mother Kathleen. The other team consisted of Miranda Hart and Patricia Hodge, who play mother and daughter in the sitcom Miranda. In 2014, it had been reported that the BBC were considering a revival with Hart hosting.