There’s a long-established tradition of cultural exchange between the U.K. and U.S. when it comes to game shows. For every Wheel of Fortune going one way there’s a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? going the other; sometimes Family Feud gets renamed Family Fortunes when it crosses the Atlantic, whereas other times we both get stuck with Anne Robinson presenting Weakest Link.
The genre is in something of a purple patch in Britain at the moment, with a number of strong quiz and game formats emerging over the last few years, and several highly-regarded shows performing well in the ratings. Some of these shows – like The Chase, Million Pound Drop and, uh, Don’t Forget The Lyrics! (sorry about that one) – have already had American conversions, with varying degrees of success. But there’s still a rich seam of shows that could, if converted well enough, potentially perform strongly stateside. Here’s our pick of five such contenders.
Probably the most universally-loved quiz show on British television at the moment, BBC One’s Pointless boasts the killer combination of a great format executed brilliantly. The game itself sounds like a head-scratcher but is remarkably simple in practice – like Family Feud/Fortunes, questions with multiple possible answers are first posed to a random selection of 100 volunteers. The contestants on the show are then asked the same questions – but in a twist, they’re looking for the answers that have been given by the fewest possible people, with the ultimate aim being to score a much-coveted “pointless” answer. Four couples play through a succession of rounds, with the highest-scoring pair being eliminated each time. A (relatively low) cash jackpot accumulates on a daily basis until one team can hit a “pointless” answer in the final round and take it home.
Aside from the fact that the game itself is good, Pointless succeeds by the strength of personality of its hosting team – lead anchor Alexander Armstrong (also seen in Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures) has a likeable wit, and great interplay with desk-based stats sidekick Richard Osman (originally the producer of the show, Osman took on the on-screen role in the pilot and clicked so well with Armstrong it became a full-time concern). Recreating that dynamic would be difficult, but by no means impossible with the right pair of hosts. There’s also a spinoff series, Pointless Celebrities, in which various television personalities (usually grouped by theme) face off for charity.
A light-hearted, cerebral words-and-numbers game, Countdown was the very first show broadcast by the then-new Channel 4 in 1982, and has been a venerable fixture of British screens ever since, racking up over 5,500 daily episodes at the time of writing.
Two contestants – one the previous day’s “champion”, the other a fresh “challenger” – are given sets of randomly-chosen letters (although they get to choose, taking it in turn, what ratio of consonants to vowels are deployed) out of which they must make as long a word as possible within a 30-second time limit. Whoever gets the longest word is given the same number of points as there are letters – unless they get a maximum 9-letter word, in which case points are doubled and they get a big round of applause. It’s Scrabble on television, basically, although the letter games are also intercut with math rounds, in which five numbers must be used to try and reach a randomly-generated three-figure total.
Countdown is often cited as a show that’s so quintessentially British – everything’s very polite and sedate, and it’s clearly aimed at a somewhat older audience, though it’s also popular with students – an American translation would be impossible, but attempts have been made in the past (never getting past the pilot stage). With the requisite tweaks – relying on simple pieces of card to display the letters and numbers would probably never fly – the game itself is strong enough that it could surely be made to work. It might need better prizes, though: daily champions win not money, but (in almost stereotypically English fashion) a custom teapot, while each series winner gets a leather-bound set of the Oxford English Dictionary.
3. The Crystal Maze
Going back a little bit further, this, but The Crystal Maze – which ran on Channel 4 between 1990 and 1995 – remains pretty much the gold standard for British game shows. Originally hosted by Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame, the show saw a team of six contestants making their way through a huge, custom-built facility (housed in an aircraft hanger) divided into four themed “time zones”: Aztec, Industrial, Medieval and Futuristic. Each of these zones consisted of rooms containing individual challenges – some physical, some skill-based, some cerebral – which were to be completed by one contestant within a two- or three-minute time limit in order to win a “time crystal”. Each crystal successfully obtained granted the team five seconds in the show’s end-game, the “Crystal Dome”, where they would try to gather enough foil “tokens” to win the show’s grand prize (usually a group adventure holiday of some kind).
To an unfamiliar viewer it probably all feels a little cheesy, but The Crystal Maze worked in part because it sold the concept convincingly (O’Brien remained firmly in-character throughout, albeit with the odd fourth-wall-breaking wink to the audience), and because the games were always a perfect mixture of styles and difficulty levels, so the game remained tense and exciting throughout. It’s a much-loved, much-missed series – the only real reason it’s not around any more is because of how expensive it was to stage, but surely that wouldn’t be of as much concern to a U.S. network…?
4. Tipping Point
You might have trouble believing this one is a real show, but here goes: you know those “coin pusher” (also known as “quarter pusher”) machines you get in arcades? Where you put a coin in a slot and hope it nudges enough other coins forwards that some more drop out, hopefully along with a prize or two? Well, imagine that… but on television.
No, seriously. Contestants answer questions in order to win “counters” that they get to place in a giant replica coin pusher, with a view to winning cash prize amounts at the other end. That’s basically all there is to it. It’s another show that has a celebrity spinoff (yes, that is Sixth Doctor Colin Baker in the above clip), too. But really, the reason it would be great to see an American remake is that the U.K. version feels so embarrassingly cheap and small that the show could actually stand to have the budget and glamor levels boosted in the way that Deal Or No Deal did when it arrived in the U.S.
5. The Cube
While The Crystal Maze is no more, its spirit lives on in this more recent ITV show – albeit on a smaller scale. The Cube – once described as “a cross between Portal and pub games” – sees one brave contestant enter a clear Perspex cube to carry out a range of increasingly difficult games requiring immense skill, balance and dexterity.
There are several reasons why The Cube works so well. The over-dramatic styling of the show means that each challenge feels genuinely tense and nail-biting. The games themselves often look deceptively simple, so a viewer at home can watch and think “I could do that”. Like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the contestants get to see each game before deciding whether to play or stop and take their money – with the proviso that if they fail a game enough times that all their “lives” are lost, then they go home with absolutely nothing. There are also little tweaks here and there that further add to the experience – Millionaire-style “lifelines” such as a one-off chance to make a game easier, or to “trial run” before deciding whether to continue.
It’s also ridiculously difficult – only six people have ever reached the final £250,000 ($388,000) game, and only one person has actually succeeded at it. Oh, and that one person just happened to be double-gold-medal winning Olympian Mo Farah, in a celebrity special. It’s that hard.
It’s a show that could be packaged up almost wholesale and exported to the U.S. with barely any tweaks – so it’s baffling that it hasn’t yet made it over. A pilot was recorded in 2010 for CBS with Neil Patrick Harris as host, but has never been aired, and there are no signs yet of it developing into a series. If it does ever make it, though, here’s a hint: don’t let any more Olympic athletes play, they make it all look a bit too easy…
What are your favorite British game shows?