Sunday 20 October 2013

The problem’s with Catchphrase have plagued consecutive British governments. Everyone has their solutions to the issue when they are in opposition but no-one will really admit that the Roy Walker fronted Catchphrase was the acceptable face of Thatcher’s Britain.

The Iron Lady’s model for the show refused to bow to public issues with the clear inaccuracy of the show’s title. “This lady’s not for turning image based TV quiz shows down because of titles that suggest something somewhat different,” she famously declared.

Then Labour leader Neil Kinnock regularly raised that most of the images were merely phrases, and not catchphrases, at Prime Minister’s question time. However his rhetoric met the stony wall of Thatcher, who firmly believed that the show’s inaccurate title wasn’t important.

Douglas Hurd’s diary shows that in 1987 he raised the issue in a cabinet meeting and Thatcher reacting angrily, “She glared at me for over a minute. The room was deathly silent. The tension was unbearable. I opened my mouth to apologise. A move I regretted as Thatcher leapt across the table and inserted her right arm into my mouth. It was in my throat up to her elbow. I was so petrified that I didn’t even gag. It seemed like her arm was in my throat for hours but it must have only been 25 minutes. She did carry on with the meeting – all the time maintaining eye contact with me. No-one ever questioned the title of Catchphrase again.” [Have You Hurd This One Before, Douglas Hurd, Labrador Books, 1995]

Like much of Thatcher’s ideology Catchphrase was marketed as the exciting face of New Labour.  However Nick Weir who replaced Walker under the New Labour machine was unable to produce the goods and the champagne socialism of this new Catchphrase was shown up as relabelled Conservatism when Weir’s leg broke during the filming of the show.

Worse was to follow in Tony Blair’s 20o2 TV game show reshuffle; former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry was appointed Minister for Countdown as the show was moved into the afternoon schedule. The public were not happy and most political commentators place the debasement of the once glorious Countdown just above the W.M.D. furore in the list of things that toppled New Labour.

David Cameron might not have been elected Prime Minister but embodying the Thatcherist TV game show manifesto was clearly a part of the tory party heritage Cameron wanted to bring back to the coalition. The verdict is out on Stephen Mulhern’s Countdown but, much like the Thatcher-Walker axis, seems to be ushering in a modern phase of privatisation and unemployment.

One thing is for sure: the rebadging of the ready money round as the quickfire round has not tackled the real issue for Countdown in 2013. David Cameron has made it clear that the long, drawn out buzzer sound will stay a part of Countdown in a Conservative government – as it has been under the Conservative coalition – even in a round that promotes the contestants to press the buzzer repeatedly, without hesitating to think, only waiting for the long buzzer sound to finish to say something vaguely to do with the images (but not the clear answer).

It’s clear to critics that a shorter buzzer sound fits this model – can Ed Milliband use this as a foundation for election victory? Only time and Mr Chips will tell.

The author acknowledges the role of Family Catchphrase in British politics but did not think it was relevant to this discussion.

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