I know I keep returning to Fifteen-To-One but I am a big fan of the classic game show. I was watching some clips of old episodes on YouTube recently when I decided that it might be an interesting idea to compare an episode from the first series which launched on Channel 4 in January 1988 with an episode from the 35th and final series of the original run that concluded in December 2003. I wanted to make a comparison between the series, having a look at the show when it started before it became properly defined, to the end almost 16 years later when the format had settled comfortably into a groove to see how it had evolved.
Scheduling. First series: Fifteen-To-One was shown on weekdays at 4:30, alternating with Countdown, and this series was also recently repeated on Challenge. Final series: Unfortunately the show had fallen a little out of favour by this point and was now shown at 2:45 before Countdown which by this point was shown all year round.
Opening Sequence. First series: The announcer was Anthony Hyde, although he didn’t last long, and later two announcers were used who alternated. They were Philip Lowrie, who was also an original cast member of Coronation Street, and Laura Calland who used to appear on-screen at the end of the series to present the trophy to the overall winner, who we later discovered was William’s wife. Also, we hear the familiar opening music. Final series: The opening was now animated and used a revised version of the theme that was introduced in about 2001. It wasn’t as funky as the original version, but I still liked it. The show was also in widescreen by now of course.
Set design. First series: It was rather blue, featuring the familiar semicircle with the three green neon lights and the contestant’s number beneath them on an LCD. Final series: After a few redesigns the set in September 2001 had become purple and the neon lights were still around.
Studio audience. First series: There is a live studio audience. There doesn’t seem to be too many of them, only about a dozen scattered around, but they make themselves heard, with even one of them going “woo-woo-woo” at the start which doesn’t seem right really. Final series: After a while a live audience stopped being used, partly because of set redesign and also because supposedly they began to fall asleep and started to snore. So by now the same canned applause sound effect seemed to be used in every show and it was odd seeing William acknowledge some non-existent people for their support.
William G Stewart. First series: William starts the first episode by simply saying “well, well, well” (and almost tripping over a cable). William G Stewart had worked behind the scenes in TV for many years as a producer on such shows as sitcom Bless This House and game show Family Fortunes. His own production company Regent produced Fifteen-To-One which was based on an idea by John M Lewis. He isn’t introduced by the announcer so he introduces himself as “William Stewart” (what no “G”?). He also goes on to explain the rules for a couple of minutes, saying that up to 200 questions per show could be asked but that never really happened. He also has different glasses and a moustache which didn’t last long. Final series: William would gain in confidence in front of the camera, and by now all he needs to say to begin round one is “off we go”. There is also a nice camera swoop at this point. By now William was 68 years old and he retired when the show ended, although he has been seen occasionally on TV since in documentaries. I believe that he will turn 80 next month and I do think that he is a terrific and genial host, definitely up there with the likes of Magnus Magnusson and Bamber Gascoigne.
Contestants. First series: They all wore a name badge on which their name and number had been written with a marker pen and it looked rather cheap. William also refers to all the contestants as “sir” (well, the male ones). The familiar ding and buzz noises for correct and incorrect answers sound a little different too. Final series: The contestant’s name and number was now displayed in front of them on a monitor in the italic version of the font that was used for the question graphics on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. When they were knocked out the screen changed to just say “15-1”.
Questions. First series: These were simply read off cards, with questions which also had a visual clue appearing on a card too which was rather odd. There were also a few research howlers in this series, such as insisting that Croatia was a part of Czechoslovakia. Final series: Question cards are still used, there were no electronic devices like you get on most shows now, but visual clues were now represented on a monitor. I would say that the questions weren’t necessarily harder in any particular series, a good standard was maintained throughout.
End of round one. First series: William doesn’t say “it’s four down, 11 to go” at this stage. Although the announcer does say who has been knocked out. Final series. The contestants to have been eliminated are told “you must now leave us”, creating an awkward moment as people walk off which was described as “the walk in the dark syndrome” which had been pioneered by newer game shows such as The Weakest Link.
Round two. First series: The rules for this round are again explained carefully, with William constantly saying to the first contestant “are you ready?”. Final series: By this point there had been a rule change where you couldn’t nominate the same person twice or the contestant who had just nominated you to keep the gameplay moving around.
The final. First series: Again, the rules of the final are explained rather clearly. There was a slight difference in that lives from the end of round two weren’t carried over, and William would also say things like “you have ten points, sir”. When a contestant had three correct answers there was a weird “woop-woop-woop” noise. Final series: At the start of the final, the podium moved forward and the contestants had to walk towards it. By now the “question or nominate” format had become familiar and the final was simply introduced as “fingers on buzzers, off we go.”
End of episode. First series: When there was only one contestant left they had the option to carry on answering questions or decide to just take the points for however many lives they still had left. We are treated to some rather long credits. Final series: By this point you carried on until the end and contestants definitely needed a score of over 200 to have a chance of making the finals board. And all Williams usually needed to say to close the show is “we’ll be back tomorrow, see you then”.
A couple of other things… There was a special edition called The Fifteen-To-One Scrapbook which had a look at how the show was put together. It seemed to be repeated frequently when the cricket was delayed or finished early and it was a great insight into the workings of a successful game show. Also, the only other game show I can recall William G Stewart hosting during this time was a general knowledge show called Famous People, Famous Places… of which there were eight editions made and it was only shown in the Thames region in December 1992, the final month that they were on air. It was something of a surprise to see him turn up to host a show on ITV and it’s little remembered now.