The UK has produced some classic game shows over the years, and throughout the 80s and 90s in particular. I have spent many, many hours of my life fixated on that square box in the living room, pitting myself against the contestants that are playing in the show. I even tried to get on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in the early 2000s but couldn’t answer the qualifying question on the phone, so I took that as a sign that I was better off watching the shows from home.

Some of the hosts of these shows have become national treasures, or even knighted by the Queen. Some are much loved comedians. Some have gone through scandals. But there’s no denying that the subject of British game shows is a very rich one indeed. Many of these shows fall into a few common categories. Quiz shows, Gambling/Chance shows, Word Games, and Physical Contents. There is obviously occasional overlap between these categories, but I like making lists so I thought I’d carry on with this exercise and see where the shows land. A lot of these originated in other countries or started in the 60s or 70s but many of them peaked in the 80s and 90s. Let’s take a look at some of my favourite game shows in each category.

Perhaps this is the quintessential British genre? We do love a good quiz to test the boundaries of our education, or to show off our outstanding intellect. Or sometimes it’s the good old pub quiz where you’re down the pub with your mates and trying to think up a witty team name. Either way it has led to a wide range of TV quiz shows. The quiz show has been part of our daily viewing since time began it seems, and there have been some truly legendary shows that were on air and popular in the 80s and 90s.

Mastermind – Surely this is the daddy of the quiz show. The music. The chair. It’s iconic. I always thought it must be hard to make it totally fair though as people can do it on any subject they want. Must be hard for the question writers sometimes. Most recognisable catchphrase – “I’ve started so I’ll finish.”

University Challenge – One for the real boffins. Whether it is the Bamber Gascoigne version or the Jeremy Paxman version, these questions are seriously, seriously tough. “Here’s your starter for ten.”

Fifteen to One – The cooler, sexier version of the two quiz shows above was Fifteen-to-One. Slightly easier questions and cool lights and sound effects. This is one that I loved watching in the daytime as a student. No catchphrase, that I can remember. It was too cool for that.

Bullseye – Perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum was Bullseye. Standard quiz questions followed by the other member of the team having to actually play darts. A much loved show, partly due to the lovable, affable Jim Bowen as the host. “Look at what you could have won.”

Blockbusters – One for the students. Classic daytime viewing. “Can I have a ‘P’ please, Bob?”

Every Second Counts – Arguably Paul Daniel’s best TV appearance. Certainly better than Wizbit. 

Telly Addicts – This was a fun one. Noel Edmonds, a jumper and a couch. You can’t get more relaxed than that. But of all the things we wanted to be quizzed on in the 80s and 90s it was probably our telly viewing.

Going for Gold – Loved this show. Amazing theme song. And I still find it staggering that the Europeans had to have quick fire buzzer rounds in English against native English speakers. And they often won!

When talking about games and winning prizes, a natural fit is the world of gambling. This is definitely something else that has been prevalent in British society for generations and again it comes in many forms; the hoi polloi attending fancy casinos in tuxedos, royalty having a flutter at Ascot, friends playing poker or bridge at home, people betting on football or boxing or spending their afternoon down the bookies betting on the GGs. It really has been part of the British fabric for years. And card games and other games have been a big part of it. Bingo, a game of chance, has been a huge cultural pastime for many people in the UK, often in their retirement. Nowadays there are even more ways people can have a little wager, from online betting websites to even handier things on their phones like these mobile casinos. But 30 or so years ago often the main way to enjoy games of chance was to watch your favourite game show. Let’s take a look at some of the classics that take their inspiration from games of chance.

Play Your Cards Right – Probably one of the most popular shows on this list. Bruce Forsyth and a giant deck of cards asking if you want to go higher or lower. It was the a giant’s version of Blackjack. “You get nothing for a pair – not in this game.”

The Price is Right – I vividly remember when this first hit our screens in the UK. A very American style show and the warm up comedian must have whipped the crowd up into a frenzy to have them running down the aisles like that. “Come on down!”

Wheel of Fortune – Word guessing but with a giant roulette wheel in the middle.

You Bet! – Actual betting in this one, depending on how much faith you had in someone doing a difficult task or skill, you could bet your points to try to amass the larger total. Loved it, and very well hosted by Matthew Kelly.

Strike it Rich/Strike it Lucky – A mix of questions and chance, with people picking top, middle or bottom. “What’s a hotspot not? Not a good spot!”

Take Your Pick – Des O’Conner letting people pick random boxes in the hope they would have prizes inside.

Deal or No Deal – A more modern one this but a bit of a legendary one, and again people picking random boxes! A game of chance but perhaps with a psychological edge.

Bob’s Full House – This one was based on Bingo. Absolute classic Bob Monkhouse and a really slick game show. I would happily sit down to watch a full episode of this one from the 80s today.

Word games are not quite quiz shows. They’re something else, and I think they deserve their own category.

Countdown – Not just words but also Maths. But the words round is so iconic. “One from the top and four from anywhere else.”

Chain Letters – This is one I had forgotten about until this research. Great little game show hosted by Jeremy Beadle.

Catchword – Man, I loved this show. I always liked Paul Coia and the format of the show was just really cool. And they made no bones about how the big prize was a dictionary. Talk about playing to your audience. Geeky word prize for word geeks.

Blankety Blank – Fun game with Terry Wogan trying to control various wacky celebrities like Kenny Everett with their double entendres in this word replacement game.

Family Fortunes – I guess you could call this a word game rather than a plain quiz show. You’re not being asked about knowledge per se, but rather trying to guess what words other people have said. Part of the fun on this one was often seeing the families squabble! And the sound effects in both this and Catchphrase were legendary. “Our survey says…!”

Catchphrase – As mentioned above, this is similar to Family Fortunes. They’re guessing words that are being acted out on screen but it’s not a standard knowledge quiz. “It’s good but it’s not right.” Who can forget the classic awkward episode that had Roy Walker in stitches.

The physical genre is perhaps a larger genre in Japan, or maybe Europe, but we still have some classic British physical games.

It’s a Knockout – A bizarre adult version of a school sports day, with people dressed up in large foam or inflatable outfits doing assault course type events. And what’s more bizarre is that they also had a Royal It’s A Knockout special where the likes of Prince Edward, Princess Anne, Andrew and Fergie were team captains.

The Generation Game – Basically a chance for Larry Grayson or Bruce Forsyth to make a fool out of you, this one. But it went down a storm. It was mainstream Saturday television for many years. “Shut that door.”

The Great Egg Race – This was a cool, practical inventions show where the brilliantly named Heinz Wolff got people essentially doing what we would now call a team building exercise. Very unique for its time.

The Crystal Maze – Very stylish game show hosted by Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror fame, where accountants and civil servants put on jumpsuits and tried to avoid getting locked in Aztec or Medieval rooms by doing various puzzles or physical challenges. I loved this show. “Will you start the fans please!”

The Krypton Factor – This was a classy one that had IQ type questions and puzzles as well as a proper army assault course. A lot of people would probably that say in an idea world this is maybe the game show they would most like to be good at. 

Is uncategoriseable a word? Well it should be. Just to describe this next show…

3-2-1 – This was a show which was bizarre back in the day, but when you look back at it now it really is truly bonkers. What most people remember about 3-2-1 is Ted Roger’s with his cool hand trick. From kids to grannies, everyone used to practice this hand jive and Ted Rogers appeared to be the coolest bloke on the planet for being able to do it so fast you can hardly see it. Interestingly, now that it’s easy for us to watch it back and slow it down, we can see that sometimes he was actually sometimes doing 4-3-1 for some reason. It was really just a blur and looked fine as long as he ended on a strong ‘1’. Anyway, the premise was so rando… watch a bizarre sketch, sometimes performed by well known actors… hear a riddle with the most cryptic clues ever, that even Alan Turing wouldn’t be able to decode… answer some questions… sometimes play a video game. So random. Limmy agrees. But I always liked Dusty Bin. So there’s that.

All in all, there is a hugely rich tapestry of British game shows, and the flag is still being proudly flown with some great modern shows like Taskmaster, Pointless, The Chase and many more.