'Sale of the Century' - the Television Programme Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Sale of the Century' - the Television Programme

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And now, from Norwich - it's the quiz of the week...
- Voiceover artist John Benson1

Sale of the Century earned its reputation as the UK's most viewed gameshow ever2. Broadcast from Studio E3 located on Magdalen Street in the heart of Norwich, Norfolk, UK, it attracted over 21 million viewers at its peak - albeit somewhat by default4. Hosted by Nicholas Parsons, this Independent Television (ITV) programme ran from 19 February, 1972 through to 13 November, 1983 - a total of 374 episodes. Initially it was only broadcast to the Anglia region by Anglia Television Ltd, but by 1973 it was unleashed to an eager population nationwide, who lapped it up.

The Format

The format was devised by American Al Howard, who also created Supermarket Sweep. Its UK debut in 1972 was not the first outing for the show, however. Its original run began in America in 1969 on the NBC Network and continued until 1974 when the rights were sold to Australian broadcast company, Grundy Television. Anglia Television Ltd, based in Norwich, produced the first UK version of the show. The opening titles were preceded by the Anglia TV mascot; a knight in shining armour5.

In the show, three contestants6 had to answer relatively simple questions based upon categories of general knowledge. One example is 'What should you not do in a glass house?' Struggling with the severity of the question, but keen to advance in the game, a female contestant quickly buzzed in and replied: 'Take a bath'. She lost £1.

There were three separate question rounds, each increasing in prize money or rather points, referred to as 'Sale of the Century Pounds' - notably £1, £3 and £5. Correctly-answered questions gained points, whereas incorrect answers lost them. To further add to the excitement and pace of the show, two 'quickfire' rounds, one of 30 seconds before the 'ad-break' and one of 60 seconds before the fever-pitched climax, were offered. The unique attraction of the show was the contestants' opportunity to exchange their winnings for prizes7 offered at a considerably discounted price. These took the form of 'instant sales' which happened up to six times on each 30-minute show. Canny players, who amassed the biggest fortune and avoided the temptations of the instant sales, went through to the 'Sale of the Century' with the chance to win 'Star Prizes'. Examples include:

  • Two gold and quartz 'his and hers' watches for £80
  • A 20" television and high-fidelity music centre complete with matching record storage rack for £100
  • A reproduction Cappel-White style mahogany dining table and set of four matching chairs with two carvers for £120
  • A brand new Mini-Metro family car, in royal blue, with lively 1000cc engine and near-side wing mirror for £140

Contestants could choose to purchase prizes to the value of their points total, or gamble for the chance 'to come back next time' and win the big prize. Therein lay the risk. The ultimate jackpot prize was normally a caravan, a holiday or the car8.

The Host

The trouble with Parsons was that he saw himself as a serious actor, so he refused to use the autocue. It was recorded in front of an audience and we weren't supposed to stop. But we did, every five bloody minutes, 'cos the idiot kept forgetting the cues.
- Roger Law, Lighting Cameraman

Christopher Nicholas Parsons OBE, was born 10 October, 1923 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, UK. His Father was a local GP whose patients included the family of Margaret Hilda Roberts. She was later to become famous as the first female UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. His father has often been credited with the delivery of the baby, but this has never been substantiated and Parsons has never made this claim.

Parsons has had a long and varied career, beginning with his film debut in 1947. During the 1950s he played straight man alongside comedian Arthur Haynes and this is when he became well known to television audiences. He was also seen regularly appearing between 1969 and 1974 on The Benny Hill Show. He has hosted the BBC Radio 4 panel game Just a Minute since it was first aired on 22 December, 1967. In 1989 he was approached by BBC producers to make a guest appearance in sci-fi drama Doctor Who as Northumberland vicar Reverend Wainwright in the episode 'The Curse of Fenric'. Parsons was also a guest presenter on Have I Got News for You in April 2005. Panellist Paul Merton, (also a regular on Just a Minute) quipped in an interview prior to the broadcast, 'I have two contenders for the job, who represent the best possible choices. One would be Nicholas Parsons. The other would be Bagpuss.' The show deviated from its traditional format to incorporate sections based upon Just a Minute and Sale of the Century.

And Hostesses

In tune with 1970s 'style', the programme featured attractive, curvaceous assistants9 to demonstrate the prizes on offer and add glamour to the already 'glitzy' set. Hostesses have included Sophie Batchelor, Eunice Denny, Caro Greenwood, Christine Owen, Laura Beaumont, Karen Loughlin and Carole Ashby.

The Organist

One of the most remembered characteristics of the show was the Stylophone-sounding Yamaha keyboard played vigorously by composer Peter Fenn. The theme tune to the show was imaginatively titled 'Joyful Pete'. His catchy Muzak10 accompanied the prize demonstrations adding yet more style and finesse to the show. His talents were also demonstrated on Gambit in 1978, hosted by Richard Digance.

The Prizes

Sale of the Century broke new boundaries for prize-winning when it first aired. Until then, strict rules had limited the value of prizes that could be given away on game shows. The top prize most weeks was the car. It had to be a British car or the Independent Broadcast Authority (IBA) would not be best pleased. Promotion of British cars on television was allowed 'on the nod' by IBA officials. In 1972, the show's producers were taken to task by the IBA who stated that the show 'gloated over the high value of its prizes too much'.

When the programme was finally scrapped in 1983, completing an 11-year run, it had given away in excess of £500,000 in prizes to over 500 contestants.

21.2 Million Viewers

The BBC suffered an 'all-out' strike on 22 December, 1978 that hit the Corporation's broadcast output. Viewers tuned to ITV instead and the channel recorded the highest-ever audience for a UK television game show. The record of 21.2 million viewers still stands today and appears unlikely to be beaten as viewers' choices become more wide-reaching with the proliferation of terrestrial and satellite channels.

Remakes and Revivals

Peter Marshall fronted a 1989 Sky television remake of the show and Keith Chegwin hosted a 1998 revival on Challenge TV. Sale of the Century was also one of seven game shows played on Ant and Dec's Gameshow Marathon which aired 8 October, 2005.

In addition, the show has been hosted in many countries around the world, each broadly following the original format. Versions include Australia's Temptation, Hong Kong's Dat Sou But, Germany's Hopp Oder Top and Paraguay's La Venta del Siglo. None seem to have quite matched the unique combination that was Parsons's persona and 1970s UK 'flair'.

1John Benson was the announcer on the programme from 1972 until 1983. He died in Norfolk in 1995, aged 67.2British Film Institute data.3A former ten-pin bowling alley converted into television studios.4At the time, the only terrestrial television channels available in the UK were BBC1, BBC2 and ITV.5Which, although it looks like chrome-plated tin, is actually 700 ounces of sterling silver and named the Anglia Knight.6Who appeared to be chosen for their lack of general knowledge.7Read here: 1970s expensive and tasteless household items.8The car, strangely enough, always appeared to have been supplied by Mann Egerton, a Norwich automotive dealer for Leyland Cars.9Also known as 'prize-fondlers'.10A trade name for background music, such as is played over public address systems in public buildings, lifts and supermarkets.

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