It's a Knockout, the British version of Jeux Sans Frontières is a team game that was started by none other than French premier Charles de Gaulle. Originally based on a French TV show called Interville he wanted to bring together European countries and increase friendship between them. It was a show that captivated viewers across Europe for more than two decades (and still does in some countries) and was even the inspiration for Peter Gabriel's song 'Games Without Frontiers' - the literal translation of Jeux Sans Frontières.
The primary thing to be remembered about It's a Knockout is that it is immensely good fun and just about anyone who is reasonably fit can give it a go and take part.
The TV Show
It all began in Europe in 1965 and the show came to the UK in 1967 and ran on the BBC until 1987. It was initially presented by David Vine but the show did not really break through in popularity until the completely mad Stuart Hall began presenting it along with help from the unintelligible Eddie Waring - who was originally famous as a rugby league commentator - as the show's referee. It was often said that people used to watch the show just for Stuart Hall's inability to present the show without almost killing himself with laughter during each and every game and indeed the show was hugely popular in the UK during its heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The show would feature three teams each representing a town or village in the UK. Each game would feature two of the teams with one sitting out. Points would be awarded to the teams on time, style and/or number of tasks completed depending on the type of game. Each team would be allowed to play a joker on one game which would increase their points total should they win that particular game. (The way a joker affected the scoring varied over the years but typically it would double the points the team playing it scored if they won that round.) During these main games a mini-marathon game would run which the sitting out team would complete. Each team would therefore do the same mini-marathon during the course of the show. The show would climax with a game featuring all three teams, a game called Fil Rouge in the European versions.
The winning team would proceed to the next round of the tournament and the eventual winners of the series would represent the UK in the pan-European Jeux Sans Frontières or International It's a Knockout. This featured six to eight European countries competing for the European title and featured a much bigger budget than the UK version and so had much more lavish costumes and sets if not necessarily more hilarity.
There were a large variety of games played over the years so it is beyond the scope of this guide entry to describe them all. Hopefully a flavour of the game will come across.
Games would typically be a relay with individual members of the team having to go over an obstacle course carrying some sort of object that had to be delivered to another team member at the other end of the course. They would then return to the start allowing another team member to complete the same task. For example the team might have to carry across pieces of foam shaped like ingredients in a beef burger and one team member would have to build the burger on the other side of the obstacle course. The platform on which the burger was to be built would of course not stand up without assistance and so the whole assembly could and would easily fall apart much to the amusement of the spectators and commentators. The obstacle course itself would typically be a huge rubber inflatable that would be covered in slippery foam so that the racers would slip and fall all over the place. Points would be awarded for the time the team completed the task in.
A variant of this might be that the contestants might have to carry buckets of coloured water over a greasy pole suspended over a swimming pool. While they were traversing the log, some of the opposing team members could assail them with wet foam sponges in an attempt to knock them off the greasy pole. Once across the pole they would pour their remaining water into a tube and points would be awarded for the volume of water successfully transported to the other side of the pool at the end of the allotted time.
Many games would require the teams to don very silly costumes. Pantomime horses might be required to traverse such obstacle courses in order to restrict the contestants' agility even further. Some games might involve one contestant dressed up as a 20-foot-tall waiter with about size 50 feet whose team members would have to fill a tray he was carrying with glasses (of the unbreakable variety) and he would have to cross a course that would inevitably be made very slippery with either water, foam or some type of slime - or possible all three! Other costumes that were often put on were giant penguin and clown costumes. These costumes were usually so big and clumsy that if the wearer fell over (not an uncommon occurrence) then they would frequently be unable to get up again and would resemble a beetle that is turned over on its back and cannot right itself.
The mini-marathon games were usually of the relay variety and a good example might be a team having to put on spiked helmets and be required to cross a large horizontal ladder whilst bursting balloons above their heads with their spikes. These balloons were of course filled with water and so the contestants could expect a complete soaking - it wouldn't be an It's a Knockout game if you didn't get wet. The points in the marathon would be awarded for the number of balloons burst in the time allowed.
Some games might be in the style of 'Pin the Tail on the Donkey'. Teams would have to carry pieces of, say, a dinosaur across, as usual, a wet and slippery inflatable to a blindfolded team member who would have (to at least try) to assemble the pieces into the required shape. Points here would be awarded for both the time the task was completed in and for the style in which the construction was completed - of course the result was usually not what the teams would have hoped for!
Other games involved were pillow fights, pole vaulting across swimming pools and attempting to cross rotating turntables carrying awkward objects whilst wearing the usual silly costumes.
Being a type of silly Olympics, there were no real prizes on the show. Gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded to the teams at the end of the programme. In what some would term the true nature of sport it was definitely the taking part that counted.
The Decline, Revival and Decline Again
At its peak the Jeux Sans Frontière finals in 1980 attracted an audience of 110 million across Europe but there was a hiatus in the finals between 1983 and 1987 because the show became too expensive to stage. The BBC hence ceased broadcasting Jeux Sans Frontières in 1982 and the domestic show declined thereafter. It was briefly revived in 1987 when four members of the British royal family captained teams in a one off special to raise money for charity but that was the last time it was shown on the BBC.
The show was revived in the UK in 1999 on Channel 5 with new presenters Keith Chegwin, Frank Bruno, Lucy Alexander and Nell McAndrew. It showed great promise as viewing figures for the first broadcast were 2.5 million. Unfortunately this interest soon declined and the figures for the final show in the series were only 20% of this.
Perhaps the show has had its time and the public are looking for a more 'sophisticated' game show now. It is also possible that many were looking back on the show with rose tinted spectacles but perhaps one day it will return to our TV screens again. Charles de Gaulle's idea of a 'game without frontiers' certainly enthralled viewers all over Europe for around 20 years and indeed a version ran in Australia for a time. It may not appear on television anymore but there are still echoes of the show around, particularly in children's television where many programmes still have games that involve silly people attempting to cross obstacles whilst hindered by bungees, foam, water and gunge. There are also a number of organisations who run It's a Knockout tournaments to raise money for charity and for companies to give their employees a good day of fun.
The Roll of Honours
Here is the roll of honours (number of victories in parentheses) amongst the various competing countries. Jeux Sans Frontières still runs in Europe so maybe one day the UK will have its time again.
- Germany (6)
- Portugal (5)
- Great Britain (4)
- Italy (4)
- Czech Republic (3)
- France (3)
- Hungary (3)
- Belgium (2)
- Switzerland (2)
- Spain (1)
The Individual winning Teams were:
- 1965 - Ciney (Belgium) and Saint-Amand-les-Eaux (France)
- 1966 - Eichstätt (West Germany)
- 1967 - Bardenberg (West Germany)
- 1968 - Siegen (West Germany)
- 1969 - Wolfsburg (West Germany) and Shrewsbury (Great Britain)
- 1970 - Como (Italy)
- 1971 - Blackpool (Great Britain)
- 1972 - La Chaux-de-Fonds (Switzerland)
- 1973 - Ely (Great Britain)
- 1974 - Muotathal (Switzerland)
- 1975 - Nancy (France)
- 1976 - Ettlingen (West Germany)
- 1977 - Schliersee (West Germany)
- 1978 - Abano Terme (Italy)
- 1979 - Bar-le-Duc (France)
- 1980 - Vilamoura (Portugal)
- 1981 - Dartmouth (Great Britain) and Lisbon (Portugal)
- 1982 - Rochefort (Belgium)
- 1983 - 87 not played
- 1988 - Madeira (Portugal)
- 1989 - Azores (Portugal)
- 1990 - Jaca (Spain)
- 1991 - Vigevano (Italy)
- 1992 - Trebic (Czechoslovakia)
- 1993 - Kecskemet (Hungary)
- 1994 - Ceska Trebova (Czech Rebpublic)
- 1995 - Brno (Czech Republic)
- 1996 - Kecskemet (Hungary)
- 1997 - Amadora (Portugal)
- 1998 - Szazhalombatta (Hungary)
- 1999 - Bolzano (Italy)
- 2000 not played. New games are planned for 2001. Currently the competing nations are Holland, Greece, Switzerland, Italy and Israel.
Give it a Go if you Dare!
Whether on TV, for charity or just as a company bonding session, this Researcher can tell you that if you get the chance, go for it! The games are virtually harmless, an awful lot of fun and if you don't cry with laughter at some point then you are doing it wrong. Long may It's a Knockout continue!
Merci monsieur de Gaulle.