Tuesday 15 October 2013

Ask the Family

Watch this short clip of Ask the Family,  a popular early evening BBC Television parlour game from the 1970s (when families had parlours and played games in them). The type of families that used to appear on it are nowadays routinely mocked - tweedy polytechnic lecturer dads, mumsy homebound mums, their geeky bespectacled nine-year-old sons and (sometimes) their startlingly fruity teenage daughters. They came from places like Truro and Catterick and Uttoxeter and were quite unlike my own family, or any family I knew. They were always absolutely nuclear - questions would be directed at "Father and eldest child only" or "Mother and daughter only". These days such kinship assumptions are no longer possible. "Birth father and elder surrogate only." 

The question master (no other title will do) was the eloquent and erudite Robert Robinson, he of the mellifluous and chiding tone, lounge suits and combover starting at the hip. He was a feature of my childhood and adolescence and I remember regularly watching Call My Bluff with my grandmother on Monday evenings, another enjoyable low-budget quiz hosted by Robinson and featuring two teams of resting actor types, led by the humorist Frank Muir (of fond memory) and journalist Patrick Campbell, with his extraordinary stammer. Would he be employed by the BBC today?

But returning to Ask the Family - what sort of family would the producers dig up today? And what would future viewers make of them in forty years' time? There were no prizes, at least I don't remember any. Taking part was its own reward. And one could hear a sound now lost - that of reasonable people quietly conferring together before coming up with a consensually-negotiated answer. It was possible, then, to be right or wrong about something without a raucous audience's wild applause or jeering censure. There were no flashing lights or snatches of electronic music. Today's television quiz shows have a jittery, fruit machine aesthetic - the 1970s versions were mostly oatmeal-coloured (see above).

And returning to Robert Robinson. He wrote a superb comic novel set in Oxford (Landscape with Dead Dons, published in 1956). It features a journalist called Mr. Bum and has one of the most brilliant clues I've ever missed in a detective story. Imagine Tom Sharpe with real brains.  I'd like to read it again.

Bob (as I am not entitled to call him) was also behind the very best television documentary about a writer I've ever seen. The Auden Landscape, broadcast (by the BBC) in 1982, was written and narrated by Robinson and prompted my lifelong interest in the poet and his works. I'd love to see it again.

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