Right now, as is traditional at this time of year, the nation is transfixed by the goings on of the celebrities that are ganged together in the Australian outback. The ratings are huge and for many of us, the whole thing feels like a major national event. But it isn’t really, because of the show’s time slot. The kids are missing out. Which is why It’s A Knockout should be brought back to our screens at the earliest opportunity.
This has to be done NOW. The show’s presenter Stuart Hall is in his 80s and put bluntly, without Hall, there can be no Knockout (various failed remake attempts have proved this beyond any doubt). In short, on its day, It’s A Knockout was the most dazzling, spectacular and hilarious thing on the box – so exhilarating that it provoked the nagging feeling that your television set might explode at given any moment, such was the sheer amazingness of it all.
For the uninitiated, the premise was simple. Teams from three towns from a particular local area were locked together in competition on a playing field. Thousands upon thousands of demented citizens would then flock from miles around to bear witness to the spectacle, with tickets for the event like gold dust. The cameras whirred and off it all went.
The events that made up the contest all had two things in common – a low budget and high doses of mild peril. Running, climbing and throwing stuff about was the order of the day. Water was a recurring feature as well, used to perfection as a method of upping the slapstick quotient. Occasionally, giant foam rubber suits would be donned for races, invariably culminating in a pile up of huge, cartoonish monks or oversized red-cheeked schoolboys lumbering around a sports field somewhere in Falkirk or Crawley.
Every circus needs a ringleader and Knockout could not have been the roaring success it was without the stewardship of Stuart Hall. Now in his 80s and still reporting from windswept football grounds every week for Five Live, Hall stepped in front of the camera in 1971 and became an overnight star.
As MC and commentator, the great man lived Knockout for us, the sofa-dwelling viewers. The antics of the contestants and the grotesque silliness of the proceedings tickled this man beyond reason and his guffaws rang out over the airwaves, sound-tracking the sight of some poor sod sliding down a water-soaked, near-vertical wooden ‘mountain’ while dressed as a baby.
Hall was ably assisted by the avuncular but no-nonsense duo of Eddie Waring and Arthur Ellis on refereeing and scoring duties (think gruffer, more world-weary versions of Strictly’s Len Goodman) and, with this being the 1970s, of course there were dolly birds too. Local beauty queens were paraded around wearing next to nothing while a string of beautiful women gamely operated the scoreboard as a nation of dads leered at their arses at home, mumbling ‘Knockout’ under their breath.
In a television interview years later, Hall owned up to the fact that on one occasion in France, he laughed so long and so hard that he actually pissed himself.
As he has for decades on radio, Hall never used one word when fifteen carefully selected ones could be deployed instead. A man in love with language, he once opened an episode of Knockout with the following, slightly altered Shakespearean speech...
“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of the their lives are bound in shallows and in misery. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current as it serves or lose our several ventures.”
It’s impossible to imagine that Vernon Kay would pull that off in 2010. He’d probably get stuck at ‘tide’ and pull a funny face to get out of it.
But the domestic version of Knockout was small beer when held up next to its European counterpart - Jeux Sans Frontières (‘Games Without Frontiers’ – no, us neither). Devised by Charles De Gaulle, the cream of the crop from across the continent came together in what was the nearest thing to all-out war since that skirmish in the early 1940s.
As such, the budget was higher, the costumes and games were dafter and the amount of water used was considerably greater. There was an emotional investment for the viewer as well – in an era when the Home Nations rarely made it to the World Cup finals, this was something we could all get behind.
Hall was still there as well, his commentary being fed back to the UK down a phone line, as it was with all sporting events of that period. (it somehow still sounds better that way).
As a spectacle, it was phenomenal. In one regular event, seven worried-looking latex giants would scamper across a field in an attempt to be first to squeeze through a narrow gap without being barged aside or knocked over altogether – once a ten foot tall giant goes down, he isn’t getting back up again.
In another game, an enormous, lumbering Frankenstein’s monster was charged with the task of apprehending a young woman who was sporting a short dress and pigtails and attempting to plant some plastic flowers. You’d have to go into the darker recesses of the internet to view stuff like that these days.
Then there was the bizarre event where team members from each nation inhabited a segment of a large ring and had to use brooms to sweep away a sparking, fizzing mouse before it exploded and cost them the precious points that were up for grabs.
Witness this – the penguin game. This encapsulates everything that Knockout was about. It’s all there, including Hall’s trademark hysterics. In a television interview years later, Hall owned up to the fact that on one occasion in France, he laughed so long and so hard that he actually pissed himself.
Could It’s A Knockout ever make a comeback? Unlikely – in this grim era of health and safety regulations and claim culture, there would be too many obstacles to overcome before the competitors ever got within sniffing distance of the obstacles in the arena itself.
About the heyday of Knockout, Hall says: “Nobody thought about compensation. Obviously we had medics on the arena and if someone had broken a limb we’d set it for them and give them a few bob, but they all said ‘I’ve had great fun, I’ve had great fun’”.
Should it ever make a comeback? Not unless Hall was at the helm. Channel Five tried to revive the show about 15 years or so ago, with what they imagined to be a dream team of Keith Chegwin and Frank Bruno overseeing proceedings. It was nothing short of a national disgrace. Clips exist on YouTube but if you want to see them, you can go and look for them yourself, you sick freak. And don’t get me started on the diabolical one off with members of the royal family leading the teams...
Perhaps the closest thing we’ve got to It’s A Knockout today is Total Wipeout. It’s entertaining enough and it gets the job done but the fact that I’ve watched countless episodes of it yet still had to refer to Google to find out its name speaks volumes.
Richard Hammond linking the events from a remote, sterile studio does not compare to the sight of Stuart Hall dressed in a candy-striped blazer and boater roaring like a hyena as a gas fitter from Bromley slides down a pole into a man-made lake of green slime – and it never will.