If it’s not too much of a contradiction in terms, I have to admit that when it comes to archive television, I get way more excited about unexciting programmes. The sort of week-in-week-out magazine format efforts, ephemeral game shows and transient Light Entertainment hoedowns that defy any practical possibility of repeats or commercial release, and which everyone pretty much took for granted at the time (when they actually watched them to begin with, that is) but now represent an accidentally invaluable snapshot of the time that they were made; all of them full of fashions, production decisions and cultural obsessions that were simply not reflected in their more popular or ‘important’ contemporaries. I realise I’m inviting a lot of screen-butting responses from disgruntled fans of ‘meaningful’ scenes involving playing House Of The Rising Sun on a Hammond Organ here, but honestly, you can learn a lot more about 1996 from an edition of Pyjama Party than you ever really could from Our Friends In The North.
Happily, it’s not quite as difficult to get to see these sorts of programmes as you might understandably think. You’ll quite often find hefty chunks, especially if they featured a Foamasi as a contestant or something, as extras on Doctor Who DVDs and Blurays. Some of my colleagues from TV Cream (including Chris Hughes, who you can hear on Looks Unfamiliar here), regularly mull over editions of the likes of Now Get Out Of That and Harty on the What We Just Watched podcast. More surprisingly – and it’s staggering how few people seem to be aware of this – the BBC regularly make exactly this kind of archive material available on the iPlayer to accompany their various strands and seasons; you can find a guide to some of the more sci-fi slanted highlights on Hero Collector here, but notable uploads for me have included a handful of editions of BBC2’s silicon chip-fixated current affairs roundups Micro Live and The Computer Programme, which confusingly reveal that Alan Sugar was once witty, likeable and coherent, 1967 ‘Does Swinging London Exist?’ documentary Three Swings On A Pendulum, and best of all a single instalment of BBC1’s long-forgotten early eighties primetime Noel Edmonds-fronted nostalgia show The Time Of Your Life. This one – which I realised on watching I actually remembered from the original broadcast – looks back at 1953, and surprisingly balances straight-faced segments on adverse weather conditions and the widespread health issues provoked by smog with chortling at creaky archive footage, comedy sketch silliness with the original Bill and Ben puppets, and Noel getting visibly irritated by Norman Wisdom’s off-script attention-seeking antics, culminating in him theatrically looking at his watch and making comically exaggerated gestures to the floor manager. You don’t get that with bloody Netflix.
There is actually an edition of BBC1 early evening highbrow game show Ask The Family on the iPlayer – dating, as you will find out below, from the ‘Tedious Semi-Animated Family’ era – though I actually wrote this feature some time before discovering that, simply because, well, I’m utterly fascinated by this weirdly anachronistic yet somehow modish quiz show. It was as mentally taxing as they come and brashly unashamed of that to boot, the contestants invariably looked as though they’d consider The Nice Family from Absolutely the kind of sort we don’t want around here thank you very much (though I would like to apologise to the Pollicks and the Buswells, who have ended up as illustrative examples by default and to whom no offence was or is intended), and it was about as stark a contrast from whatever anarchic animation had rounded out Children’s BBC that day as you’re liable to find, yet it was as comfortable and laid-back as The Fonz listening to Lemon Jelly in his favourite armchair. The music and visual stylings were as baffling and inexplicable as they were ill-suited, and then there’s the whole bizarre story of how Robert Robinson ending up presenting it in the first place, founded on a healthy disdain for political claptrap that frankly we could do with more of right now. But ah, don’t buzz in until we have heard the whole of the question in its full entirety…
Ah, good evening, and often may you say that the television shows that seem the strangest now were the ones that seemed the most mundane and quotidian at the time. No matter how good they may be, those that tried to be unusual now only really look like another era’s idea of ‘unusual’. Whereas those that simply existed, with their lack of audiovisual trimmings, their quaint meldings of one medium’s stylistic preferences with another’s format and technology, and their now almost completely unrelatable ‘real time’ feel, now come across like a quasi-hallucinatory vision of an alternate reality. Plus they’re often quite unintentionally amusing too. One such show, if ever a show as was, was Ask The Family, which ran on BBC1 between 1967 and 1974. That much, is certain.
Ask The Family was just one of many highbrow quiz shows – including Call My Bluff, Brain Of Britain and The Book Game – hosted by critic, author, columnist and all-round polymath Robert Robinson. He had started his career as a heavyweight political pundit, and his ‘descent’ into quizzing ubiquity is often held up as a textbook example of ‘how the mighty have fallen’; however Robinson himself claimed that he’d moved in this direction voluntarily after growing tired of the “sonorous drivel” of politicians. It was, he noted, “impossible to make the bastards reply to a straight question”, and the comparative appeal of Brain Of Britain and company lay in the fact that they were “just a game”. It was, in effect, a Godfrey Humphrey-style sophisticated satirical attack on the entire political establishment, and one so precision-targetedly aaaaaaahhhhhhhhh that even Tony Parsons didn’t expect it. Or did expect it. Or was expecting us to expect that he wouldn’t expect it. Or however that works exactly.
The basic format of Ask The Family was that two sets of smugly well-read families – often, it has to be said, displaying scant awareness of how they might look on screen – would vie to outdo each other as all-round smartarses while Robert Robinson posed cultured and literate puzzlers on science and history and the like, famously divided up into bizarre ‘Father And Eldest Child Only’-type designations. Generally this would take the form of logical posers of the ‘if you took off from New York and landed in Moscow with a brief stopover in Helsinki, what would the time difference be?’ variety, which the audience on the whole found generally baffling. Its only concession to modernity and the possibilities of television technology came in a round where the teams would be asked to identify an object photographed in extreme close-up; usually this would conclude with some trademark Robinson haughty waffle along the lines of “a… video… recorder; a device, they tell me, that allows one to permit the recording of the output of one television channel, whilst watching the output of another… whatever will they think of next!”. The Large Hadron Particle Collider. That’s what they thought of next.
It’s often been remarked that the families being asked on Ask The Family bore absolutely no resemblance to any that you might have encountered in real life. In actual fact, they were everywhere. They were the exact same families as the ones at the end of the street where the children had SLAVE-1, Mr Frosty and Turn The Terrible Tank, but instead insisted on playing some tedious and impenetrable heraldry-related board game that went on forever and had a load of Charles I blokes on the box. Small wonder, then, that they should have been in such a clamour to compete on so polite, excitement-averse and intellectual superiority-conferring a game show. To the extent, in fact, that calling it a ‘game show’ looks somehow wrong. ‘Game’ would normally tend to suggest some element of fun might have been involved at some point. The deeply strange thing, however, was that you would neither have known nor expected this from the deeply strange opening titles. And that’s opening titles plural. More than once, Ask The Family adopted visuals and indeed music that didn’t just give a completely misleading idea of what was to follow, but appeared to belong to an entirely different television show from an entirely different reality.
There’s modishly mind-expanding graphics and colours, there’s migrane-inducing op-art monochrome refractions, and then there’s the original Ask The Family opening titles. Beginning with a deck of Happy Families cards bearing illustrations apparently based on one of Bjork’s nightmares, they would flip over to reveal a series of orange and purple hard-psych fractal designs of the kind that hippies were fond of using to determine your inner aura strength or whatever it was that week, finally zooming in on the one that deployed the time-honoured ‘Candlestick or Two Faces?’ optical illusion while the show’s title appeared in a font that more rightly belonged on a birthday card sent by Yoffy from Fingerbobs to Tarot from Ace Of Wands. Looking more like you’d finally caved and allowed that weird ‘mystical’ girl in school to read your ‘vibrations’ than you were about to watch some clean-cut types vying to name the greatest number of winged insects, the overall effect was not dissimilar to one of those elaborate fold-out paper engineering-facilitated Prog Rock album sleeves where nobody bought them at the time and they’re worth a small fortune undamaged now. Small wonder, then, that these visuals had music to match.
Robert Robinson’s appearance being heralded by relentless sitars and a beat that would have had Zeenat Aman and company up on their feet in any given Bollywood offering might sound like something that the so-called ‘satirists’ might have made up as an incongruous comical wheeze, but – staggeringly – it was absolutely true. Acka Raga had originally been recorded by that famously far-out acid visionary Mr. Acker Bilk, whose version has a fantastically ludicrous ‘Light Programme Goes East’ vibe to it, sounding more or less equivalent to The Paul Butterfield Blues Band being produced by Norrie Paramor. The version that enlivened Ask The Family, however, was as interpreted by Brit-Jazzers Joe Harriott and John Mayer (and of course their ‘Double Quintet’) for their self-explanatory groundbreaking 1967 album Indo-Jazz Fusions, melding herky-jerk Prog-Jazz rhythms with traditional percussion and lashings of sitar. And, incidentally, you do have to wonder if Paul Weller had the Ask The Family opening titles in mind when he was putting together a certain pseudonymous sitar-dominated dancefloor smash…
It was, to all intents and purposes, like some sort of Chapter 24-instructed pocket nirvana tucked away at the start of an evening’s entertainment on BBC1; something that was underlined by the fact that Dutch psych-rockers and Venus hitmakers Shocking Blue were sufficiently inspired by a chance sighting of Ask The Family on an early UK jaunt that they ended up putting a slightly more funked-up cover of Acka Raga on their somewhat suspiciously strewn torn card-covered LP At Home. But as the late seventies drew near, this sort of transcendental incongruity could not last. Plots to overthrow Harold Wilson were fomenting behind closed Gentlemen’s Club doors with padded leather upholstery on them, the punks were waiting in the wings to shout ‘BARSTARD’ at Father and Youngest Child Only, and the brandy-in-decanter blokes in suits at the BBC had had quite enough of this longhaired multicoloured popular beat disobedience. It was time for change. And how.
The hippy dream had turned sour, and Ask The Family promptly defected to a neo-Illiberalist totalitarian state. Acka Raga was replaced by Sun Ride, a thoroughly inappropriately-named ‘in Soviet Russia, family asks you‘ Cimbalom-sourced outbreak of Cold War Spy Film-hued menace provided by erstwhile Harry Palmer-soundtracker John Leach. In tandem with this, the visuals were replaced by a creepy-looking rotating Edwardian family painted on the side of some weird spinning metallic fairground optical illusion thing. From the look of them, you wouldn’t particularly want to ask this family anything, other than to please stop trying to steal your face.
The ramifications of this were immediate and far-reaching. Millions of children dived behind ‘the sofa’ whenever the continuity announcer mentioned Ask The Family. Go Video and Vipco became locked in a fierce bidding war for the rights to top Video Nasty Robert Robinson Presents The Everyman Book Of Light Verse – Live. The various rival TV ‘Clowns’ put aside their differences and penned an open letter objecting to this base infringement on their audience-terrifying territory. The BBC ‘Top Brass’ had to act, and while Sun Ride stayed, the creepy gaudy family were discarded in favour of more up to date iconography of the sort that would more normally have been found introducing a BBC2 magazine show that looked at topical issues from ‘an angle’. Rumours that they had been discovered advancing on the question mark coat hanger pin man from the start of Over The Moon cannot be confirmed.
The 1980s. The microchip revolution. The dawn of Home Entertainment. A time when the likes of Equinox and Zig Zag were taking enormous leaps forwards and introducing themselves to viewers with digitally-generated neon and chrome lettering and scorching blasts of Korg. Odd, then, that Ask The Family opted not so much to move with the times as to move backwards away from them. A radical overhaul – though the show itself, of course, remained resolutely the same – brought in a polite arrangement of Scott Joplin’s piano-punishing standard Maple Leaf Rag, accompanied by photo-animation of a for once perfectly normal-looking family, pulling puzzled faces around a red and white check tablecloth and an inexplicably oversized teapot. Seemingly self-destructively determined to mark itself out as an anachronism, the writing was on the wall for Ask The Family, and even someone viewing the wall in extreme close-up could see it.
But ah, the pity of it, starp and trivvock. While they still kept Maple Leaf Rag, the final series in 1984 opted for a much more hip and with-it ITV Daytime game show-style video grid showing the ‘families’ being jovial and light-hearted, along with a couple of frames of Robert Robinson doing likewise in a bizarre ‘Smuggins goes zanes’ gambit. Needless to say, it didn’t work, and Ask The Family was one of the first casualties of the BBC Daytime-funding Night Of The Long Schedules that put paid to so many long-running old-favourites in the mid-eighties. Time, our old enemy, had rolled round again. It bade us goodbye, it bade us farewell, but aaaaah, tussock, flip and fourpence… not for long?
Ahhh, would that it were. Attempts to revive Ask The Family have been decidedly few, and decidedly less than successful. UK Gold had a go in the late nineties, with Alan Titchmarsh fronting a not particularly updated update that retained Sun Ride over a montage of ‘highbrow’ slides of microscopes and gorillas and the like, and – oddly – the original ‘optical illusion’ logo. Unfortunately, this proved to be even less entertaining than the drying paint at least one family was presumably called upon to identify in close-up, and nobody really noticed it happening. Not so the 2005 revival with Dick’n’Dom – theme music a hazardously Bhangra-ed up version of the original Acka Raga – which replaced all the staid ‘improving’ stuffiness with loud hooters and messy energetic rounds involving donkey masks for some reason, drawing the ire of many of the original’s production team and even the Eeny Meeny Macka Racka Rare Are Dominacka Shickeypoppa Dickywhoppa Om Pom Stick-toting duo themselves soon identified the whole venture as a ‘disaster’. Meanwhile, Acka Raga found its way back into the charts courtesy of a bizarre Şımarık-esque ‘And An Extra Point For Being So Knockers’ hookah-toking vocal reworking by saucy Russian Indie-Dance outfit Reflex. What would Robert Robinson have said?!
So ah, here’s a thing, it only remains for me to declare Ask The Family the sort of programme that despite its opening title weirdness was defiantly and deliberately out of step with the times from the word go, and yet paradoxically exactly the sort of programme that all channels should be reclaiming that dull start-of-the-evening wasteland with now. As long as they keep all the reality and celebrity stuff as well, mind. We’re not the Ask The Family families, you know.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.