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Quiz show Blockbusters and its former Kent schoolboy host Bob Holness


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It has been nearly 40 years since hit quiz show Blockbusters first aired on the telly in the UK, hosted by former Kent schoolboy Bob Holness.

Based on an American series of the same name, ITV picked it up and screened the first episode in August 1983.

Former Ashford schoolboy Bob Holness presented Blockbusters for 11 years. Photo: ITV/Rex Features
Former Ashford schoolboy Bob Holness presented Blockbusters for 11 years. Photo: ITV/Rex Features

It ran for 10 series on the channel until 1993 but has also since been revived several times on other networks, including Sky.

Known for its theme tune, and the way contestants would ask host Bob Holness for a question – including the oh-so-funny 'Can I have a P please Bob?' – it was staple TV for anyone growing up in the 80s and early 90s.

Twice it was voted the most popular quiz show on television, by readers of TV Times.

One former Kent contestant, Jo Treharne, remembers: "It was absolutely cult viewing.

"A bit like The Chase today but even more so because there was nothing else and no internet."

Bob Holness pictured during the fourth series in August 1986. Photo: Central Independent Television
Bob Holness pictured during the fourth series in August 1986. Photo: Central Independent Television

How it worked

Unlike the US version, which quizzed adults, the UK version was produced for students.

In each episode, a solo teenager played against a team of two, with the uneven team numbers an attempt to see if "two heads are really better than one". It is not clear if the show ever proved this theory or not.

They competed to cross a board made up of 20 interlocking yellow hexagons, arranged in five columns of four.

Each hexagon contained a letter of the alphabet and contestants would choose one of the letters. They would then be asked a general knowledge trivia question, with the correct answer beginning with the chosen letter.

Former contestant Jo Treharne (left) and friend Julie with Bob Holness in 1985
Former contestant Jo Treharne (left) and friend Julie with Bob Holness in 1985

A typical question might be: "What 'P' is a musical instrument with 88 keys?" The answer would be a piano.

If players got a question right, that hexagon would be turned to their colour – the solo players had white spaces and a team of two players had blue.

The idea of the game was to fill in as many spaces as necessary so that a continuous line of your colour went across the board horizontally, for the blue team, or vertically for the white player, who could make the journey in one less space than the blues.

The winner of the match went on to play the gold run bonus round. If the pair won, only one player on the team could play.

The board for the gold run consisted of a pattern of green hexagons similar to that of the main game, but the hexagons had two to four letters inside them, which were again the initials of the correct answer.

Jo and Julie won a computer for their school after appearing on Blockbusters. Photo: Jo Treharne
Jo and Julie won a computer for their school after appearing on Blockbusters. Photo: Jo Treharne

When the contestant guessed correctly, the hexagon turned gold.

However, if the contestant passed, it turned black, blocking the player's path. It was then up to the contestant to work around it.

The object was to horizontally connect the left and right sides of the board within 60 seconds.

Blockbusters was one of the first British game shows to run in a 'straddling' format, which allowed for games to last a different length of time, meaning that episodes would often begin and end mid-game and matches often crossed over into two episodes.

All players who appeared on the show received a Blockbusters Concise Oxford Dictionary and sweatshirt and there were special prizes for winning the gold run.

"We just couldn't believe we were in the studio with Bob. And then to go on the hotspot for the gold run too, it was amazing."

Former player Jo, who now lives in Canterbury and works for the NHS, was awarded the dictionary and a hoodie after her appearance in 1985, when she was 16.

She was in a team with her friend Julie, and they appeared on two episodes, and as gold run winners, were invited back for a Champion show.

Jo said: "It was such an amazing experience.

"We just couldn't believe we were in the studio with Bob.

"And then to go on the hotspot for the gold run too, it was amazing.

Blockbuster host Bob Holness as a schoolboy in Ashford. Photo: Ros Holness
Blockbuster host Bob Holness as a schoolboy in Ashford. Photo: Ros Holness

"You would film for a few days, watching everyone else too. There would be around 30 of you.

"And everyone loved Bob. He was such a charming, kind and genuine man. He was very chatty and would have lunch with us too."

Jo and Julie won a computer as a special prize for their school, which was in Bristol.

She adds: "I think it was the first computer we had."

Many well-known faces, before they were famous, appeared on the show over the years, including Mel Giedroyc, Konnie Huq and Stephen Merchant.

Bob Holness at a lights switch-on event in Ashford in 1989
Bob Holness at a lights switch-on event in Ashford in 1989

The host

Bob Holness, who died in 2012, aged 83, presented Blockbusters for more than a decade.

Born in Natal, South Africa, in 1928, he grew up in Kent.

He was just a child when his family moved to Herne Bay, where his father had been born, before they settled in Ashford.

Young Bob was educated at Herne Bay Primary School, Ashford Grammar School – now Norton Knatchbull – and Maidstone College of Art.

His first job was at Geerings Printers in Ashford High Street, training as an apprentice during the 1940s.

Bob Holness in 2003. Picture: Terry Scott
Bob Holness in 2003. Picture: Terry Scott

He moved back to South Africa aged 25, briefly taking a printing job before joining a British repertory company.

After 18 months he broke into broadcasting as a radio actor, making his debut in 1955. One of his first roles was as James Bond in a radio version of Moonraker.

He returned to the UK with wife Mary in 1961, when he joined the BBC.

He hosted Take A Letter in the 1960s and Blockbusters from 1983 until 1994, for which he became best known, and later Call My Bluff.

He was a patron of Find A Voice, the Ashford charity that supports people with severe speech and communication difficulties, and even coined its name.

Fundraising director Alastair Dutch said in 2012: "Bob was a very active and enthusiastic supporter.

"Find A Voice is immensely proud to have had such a distinguished and absolutely delightful man as one of their patrons.

"He had been a patron for virtually all of Find A Voice's 15 years and the contribution he made to the life and wellbeing of the charity cannot be overstated.

"It is no exaggeration to say that it is very unlikely the charity would have survived in its early days had it not been for his support."

What happened next

Blockbusters left ITV in 1993 and moved to Sky One in 1994, with Bob continuing to present.

An adult version aired on BBC Two in 1997 and was presented by Michael Aspel.

It returned to Sky in 2000, and was presented by Liza Tarbuck.

Other versions were aired on Challenge, with Simon Mayo hosting, and on Comedy Central, presented by Dara Ó Briain.

Books and boardgames for playing at home have also been released and the show has been replicated across the globe, including in Australia, Germany and Indonesia.

Play the game

Can you make it across the board? Answer these five questions in our Blockbuster challenge (answers below):

1. What O brings tears to the eyes, but only when they're chopped in the kitchen?

2. What P was the cartoon character who made his first appearance with Mickey Mouse in 1930?

3. What R goes before low, down and out to mean there is little or nothing left?

4. What A are amalgam, pewter, gun metal and steel?

5. What E is the word on the sign lit up over the doors of an auditorium throughout a performance?

Answers below

Jo Treharne with her Blockbusters book. Picture: Jo Treharne
Jo Treharne with her Blockbusters book. Picture: Jo Treharne

(Answers: Onion, Pluto, Run, Alloys, Exit)

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