Brian Clark was a member of the BBC It's A Knockout production team from 1968 until the early 1970s. During his time on the programme, he wrote a book entitled Games from It's A Knockout, which was published in 1971 and is believed to be the first book written about the series in Great Britain.

When the tide started to come in on Morecambe beach late one afternoon in 1966, threatening to end the first TV broadcast of It’s a Knockout in an electrical flash, few could have imagined that within a few years it would be Britain’s most popular television show, regularly topping the ratings. Across Europe it was the same zany story: a crazy contest which progressed through spring and summer to international heats and a grand final, with Eurovision audiences of more than 100 million.

A new kind of game had been invented, and the public quickly adopted the formula of their favourite TV show as a means of raising funds for charity or just for fun. It’s a Knockout was fast becoming universally popular, except amongst some BBC executives who considered it the sort of programme more suited to ITV. This was still evident when I joined in 1968. So too was the jealousy within the Corporation of its success outside the mainstream of television production in London. The British centre for this pan-European entertainment spectacular was a converted clothing factory in Leeds which had originally been built as a Quaker meeting house.

This modest regional outpost, subordinate to the Manchester headquarters of the BBC’s North Region, had developed strongly in radio production. It was the home of Gardener’s Question Time and a young assistant drama producer called Alan Ayckbourn. There was no television studio, not even a regional TV news opt-out. But strangely there was one TV producer in a small office at the back of the building: Barney Colehan. He didn’t need a studio. His The Good Old Days, a long-running traditional music hall show, was directed and recorded in the North Region’s outside broadcast unit in its vans parked at the City Varieties, a Victorian period theatre in Leeds. The audience, all dressed in period costume, were as vital to the show’s success as its star performers, with a ten year waiting list for tickets. The series celebrated its 200th edition on Tuesday 21st February 1978 and the series ended in 1983 after an incredible thirty year run. Like Knockout, it was a success in Europe too, especially Scandinavia. So in the winter months I worked on The Good Old Days and wrote the star interviews for Radio Times.

You can trace Barney’s early, astute recognition that one of the secrets of popular broadcasting was the participation of ordinary people, who wouldn’t otherwise expect to see themselves on television. This line of succession began with a touring radio show, Have A Go, presented by Wilfred Pickles, whose catchphrase was “Give ‘im the money, Barney”, through the inter-town rivalry of Top Town (which ultimately translated to TV), finally leading to the birth of It’s a Knockout, with numerous talent shows along the way, all outside broadcasts.

Whose idea was Knockout? There is no doubt that it evolved out of Barney’s Top Town which impressed two visiting French television producers, Pierre Brive and Guy Lux, who then launched Intervilles, adapting the talent element to a more bizarre series of extravagant outdoor party games. Guy Lux would later say that Barney gave him the idea.

I don’t recall anyone mentioning Campanile Sera at that time, but one thing for certain is that Barney Colehan was the undisputed driving force and unofficial president of Knockout internationally, or ‘games without frontiers’ as it translated in each participating country’s languages.

Sometimes, it was lost in translation. Walking along the promenade between Rimini and Riccione in Italy in 1971 with Eddie Waring and Arthur Ellis, drinking in the warm local welcome with banners strung across the road every few hundred metres: ‘ Bienvenue a Jeux sans Frontičres’, then ‘Willkommen an Spiel ohne Grenzen’ and so on, Arthur suddenly burst out laughing. He’d spotted the one down the road with the Union flag: ‘Welcome to It’s a Kock Out’.

I was with Barney on many occasions when he talked about the history of the show. He always spoke of Knockout as ‘starting with a British idea and a British tv programme’. Barney wasn’t the kind of man given to exaggeration or false claims: he was a modest, genuine and sincere person and he was an inspiration to all around him.

In the book I wrote, Games from It’s a Knockout, (BBC Publications, 1971) fans will be dismayed to learn that my original intention to include all the results and scores from the previous five years, domestic and international, was thought to be “of insufficient interest”. But I still have my notes of three years of International Heat results. The Knockout files in the Leeds production office were closely guarded by Barney’s redoubtable secretary, Dorothy, a paragon of efficiency. The book really was ‘by popular demand’ as the letters and calls increased from people wanting to stage their own contests.

Participating teams in the domestic It's A Knockout series were sent advance details of the games and encouraged to rehearse whatever odd skills were required. Rehearsals began on the Saturday. My first task was to fix large banners to the fencing around the arena. I’d then get to find out more about the competitors. Bits of information such as “Jill teaches at the local primary school, Jack is a former international weightlifter and now a greengrocer” which were transferred to postcards for the commentators’ pockets along with other researched information about the two towns. The outside broadcast vans would arrive from whichever horse race meeting they’d been covering and in the first few heats during May, when the show overlapped with the Rugby League season, my job would be to pick up Eddie Waring, the sport’s iconic commentator, from the nearest station, usually on the last Saturday night train.

Eddie was meticulous about his appearance. That’s how I acquired the nickname of ‘Eddie Waring’s comb carrier’ and mastery of the quick dash across grass, out of shot. Another task was to locate the mayor of the winning town just before the end: even with their chains of office sometimes they could be pretty elusive.

Recordings would take place on Sunday afternoon. But some Knockouts were transmitted live and I remember the International Heats being live on Eurovision for at least one of the series in which I was involved. That’s how I developed a taste for the finest champagne, which I have never since been able to afford. As the popularity of Jeux Sans Frontičres grew, so did the demand for a flutter on the result. The highly respectable credit bookmakers Heathorns gave odds on the teams. How they got information, I do not know. But I did know, the following year, that the series was transmitted in the UK one day after the event, not ‘live’. I had to tell Heathorns and I don’t know how they got my home address, but strictly against BBC rules, two cases of the finest vintage Krug champagne were delivered, with a ‘thank you’ note.

It was David Vine, sports commentator and Stuart Hall’s predecessor, who I got along with best of all. I recall Katy Boyle leaving amid some controversy, though I can’t remember what it was and I have a memory of Michael Aspel doing at least one show, maybe Margate or Ramsgate. Come on now, it was 45 years ago and I didn’t keep a diary! But David and I got on well, perhaps because we were both ex-journalists. Another reason was that neither of us could stand nightclubs or discos, a popular choice for others on the team. How I wish I’d followed him into Ski Sunday. Instead, the BBC wanted to lessen my involvement with Knockout and move me from Leeds to Manchester, despite Barney’s efforts. And for quite a while, it actually made little difference because many of the team, such as Stuart Furber, the games supremo, Keith Phillips (who of all things went on to classical music concert directing I think) and Des Sissons were based there. I seem to remember meeting Geoff Wilson, another of the production assistants who went on to be a director and eventually Producer of It's A Knockout, after I’d left the BBC to join Rothmans sports sponsorship, because my collection of memorabilia includes a colourful 1973 final embroidered badge and I know I wasn’t there.

I still use one of the many beer mats from referee Arthur Ellis for my desk coffee. When I did the book, I commissioned cartoonist Bill Tidy for the front cover. His cartoons also appear on the Double Diamond beer mats. On the wall hangs a pennant from the 1970 Christmas special which was held in Leiden, Holland in an indoor arena. There I met the eccentric and jovial inventor of many of the international series games, Tom van Maaren, and a young unknown Dutch footballer, Johann Cruyff. We took two Chelsea players (couldn’t afford to do that now!).

Knockout today would mean a far more enterprising approach, with production costs defrayed by lucrative spin-offs, and the contests properly and comprehensively recorded with names of team members, just like the Rothmans Football Yearbook that I helped to produce subsequently. So I have to rely on a fading memory, some old notebooks and assorted of course Alan’s amazing and excellent website, which I only just discovered. Who knows, it may inspire me to remember the odd missing piece, and then there’s that old box, somewhere in the loft.

Brian Clark
December 2012