Just as had happened in 1988, when Jeux Sans Frontières returned after
six years and the BBC transmitted their last It's A Knockout, in 1999
one door opened as another closed. In reaction to escalating costs,
Jeux Sans Frontières
1999 series was to be it's last. Meanwhile, the
British domestic It's A Knockout series returned after a complete
absence from British screens of eleven years, this time in a new home on
Channel 5 Television.
In this final series of Jeux Sans
Frontières, the number of participants dropped by one, with two
1998 countries dropping out - Netherlands and Portugal - and
Slovenia returning for the last hurrah. In each edition, twelve games and a
fil rouge were played, with the latter being played by two teams at a time.
Out of the twelve regular games, half saw all teams participate (games 1, 2,
5, 8, 11 and 12) and the remainder (3, 4, 6, 7, 9 and 10) were contested by four teams
only. The fil rouge heats were played after games 3, 6 and 9. There were
Jokers which could be played in Games 1, 2, 5, 8 or 11 that would double the
This year, there were no standard games that would feature in every event.
However, the twelfth game of all editions was basically the same: eight
players had to go over the water and climb up a gigantic slide by using a
rope. The way in which the teams would traverse the water was dependent upon
the theme of each edition.
A unique element of this final series of Jeux Sans
Frontières was that each programme not only presented games but also a
story which ran at the start of the transmissions and in between each game.
These episodic tales involved the hosts, referees and players and the Series
Guide page for the 1999
JSF includes details of the story in each edition.
As It's A Knockout (as a regular programme) had been off British TV
screens for seventeen years by 1999, the independent production company Ronin
Entertainment viewed it as ripe for a revival, cashing in on the nostalgia
craze. The first step was for Ronin to approach Mistral Productions, the
French company who owned the format rights to Intervilles, on which It's A
Knockout was based. Mistral Productions granted permission and Ronin
purchased from them the UK production rights to make It's A Knockout.
Ronin developed their project and signed up Keith Chegwin as main presenter,
with Lucy Alexander, Nell McAndrew (fresh from Ronin's Night Fever) and
British boxing legend Frank Bruno making up the team. The final member of the
presentation team would join the project at Easter 1999, when Assistant
Producer John Ireland approached a former teacher of his, Tony Smith, with a
view to his being hired for a week as a consultant. Ireland remembered that
Smith had considerable experience of organising and competing in It's A
Knockout teams in the 1970s. Within a week, Tony Smith had been
hired as Course Referee for the series, a role he filled in both the 1999 and
2000 series. Smith's role would be expanded for the 2000 series, in which he
had more involvement in the presentation of results and the writing of links.
Apparently, original series referee Mike Swann had also approached Ronin with
a view to his becoming involved, but by the stage that he made contact, the
series had already been fully cast.
With their team together
and original series producer Cecil Korer engaged as advisor to the series, Ronin Entertainment set about repackaging and updating It's A Knockout
and sold the transmission rights to British
broadcaster Channel 5. Channel 5 was a young channel which had launched on
Sunday 30th March 1997 as the fifth and final analogue terrestrial channel on
British television. The channel was not doing particularly well in terms of
viewing figures compared to the four established channels and obviously saw
It's A Knockout as an opportunity to pull in viewers with a familiar
programme with instant popular appeal.
The first programme to be made was recorded at the Riversmead
Leisure Centre in Reading, Berkshire and was designed to be transmitted as
Heat 2. The weekend proved a long and demanding one for the production crew,
presenters, referees and teams as the series found its feet over a period of
just three days. Course Referee Tony Smith remembers: "We first met on Friday
13th August 1999 for costumes, photos, meeting people and trying out games. I
organised a Demo Team from Old Verulamians RFC, St Albans, to work for Ronin
on Saturday 14th August, when we first went through the games and tested
various equipment at Reading. It was a very long day. Cecil Korer was also
there to give some advice. The first programme was filmed on Sunday 15th
August 1999. After that, we used to meet at each subsequent venue on Thursday
nights, spend all of the Fridays rehearsing using in-house people on the
games, including myself at 49 years of age! We then filmed two programmes each
weekend, one on the Saturday afternoon with three teams and another on the
Sunday afternoon with a different three teams including the home team from the
venue. We would then go home that night or on the Monday morning and meet up
again the next Thursday." It was a demanding and tiring schedule.
Quite coincidentally, the
new series debuted just eleven days
after Jeux Sans Frontières had ended on the Continent, which of course
meant that Ronin never had the opportunity to expand their programme into
European competition - undoubtedly one of the disappointments of the revived
series. Times were
changing and there was a big question mark over whether a 1960s format could
still prove a hit in the late 1990s. Initially, the series did well, but it
failed to build on its good first-night ratings and henceforth struggled to
keep its audience. Despite this, it lived on to fight another day, and gained
a place in Channel 5's 2000 schedules.
by Alan Hayes
with grateful thanks to Tony Smith