Ahead of next month’s return of Jeux Sans Frontières, Roger Domeneghetti explores the complex role the show has played in European relations.
Jeux Sans Frontières, the international forerunner to It’s A Knockout, is set to return to television screens later this year, 20 years after its last appearance. France Télévisions, is to relaunch the show which was branded “the Olympic Games with custard pies” and which in its heyday was attracting more than 100 million viewers across the continent. Camp silliness and ludicrous challenges were the show’s hallmark but these belied the important role the show played in bringing the United Kingdom closer to Europe.
Jeux Sans Frontières began life as a French programme Intervilles, which was created in 1962 by the TV producers and presenters Guy Lux, Pierre Brive and Claude Savarit. Since the 1950s there had been several shows in various European countries pitting towns and cities against each other.
The earliest was the BBC series Top Town that saw teams compete in a talent contest akin to an early version of Britain’s Got Talent featuring dancing, singing and stand-up comedy. In 1954, after four years on the radio, it transferred to television and it’s producer Barney Colehan would later claim it was the inspiration for Intervilles.
While Lux and his colleagues were undoubtedly aware of Top Town, it’s more likely that Italian show Campanile Sera was their real inspiration.
Broadcast on RAI for four years from 1959, the series’ name translated as ‘Bell Tower Evening’, as it was broadcast in the evenings and took place in town squares below the campanile, or bell tower. It was the first to have the bizarre physical challenges that became the hallmark of Jeux Sans Frontières and its related shows, although in the Italian iteration these were combined with quizzes. It was a huge success and at its peak it was pulling in around 15 million viewers.
Intervilles made its debut on RTF on July 17, 1962, with a meeting of the northern French towns of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux and Armentières. Like its Italian forerunner, Intervilles mixed tests of general knowledge with physical challenges, including young calves or vachettes that were released on to the course and would randomly chase and knock over contestants.
One of Intervilles’ most famous fans was the French president Charles de Gaulle. An oft-repeated anecdote suggests that he excused himself from a summit with his German counterpart Konrad Adenauer, at Rambouillet in the mid-1960s, to ensure he didn’t miss the weekly show.
The story is most likely apocryphal, but in the years immediately after the creation of the European Economic Community, De Gaulle believed peaceful games between the citizens of France and Germany would only support efforts to maintain peace in the post-war decades.
In a 1978 interview with Télé 7 Jours, the French equivalent of the Radio Times, Savarit explained how De Gaulle had inspired him and Lux to make the programme with this intention. “Since he was working at the Franco-German rapprochement, he let it be known that, in his opinion, peaceful games between representatives of the two nations would be a good thing. We immediately got to work by expanding the formula, Jeux Sans Frontieres was born.”
The first series began broadcast in May 1965 with participants from France, Germany, Belgium and Italy. Then as now the British attitude towards Europe was ambivalent and there was a reluctance to get too involved. So, just as with the EEC, the Eurovision song contest and even European football, the country was a late entrant, not appearing for the first two years.
When the Brits did get involved the BBC created a qualification show, It’s A Knockout, which was first broadcast a week after England won the World Cup in 1966.
It’s A Knockout arrived on British screens at the time television companies were trying to make sport a successful entertainment vehicle. Pot Black was introduced to BBC2 in 1969 by the channel’s then-controller, Sir David Attenborough, to exploit new colour technology.
A few years later ITV launched The Indoor League, created by Sid Waddell and hosted by ex-cricketer Fred Trueman, which featured a variety of pub games and popularised coverage of darts. An off shoot of these experiments was shows that conspicuously mixed sport with entertainment, like Superstars, Pro-Celebrity Golf and It’s A Knockout.
Barney Colehan, the man who created Top Town, was tasked with producing the new show and he was clear the non-serious nature of the competitiveness was at the heart of the shows appeal. In 1967 he said: “Slapstick humour with a hard competitive edge is what people want. There’s too much realism in TV these days. We’re offering people a circus atmosphere and just at the very moment when the atmosphere is tense and full of drama, someone throws a custard pie.” Before long it became a staple of the BBC’s schedules. Various specials, such as a Christmas edition and in the late 1980s even a Royal edition, were broadcast and it became a part of the FA Cup final build-up, with fans of the finalists competing against each other.
The popularity of the international show wasn’t just built on its slapstick charms. Patriotism was a key ingredient too but it was a benign form. Crucially, at a time that Britain was edging towards ever greater integration with Europe, the show brought ordinary Europeans – not politicians, footballers or singers, but bank clerks, farmers and postmen – into British homes on a regular basis.
It showed that they were also normal people who didn’t take themselves too seriously and thus that Britishness and Europeanism were not mutually exclusive. This was perhaps never better demonstrated than in 1969 when a British team tasted success in Jeux Sans Frontières. Sort of.
Shrewsbury reached the final against Wolfsburg (although they didn’t have to travel far, as it was held in Blackpool). The teams finished level and then Wolfsburg won a tie-breaker. But in a magnanimous gesture they decided to share the trophy. It heralded something of a turnaround in terms of success.
The previous four winners had come from Germany but over the next 12 years Britain would provide more champions than anyone else. Blackpool were the victors in 1971, Ely in 1973 and Dartmouth were joint winners with Lisboa in 1981.
The advent of colour TV heralded the competition’s golden age. The garish costumes and bright sets were a perfect visual spectacle for the new medium. It’s A Knockout garnered as many as 18 million viewers and Jeux Sans Frontières was often watched by a staggering 160 million across Europe. And as the EEC expanded, so did Jeux Sans Frontières with the Netherlands, Yugoslavia and Portugal joining the fun in 1970, 1978 and 1979 respectively.
Ultimately the show became a victim of its own success. With the drive to make every series more flamboyant than the last, costs rose and many towns found it too expensive to host. Following an emotional final, the programme ceased to broadcast in 1982. Despite various revivals until 1999, none have been as successful as in the show’s heyday.
Yet the programme’s legacy lives on. There are obvious echos in shows like Takeshi’s Castle, Ninja Warrior, Total Wipeout and even some of the challenges on I’m A Celebrity…. So it’s little surprise that the original format is being resurrected. Whether the UK will take part or stay outside the borders only time will tell.