ITV1 is transmitting a new series of Surprise! Surprise! from tomorrow night, after a break of more than ten years.
I was a researcher on the second series in 1984.
Most of the London Weekend Television production team had worked on the hidden camera series Game For a Laugh and came straight off that on to Surprise! Surprise!
The immensely talented Alan Boyd, LWT’s Controller of Entertainment, had had the bright idea that some of the ‘surprising’ items on Game For a Laugh – people doing bizarre things or behaving oddly – could be farmed off into a new format – Surprise! Surprise!
This did not really work until the final item on the final show of the first series, which involved a reunion. The result was emotional, tearful and compulsive television and Boyd realised that, instead of having ‘surprising’ items, every item on the show had to have at least one actual ‘surprise’ built into it. That was, after all, what had made Game For a Laugh so successful that it often out-rated Coronation Street.
Both Surprise! Surprise! (after the first series) and Game For a Laugh were built round a similar objective. Each item on every show had to build up to one single shot which HAD to be captured on camera by the director.
On Game For a Laugh, this was called by the production team the Fuck me! – It’s Beadle! moment.
It was the point at which the punter realised that he had been set up for an elaborate practical joke. When co-presenter Jeremy Beadle pulled the stunts himself, this was the moment of revelation when he walked into view or removed his disguise and the camera saw the look of shock, realisation and sometimes relief on the punter’s face. You could almost see the person saying to themselves: “Fuck me! – It’s Beadle!” That same clear shot of the person’s face was a necessity on all items, no matter who presented them.
With Surprise! Surprise! presented by the ever-loveable Cilla Black (perhaps I am being sarcastic?), there was a similar vital moment – the facial expression at the exact point at which the surprise was revealed to the unsuspecting punter. On some items it was, in effect, a Fuck me! – It’s Cilla! moment. In others – especially the final item on each show, which tended to be the big reunion item – it was the moment the long lost brother/sister/parent/son/daughter was revealed to the punter.
This was called by the team the Sick and Tears moment.
The ‘quality newspapers’ tended to sneer at Surprise! Surprise!
This was partly because of its massive ratings – anything liked by mass audiences tends to be sneered-at by the Guardian-reading chattering classes of Islington. But it was also because the show was said to exploit its participants for the cheap voyeuristic thrill of seeing people break down emotionally.
The show was certainly not literally cheap – in 1984, a run of eight episodes plus a Christmas special cost £1.5 million.
But I never had any qualms about the morality of the series. The reason the punters broke into tears on the final reunion item was because it was life-changing for them.
Often, a loss had eaten-away at them day-after-day for twenty or more years of their lives. In one sudden instant – the Fuck me! – It’s Beadle! moment of sick and tears, they were reunited with their lost person or persons. The shock was immense… What you saw were tears of happiness. They would remember that instant on their death beds and the release of tension from all those years of genuine anguish was genuinely immense. I never heard and I cannot imagine any punter complain about intrusion into their private moments. They were overwhelmed by happiness. They never thought they would meet that person/those people again… but Surprise! Surprise! found them.
Though, really, the research trick with Surprise! Surprise! was to choose people with not much ‘finding’ involved.
On one occasion, a woman had already found her long-lost friend in (I think it was) New Zealand and had even talked to her once on the phone. But there was no chance they would ever meet, because both were very poor and neither would ever be able to afford the cost of the flight. So we simply flew the friend from New Zealand to London, without telling the British punter and, with careful wording of the script, it was presented in such a way that we never said we had actually ‘found’ the long-lost friend in NZ but the unwary viewer would think we had.
Another person wrote in to say he wanted to be reunited with the Best Man at his wedding over 30 years before. They had lost touch (I never did find out why). The Best Man, said the punter, had worked at the Gas Board.
So all I did was phone up the Pensions section of British Gas, tell them the guy’s name and where he had lived/worked around rough dates and, almost immediately, they gave me his telephone number and address. Our punter had been searching for this guy for years. I found him within ten minutes with two phone calls.
Most items on the show, of course, took far more work and one thing we always did was check if anyone involved had any medical problems: we did not want people having heart attacks in front of the camera, whatever the Guardian might think.
On one particular show, I had arranged for a doctor who had always wanted to swim with dolphins to do so at Windsor Safari Park. He was in the studio during the recording of the show which included this film. Another (very efficient) researcher working on another item had flown over some long-lost relative from New Zealand for a big reunion with someone at the end of the show. She had checked if this aged guy from New Zealand had any medical problems. No, none, she had been told.
In fact, he had angina – a serious heart condition.
The guy was reunited with his long lost friend/relative (I can’t remember which) and immediately collapsed on the set. The legendary appeal went up:
“Is there a doctor in the house?”
Fortunately, my dolphin doctor man was sitting there in the audience and may well have saved the guy’s life.
On another occasion there was another more bizarre problem.
Reading through viewers’ letters, I spotted (because it was an unusual address) that a man had written to us wanting to spring a surprise on his girlfriend AND his girlfriend had separately written in wanting to spring a surprise on the boyfriend. They lived together but, reading between the lines, I guessed neither knew the other had written in to Surprise! Surprise!
And this was indeed the case.
So we were able to spring a double surprise within one item.
We sprang the first surprise on the girl with the boyfriend’s knowledge… and then we sprang the second surprise on the boyfriend. They both loved it…
…until a front page tabloid story appeared a couple of days after the show was transmitted.
Watching the show on that Sunday night had been the man’s wife, who had wondered where he had been for the past few years after he walked out on her and their two small kids.
To this day, I cannot begin to imagine how he thought he could appear in peaktime on network television in the country’s most successful entertainment show without being recognised and without any repercussions.
People’s levels of fantasy seemed to be fuelled by the show.
On one occasion, I set up an item featuring a man from Croxteth – a part of Liverpool not widely known for its law-abiding inhabitants. When I arrived at the man’s house to chat to him as part of the pre-production research, he asked me (genuinely shocked):
“Jesus! You haven’t parked your car round here, have you?”
He appeared on the show and, from what I remember, he was a very nice man indeed. The item went well and that was that…
Until, a couple of months later, the producer got a phone call from the police in Liverpool.
The man had been arrested for some crime and his alibi to the police was that, at the time of the crime (a couple of months after the show was transmitted), he had been filming in London with Cilla Black.
What on earth he thought was going to happen – that Cilla was perhaps going to perjure herself on his behalf or whatever – I cannot imagine.
A level of fantasy had been unleashed.
On another occasion, someone wanted to propose marriage on the show to his girlfriend. The (very efficient) researcher (not me) checked with the girls’ parents and friends. Everyone said she would say Yes like a shot.
On the show, she turned him down. Not once but (if memory serves me) three times. He was down on his knees; Cilla tried her best. But No. No. No.
When the couple came off set, the researcher apologised and explained we had arranged a slap-up meal for them both at an expensive restaurant after the show to celebrate their engagement. Obviously they would not now want to have the meal.
“Oh that’s fine,” said the no-longer-to-be-bride. “I will marry him, but I just didn’t want to say Yes to him yet.”
And off they both happily went to the restaurant.
People were never altogether averse to taking advantage.
One distraught father wrote in to Surprise! Surprise! trying to make contact with his long-lost daughter. We found her in Australia (we did quite a lot of Antipodean reunions because it sounded impressive and was expensive). We flew her in from Australia to be reunited with her long-lost father (who did not know she was there) in front of the studio audience and cameras. Backstage, before the reunion, she seemed a little nervous. This was not uncommon, but the researcher asked her if she was OK.
“Last time I saw him all those years ago,” the daughter explained, “he was standing in our kitchen threatening to kill my mother with a carving knife.”
On screen, the reunion went well. The man burst into tears and hugged the daughter but, when you knew the back story, you could see the daughter flinch as he embraced her. Our best bet was that she had figured out she did not want to meet him again, but that she would get a free flight to the UK and free hotel accommodation in London for a few days.
Surprise! Surprise! was well-named.
It sometimes surprised us as much as audiences and punters.