Channel Four’s other word game

Our Clip of Quizmas Past:

  • Quiz: Television Scrabble;
  • Presenter: Alan Coren;
  • Made by: Callender Company/Primetime Television in association with Celador Productions for Channel Four Television;
  • First shown: Monday 9th January 1984.

Words didn’t come easy in my formative years. My speech and language development was delayed but it didn’t stop me becoming the wordsmith I am today. At home, reading was (and still is) encouraged. A most cherished possession at Chez Vall is a copy of Spear Games’ Scrabble game.

With two children to look after (myself and my then baby sister), Scrabble was the antidote to some of ITV’s less iconic offerings for my father. On the 9th January 1984, Channel Four blurred the boundaries between TV and board games. Enter Television Scrabble, the UK’s first attempt at transcribing the word game to our television screens.

It was hosted by Alan Coren (that’s Victoria Coren-Mitchell’s deceased father to many of you), the late presenter who was quite a wordsmith himself with a self-effacing wit about him. He wrote for Punch magazine, The Observer and The Listener. His children: Victoria Coren-Mitchell and Giles Coren – who have both followed in their father’s footsteps.

Through today’s eyes, the computer graphics look very crude. Back in 1984, a computerised Scrabble board in full colour was groundbreaking stuff. Especially on a teatime television programme on Britain’s (then) newest TV channel. Compared with Psion’s version on the ZX Spectrum, a marked difference compared with the restricted palette on Sir Clive’s machine.

The rules of the game

The rules of Television Scrabble are faithful to the board game. That of Double and Triple Word and Letter Scores, a 50 point bonus for using all seven tiles, and a Challenge element. As seen in this edition, the UK’s Scrabble Champions are battling for supremacy against Annette Tinning and John Junkin. (Like Mr Coren, Mr Junkin was another wordsmith, albeit with a few comedy scripts under his belt).

Over the best part of half an hour, a single game was settled as part of a tournament. Our winners didn’t come away with any big money prizes. They played for the pride of being superb at Scrabble with a trophy for their troubles. A leather bound Scrabble game was given away as a consolation prize.

Same but different

In the summer of 1984, NBC premiered a TV version of Scrabble. It eschewed the formal, starchier approach of Channel Four’s programme in favour of a more quick fire quiz show. The American version has three rounds: a Crossword Round, Scrabble Sprint, and Bonus Sprint. Its original host was Chuck Woolery.

Using a similar format to the American version is Challenge TV’s effort, TV Scrabble. Presented by Toby Anstiss, it has (as you would expect in the noughties) flashier graphics and a signature tune by 10cc’s Rick Fenn. 103 episodes were aired between 2001 and 2003, making it the UK’s most successful transcription of Scrabble on episode numbers alone. If we consider viewing figures, Alan Coren’s Television Scrabble might have a slight edge.

In truth, Television Scrabble a la Coren was an acquired taste pitched at more seriously minded players. The sort who (like myself) prefer pub quizzes without the aid of a smartphone or Google. Give me sixty questions with an interval at the halfway point and some tasty homemade food after hearing the spare questions any day…

Next on The Ghost of Quizmas Past…

Did you get the connection with the Coren family before I mentioned it in this piece more fully? Tomorrow’s door looks at a quiz that Only Connect could owe a debt to. See you after the break.

S.V., 06 December 2022.

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