Bob Holness: Broadcaster and actor treasured for his role as the avuncular host of 'Blockbusters'


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The Independent Online

The television game show Blockbusters gave Bob Holness a cult following amongst younger generations after he had already clocked up almost 30 years in broadcasting.

As quizmaster, he posed general-knowledge questions to 16- to 18-year-olds based on letters chosen from the hexagons on the game board, with contestants trying to complete a path across it and progress to the Gold Run bonus round.

There would be sniggers and nudges when one of the teenagers thought they were introducing risqué cheek in the presence of a teacher-like "old duffer", but Holness was unperturbed.

"You've got to smile whatever happens in my job," he once said, "but that's not really a problem because I'm genuinely well disposed towards people anyway. I don't even get cross when people say, 'Can I have a P, please, Bob'."

That particular joke progressed to: "Can I have an E". Holness told The Independent in 1995: "You knew what they were referring to, but they thought you didn't."

Following a 1982 pilot, Blockbusters ran on ITV from 1983 to 1993 and for a further series on Sky One the following year, with Holness clocking up more than 1,300 episodes as presenter.

There were also four series of Champion Blockbusters (1987-90), with Gold Run winners doing battle against each other. The BBC and Sky later revived the series briefly, without Holness, and the game-show channel Challenge is planning a new run this year.

Such was the fame that Holness enjoyed that he even became the subject of a humorous myth, taken seriously by some, that he played the saxophone solo on the 1978 Gerry Rafferty hit single "Baker Street". Broadcaster Stuart Maconie claimed to have invented the "fact" in a "Believe It Or Not" column during his days as a writer on the NME, although others have also said they perpetrated it, including the real musician on the record, Raphael Ravenscroft.

Holness was born in South Africa but brought up in Ashford, Kent, after his family moved to Britain when he was just one year old. He attended Ashford Grammar School, Maidstone College of Art and Eastbourne College, before taking a job with a printing company.

Deciding to return to South Africa with his parents, he found work there as an actor and radio presenter, as well as marrying Mary Clifford, an actress, in 1955. A year later, he became the second actor to play James Bond, taking the role in a radio adaptation of the Ian Fleming novel Moonraker.

He moved back to Britain in 1961 once commercial television was established and joined the ITV company Granada, in Manchester, presenting the regional news, narrating World in Action, reading newspaper extracts for What the Papers Say and taking bit-parts as an actor, as well as being one of 10 presenters of Junior Criss Cross Quiz over its long run (1957-67).

Holness was seen across the country when he hosted Granada's quiz show Take a Letter (1962-64), in which contestants had to fill in the blanks on a crossword grid to win prizes.

In 1968, he became Eamonn Andrews's stand-in as presenter of Today, the news programme launched by the new ITV London weekday franchise holder, Thames Television. He was heard but not seen as the announcer for the BBC game show The Generation Game from 1971 to 1982, and narrated educational, training and travel films.

Throughout his years on television, Holness continued to work in radio. He became "the voice of Radio Luxembourg", signing off every night with the words: "Whether at home or on the highway, thanks for tuning my way."

Then, in 1964, he joined the BBC Light Programme, hosting Midday Spin, Housewives' Choice, Swingalong and Roundabout. When the BBC launched Radio 1 in 1967, he was one of the original team of DJs and became a presenter of the weekday chat show Late Night Extra, which moved to the Light Programme's successor, Radio 2, four years later.

Then, he enjoyed 10 years (1975-85) as co-host of the AM Programme on LBC, the London news and information station, with Douglas Cameron. The pair were jointly named Independent Radio Personality of the Year in both 1979 and 1984.

Holness returned to Radio 2 (1985-97) to host Bob Holness Requests the Pleasure and Bob Holness & Friends. He was also a presenter for 35 years on the BBC World Service, where his shows included the request programme Anything Goes.

After Blockbusters ended, Holness hosted the Saturday-night television quiz show Raise the Roof (1995-96), with contestants answering "true or false" questions to win a foreign home, although the programme enjoyed only a short run. He subsequently presented the revived game show Call My Bluff (1996-2002), screened in daytime schedules.

Holness suffered the first in a string of strokes in 2002, but, after a year's recuperation, continued to take up offers of voiceover and charity work. In 2004, he appeared in Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway when it recreated Blockbusters, complete with the original set. Holness presented the last round, with Ant as a contestant.

His two daughters enjoyed some success in the music business, Carol as the singer-songwriter Nancy Nova and Rosalind singing with the pop group Toto Coelo, who had a Top 10 hit with "I Eat Cannibals" in 1982.

Robert Wentworth John Holness, broadcaster and actor: born Vryheid, Natal, South Africa, 12 November 1928; married 1955 Mary Clifford (one son, two daughters); died 6 January 2012.