'There was always a little snigger in the voice when they said "I'll have an E, please, Bob".' All part of the game for quiz show host Bob Holness

the Giles Smith interview
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The Independent Online
A little under two weeks from now, ITV will launch a new Saturday night quiz show calledRaise the Roof. The show occupies a position of unique importance in ITV's autumn scheduling. The BBC, thanks to the downmarket dip that has given us Pets Win Prizes and The National Lottery Live, has recently been cleaning up on the Saturday-night ratings front, a patch that ITV has frequently had cause to call its own. The National Lottery Live gathers 18 million viewers. The job of Raise the Roof is to lure them all away. To which end, the prize on offer at the programme's end is not, as usual, a glossy holiday or a wad of fresh tenners but, in a radical upping of the quiz show ante, an entire house worth in the region of pounds 100,000 and based in the region of Florida or the south of France or one of a number of other sun-drenched fantasy locales. Eat that, Anthea.

The man chosen to lead this armoured assault on the BBC's viewing figures would not, perhaps, float automatically to the top of your list of predictions. He is not some silver-suited cad, some carrot-topped eccentric or cocoa- tanned bimbo wrangler. At 65 he is, one might say, unfashionably old to be working at the top of a profession that tends to favour 17-year-olds, mentally if not physically. He is famous not for big Saturday-night work but as the at once avuncular and teacherly host of one hugely cultish tea-time quiz game, Blockbusters, which was axed by ITV in 1993, prompting a blitz of narked letters from schoolchildren, the elderly and the unemployed. What B is the host of Raise the Roof? Bob Holness.

Over a plate of salad in the centre of London, Bob Holness will talk me through Raise the Roof, but first he wants me to stop calling it a gameshow and start calling it a quiz show. This is a terrible gaffe to make, early on, with Bob Holness. It's like telling a classical composer - Sir Harrison Birtwistle, say - that you really loved the tunes on his last album. Holness distinguishes absolutely between the quiz format, where knowledge is rewarded (teacher's pets win prizes, as it were) and the hysteria of the gameshow, which is not Holness's kind of thing at all. "There are elements there I'm not fond of," he says, shaking his head soberly. "Physical elements. People having to put on an act, maybe be made a fool of." For his own viewing pleasure, Bob would always select Mastermind over anything involving Morris dancing or blancmanges, and Raise the Roof, he says is "a more pure quiz than any of those on television at the moment, I think."

Bob is wearing - rather to my surprise - an immaculate, open-necked green silk shirt, from inside which a substantial gold necklace occasionally flashes, and impressively uncreased slacks. But despite the natty showbiz threads, the aura he gives off is partly of black-and-white television sets, of Fifties-style formal broadcasting behaviour in keeping with his long years as a World Service presenter; and partly of Ealing film comedy, like Norman Wisdom shorn of 90 per cent of the mannerisms.

So, the quiz show Raise the Roof: "Six contestants," Bob says. He has begun talking in very short sentences to get the excitement across. "True or false questions. Very clever ones. Worth money. If they miss it, they zero out. Three with the most money go through. Second round. 'Bid and Break.' Category questions now, with bidding up to pounds 100. First to the button. Interruptions allowed."

By the time the commercial break comes round, the six have been whittled down to two. "Now it starts to get serious," Bob says. "A bit of gravitas here." The contestants are isolated from one another in sound-proof booths with headphones. (This is deliberately anachronistic, an attempt, according to Bob, "to capture some of that quality and style of the quizzes from the Fifties and Sixties".) They bid up to pounds 200 on the likelihood of their giving correct answers to categorised questions. Neither of them knows how the other one is doing until they emerge from the booth. A trophy for the loser? "Absolutely," Bob says. "They get what we call a Bob's Bungalow. It's a little model house thing."

The remaining contestant now goes for the real estate. "If they get it," Bob says, "chaos! They go mad. If they lose it, I'm the guy who has to say, 'Gee that's too bad'." This, Bob reckons, is why he got the job. "They thought I would be genuinely sympathetic with the person who loses. After all, it's a bit of a loss. Especially when you've got your whole family there, wanting to go to this home you're going to win - and you lose it." Bob looks reflective for a moment but then he brightens. "That's the drama, though," he says.

But might the prize not prove actually burdensome? After all, unlike, say, a teas-maid or Blankety Blank cheque book and pen, a luxury home in Florida brings with it all kinds of responsibilities - maintenance and so forth.

"They get to see the property," Bob explains. "And if they don't know what to do with it, we've got a team of advisers who will move in, take it off their hands, advise them what to do." (The "moving in" and the "taking it off their hands" were, I took it, intended metaphorically.)

So that's Raise the Roof. It does seem, as Holness describes it, to conform to the format for an old-fashioned question-and-answer show, albeit one in which the host emerges from an enormous pyramid. "It's a spectacular entrance," Bob says, unable to contain his glee. "It's Saturday-night- impressive, it really is." One other thing about the show: it's British. "It's not cadged from America," Bob says. "Even Blockbusters came from LA." But then, that giant prize might have tipped us off; it looks like the response to a particular British moment. With the National Lottery spraying millions around every week, you've got to offer something a bit more substantial than cheap white goods to fire the viewing imagination. Raise the Roof is the first post-lottery quiz show and doubtless not the last.

If any controversy spreads to Bob from the show (and you can see already the potential tabloid headlines: "Our Dream Prize Home Was House of Horror," Says Tragic Quiz Family) then it will not be for the first time in his career. Blockbusters was on the screen for 12 years (on ITV between 1983 and 1993 and then latterly on Sky, before coming to a halt last spring), during which time Holness suffered his share of bizarre accusations. For instance, more than one viewer complained that, in stretching his arm out to greet new Blockbusters contestants, Holness was in fact performing the Nazi salute.

Slightly different was the time the New Musical Express decided, with glorious randomness, to propagate the entirely false story that Bob played the saxophone break on Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street". Bob suddenly found himself answering the phone to newspaper reporters keen to ask about his hitherto undisclosed life as a rock session musician.

On Blockbusters, Holness asked questions according to the contestants' choice of letters on a honeycomb grid. An older man marshalling 16- to 18-year-olds, he was inevitably going to come across a little like a teacher (he was already the veteran of the radio quiz show Top of the Form, as well as the Granada television game Junior Criss Cross Quiz). And, like a teacher, he attracted pranks.

In particular, there was the famous "I'll have an E please, Bob" dilemma, wherein the terminology of the show allowed cheeky competitors to smuggle in a reference to the rave culture's drug of choice. "There was always a little snigger in the voice when they asked it," Bob says. "You could see the nudging and the grins and the chuckles. You knew what they were referring to, but they thought you didn't. I was asked what I thought of it and I said something like, 'I don't approve of it, but you take these things in your stride'. And then the stories came out - Quiz Show Host Furious. I was never furious. I just thought, oh gawd, here we go..."

There is a story that Bob sued the manufacturer of a T-shirt, emblazoned with the phrase and depicting Bob offering out a tab of Ecstasy. Bob informs me that this story is a distortion and that it was Central television who did the suing on the grounds of an infringement of design copyright, relating to the famous Blockbuster honeycomb.

"I'll have an E please, Bob" replaced "Can I have a P, please Bob?" which had modulated briefly into the "I'll have U please, Bob" variant, popular for a while with girls. And in that progression, one could chart, if one had a mind to, the sadly declining standards of the nation's youth. Nevertheless, Bob points proudly to the programme's popularity with the elderly and the retired. "I always call it the reassurance factor," Bob says. "They would pick up their papers in the morning and see youngsters stealing cars and beating up old ladies. And they would sit down in the evening at 5.10 and see the other side of the coin."

Anyone responsible for a television catchphrase finds that it follows them into the street, but Bob has probably endured this phenomenon more than most. Even the former Blue Peter presenter John Noakes - who must get more than his fair share of "sticky-back-plastic" grief - once declared he was glad he wasn't Bob Holness. Bob, though, seems to take an entirely sanguine view. He certainly doesn't guard himself against exposure. On the contrary, he had travelled to our interview on the bus and recounted how two elderly ladies seated behind him had whispered to each other "It's him!", before shouting, just as he got off, "Bring back Blockbusters!"

It may be too late for that now. The ITV Network Centre dropped the show because its viewing figures (6 million frequently) had dipped when the programme went "split-network" - ie, when it ceased to go out in every ITV region simultaneously and started at different times in different places. In the wake of its axing we glimpsed, just briefly, a slightly darker Bob. "It's an appalling move by a crappy company," he remarked at the time.

After Blockbusters, Holness wasn't looking for work in television. He had his Radio 2 slot - Bob Holness and Friends - and his World Service work. He considered himself partly retired and occupied himself with the large garden attached to his Victorian house near Harrow. (He bought it 34 years ago with his wife Mary, paying off the pounds 4,000 mortgage over 20 years, raising their three children there.) Then along came Raise the Roof. Bob Holness as victor of the ratings war? It would be Saturday-night- impressive.