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Bullseye was more than just speedboats – it was a record of the working-class being left behind

Ahead of his documentary being released for the 40th anniversary of the darts game show Bullseye, James McMahon writes how the TV series was more than just light entertainment.

For a time there, I wasn’t doing so good. OCD, which for years I’d managed – just about, to a degree – had rendered me incapable of leaving the house. All I did was sit on my couch and think, a life hijacked by thought. I thought. I felt sad. And every night, at 2am, I watched Bullseye.

I’d loved Bullseye as a kid, the darts-based quiz show that celebrated its 40th birthday this year. I wasn’t alone; at its peak, somewhere in the mid-Eighties, the Central TV show boasted a viewership of over 20 million. Contestants came for the audacious prizes – most famously, a speedboat! They stayed for the warmth, kindness, and community. Every night on the couch, I retreated to the comfort of a childhood pleasure. As my mind raged against me, I lost myself in the memory of a simpler time.

When I got better, the BBC let me make a documentary about Bullseye to celebrate its 40th year. With that came a budget to visit the show’s former contestants around the UK.

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Those reruns of Bullseye on Challenge TV didn’t just deliver nostalgia but harked back to a time that just seemed kinder.

These days, it’s not unusual to see a prime-time gameshow in which a squirming celebrity is asked to eat a kangaroo penis or is doused in cockroaches. There on the TV, the warm glow of the screen illuminating the darkness, Bullseye host Jim Bowen patiently engaged with the contestants – asking them about the realities of their lives. I recall two brothers, both striking miners and obviously strapped for cash.

Hard times for humble people. Jim might as well have thrust the evening’s prize money into the pair’s hands within minutes of the show starting.

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“Dad wanted to create a game show that everyone could play,” I was told by Laura Wood, daughter of Bullseye creator Andrew Wood, when I interviewed her for my documentary.

“Anyone that came on the show, there was the set time of getting to know the contestants. Bullseye at that time was only a half-hour show. So, to dedicate set time where you would get to know the contestants was actually valuable time. Fast forward 15, 20 years, game shows are now on average an hour in length. And you never get to know the people playing.”

I spent an afternoon in Sheffield with Kev and his brother-in-law Roger. We talk about the economic deprivation of South Yorkshire in the Eighties. They laugh about their silly feathered haircuts while Roger teases Kev for the questions he bumbled all those years ago. The pair appeared on the show in 1984 and won a caravan. The glee of doing so endures almost 40 years later.

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“That caravan changed my life! It really did,” says Kev, “because I was renting a house at the time, and because we got this caravan and sold it and got a lump sum, I was able to afford a house! And that’s enabled me to retire at 60. Because I haven’t got to pay a mortgage! Bullseye did that, it put me on the ladder.”

Ultimately, my journey into the bowels of Bullseye revealed many things. It taught me that ‘Bendy Bullys’, the rubber toy depiction of the shows rotund bovine mascot, look horrifying when they’ve spent 40 years exposed to sunlight. But principally, it left me thinking that Bullseye – by accident, but maybe a tiny bit of design – wasn’t just a darts show, but a document of working-class communities ultimately being left behind by globalisation.

Which should have left me feeling sadder but watching that grainy footage of Kev and Roger bouncing around, screaming with joy, Jim in a headlock, as a brand-new caravan lurches into view… well, it certainly hit the spot.

Look At What You Could Have Won airs on BBC Radio 4 on December 20 at 8pm. It’s repeated at 11am on December 24 @jamesjammcmahon

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