I can't think of a more fun and welcoming subject at school than drama. It was the one lesson a week where you were guaranteed no homework, no discussion of the intricacies of French nouns, no breathless exercise, but you were promised more fun than you could shake a stick at - this is why no one ever skipped drama.
Now, I'm not trying to reduce drama teachers to mere purveyors of frivolity. Far from it in fact, as drama is a crucial area of education which breeds confidence and allows children to express themselves through a wide range of methods. In fact, drama was always the one lesson at school where even the particularly shy kid who smelt of mothballs (there was always one in every year) got their moment to shine and garner a rare applause from their peers.
And this is why the idea of a TV show which embraced this rich vein of enthusiasm and expression made so much sense that we got The Wall Game.
Transmission: 1985 - 1986
The Wall Game was a game show which featured a giant wall of interlocking blocks, but this was no ordinary jigsaw wall. In fact, as presenter Hal Lehrman announced, "This is the wall and with imagination you can build anything".
However, it was much more than just Hal, his imagination and a wall - an intriguing concept, but one with a rather narrow audience. That's why Hal was teamed up - for the first series - with Sinitta, Antony Johns and Helen Bennett to aid with the presenting duties and fostering the exploration of the imagination.
But whose imagination were they trying to explore and stimulate? Well, with it being a children's show it would be ridiculous to omit those little guys and, sure enough, various schools despatched minibuses packed full of their pupils to star in The Wall Game.
A series of rounds progressed which encouraged the contestants to improvise with the blocks from the wall to unlock the identity of that week's theme. Also lending clues towards discovering the theme were sections such as 'Fascinating Facts' and various sketches acted out by the presenters.
The themes on offer ranged from city dreams through to Noah's Ark onto Ancient Egypt and even the crazy world of space travel. With the week's theme identified, it was time for the contestants to really put their drama skills to the test by writing a play and then acting it out with the help of the wall's blocks.
The second series differed slightly, but only that the presenting lineup changed with Deborah Goodman, John Ramm and Andrie Reid becoming Hal Lehrman's fellow presenters. This series also featured celebrity guests being called up to the plate to assist and these included Bonnie Langford, Tessa Sanderson and Duncan Goodhew - an 80s ensemble if ever there was one.
Building the Wall
The Wall Game was a Thames Television production which aired on ITV between 1985 - 6 and chalked up 25 episodes over the course of two series. The first series aired on Tuesday afternoons with the second series going out on Wednesdays.
Now, despite being a British production, the seeds of The Wall Game were actually sown around 3,500 miles away in the USA as Lehrman remembers:
"Several years before coming to England I auditioned and was chosen by Marjorie Sigley to be part of her repertory theatre known as City Centers Young People’s Theatre. The City Center is one of the major theatres in Manhattan and Sigi had created this special concept after her years of development in England.
We had a wonderful theatre space in this iconic building that was created for and used all year round by Sigi and the company. The concept was brilliantly conceived and functioned in three parts:
Part 1: An original but incomplete play based on a theme (Noah’s Ark, American Folk songs, Homer’s Odyssey, fairy tales….etc.
Part 2: The audience is divided into groups, each group goes into rehearsal with two of the actors to create a follow through inspired by Part 1.
Part 3: The audience returns and takes their place on the stage and each group performs and enjoys the performance of the other groups.
There are no winners. The joy of performance and the appreciation of the entertainment that is the reward.
It was a great pleasure working with Sigi. There were many talented actors who passed through, but pursuing their acting careers moved them on. Most notable perhaps was Kathy Bates who was Columbine to my Harlequin! I was fascinated by Sigi’s work and stayed with her. We branched out to different venues. We toured schools, working with challenged children as well"
And it was this idea - incubated in Manhattan - that Sigi wanted to transfer from the stage to the screen back in Britain. Hal Lehrman recalls this period:
"When Sigi returned to England and wanted to translate her vision to a TV show it was natural that she called on me. She entrusted me with everything that happened in front of the camera except for costume and music.
We had had years of experience. We knew what we were doing. We toured schools throughout England, engaging whole schools as a way of selecting the groups that would end up on camera.
Sigi did the hard lifting when it came to getting the ITV commissioning. I was pampered; all I had to do was the fun work!"
Scaling the Wall
The Wall Game arrived a year or two early for me to remember, so although there's a chance I watched it, any clear recollection is lost to the mists of time. Thankfully, my Twitter followers have created a curious online consciousness where every British TV show is remembered in at least some way, shape or form.
And, during one of my many late night Twitter chats on the forgotten curios of children's TV, I was alerted to the existence of The Wall Show. Clear memories were scant and far between, but YouTube yielded an episode and it was my duty to get all investigative, a bit like a retro TV Sherlock Holmes, but without a deer stalker.
The first thing that stands out is the visual aesthetics of The Wall Game. Despite being housed within a typically nondescript mid 80s studio, designer Jane Krall has transformed it into a striking set thanks to the huge wall which dwarfs the presenters and children. There's a curious pastel colour theme going on with the set which is quintessential 1980s style and also extends into the fashion on offer...
Antony Johns is clad in a most remarkable pale blue jumpsuit which rivals anything seen in the most cheesiest pop video of the time whilst the other presenters are dressed up in an array of whites and pinks. It's the 1980s, of course, so it's difficult to be harsh on the fashions and, if anything, it acts as a celebration of what was a particularly challenging (see Kajagoogoo), yet extravagant (see Kajagoogoo again) decade of fashion.
Foreign accents on British TV shows were rare beasts in the 1980s, but even more so within British children's TV shows. And that's why it's so refreshing to see Lehrman at the helm with his smooth and assured accent coating The Wall Game with a glitzy transatlantic sheen which most children's shows of the time were simply light years away from.
"It was great and I made great friends.And I learned how to drink and play snooker!"
And, perhaps due to the American origins and input, The Wall Game has an undeniable American flavour infusing its production. The clean, crisp feel of the sets combined with the big 'show song' refrains help to solidify Lehrman's Manhattan charms and make you feel like you've wandered into a Broadway rehearsal space clutching a Dr Pepper and some pastrami on rye.
There's also an incredible sense of energy thanks to the fantastic direction by Stan Woodward which takes in plenty of flowing pan shots to capture movement and quick cuts to convey a sense of frenetic energy. It makes for a watch which is both stimulating and unparalleled for the mid 1980s in terms of production.
Whilst this is all very stunning visually, what's the actual content like?
Well, as with all game shows, the contestants are having more fun than the viewers, but The Wall Game, like all the very bet children's TV shows, is there to foster creativity and expression. Sure, most children don't have access to a giant wall - and those that do shouldn't try and demolish it - but there's a whole world around them to explore.
For example, head to the kitchen cupboard, get out all the pots and pans and you can create a rock band with a full set of instruments or head to the bathroom and create an underwater adventure. And it's this sense of creative exploration which breeds confidence in youngsters and can even give them the acting bug for life or, sometimes, it's just an excuse for glorious childhood fun.
If confidence was important for the viewers at home, it was also crucial for The Wall Game to operate as Lehrman reflects:
"That is all that we were about. Sigi inspired confidence. When we worked at Thames it really was all in my hands but that was after years of absorbing her attitude that could be encapsulated by her instruction to me the first day we worked together.
She called me to do a performance at the O’Neil Theatre in Connecticut. I had no idea what we were going to do, which of course concerned me. What Sigi said that day stuck with me forever! “Something will happen!” That courage she imparted is essential for the work with children"
Children, as we all know, are unpredictable balls of emotions, so I asked Lehrman how he found working with such a young cast:
"Working with children and discovering which ones can take over, which ones need to be given the courage to shine, those were the skills that we needed from all of the actors that we hired.
The audition process to find the actors needed to test them beyond their performance skills. Its a talent and it requires loving what children are able to access and perceive.
The skill of the actor/director working with the children at the speed that we needed for The Wall Game, is to spot, crystallise and organise all the wonderful things that the kids come up with, without making them shy or, for some, amplifying what may be very delicate"
Naturally, it's a rare schoolchild who has the same writing chops as Samuel Beckett or David Mamet, but spurred on by the creative endeavours of the early rounds, the final section finds them writing fully fledged narratives which is a testament to the skills of Lehrman and his fellow presenters. And these final play sections were genuinely the result of the children alone as Lehrman confirms:
"It really was the children. The actors functioned as directors bringing out and capturing theatrically viable moments. None of it was “scripted”. None of it was written down and we had no idea what the day would produce! “Something would happen!”
This was great training for me as well as I have continued to act, teach and direct. That quiet moment before inspiration hits is something one has to learn to be comfortable with!"
The Wall Game is an incredibly 1980s British children's TV show, but feels very different to its peers due to it's genesis being forged in the theaters of the USA. And it carries that trademark American slickness to elevate it above more shoddy productions of the era and create a striking visual spectacle thanks to it's superb direction.
More importantly, just like drama lessons at school, it's an enjoyable romp which carries much hidden learning by tapping into the creative potential of the children taking part in the show and the viewers at home who are just itching to explore their capabilities. If only every area of learning could be so much fun then perhaps I'd be writing this in fluent French with all the right nouns...