Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Hold Tight

The thrills available to a schoolchild are limited and boredom is almost always staring them in the face. All the real excitement in life comes a few years later, mostly upon admittance to pubs. But there is one beacon of hope for young teenagers: theme parks. It’s not that they are packed just with adrenaline fuelled rides. They are also the birthplace of fantastical teenage myths, most of which involve getting stuck upside down on a rollercoaster. Back in the realms of reality, theme parks can make for some exciting television. All you need is teenage rivalry and a gaggle of pop stars. Just make sure you Hold Tight

Set within the grounds of Alton Towers, Hold Tight is, initially, a combination of quiz show, pop music and interviews. The quiz sections, battled over by two schools, are made up of four rounds: general knowledge, anagrams, obstacle course and more general knowledge. Three team members are stood at a table and have to answer questions by rushing over to a board of tiles comprised of letters, numbers and colours. Meanwhile, over at a giant ‘snakes and ladders’ board, a further team member (later a teacher), gets to move along the grid with each correct answer.

But what goes on within the obstacle rounds? Well, they take full advantage of all the attractions and features of Alton Towers. The Blade pirate ship is used to test the balance skills of contestants by challenging them to keep as much water as they can in buckets while the ride is in full swing. Teams are required to use their arithmetic skills to answer a convoluted sum displayed on boards around the Corkscrew rollercoaster track. And there’s also an opportunity for grass-skiing where contestants slalom down a grass-based obstacle course.

The winning team, as you have probably guessed, is the one which is furthest along the snakes and ladders board by the end of the show. In charge of the quiz rounds are, throughout the multiple series, a number of hosts who include: Pauline Black, Colin Crispen, Bob Carolgees, Sue Robbie, Janette Beverley, Jacui Reddin and Michael Waterman. Also popping up in series one, to crack a few gags from a desert island, is Frank Carson whilst the fifth series finds Peter Simon hosting a music segment called City Lites featuring ‘live’ performances.

The music aspect of Hold Tight isn’t restricted simply to the City Lites sections There’s much more. All throughout the series there is an endless procession of pop stars and musicians. Most notably there are big names such as Spandau Ballet, Bananarama, Public Image Ltd and Dexy’s Midnight Runners on offer. But there’s also room set aside to highlight up and coming hopefuls such as The Bodines, Hipsway, King and Natasha. The performances, which are all mimed, take place in various locations around Alton Towers.

The format remains, aside from a few minor changes, consistent throughout Hold Tight. Until the final series. And then it changes beyond all recognition. The quiz and presenters are gone, almost written out of history. In their place is an increased emphasis on the world of music with more performances and ‘Chatterpopz’ interviews conducted by Barbie Wilde. It’s almost entirely music based save for the exploits of Lord Noze (John Gorman) and his butler Gruffbottom (Graham Stark) in spoof soap opera The Altons.

The rollercoaster-fuelled antics of Hold Tight were produced by Granada Television over the course of six series. Episodes, which were between 20 – 25 minutes long, aired as part of the late afternoon Children’s ITV schedule. Stephen Leahy, who served as producer and then executive producer for the first five series, throws his mind back to the beginnings of Hold Tight:

“I was head of children’s at Granada and we had a slot at 4.20pm going on the network. The children’s schedule was carved up in such a way that we had obligations to big stations and so I had a list of slots to fill in a year. And it was down to myself to find programming to fill them. Anyway, we wanted to make an outside broadcast, the studios were jam packed and it made sense to shoot a summer series on location. Luckily I had met a guy called John Broome, who owned Alton Towers back then, and they made it very attractive for us to go there as they offered us free facilities. They built an arena for us and then we moved in and put up the snakes and ladders tower. It became an attraction.

With the recording, we couldn’t start until all the coaches had arrived and the park was filling up. So, in the morning, we would rehearse all the links and presenter bits. Then the teams would arrive from the schools and we could shoot them running round the grounds. Once the crowds were in we would literally fill up the arena instantly. Then, for example, we’d record Culture Club performing and then that crowd left and, 45 minutes later, we were ready to do the quiz and the arena filled up again. We all stayed at local pubs in the area whilst filming, so it was very jolly. Very happy times. And, by and large, we were very lucky with the weather”

If there’s one detail of Hold Tight which stands out in people’s memories it’s the giant snakes and ladders board. And it’s a striking visual. The huge cobras, which only arrived in the second series, are menacing creations and make for an eye-catching centerpiece. But these serpents are only a small part of what is a fun, fast paced quiz. Entertainingly simple, the tile grabbing sections are relentless affairs which would provide endless nightmares to modern health and safety officers. The obstacle courses, meanwhile, help the competitive aspect to embrace variety.

Strengthening the variety at the heart of Hold Tight are the interview sections which are peppered throughout the episodes. And, diversifying the content even further, these interviews cover a wide range of topics. Guy Henry pops up to discuss his upcoming role as Young Sherlock. American football team Manchester Spartans are on hand to discuss the ins and outs of touchdowns. And Sue Robbie, following her departure from the series, comes back to discuss her current schedule as she takes a ride on The Blade. Again, these features are quick and prevent any wholesale boredom taking hold.

Where Hold Tight really impresses is with its musical output. And coming from Granada, fine purveyors of pop music on television, this should be somewhat of a given. Accordingly, Hold Tight commits to this expected excellence with a grand roster of bands at the peak of their powers. But there’s also room, alongside Boy George and Bad Manners (who wrote the theme tune), for those more curious bands which never quite made it in the pop charts. And, for any music fan, you’re almost guaranteed to come away with a plethora of obscure bands to investigate.

At the helm of all this content is a crew of competent, engaging presenters. Dealing with huge crowds of children and the logistics of an outside broadcast is a monumental challenge, but it’s plain sailing for the presenting team. Bob Carolgees, who occasionally brings out Spit the Dog, is most readily associated with the series, but there’s still room for everyone else to put in an admirable shift. Even Colin Crispen, in what was his first (and seemingly only) television job after leaving teaching, brings a slick, clean cut air to the proceedings.

The final series, with its many changes, feels like a misstep. The music features are, as ever, superb insights into the 1980s music scene. And the interview with John Lydon, where he cheekily denounces Hold Tight as a farce, is priceless. But the lack of established presenters and forgettable trials of Lord Noze lead to a rather hollow viewing experience. Thankfully, the preceding five series of Hold Tight had brought enough excitement and high-grade pop coverage to leave a worthy legacy.

1 comment:

  1. I just discovered this show after reading Pauline Black's autobiography Black By Design. Otherwise I don't think I'd ever have found out about it. There don't seem to be many clips of it on YouTube either.

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