When 3-2-1 Went Spooky


When you’ve made it your actual job to dissect television, it’s clear that most of it’s basically the same, with only loose variations on all the standard cliches and structures. That cannot be said of 3-2-1; ITV’s Ted Rogers fronted game show which caused baffled audiences to bleed profusely out of the ears for a decade. Based on a Spanish show called — of course — Un-Dos-Tres, it was half quiz, half light entertainment sketch show, as if Davro’s Sketch Pad had gotten shoved in the fly machine with the Zodiac’s ciphers. Its reputation is well-vaunted, and though Limmy’s done the business of comedically picking apart episodes on Twitch, I couldn’t not tackle it myself, especially with a pair of episodes so appropriately themed for this festive month, the first of which hails from September of 1978.

Like all comics from that era, Ted’s musky vibe was a thin veneer of avuncularity over the sense you were one wrong word from getting fucking lamped. A leathery complexion with hair which may or may not be a wig, his name was a perfect spoonerism for too much wanking, which he must’ve been great at, considering his nimble fingers. The thing best remembered from 3-2-1 is undoubtedly Ted’s special hand signal. It’s a rare show with a trademark gesture; Wacaday‘s Wac-a-Wave, the Blockbusters hand jive, Craig Charles’ Robot Wars kiss salute; but nothing captured the public’s imagination like Ted’s metacarpal catchphrase. First flashing three fingers, nail-side out, it’s a rapid turn into to two digits, with a final twist leaving us on a single raised index — 3-2-1!


Constantly showing it off, I’m surprised it’s not been picked up by conspiracy theorists as a secret signal to the Satanic Light Entertainment Illuminati (“the numbers add up to six; the same as if Billy Pearce joined the Grumbleweeds!”), but its beauty lay in the giddy thrill of being but one false move from flicking the vees and flipping the bird, hence why it became such a playground staple. However, all our heroes inevitably march into their graves on clay feet, and going through these displays frame by frame, behind the smoke and mirrors and blurring signet rings, it’s clear that most of the time, Ted actually performs a 3-3-1, or a 3-2-2. The half dozen times it’s done in this episode, he only lands a verified correct version once. If they’d had the pause-tech back then, this could’ve been television’s first big scandal.

The other thing everyone remembers is the notoriously nonsensical clues, with Ted’s explanations playing like 1960’s Batman solving a letter from the Riddler — “’Why didn’t the foolish Caped Crusader listen to my horse?’ What do horses have? That’s right, old chum; legs! And with legs you can run or walk or… climb on the sofa. What sounds like sofa if you aren’t really listening? Soda! Of course! Riddler means to blow up the old soda factory…” And Ted clearly sees himself as the Yorkshire Television Riddler; a string-pulling trickster who speaks like he’s recording a warning for Commissioner Gordon, from his very introduction, bedazzling us with wild alliteration. “As usual we have our packed package of prizes, personalities and puzzles, plus our prime prize, the car, but popping up will be a problem, our booby prize, Dusty Bin…


Ah, Dusty; 3-2-1‘s mascot, brand, and booby prize. A buck-toothed sentient dustbin (garbage can to American readers) in oversized Mickey Mouse gloves and a clown nose, he’s a sort of homeless R2-D2, trundling along on castors, but generally having to be led/steered across the studio floor by a female assistant holding his hand. Incredibly for his rinkydink nature, due to the day’s limited technology, Dusty cost £10,500 to build — in 1970’s money, too — although they must’ve recouped it with merchandise, with various ceramic, cuddly and clockwork Dusties, and even a novelty single sung by Ted, which would make a great b-side for Nookie’s Song. Fittingly, Ted opens the episode by holding up a photo of schoolchildren who’ve decorated some bins.

It’s an intimate set-up, with the audience sat on metal folding chairs, and in the era where everyone looked like a murderer, every dress, shirt and haircut is absolutely disgusting. Contestants are made up of three couples, including a man on whom all ’70’s porn producer’ fancy dress outfits were based. While most quizzes have a cast of one, this is a busy show, jam-packed with bodies, as Ted employs a group of hostesses — “gorgeous secretaries” — credited as The Gentle Secs, along with dancers, plus a repertory cast of comedians.


Ted’s extremely affable, bantering and crowbarring in jokes at every opportunity. One lady works in a hospital. “They do great work, hospitals,” says Ted. In round one, everyone has thirty seconds to name ten things in a given category, each of which are ludicrous; symbols you can make on a typewriter, nuts that are commonly eaten in the UK, or “major divisions of the compass.” They’re allowed to mime to each other, but these are scenes of blank-minded panic, all playing out under a Countdown-style ticking soundtrack filled with babyish whizzing noises, train whistles, and dog toy squeaks. There’s a great example here of 3-2-1’s needlessly complicated nature, with Ted’s introduction to a simple question.

We want fruit that you frequently find stored in the kitchen to be used in cooking, both dried fruit, and fruit that is preserved by sugar. We do not want the range of crystallised fruits that are eaten uncooked as a sweet meat, or tinned fruit, but dried and preserved fruit used in cookery. OK? So dried fruit, and fruit preserved by sugar…


It took him longer to say than they have to answer. Between guesses, we cut to another room, where “three frantic funsters” — Duggie Brown (brother of Lynne Perrie), Chris Emmett, and Debbie Arnold — honk on clown horns and tell history’s worst jokes. “Come on, Millard. You’re always telling us something’s the worst. We’re supposed to believe The Les Dennis Laughter Show would’ve turned its nose up at these? I’m not having that.” Right then.

Chris: “Waiter, there’s something funny about this crab!

Duggie: “Something funny? Impossible, the script writer just cooked it!”

Debbie: [honking on a literal horn]

Have you got a gag about cricket?

No, I’m stumped!

Debbie: “I went to the canary islands, and there were no canaries there!

Chris: “I went to the sandwich islands, there were no sandwiches!

Duggie: “Just my luck, I’ve just booked for the virgin isles!” [gurns an expression that says ‘What a pisser. I was really looking forwards to some sex-tourism!’]

This is where 3-2-1 really sets itself apart from other game shows. Though The Krypton Factor would use skits as part of an observation round, half this show’s given up to comedy sketches, played around the week’s theme. As implied by sexy lady-devils swinging their forked tails, the black balloons behind Ted, and its placement here as Halloween content, this week is ‘Horror’. The opening sketch is a glorious example of the basic spooky aesthetic which drew me in as a child, setting the tone for my adult tastes; the butterfly effect where a mad scientist sketch on Russ Abbot’s Madhouse leads to the creation of a scripted podcast about Bigfoots and the occult, thirty years on. A crash of lightning; candles and cobwebs, a skeleton; this is my happy place. Although, the actual sketch is dogshit, with a loose Munsters parody where Frankenstein’s mad his daughter’s planning a “mixed marriage” with a human. Her beau turns out to be Enoch Powell, timelessly voicing the opinion ‘that lot’ should be repatriated to Transylvania, which has Frank changing his mind; “he’s one of us!


This is an observation round, but incredibly, the questions aren’t read aloud, instead left on clipboards they have to fill out with a pen, while team-mates with spikes on their heads burst balloons decorated as boggle-eyed spiders with pipe cleaner legs. This means we have to sit through Ted going over each answer, like a badly-run pub quiz, before the losers are sent home with £150 and a silver photo frame, and the promise of a photo to fill it arriving by post shortly. It’s here we reach the meat of 3-2-1, over at “Ted’s treasure table.” To attempt to explain far more succinctly than they do on the show, after each sketch, they’re given an item (a “mcguffin”) and a cryptic clue. Each item represents one of six prizes, which they have to identify from the clues, and gradually eliminate from play, until all that remains is the one they’ll take home, aiming for the star prize of a car, and not the booby prize of a new dustbin. And then, Gotham shall fall!

They’re forced to endure a series of sketches; Macbeth‘s witches cackling round a cauldron, as they prepare a recipe from Jimmy Young’s cookbook; Dr. Finlay doing Jekyll and Hyde; Dracula as Larry Grayson — “Ooh, look at the muck on ‘ere (his coffin)! Everard, shut that tomb!” Each ends with the item and clue, such as this: “It’s a goodbye wave to transport delays, causing pleasure to be often spoiled. You’ll enjoy what you get, and the speed I’ll bet, but be sure that it hasn’t been foiled.” Sounds like the car! Or a bike? But let Ted explain. See, a pleasure often delayed by transport is an evening meal, and the prize is to be enjoyed at speed and never ‘foiled’, hence, quite obviously unless you are thick, a microwave. Although, it’s such a space-age device, a contestant incorrectly calls it “a microfilm oven,” and it’s wheeled out with a whole cooked chicken inside. “Done in about thirty seconds,” says Ted, who must’ve suffered some chronic diarrhea in his time.


The fantastical clues keep coming; Dracula giving wind-up teeth, Barry Sheen dropping by with a helmet; as do rejected prizes, used to taunt the contestants’ bad choices, and reading like the estate sale of a recently assassinated South American drug lord. This is the show that once gave away a live dog, and unclaimed prizes this week include a pair of motorbikes (almost crashed by a very nervous hostess), a £1250 handmade Chinese carpet, and a home sauna so big it has to be towed into the studio on an airport car. They do avoid the booby prize, as Dusty comes out in a cape with fangs drawn on and rubber bats attached to his lid. “He’s gone bats,” jokes Ted, pulling out a skull with a “must’ve come out of a scullery!

A ceramic Dusty Bin’s presented as a leaving gift for Duggie, off to star in his own sitcom, the most 1978-named sitcom of all time, Take My Wife, and then, with the luck of the Devil himself, the players actually win the car, a gross little poo-coloured thing. Keeping with the theme, we hop forwards to 1982, in an episode themed ‘Spine Chillers’. Now into a new decade, Ted practically dances his way down a staircase to shake the hands of old ladies in the aisle seats. His hair’s a boot polish black, and he just about nails a proper 3-2-1. In a running count for the episode, I pegged it as two done correctly, one completely wrong, and one half-arsed. But it’s looking good for Halloween, with Dusty done up in a big green Frankenstein head, and his handler, a “lovely lady” in a dress promising “some very scary surprises!” Hope Dusty’s not been sat outside Dennis Nilsen’s back door.


Meeting the contestants, it’s amazing how much fashions have simmered down in the intervening four years, transforming everyone from disco pimps to middle managers on a picnic. Ted reads off a piece of paper to introduce Martin and Michelle, and then seems to doubt himself. “Okay, Michelle… sorry, Michelle, isn’t it? Martin and Michelle. Michelle…” The quizzes have been streamlined, having to give the first name of actors while Ted throws surnames at them. Our opening sketch centres on two tourists in Transylvania. “They’re about to check out a blood count,” says Ted, unnecessarily adding in a Bela Lugosi voice “Count Dracula!

As with all the skits, it’s a crazily expansive set, decently recreating Tod Browning’s 1931 film, but wasted on a caped Henry McGee making puns about “wanting a bite” and singing “fangs for the memories!” which is a vampire joke I feel like I saw in a thousand Whizzer and Chips as a kid. Roundly, the most frightening thing on display is the amount of effort and resources, like an elaborate musical number about two bats — “oh what fun we have at midnight, we are definitely bats!” — which has a lengthy dance break with vamp ladies in negligees, like Pan’s People choreographed by Aleister Crowley, and a visual gag of a bat tap dancing with actual sink taps on his feet. It’s after a sketch where Quasimodo meets David Bellamy when I find myself punching the air at the greatest academic achievement of my life.


If the pit or the pendulum were your choice, you might leave empty handed, if your brains aren’t ticking over, with a minute prize you’ll be landed.” Alright, so… ticking. Pendulum. Minute (meaning small) but spelled the same as minute (time). Empty handed, i.e. not a watch. It’s a grandfather clock! Eat my dick, Ted Rogers, I’m the smartest man alive! The stupid contestants think it might be a holiday to Kenya, but we’ll see who’s right.

Before that can happen, players miss out on silver candlesticks and assorted silverware, though Ted softens the blow by telling the wife it would’ve been a lot of polishing for her. Then there’s a doomy magic trick with magician Jeffery [sic] Atkins, whose assistant is another elderly man, hypnotising a screaming woman and burning her alive in a box. It’s pretty naff, with quite clearly enough room for her to be safely laying in the bottom, but they win me over spectacularly when opening the box for this reveal.


They drop a broach on Ted’s table, with the clue “The lady’s not for burning, we’ve let the fire go out, within the dying embers, you may see what it’s all about.” Thatcher’s ashes? Let Ted walk us through it. Put the words “dying embers” together, and look at the new word you get. Gem, like the diamanté broach, which has the same initials as something you put ashes in — Dusty Bin.

You know, occasionally in my work rooting through pop culture’s time-hardened cesspit, I’ll come across something that’s formed from such an intense combination of my own interests, previous posts, and personal back catalogue of in-jokes, I worry I’m dreaming away my years in a coma. What happens next induces the strongest sensation yet of having fallen and hit my head while exploring the ruins of Blobbyland, and remaining unconscious ever since. The final sketch is launched via Ted doing a noise. It’s been a while, and perhaps we’ve all grown complacent, but he’s never truly gone, always lurking under the nation’s collective bed, waiting to cameo on old telly, leaping out like Freddy Krueger. That noise is the latest in a long-line of jump scares, as Ted makes the familiar ejaculating donkey bray while introducing a monster’s disco led by one “Boris Savile.” Happy Halloween, everyone! But this is just the beginning.


In Top of the Chops, a dance floor overflows with boogying horror staples; Dracula, the Mummy, Quasimodo, various zombies, skeletons and ghouls, and Dusty Bin cosplaying as Frankenstein. The biggest wraith of all is a comedian in a blonde wig and cigar, doing Boris Karloff as Jimmy Savile. Savile lashes a cat of nine tails at ragged men chained to the wall, while running down a pun-heavy Top 10 — Fangs Ain’t What They Used To Be — before a handing over to a musical number by Franz Drac and the Hairy Monster, called Happy Birthday Frankenstein. The odd pronunciation of “Frankensteen” signals there’s a rhyme coming up, like in The Anfield Rap, when John Barnes says his name like “Bar-nes” to make it fit with “crowd go bananas.”

As we cut to Dracula and the Wolfman singing their song, I begin to tap out a joke about Wolfie looking like Dave Lee Travis, when I realise it actually is Dave Lee Travis. This is the second sketch on these pages where DLT’s been a werewolf, and with the added presence of Savile, it’s another double Yewtree; extra potent in this, the month of evil. Dave’s hamming it up so much, hotdogging and jigging about, that I pay little attention to Dracula, until it slowly dawns that, beneath the pale facepaint and widow’s peak, it’s him; it’s Mike Read. Ready’s only miming the guitar, unable to unleash the full rock star within, but giving it his best, with lyrics like “the nastiest monster we’ve ever seen, Happy Birthday, Frankenstein!” (called it) They head over to the treasure table, where Ted earnestly congratulates DLT for winning Pipe Smoker of the Year, as he pretends to bite into a contestant, before Mike tells him he’s writing a biography of The Shadows.


Contestants reject the prize of double glazing, plus a holiday to “the land of the bat,” Transylvania, and Dracula’s castle. God, if I’d lost that, I’d have laid on the desk and begged Mike Read to chew straight through my neck. At least I have the pride of revealing that final riddle — “If the pit or the pendulum were your choice, you might leave empty handed, if your brains aren’t ticking over, with a minute prize you’ll be landed” — for the grandfather clock. Well, almost. It’s a wall-mounted clock and two gold watches, which must be a massive let-down when it’s all geared towards the car they’re obviously expecting. There’s no such disappointment for viewers, and even with its reputation, 3-2-1 is miles weirder than even history remembers, a combination of absolutely appalling comedy and cryptic riddles that seems to answer the question “what if the killer in Se7en was Syd Little?”

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as £1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on November 15, 2021.

3 Responses to “When 3-2-1 Went Spooky”

  1. “Boris Savile” eerily looks like a mutated combination of the now infamously departed one and the current PM, namely Scotland’s least favourite politician, human being and occasional visitor (a la the week previously), with even the identical dishevelled blond mop of hair, a deceptively affable, approachable public persona which in the previous case disguised far sinister motives, the present a sly, devious charlatan merely interested in self-promotion via his Etonian/Oxbridge contacts and networks. That is pretty horrifying when you think about it.

  2. I can see you doing a article on Jeremy Kyle for how scummy and laughing at freaks it was lol

  3. […] us Bob’s infamous wheezing and lumpen Noel. As grim warning, Addicts shares a director with 3-2-1 and every episode of Plaza Patrol, and its opening titles use the Davro’s Sketch Pad format […]

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