What’s My Line from a British Perspective

In this series of articles, Jamie Dyer gives a British perspective on some vintage game shows from America. Many of these famous formats will have had UK interpretations, but the focus here is on the original US versions; most of which were never broadcast officially in the UK. This week, the spotlight turns to the classic format What’s My Line?

The original American version of What’s My Line? debuted on CBS in 1950. Newsreader John Charles Daly served as the host of the show, presiding over a celebrity panel’s questioning of contestants and mystery guests. The gameplay of the show was very simple. panellists ask yes-or-no questions to mystery guests to determine their occupation. The guest could only respond with “yes,” “no,” “sometimes,” or “I don’t know.” The panellists took turns at questioning until they either guess the occupation correctly or use up a set number of questions. The panel’s objective is to identify the guest’s profession within a limited number of inquiries. The series came to an end in 1967, before being revived a few times since.

What’s My Line? is as iconic in Britain as it is in America. The BBC version of the 50s and 60s, hosted by Eamonn Andrews, is fondly remembered. So too are the panellists such as Gilbert Harding. This is all despite the fact that the majority of this series is wiped. The various revival series that followed have also rarely been seen in 30 years, as the rerun of a classic game or panel show isn’t as prominent in this country as it once was. The American version, however, is available in abundance via YouTube and US rerun networks.

It was on Amazon Prime that I first discovered the show. Buzzr, a network which showed What’s My Line?, had uploaded twenty episodes to the streaming service. My wife and I gave it a go because we knew the format, but weren’t expecting what came next; We devoured the episodes very quickly. I had seen one of the existing BBC episodes during a season on BBC4, but that paled in comparison to the US version. Our interpretation appeared slow, stuffy and very middle-class. Daly and his panellists, although admittedly formal, were quite the opposite. Since then, we’ve gone on to watch dozens of episodes.

American television can sometimes come across as loud, brash or unintelligent to British audiences, but this show doesn’t fit into that. It’s more like the last moments of a formal dinner party that has turned a bit hysterical. From Bennett Cerf’s puns to Daly’s long-winded strained explanations to Dorothy Killgallen’s competitive play and the audience’s laughter at innocent innuendos; This show is a joy from start to finish.

In my opinion, the golden age of the show was the years in the mid 50s when the main celebrity panellists consisted of Bennet Cerf, Arlene Francis, Fred Allen and Dorothy Killgallen. There was a chemistry there which was electric, and generated a fun atmosphere. The vibe reminds me of the 70s era of Radio show Just a Minute, where four regular contributors complimented each other so well, that the show was never the same after they were gone.

To stick to the comparison for a second, Daly could be compared to Parsons quite easily; Formal in appearance to play as a comedy straight man to the panellists, but loose enough to join in when necessary. Daly had been one of the news anchors to report on Pearl Harbour in 1941 yet this unlikely role suits him well.

Another aspect of the show was the Mystery Guest, usually a well known celebrity who had to fool a blindfolded panel as to their identity. A plethora of stars and notable people wrote their name onto that distinctive chalkboard; A small list includes Walt Disney, Fred Astaire, Dennis Day, Jack Benny and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It was even great fun when an absent panelist would make an appearance, such as when Fred Allen tried to hide his distinctive voice with a glass! If I’m honest, this part of the show has intrigue value retrospectively, but doesn’t match the comedic heights of general play.

When watching the British version, I often become frustrated at the miming of an occupation. It seemed to limit what could be covered. The American version had the odd mime, but it’s hard to make one for an occupation as curious as “Makes eyeglasses for chickens”. The sometimes random nature of the job made misunderstandings common, and the audience only added to it.

Conclusion: It is quite astonishing that a show from sixty-five plus years ago still has a lot going for it. The format is timeless, and the American execution way back when still holds up. The show is polite, but still holds enough human energy to continue to be relatable. What’s my Line is available to watch on YouTube.

Jamie Dyer

Jamie Dyer is an experienced writer, broadcaster, musician and social media marketer. He enjoys Old Time Radio, vintage TV, collecting vinyl and supporting the New York Knicks.

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