Saturday 18 May 2024

Back to Square One


In what is sure to be an election year in the UK the Prime Minister (at time of writing Rishi Sunak) is fond of saying that were the current Opposition (at time of writing, the Labour Party) to win then Britain would be “back to square one”.

Ah yes, back to square one, an idiom often used but whose origins seem to be uncertain. Look online and you’ll see references to the grid printed in the Radio Times to help describe the action during early football and rugby commentaries (note below). This seems credible until you hear what are admittedly early recreations of those commentaries and the second voice only just has time to say “Square 7, Square 5” etc.  Indeed why would play be described as going “back to square one”? Other suggestions are that it comes from the games of Hopscotch or Snakes and Ladders with the earliest print citation being as late as a 1952 UK Economic Journal which wrote "He has the problem of maintaining the interest of the reader who is always being sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders."

Anyway, all this is by way of saying that the derivation of everyday expressions and sayings would be ripe for the quiz format. And that is exactly what BBC Radio 2 offered over seven series and 54 programmes in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the quiz show Back to Square One.   


The premise was, according the chairman, the ever dependable Chris Serle, that “all the questions are about the origins of everyday words, well known expressions, superstitions, customs, places and pub signs and so on”. The programme was devised by author Graeme Donald who went on to write a number of books on history and the meaning of words.

A team captain throughout the run was author Leslie Thomas, a regular on radio panel shows such as Quote...Unquote, Hoax! and Trivia Test Match. For series one he’s joined by the queen of panel shows Barbara Kelly. For series 4 to 7 the other captain is Pam Ayres.  

Here’s the first ever edition from 9 December 1986 with Pam Ferris and Roy Kinnear joining the panel.

They make no mention of ‘back to square one’ itself but it did turn up in the fourth show – which I’m not uploading as the recording quality is poor. Needless to say they go for the football commentary definition.

Moving to 1988, for the third edition from the third series. Sheila Steafel is the other team captain for this series and she and Leslie are joined by Frances Edmonds and Bill Oddie. Writer Frances Edmonds was one of the regular panellists (8 appearances), others were Sid Waddell (10 appearances, including for two shows with Jeremy Hardy) and Bill Tidy (6 appearances).

Back to Square One finally ran out of steam in 1992 by which time many of Radio 2’s quizzes and panel games were getting the chop anyway. All the programmes enjoyed a worldwide audience on the World Service and selected programmes were repeated over on Radio 4 in 1991/92. 26 programmes were issued by the Transcription Service for overseas sales. 

Series Details

Series 1

9 December 1986 – 27 January 1989 (8 weeks) produced by Ron McDonnell

Team captains: Leslie Thomas (except weeks 5 & 7 John Dunn) & Barbara Kelly

Panellists: Roy Kinnear, Pam Ferris, Peter Moloney, Sheila Steafel, Benny Green, Sheila Hancock, Stephen Fry and Jessica Martin

Series 2

15 September 1987 – 3 November 1987 (8 weeks) produced by Ron McDonnell

Team captains: Leslie Thomas plus Lucinda Lambton (1&5) Katie Boyle (2.4.6&8) and Moira Stuart (3&7)

Panellists:  Moira Stuart, Peter Moloney, Jane Reed, Jeffrey Holland, Pam Ayres, Sid Waddell, Claire Rayner and Bernie Clifton

Series 3

26 April 1988 – 14 June 1988 (8 weeks) produced by Paul Z. Jackson

Team captains: Leslie Thomas and Sheila Steafel

Panellists: Jeffrey Holland, Noddy Holder, Jeremy Hardy, Sid Waddell, Frances Edmonds, Bill Oddie, Benny Green and Pam Ayres.


Series 4

13 June 1989 – 1 August 1989 (8 weeks) produced by Paul Z. Jackson

Team captains: Leslie Thomas and Pam Ayres

Panellists: Molly Parkin, Sid Waddell, Jane Reed, Bill Tidy, Maggie Fox, Jeremy Hardy, Frances Edmonds and Chris Stuart

Series 5

25 July 1990 – 12 September 1990 (8 weeks) produced by Paul Z. Jackson

Team captains: Leslie Thomas and Pam Ayres

Panellists: Dillie Kean, Sid Waddell, Sandi Toksvig, Bill Oddie, Bill Tidy, Helen Atkinson-Wood, Frances Edmonds and Peter Tinniswood

Series 6

30 October 1991 – 18 December 1991 (8 weeks) produced by Paul Z. Jackson

Team captains: Leslie Thomas and Pam Ayres

Panellists: James Reeve, Jessica Martin, Stephen Fry, Frances Edmonds, Sue Cook, Bill Tidy, Sid Waddell and Jane Reed

Series 7

17 November 1992 – 29 December 1992 (6 weeks) produced by Andy Aliffe

Team captains: Leslie Thomas and Pam Ayres

Panellists: James Pickles, Gill Pyrah, Angela Douglas, David Thornton, Natalie Wheen and James Reeve

Theme tune: A Fuguey Day by Johnny Hawksworth played the Ron Grainer Harpsichord Group (Chappell Music, 1966)

Note: Grids were first published in the Radio Times on 18 February 1927 one for football and one for ‘Rugger fans’.

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