The Games Return

The emotional 1982 International Final, when Jeux Sans Frontières closed shop seemingly for good was undoubtedly the end of an era. The traditional Christmas specials involving former JSF participants and celebrity teams continued for a couple of years, despite the absence of the series proper, the French revived Intervilles for a summer season in 1985 and the BBC took their last two throws of the It's A Knockout dice by broadcasting a Royal Knockout event, The Grand Knockout Tournament in 1987 and a bizarre finale at Walt Disney World, where British celebrities and sportspeople took on their counterparts from Australia and the USA. But to all intents and purposes, It's A Knockout was dead in the water from 1982 on in the UK. Unless, of course, you were Welsh, for Wales would figure in the history of Jeux Sans Frontières again. Intrigued? Then read on...  

Guido Pancaldi returns to launch the new JSF...Just as Britain's love affair with IAK and JSF drew to a rather odd, Disneyfied close in 1988, their friendly former rivals were celebrating a successful new dawn for Jeux Sans Frontières on the Continent. Returning as a five-nation championship with several innovative updates over the old format, the series boasted teams from JSF veterans France, Italy, Belgium and Portugal with new entrants Spain rounding out the contest. As a link to the original series, the fondly remembered Guido Pancaldi (pictured, right) returned in his familiar guise as chief referee - though sadly without original series partner, Gennaro Olivieri. Interviewed in Téléstar magazine in July 1988, Guido paid tribute to his friend and former colleague. "With Gennaro, one belongs to the landscape [of Jeux Sans Frontières]. Referees are a necessary evil. We are lightning conductors!" he remarked. Guido returned for the 1989 series before retiring to be replaced by Denis Pettiaux and others.

Collage of scenes from 1995 JSF opening sequenceThe series format itself received something of a spicing up. Guido was quoted as saying that this was a necessity. "We have games of friendship, betting, surprise games and the intervention of the computer, therefore chance." As something of an experienced hand at JSF, Guido was pleased to note that the new innovations worked well and that the cameraderie of the teams was excellent.

As the series evolved throughout the Nineties, many competing nations joined, while some of the oldest names left. By 1992, long-time fans of the series found themselves mourning the withdrawal from the competition of two nations that had both been there from the very start in 1965 - Belgium competing for the last time in 1989 and France three years later. Belgium had performed well in the new JSF, particularly in 1988 where they won four contests out of a total of nine, but France never quite seemed to get up to their golden era standards, winning only two single heats in five years. To replace them, there were many names new to Jeux Sans Frontières - Greece, Spain, San Marino, Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic, Tunisia, Hungary, Malta and Slovenia - and others more familiar to ardent JSF fans - Switzerland, Netherlands, Portugal and finally, Wales, who had previously entered teams under the Great Britain banner between 1967 and 1982. The Welsh participated between 1991 and 1994, with transmissions on the S4C Channel in Welsh. Sadly this channel is regional rather than national, so very few JSF fans in England and Scotland could receive the transmissions. Fortunately, many of these editions have been subsequently transmitted (with freshly recorded English language commentary by Stuart Hall) on cable/satellite channel, Challenge TV, available throughout Great Britain. The original Welsh language programmes were presented by Nia Chiswell and Iestyn Garlick with Johnny Tudor joining for the 1994 International Final from Cardiff.

Collage of scenes from 1999 JSF opening sequenceNineties Jeux Sans Frontières was tantamount to musical chairs, then, with it being impossible to predict from one year to the next exactly who would be competing. Generally, the reasons for dropping out were financial, as in 1982 - this curse still haunted JSF even though towards the end of the Nineties, format changes were implemented to combat rising costs. These included, from 1996 on, having all the heats take place in a single location. However, for every team that dropped out, there was usually another country waiting in the wings to replace them.

Other format changes were often harder for audiences to follow. The scoring system seemed to change rather too regularly, and occasionally score aggregating and the like became a little over-complicated. This latter situation was due directly to the cost-cutting as individual teams would often compete in more than one heat each year.

However, it has to be said that some of the Nineties events were among the most lavish and visually striking of any Jeux Sans Frontières competition. The opening heat of 1993, from Bodelwyddan Castle, Rhyl in North Wales, for instance, is a fan favourite with highly impressive games, sets and costumes based around Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The various opening title sequences were computer generated (see right for the 1999 sequence and above left for the 1995 one) and were definitely a leap forwards from the primitively animated sequences from the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties... though somehow the music that accompanied the sequences during the 1988-99 series never quite hit the spot for this particular fan. Too lacking in heart, too "Europop" (for want of a better word) and not enough sense of occasion for me. Oh dear, I'm getting all misty-eyed at the thought of the 1970s titles and theme. Golden era nostalgia kicks in...

In terms of the competition, chart-toppers of 1988-99 are three-fold: Portugal (1988, 1989, 1997), Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic (1992, 1994, 1995) and Hungary (1993, 1996, 1998) each won three International Finals, with the team of the era definitely being Kecskemét of Hungary, who were triumphant in 1993 and 1996. This makes Kecskemét the most successful team in the history of Jeux Sans Frontières, the only team to win two International Finals. Other successful teams were Spain, who won the 1990 trophy - not at all bad for a nation that only competed for four years, this victory a far cry from their disappointing first year in 1998 - and Italy, with two championship wins, in 1991 and 1999.

1999 proved to be the last series of the revived Jeux Sans Frontières, rising costs again the source of the cancellation. The EBU and the national television companies do not appear to have the enthusiasm to revive the series for a second time, so, for the moment, the phenomenon that is Jeux Sans Frontières has yet to break into the new millennium.

by Alan Hayes
with thanks to JSFnetFRANCE