The show was a huge success consistently pulling in large ratings. The first series attracted up to 16.5 million viewers and subsequent years never failed to peak at 12 million or above. The show occupied a prime time Saturday 7.45pm slot.
3-2-1's final Christmas special (broadcast on 24 December 1988) attracted 12.5 million viewers, so it is unclear why an 11th series was not commissioned in 1989. Ted Rogers claimed in a 1996 interview that the "Oxbridge lot who had got of TV by now, didn't want it as it was too downmarket for them even though it was still getting 12 million viewers".
Each show had a theme, such as 'Seacruise' or the 'Swinging Sixties'. All of the variety acts, quiz questions, stage sets and clues subsequently followed this theme. In later series Dusty would appear in a costume relating to that week's theme. The changing themes were dropped for the final series where a more generic stage set was re-used each week.
The questions were usually of the same 'word association' format. Ted Rogers would say, for example, an island and the contestants would have to name the country to which it belonged (e.g. Ted: "Gozo", Contestant: "Malta"). Another example would be people and their titles (e.g. Ted: "Elizabeth II", Contestant: "Queen").
In the earlier series the winners of the quiz would return the following week to compete again, while the other two couples would progress to part two, but in later series this changed to the worst performing couple being eliminated, taking home the money they won in the quiz and a ceramic model of Dusty Bin.
In the final series (1987 - 1988), the 1000 to 1 quiz was replaced by a general knowledge, fingers on the buzzers quiz. As before three couples participated, but in just two rounds of questions. Each couple began with £10 each and could earn another £10 for each correct answer. The first round required ten correct answers (in other words, the round would not end if ten questions had been read out and not all answered correctly). As soon as Ted starts to ask the question, the couple who hit the buzzer first, after Ted had said their name, had 3 seconds to answer the question, and if they failed to answer the question in 3 seconds, or answer the question wrong, Ted would say "On Offer" and the other 2 couples would have a chance to answer the question. Again the couple who hit the buzzer first, after Ted had said their name, had 3 seconds to answer, and if they failed to answer the question in 3 seconds, or answer the question wrong, that question would go into the bin. Following the first round Ted would give the couples a break, while he introduced a "newcomer" to 3-2-1 (another addition to the final series). This was a chance for an act to perform, much like the later rounds as normal, though the "newcomer" had never appeared on 3-2-1 before. Following the newcomer act, round two of the quiz would be played, with only fifteen questions (the x correct answer rule didn't apply in this round). As with previous series whatever money the couples had after the first round would be the value of the question to them, and it was the same format for answering the questions. The maximum a couple could win in this round was £1650 (as in the starting £10, ten first round questions answered correctly plus all fifteen in the second round). At the end of the 2 rounds of questions, the couple with the lowest sum of money would leave with the money they'd won and their ceramic Dusty Bin, then they would go to the commercial break.
After three acts, the couples would decide on which object they would like to discard in the hope that it was Dusty Bin and then take part in the final elimination question. The losers would leave with the money they had won in Part 1 of the show, their ceramic Dusty Bin and a consolation prize (such as a twelve piece dinner service) and the winners would go through to part 3 of the show.
At the beginning of part 3 of the show, Ted would decode the clue and reveal the prize which the final couple rejected before the end of part 2 of the show. Another act would then perform and leave another clue, leaving three on the table. Ted would then re-read one of the earlier two clues, before the couple chose their second item to reject before that prize was then revealed to them.
The final variety act would perform and leave a last clue. Ted would then re-read one of the previous clues and the couple would reject their third item, and another prize was then revealed. Ted would then re-read the remaining two clues and the couple would be faced with their final decision leaving them with the prize they have chosen and ultimately won, after seeing what the other prize they had rejected was, and also with the prize they had won, they had the money they won in Part 1 of the show, and their ceramic Dusty Bin.
As well as Dusty Bin, which was always one of the five prizes, the other four prizes normally included a car and a holiday. Later series sometimes featured two cars as prizes.
The clues became notorious for being almost impossibly difficult and obscure, having only a remote connection to the prizes, which contestants sometimes didn't appear to grasp even after Ted had revealed it to them. It has often been suggested that the clues had more than one possible explanation, allowing the producers to control which prize the contestants received.
For example, a wishbone brought on by Sonny Hayes came with the clue "Take one that never changes, add a pub and a precious stone, bring them all up-to-date, and now you're on your own", which the contestants rejected hoping it referred to Dusty Bin. Rogers explanation of the clue was: "'Take one that never changes', well that could be Dusty Bin which of course is where you might throw a wishbone. 'Add a pub and a precious stone', well that doesn't point to Dusty. 'Bring them all up-to-date, and now you're on your own'. Well what about the wishbone? Sonny said 'a large wishbone', so what might a large wishbone come from? Something larger than a chicken. Turkey maybe? Now 'one that never changes' is a constant, a pub can also be an inn, there's a lot of precious stones but how many go with 'constant inn'? How about opal? Yes, Constantinople, up-to-date, the pride of Turkey, you've rejected the 3-2-1 holiday!"
Other hostesses who appeared on the show include: Mireille Allonville, Jenny Layland, Patsy Ann Scott, Annie St. John, Karen Palmer, Gail Playfair, Tula, Alison Temple-Savage, Libby Roberts, Fiona Curzon, Karan David, Caroline Munro and Lynda Lee Lewis.
Acts who appeared on 3-2-1 include: Gloria Gaynor, George Roper, Ken Dodd, Duncan Norvelle, Black Lace, Bernie Winters, Stutz Bear Cats, Kit and The Widow, Wall Street Crash, Kiki Dee, 'Nasty Nigel' Lythgoe, Martin "The Beast" Francis, Tom Pepper, Fay Presto, Pete Price, Manhattan Transfer, Shane Richie, The Flaming Hamsters, Stan Boardman, Fascinating Aida, Showaddywaddy, Frankie Howerd, Sinitta, Five Star, Cheryl Baker, Phil Cornwell, Jaki Graham, Nana Mouskouri, The Chuckle Brothers, Mark Heap (The Two Marks) and Vince Hill.
As was the style of the day, the show often featured speciality acts such as a female singer who sang unconvincing renditions of popular songs whilst her male partner sketched caricatures of famous people connected with the song on a flip chart (e.g. a sketch of Marilyn Monroe was drawn whilst the Elton John song Candle in the Wind was performed).
The cartoon character of Dusty Bin was created by freelance designer John Sunderland, who developed the character based on the show producers' brief for a booby prize which would work on the English version of the show. The original Spanish version had a water-melon as a booby prize. Sunderlands' concept for the shows' original titles, which were shown on the original series, included the birth of the bin. The character came to life as YTVs' chevron logo falls to earth after shooting up into the sky like a rocket above the studios, exploding in a dustbin standing by the studios stage door. The bin contained a clown's costume, parts of which become one with the bin, it to life as the character Dusty Bin; part dustbin, part clown, part enduring iconic character.
The original robotic Dusty Bin was put together by Ian Rowley, in his converted chapel workshop in Leeds. He used 73 microprocessers, which was cutting edge 1980s remote control robotic technology in that day, at a cost around £10,000 to manufacture - which was a small fortune in those days - to control Dusty, and in 154 shows, some of Dusty's antics included juggling balls like a clown, playing the piano like Elton John, flying round the studio with a James Bond jetpack, escaping from chains like Harry Houdini, riding a bike, spraying Ted Rogers with paint and he has driven a tank into the studio, to bomb the audience with confetti.
As he's the lovable star of 3-2-1, Dusty has had a whole range of toys named after him and is very popular with children of all ages.
Also, as part of Comic Relief 2007 , the BBC showed a short sketch based around The Proclaimers' hit song "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)". Directed by and starring Peter Kay it featured Dusty Bin dancing with a gaggle of forgotten celebrities from the 1970s and 80s. The song was released as a CD Single and DVD.
The Class 321 trains were nicknamed 'Dusty Bins' due to the number bearing the same name as the game show.
The characters' creator was the designer John Sunderland. He designed the cartoon character of Dusty Bin which appeared in the opening and closing titles of the first series and formed the basis for the ceramic booby prize and the robot bin which appeared in the show. Sunderland also designed the show's original title sequence and produced the interval and end-title graphics, plus the themed costumes for the bin which appeared in the early series. The character was based on a brief given to Sunderland by the shows' producer who was looking for an 'English' booby prize. In the original Spanish version of the show, the booby prize was a water melon. Sunderland went on to work with Kenny Everett on two British film productions and to design the award-winning Jorvik Viking Centre and a string of other populist museums and exhibit around the world. Sunderlands' original character subsequently appeared in many different and mutated versions in the form of toys and games, and continues to be part of an iconic British sub-culture.
There is now a brand new DVD version of 3-2-1 hosted by Dusty Bin.