meaning and origin of the British-English phrase ‘64,000 question’

The British-English phrase 64,000 question denotes a crucial question or issue(It is one of the few phrases that the Oxford English Dictionary has not recorded—another is in Dicky’s meadow.)

The origin of 64,000 question is closely associated to that of the synonymous American-English phrase sixty-four (thousand) dollar question—recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary.

This American-English phrase originated in the question posed at the climax of Take It or Leave It, a U.S. radio quiz for a prize of sixty-four dollars, first broadcast on CBS from 1940 to 1947, then on NBC from 1947 to 1950.

The $64,000 Question, inspired by Take It or Leave It, was first broadcast on CBS television on 7th June 1955.

In 1956, the British company Associated Television (A.T.V.) adapted the U.S. show as The 64,000 Question, without reference to either dollars or pounds. The earliest mention of this British television show that I have found is from The Stage (London) of Thursday 29th March 1956:

A.T.V.’s “The 64,000 Question” is on a nation-wide search for men and women who have a remarkable knowledge of any subject other than the one they earn their living by. In the United States, where the programme originated, a woman Doctor of Psychology won the £64,000 dollars [sic] on her knowledge of boxing. A railway porter won a large prize because of his knowledge of astronomy.
If you or any acquaintance of yours want to have a go, write to: The 64.000 Question. A.T.V. Television House. Lonlon [sic], W.C.2. They should send a photograph (which cannot be returned) and give some particulars about themselves and their subject or subjects. A smattering of knowledge will not do. You really must know your subject.

An article titled Fabian to guard the quiz show questions, published in the Norwood News (London) of Friday 13th April 1956, described the strict organisation of the British television show:

The “64,000 Question” show, which Associated Television plans to present to viewers in May, will be compared by Jerry Desmonde*. Ex-Detective Superintendent Fabian of Scotland Yard will appear personally each week to mount security guard during the programme.
The questions will be in sealed envelopes in a safe whose combination lock and number Fabian alone will know.
The accuracy of every answer will be vouched for by the compilers of Encyclopedia Britannica, London.
These are the latest developments in the plan to make Britain’s “64,000 Question” programme as great a suspense show as the American original, “The 64,000 Dollar Question.”

* Jerry Desmonde (1908-67), English actor

The same article also explained how the money prizes were adapted to the British pre-decimal currency system:

Contestants will start by answering a question worth 64 sixpences (£1 12s.) and, if successful, will double up to the point where the stake is 512 sixpences (£12 16s.). At this point he has reached a “hurdle” when he will know that if he goes on and fails he will take away at least that sum. The next “hurdle” is 4,000 sixpences (£100). From then on he can work his way to the final total of 64,000 sixpences (£1,600), although he can stop at any time before.

The earliest figurative use of the British phrase 64,000 question that I have found is from the following advertisement published in The Birmingham Post and Birmingham Gazette (Birmingham, Warwickshire) of Wednesday 5th December 1956:

64,000 question’ - Birmingham Post and Birmingham Gazette (Birmingham, Warwickshire) - 5 December 1956

THE 64,000 QUESTION
WHAT IS IT THAT NO BUSINESS
CAN AFFORD TO BE WITHOUT?
          The
          AUSTIN A35 VAN,
                    of course.
Amazing value at £400 2s. 9d.,
and look at the PETROL
ECONOMY — 50 m.p.g.
See J. LAW (Automobiles) LTD.
without delay. Choice of
colours at the moment.
J. LAW (Automobiles) LTD.,
GT. HAMPTON ST. Northern 4549.

The second-earliest figurative use of 64,000 question that I have found is from the football column The Skippers Speak, titled that day Extra! Villa’s captain today joins the Argus team of football experts, published in the Sports Argus (Birmingham, Warwickshire) of Saturday 9th February 1957:

“If Roy Warhurst, the Birmingham City captain, can write a weekly article for the Argus, why not Johnny Dixon, the captain of Aston Villa?”
That may not be a 64,000 question, but it is one which has been put to the Editor by football followers of Claret and Blue Faith. So here we are. And, don’t forget, you asked for it!

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