Ways You Can Support My ‘Art’

•November 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish. For context, since the launching of the Patreon, I’ve posted over 100,000 words of free material on here each year. I hate getting into the grotty business of money, but I can’t do this if I starve to death, so here’s how you can slow my eventual descent into the skeletal realm.

SUPPORT ME ON PATREON. There are various tiers, starting at $1 a month, including access to tons of exclusive content which will never appear here on the free blog.

BUY MY BOOKS. I’ve got a number of titles available in both paperback and digital, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US, or your local Amazon of choice.

BUY ME A KO-FI, if you’d like to sling me the financial equivalent of a coffee. If it helps, feel free to pretend you’re throwing it in my face instead of letting me drink it.

Cheers.

 

Captain Butler

•February 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[This is Part 8 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart Seven]

Your early teens are that feet-finding period when you’re discovering things — movies, music, fashion — that didn’t come from your parents or siblings, but belong to you; a period when you like things so intensely, they become a defining part of your personality. For me, one of those things was Red Dwarf. Other than the time my whole class saw me tread in a massive pile of wet dogshit, and then when I went to wipe it off on the grass, standing on another big turd with my clean shoe, for a while, my Red Dwarf fandom is perhaps what I was best known for. Decades on, I vividly remember laughing in a GCSE German lesson; having the temerity to be visibly enjoying myself for a brief moment; as a more-popular kid from another table scythed me down to my place with a withering “fuckin’ hell, he’ll be singing the theme from Red Dwarf next.”

Honestly, I’ve since grown to detest it, but back then, I wore out my tapes, and devoured all the tie-in books, comics, and magazine articles, and of course, any other TV shows that featured the cast. This included the Craig Charles VR gameshow, Cyberzone, and 1997 Channel 4 sitcom, Captain Butler. Pirates were still massively out of vogue in the late ’90s, with no contemporary cultural imprint beyond the brilliant Monkey Island games, and little more than a narrow archetype of going “Arr!” and having an eyepatch. But for the writer/creators of Captain Butler — a duo who went onto write Mike Bassett: England Manager, Gnomeo and Juliet, and The Queen’s Corgies – these frugal pickings of “avast, me hearties!” and parrots were considered more than enough material for a truly appalling sitcom.

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The opening titles show a cartoon ship being blown over a map by sea monsters and a cherub’s farts, for a rambunctious cover of the Sex Pistols’ Friggin’ in the Riggin’, where the characters all argue over each other — “calm down, lads, chorus coming up!” — and which ends with Craig Charles exclaiming “oh, bollocks!” Start as you mean to go on, I guess, because at its heart, this is not a show about piracy, but about men who simply cannot refrain from making constant references to, or touching, or taking out their sex organs.

Captain Butler‘s the cheapest show I have ever seen. There’s bigger budgets on Twitch steams of girls playing Manic Miner while viewers beg them to show their toes, and the set, though sharing its production designer with Scavengers, is so small, anyone sitting down was likely to get the whole thing wedged on their arse. For the most part, we’re looking at a blue sheet of sky behind a tiny ship’s deck, which is completely still, not even bothering to wobble the camera for the appearance of motion. Nor are there ocean noises or bird squawks, or anything to create a seafaring atmosphere, with the only sound the unholy shrieks of audience laughter whenever Craig Charles talks about his genitals. Similarly, the costumes are straight off the wardrobe department’s ironing board, like something you’d send your kid to school in for World Book Day.

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For our cast of ineffective pirates, Craig Charles plays the titular Captain Butler, who accidentally led his crew on a mutiny from the navy when he was pissed. There’s a salty old boson; a ship’s cook, Adeel (Sanjeev Bhaskar); and Cliff, an African who they fished out of the water when a Spanish slave ship went down. In the opening minutes, they’re joined by the upbeat and effete Lord Roger of Crumsby, who’s a Lord Fauntleroy type, in a scene which reiterates the appalling cheapness; way out in a completely static and silent sea, and clambering up the side of the hull completely dry.

The deal is though they’re six months into it, they’ve yet to do any actual pirating, and though Butler talks a good game, he’s too lazy and cowardly to be a pirate. Roger tells him of a nearby Spanish galleon, laden with slaves, and more importantly, Inca gold, which the crew’s all for intercepting; Butler, not so much. “Oh, bollocks!” he says. Clearly this was intended to be up there with “Hello, Newman…” and “Tis I, LeClerc!” as one of the great sitcom catchphrases, dropping an “oh, bollocks!” a couple of times an episode, though as a viewer, the catchphrase that feels most apt is Blakey’s from On The Buses.

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Butler tries to think his way out of the heist in ‘captain’s log’ scenes, where it’s in voiceover, and he’s acting it out with mime and pulling faces, like the excruciating behaviour of Alan Davies on QI. There’s a long monologue about him missing his home comforts from Tranmere, involving a yo-yo and a favourite garden hoe, all leading to the line “a yo-yo, hoe, and a bottle of rum!” This is a show which, like ‘Orrible, never reaches beyond the cliché. Regard, this absolute wringing dry of the handbook, starting with a disguised Butler onboard the Spanish ship. Imagine you’re writing a joke about characters who don’t speak the same language, and whose conversations have to be translated or dubbed. Got a gag in your head? It’s one of these, isn’t it?

One: A Spanish soldier with his tongue cut out makes 10, long seconds of guttural gibberish noises. A posh English voiceover translates simply as; “a ship.”

Two: In an episode they get stuck on a desert island, Adeel chats away in foreign with an old Chinese man, laughing, joking, having a good old chat. “What’s he said?” asks Butler. Adeel: “I don’t know.

Three: Like yer old dad ordering drinks on Lanzarote, Butler transcends the language barrier, communicating with the old man via gestures and a raised voice. Cliff, who speaks a little Chinese, confirms that rather than understanding Butler, the old man; “he says ‘about half-past ten’, captain.”

Anyway, the Spanish galleon turns out to be a wine merchant, and the whole thing’s an exercise in letting the comedic talents of Craig Charles fly. Oh, bollocks. Never a great performer, he struggles outside of playing versions of himself, and runs through his repertoire of funny accents, from a Mexican bandito to, well, they all just go back to Scouse within half a sentence, so it doesn’t matter. Captain Butler was clearly intended as his star vehicle, with the other characters relegated to a handful of lines. Bhaskar, in particular, gets shit-all to do, outside of going on about curry and poppadoms. But it doesn’t matter, as the audience seem to enjoy seeing Dave Lister swear, laughing heartily at all his many references to dicks, piss, tits, and cum.

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The most creative part of the series is the closing credits, which are listed pirate-style. Music’s “sea shanties,” costume design “breeches and blouses,” lighting “oil lamps filled by,” though I’m not sure what the role of “ship’s cat” entails. Episode two sees the boat actually rocking, and begins with a magazine blowing over the side, whose problem page Roger reads aloud from — “I’m 14, and have an enormous set of bosoms.” “Doesn’t appear to be much of a problem!” says Butler. This is all just to introduce Lord Nelson, who’s the mag’s Hunk of the Month. Butler’s sneering “If he came on this boat, I’d show him who’s boss!” signals he’s definitely gonna turn up.

Nelson’s played by Red Dwarf castmate, Robert Llewellyn — the young me must’ve been apoplectic with excitement — recruiting sailors for a battle, so they hide in a wardrobe, giving it the old Mary Celeste. Nelson rowing over with Hardy is an admirably cheap effect, plonked against a seascape that should be pinned to a grandparent’s fridge. There’s incredible contempt for the audience in the joke where Hardy tells Butler he’s gonna open a shoe shop with his mates, Willis and Freeman. It gets a huge laugh, but is followed with a really unnecessary “Freeman, Hardy and Willis, we’re gonna call it!” Thanks, mate.

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Eventually, for the second time this episode (having already happening twice in episode one), Butler adopts another disguise and funny voice, when the crew dress as Frenchmen to scare off Nelson. It’s a 20th century sitcom, so of course it’s massively racist; all berets, an accordion, and strings of onions wrapped around their necks, and — in a show set in the late 1700s — around a bicycle. Butler asks what “Frenchies” say all the time, cuing the kind of “Bleu! Bleu!” noises and exaggerated shrugging Nigel Farage would do behind an MEP’s back at the European parliament to make Ann Widdecombe laugh. They scare off Nelson, giving him a Chinese burn and eye-poke, causing his famous eye-patch-and-nip-grab injuries, as he demands “Kiss me, Hardy. On the lips.” As an aside, when I was a kid, and confused about the exact meaning of various adult words, ‘hard-on’ and ‘hardy’ were interchangeable at my junior school — “Millard’s got a hardy!” etc (I assure you I did not) — and consequently, I thought the trope of a deathbed Lord Nelson demanding “kiss me Hardy” was hilariously rude.

The third ep’s titled Desert Island Dick, where the crew wash up on an island and Butler falls in love with a mermaid. For someone who could be tortured into confessing anything by being strapped to a chair in front of loud kissing scenes, this episode was my Vietnam, with so much footage of the pair getting off with each other. But there’s worse to come, with a sudden cut to the soles of Craig Charles’ feet, as he lays flat on his stomach. The camera pans up the backs of his bare legs, all the way up to a horrible close-up of his naked arse, grinding away as he makes sex noises. You can virtually see up his hole. The punchline is she’s sat on a rock reading a magazine, while he’s fucking a pile of her eggs. Butler and Tracy the mermaid get married, which turns him half-fish, however it’s the top half, which is nicked from Red Dwarf, with Cat’s mermaid girlfriend.

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They also lift RD‘s ‘double polaroid’ gag in episode four, where a picture of a guy’s big dick unravels like a shopping list, as Butler’s eyes go all wide. Though my encyclopedic knowledge of Red Dwarf didn’t make me king of the playground, decades on, it’s invaluable in my blog posts about rubbish old sitcoms, so who’s laughing now? Not me, because I’m watching Captain Butler. Hidden between the laff-getters of Craig Charles calling someone a nob or saying a rudie, most of the jokes are of the “I’ve heard about your salty seamen” variety. It’s that kind of workplace humour, where the lads in the office respond to everything anyone says by pretending they’re talking about dicks. Boson’s teaching how to tie a sheepshank knot? Enjoy this repartee about sheep shagging! The Shitcoms series functions as a running barrel-scraping contest, and in this jailhouse joke, we may have peeled away the final layer before busting through to Hell.

Butler: “How long have you been banged up? How long have you been eating porridge?

Prisoner: “About 30 years.

Butler: “30 years?!

Prisoner: “How did you know I liked porridge?

Fourth episode, The Tale of the Ancient Mariner, is all about folklore and superstition, as Boson tells of a ship that went down 20 years ago this very night — the Lily Tomlin (a weirdly specific reference which gets no audience reaction) — before Roger shoots an albatross out of the sky with an arrow, unleashing the mariner’s curse. There’s a series of strange occurrences, which send Adeel mad, presenting “spotted dick” for dinner, which is his own nob draped across a silver dish. After a lightning strike, all that’s left of Roger is a hat, while Butler’s threatened by a scary disembodied voice. The Lily Tomlin’s crew all died “in order of their genital size, starting with the lad with the smallest tackle,” so there’s a bit where the crew go for a piss off the side, with Butler realising the other lads’ cocks are massive. As Cliff’s a black guy and this is a bad sitcom, when he takes it out, his bell-end hits the water with a big splash.

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Adeel goes missing during an eclipse, leaving a sign written in blood, “ADEEL IS DEAD, YOU’RE NEXT BUTLER!” There’s a séance, and Cliff does some witch-doctoring, before the voice of Neptune himself tells them there’s but one way to remove the curse and stop a giant albatross from eating their ballbags. This involves tying Butler to the deck with “a little girl’s bonnet” on his head, but larks ahoy, it’s all just a prank by Roger, and we end with another Craig Charles nude scene, covering his dick n’ balls with a hat.

As a lover of the Carry On films, I understand the power of a good double-entendre, but equally, I detest the kind that opens episode five. It’s one of those where it sounds like everyone’s wanking each other offscreen; all “go on, Roger, give it a good pull!” and “every time you touch that thing, it shoots all over the bloody floor!” Christ, it goes on for ages, but you’ll be shocked to find that, despite how it sounds — “If I put a dab of spittle on it, it stays up all night!” — they aren’t actually pulling each other’s penises and ejaculating cum everywhere, but playing with spinning tops. Though by the way it’s going, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Craig Charles showing a bit of bone for real, like when Gruey went hardcore in 9 Songs.

The plot involves them being anchored in port, where they accidentally kidnap a child who turns out to be Blackbeard’s daughter. Like with Nelson, you can tell Blackbeard’s gonna show up, because they keep talking about him, and he’s played by the bloke from those Tango ads that led to a million busted schoolboy eardrums in the ’90s. Now this is a man who found a niche and really stuck to it.

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They get disguised yet again for the handover, with a classic example of the wretched bicycle gag, when Butler assures us “I’m not getting dressed in some third-rate pirate get-up!” and it cuts to this.

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Honestly, those are better than their regular costumes. But it turns out, it’s not the Blackbeard, but Roy Blackbeard, a hat-maker. The final episode, Jailhouse Crock, sees the crew captured by the royal navy, and put on trial for piracy. Weirdly, after five bottle episodes, there’s an actual courtroom set with desks and docks, and it’s not just a painted sheet, and we even get a jail. In a show so thoroughly beholden to the cliché, it’s straight into the prison bumming material, with Craig Charles literally warning the lads not to pick up the soap. Then there’s more disguise antics, with Butler escaping in someone else’s clothes. I’m convinced the audience is made up of hardcore Dwarfers, thrilled at any chance to see its star, in the content-barren analogue age, because the ratio of weak material to raucous laughter is remarkable. When Butler disguises himself a-fucking-gain, visiting the lads while dressed as their ‘lawyer’, Adeel’s “for a minute, I thought he was the captain!” almost brings the house down.

It seems like there’s going to be a happy ending, as Butler’s outed by the judge and sentenced to be hanged, with a final “oh, bollocks!” Only in the final five minutes do they start making an effort, with the great Michael Fenton Stevens as a charismatic executioner, in a scene with honest-to-God background extras. Sadly, when they drop him through the trapdoor, Butler’s crew’s waiting below, stood on each other’s shoulders, to catch him. We end with the lads sailing for Tahiti, and now the ship’s actually rocking, there’s bird noises and sea sounds, leaving just enough time for the most Captain Butler final words of all — “I’m going to me cabin for a toss!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

It’s a Royal Knockout

•February 7, 2020 • 2 Comments

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The perception of the Royal Family is in an odd place right now. While thousands die of austerity, it’s hard to look favourably on anyone who takes their shits on a gold toilet, but on the other hand, remember how excitedly the nation’s gran pointed at some cows? Everyone loves The Crown, but you wouldn’t let Prince Philip near a lampshade if Jackie Chan was in the room, and Camilla will never be your dad’s Queen. The younger Royals are generally viewed more positively, with almost everyone fine with Will, Kate and Harry, although the same people who hate Raheem Sterling and Diane Abbott, and whose least-favourite Ghostbuster is Winston also seem to hate Meghan. And then there’s Andrew, who, thanks to palling around with a nonce, is perhaps the biggest Royal pariah of the modern era.

It was much simpler back in the eighties, when the Windsors were mostly beloved, and more importantly, respected. Their faces were constantly gazing out of commemorative plates, with mums hoarding newspapers of anniversaries or engagements as a valuable commodity; the Beanie Baby retirement plan of the age. But there was still a distance between the monarchy and their humble subjects, which was to be bridged by a televised spectacle that’d make them relatable; that’d show they were capable of mucking about and having fun. The Grand Knockout Tournament — or as it would be known, It’s a Royal Knockout — was the brainchild of Prince Edward, the most prematurely balding of all the Royals, scratched out on the back of an envelope in the grounds of Buckingham Palace with It’s a Knockout host, and future Yewtree grab, Stuart Hall.

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It seemed to me, as a then-eight-year-old, that the Royal kids each had their own gimmick. Charles was the eccentric who talked to plants, Anne the scary one on a horse, Andy the playboy soldier, and Edward the one who liked poncing about in the theatre. Only five months before Royal Knockout, Edward dropped out of his Royal Marine training to take a job as a production assistant at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatrical company; a move which he announced to the media before alerting his family, with Prince Philip’s reaction reportedly “reducing his son to prolonged tears.” The previous year, for the Queen’s 60th birthday, he’d commissioned a one-off musical from Webber and Tim Rice about cricket, called Cricket (Hearts and Wickets), which starred Fred Elliott from Corrie and Alvin Stardust. Fine, but I once painted my mum a portrait of Ross Kemp for her birthday, so who’s the better son?

The first in Edward’s pretensions of being a powerhouse producer, It’s a Royal Knockout was broadcast on BBC1 on Friday 19th June, 1987, with four teams of celebrities battling for charity. Each was captained by a member of the Royal family; Prince Edward, Prince Andrew, Princess Anne, and Fergie, the Duchess of York. The Queen and Prince Philip were dead against it, and Charles and Di declined to take part, or even make an appearance. It’s at this point I must make something clear. Not a single second of the event will sound like anything but my having tripped and hit my head and some LSD fallen into my open mouth, but I promise you, it all happened. As if to prove my point, before the cameras rolled, the crowd were warmed up by Bernie Clifton and the Wurzels.

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For a show supposed to make the Royals more relatable, it’s an odd choice to go with a medieval theme; a period when anyone who wasn’t nobility was doomed to a life of diarrhea and rickets, before dying of old age at 28. Hosted at Alton Towers, the giant set is a specially built castle, with everyone dressed as brightly-coloured minstrels, damsels or jesters, like that wedding in The League of Gentlemen (“I won the mums!”). Even the crowd are in Robin Hood caps and crowns, and for the ladies, those pointy, dunce-cap type hats. But we need to talk about the teams. People moan about the questionable fame of “so-called” celebrity contestants on reality shows, and it’s perhaps because of the calibre here; a truly extraordinary cast of athletes, actors and singers that will never be topped; like a Survivor Series of 80’s celebrities. Let’s look at a selection of the players and try to convince ourselves this actually happened.

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Playing with Prince Edward, we have Toyah Willcox, Barry McGuigan, John Cleese, Duncan Goodhew, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Tessa Sanderson, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Christopher Reeve. Superman and Rodney, together at last!

With Fergie, there’s Mel Smith, Jane Seymour, Pamela Stephenson, Chris de Burgh, and Meat Loaf.

Princess Anne’s got Cliff Richard, Emlyn Hughes, the artist Peter Blake, Eddy Grant, Jenny Agutter, Kevin Kline, NFL player Walter Payton, Sheena Easton, and Tom Jones.

And finally, ‘Randy’ Andy’s star-loaded team includes Anneka Rice, Gary Lineker, Nigel Mansell, George Lazenby, Fiona Fullerton, Michael Palin, Nightshade from Gladiators, Margot Kidder, Griff Rhys Jones, and Jeffrey Epstein. Okay, not that last one, but what a roster!

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We open with a voiceover from Rowan Atkinson, bidding us “noble spectator, lay aside all worries, cast aside all cares, and travel with us back, back through time, to a magical era…”Atkinson emerges onto the stage as Lord Knock — who’s just Blackadder II — accompanied by Lady Knock, aka Barbara Windsor, in a dress so big, she struggles to make her way down the stone staircase. Courtiers parp on banner-draped trumpets, as Aled Jones, looking and sounding exactly like Joffrey, reads the royal decree from a scroll. Atkinson introduces “three roistering knaves and one rollicking maiden,” which turn out to be Les Dawson, “wizard supreme” Paul Daniels — dressed like he’s been conjuring a homunculus — and Su Pollard. Geoff Capes is there, as a proto Mountain, while “jolly jester” Stuart Hall does his usual Knockout shtick. Speaking of sex offenders, let’s finally get to why we’re here, with Prince Andrew leading the charge for the Royals.

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Each Windsor is playing for a charity, and Andrew’s is the World Wildlife Fund, which is a bit rich considering his family’s love for hunting, with his dad having slaughtered everything from tigers to crocodiles, and blasting his 10,000th pheasant out of the sky by 1993. Flanked by bannermen, he leads his team onto the field, waving a stuffed panda mascot, in a way that seems to scream “I am waving a panda. I am, as they say, ‘having a laugh‘.” Andrew and Edward in particular seem noticeably uncomfortable, aware they need to make a show of letting loose, and with the gritted teeth and firm eye contact of someone who’s at their first party in a decade and trying to be normal when the small talk starts. Conversely, an excited Fergie runs her team out with Full Metal Jacket chant-jogging.

Throughout, the most interesting Royal by a mile is Anne, an imposingly self-assured figure, whom Hall approaches “with some trepidation.” Whenever she’s pulled into the theatrics, there’s an obvious air of not giving a single, solitary shit. “We’re the strong silent types,” she says of her team, the Red Perils, and when Hall asks “have you a war cry for us, ma’am?” he gets a brusque reply of “no, no; I told you, we’re the strong and silent type.” Andrew does have a team chant — “What are we going for? GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!” while Team Fergie’s call to arms is led by Pamela Stephenson and an armour-clad Meat Loaf. As is clear from the previous line, this is less an event than a scattered collection of hallucinatory moments; Alice’s tumble to plague-ravaged Wonderland, but instead of following a white rabbit, it’s Gary Lineker dressed as a potato.

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There’s an early sense of the class disconnect, when Prince Edward tells Hall “it was just the way the cookie crumbled,” and his team buckle in laughter at the hilarious use of a well-known idiom. Oh, very witty, your highness! Have you ever thought of doing stand-up?! Boschian setting aside, Stuart Hall’s persona is as odd as always; overly-wordy and acting half-drunk, like Jack Sparrow played by Will Self. His entire deal, as with Kris Akabusi after him, is laughing; at everything, all the time. And It’s a Knockout gave him ample opportunity, with its MO of sticking people in ridiculously oversized costumes and making them run around so they’d fall over. That’s every game in a nutshell, and the kick-off sees celebrities crammed into outfits with great big feet and wobbly bellies to tow a cannon up a field. In the chaos, Hall’s just shouting shouting whatever he sees — “George Lazenby! Michael Palin!” A puffed-out Duncan Goodhew runs past the Earl of Wessex. Eddie Grant adjusts a giant foam helmet that’s slipping off his dreads. Princess Anne’s cannon goes off; Cliff Richard leaps for joy; Jackie Stewart collapses in exhaustion. At the conclusion, Gary Lineker’s skirt gets caught in the cogs, exposing him down to the stockings. Even Anne’s laughing.

It’s here that I uncovered a wrongful conviction. While the first game is cued by Barbara Windsor dropping a hanky, the rest have Paul Daniels firing a duelling pistol into the air. Stuart Hall will blather on about Daniels taking off his eyebrows with the first shot, bringing it up multiple times during the show, and warily stepping out of the way each time Daniels fingers the trigger. But I found reference in an old interview to it actually being an ill-timed cannon boom by Prince Andrew which set Hall’s face alight. I went back to the game and managed to locate the exact moment, and am glad to posthumously clear the name of Paul Daniels, who, like Jack the Ripper before him, shouldered the blame for the crimes of the monarchy.

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One game’s straight out of school fetes, giving us the sight of Superman shimmying across a pole while Tom Jones and Jenny Agutter throw plastic hams at him. Though, watching George Lazenby bust off headshot after headshot with rubber bread makes you doubly-sad he only did one Bond. Sadly, Les Dawson’s not on top form, with jokes like “Lazenby, once known as 003!” and even reusing the same gag about big-thighed athletes — “look at those legs, there should be a message tied to ’em.” That said, he does suggest a dog has pissed or shat in the water, and at one point, is accompanied by Su Pollard as he badly plays Greensleeves on a harpsichord which collapses, which is all you can hope for. Incidentally, there’s a cut to Fergie during this, with her fingers in her ears and a look on her face like “This Les fellow is terrible at piano! Why on Earth did they let him perform?”

There’s a huge amount of games, most of them sponsored, and consequently carrying egregious titles like “McDonalds Restaurant Knock a Knight,” “Canada Life Assurance Lovers,” and in really speaking to the common man, “Harrods King of the Castle.” Nothing makes any sense, so it’s best to just roll with it. Young Gary Lineker, looking like the Karate Kid, is blindfolded under a mask of Peter Sutcliffe to swing a wrecking ball. Prince Andrew cheers him on, stood next to a skier whose dick is extremely visible through his tights. Chicago Bear, Walter Payton, is ‘knighted’ with a plastic sword by Princess Anne. Meat Loaf — called “Meaty!” a hundred times through a megaphone by Pamela Stephenson — falls over and splits a hole in the arse of his armour. Chris de Burgh slips into a pond, soaking his stockings and blouse. Christ, what if Tom Jones’ tights get wet? He’s already testing the seams to their limit.

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You may have noticed that so far the Royal involvement has amounted to standing around and shouting, and not getting physically involved. If Andrew was capable of sweating, he’d still be dry as a bone, as the Windsors keep off the field of play, happy to bark instructions or point fingers at Mel Smith. But when they feel they’ve been aggrieved, it’s a different story. At one point, Anne sprints at Paul Daniels to furiously contest an enemy’s point, while an unwitting rule-break by the opposing team’s Anneka Rice’s has Prince Andrew jubilantly clapping and roaring, in by far his most animated showing so far. Andrew’s competitiveness comes to a head in the King race, with celebrities stuffed inside twelve-feet-high costumes for a sprint. After his men are eliminated, the Duke’s squaring up to Hall to complain his team weren’t ready, and demanding a re-run. Andrew’s steely gaze marks him as a man who is not even remotely joking, as he snatches the mic with a “right then,” and addresses the crowd — “Who says we should have a re-run?” But cheers or not, the judges refuse; there will be no re-run. An elated Emlyn Hughes punches the air.

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Also of note during this game, visible in the background as they’re doling out scores, a Droogs-like mob led by John Travolta bum-rushes Hughes, stripping him of his tights as he tries to cover himself, in a scene that would’ve ended in someone doing jail time in 2020. Perhaps the apex of Knockout‘s concussion-dream mirage is when celebrities dressed like onions, leeks and potatoes have to evade opposing cooks, before they pull off their veg and toss it in a giant cauldron. If someone played snippets of Hall’s commentary down the phone, you’d think it was a CIA trigger code to awaken buried assassin programming — “Pamela Stephenson running for the blues against Cliff Richard… the onion’s hiding behind a tent there, that’s out of bounds.” Anneka Rice strips Rodney Trotter of his potato; John Travolta yanks a giant onion off Toyah Willcox’s head; an ultra competitive Emlyn Hughes violently flays Griff Rhys Jones of his leek, like he’s making him give up the location of a kidnapped child.

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After a quick joust, proceedings conclude with a victorious Princess Anne having decimated the competition, and awarded a big ceramic potty by Barbara Windsor. Andy’s in second place, with Edward third, and Fergie bringing up the rear. But really, it was just a series of moments; a living Bayeux Tapestry by Coldwar Steve, where Jane Seymour plugged her ears as Paul Daniels fired a gun, Su Pollard held a platter with a pig’s head on it, and the Duke of York expressed obvious displeasure as an exhausted Meat Loaf failed to catch an onion on legs. Incidentally, isn’t The Princess Royal an odd title? Like saying Prime Minister Politician or something.

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It’s a Royal Knockout garnered 18 million viewers, with a worldwide audience of 400 million. 400 million people heard the phrase “I don’t think Meat Loaf will ever catch that onion!” But its legacy wasn’t the ratings, nor the total of £1.5m the obscenely wealthy Royals inspired in public donations, but what happened in the immediate aftermath. At 6:30am on the morning of filming, fearful of them jeopardising the live broadcast rights, Prince Edward had the assembled media quarantined to the press tent. Forced to watch the show on a little monitor, and given no food, leaving them hot, exhausted and hungry, when the Prince strolled in some fourteen hours later, beaming with pride, to ask if they’d enjoyed themselves, the response was somewhat muted. “Well, thanks for sounding so bloody enthusiastic,” he snapped, “what have you been doing in here all night?” (starving in a sweaty tent?) Edward then stormed out, stopping only to berate a group of photographers as he boarded the helicopter back to Buckingham Palace, warning “one day, you lot are going to have to learn some manners.

The following day’s coverage focussed entirely on Edward’s tantrum, with headlines like “It’s a Royal Walkout.” Far from helping popularise the Royals, Knockout marks the moment that public opinion begun to turn against them. Seeing them pratting about with Rodders and arguing the toss over points with Paul Daniels punctured the Royal aura of stately dignity, and it was long-considered their worst PR disaster, until Newsnight came along. Royal Correspondent James Whitaker pinpoints it as the moment perception changed, but less ‘they seem fun and normal’ and more “who are these appalling people?” while Charles’s biographer Jonathan Dimbleby puts it as the Windsor’s “nadir.

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Before filming, Edward attempted to assuage the fears of doubters, including his own mother. “I don’t think the British monarchy will suffer in the process,” he said, “I hope it will be viewed as being like a breath of fresh air.” But the show’s monstrous failure created schisms behind the scenes at the Palace too. The Queen Mother was said to be “incensed,” and Philip was quoted as saying the show “made us look foolish.” Sarah Ferguson, whose time as a Royal was marked by tabloids deeming her coarse and common, blamed Knockout on launching that characterisation. Speaking about it in her book, Fergie felt she’d unfairly gotten the brunt of the backlash, trying to be a good sport by joining in, and branded vulgar as a result. “What of Edward and Anne and Andrew, whose lead I was following? Why should I be blamed?” Still, as we found out last year, it could’ve been much worse, and at least we’ve got the It’s a Royal Knockout episode of The Crown to look forwards to. Leave your dream casting in the comments, keeping in mind Paul Daniels will be a puppet like Baby Yoda.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

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I Watched Jim Davidson’s Adult Panto II – Boobs in the Wood

•January 23, 2020 • 1 Comment

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[Part I: Sinderella]

Seeing as the response to my original piece about Jim Davidson’s adult panto, Sinderella, was the thing that pushed me into starting a Patreon, I figured I’d ruin another Christmas for myself, and sit down with its sequel, Boobs in the Wood. Though he shares a script credit with Bryan Blackburn; a writer for the Krankies and Cannon and Ball; Boobs in the Wood is a 105-minute ode to Jim’s absolute fucking loathing of women. It’s the manifesto they find in an incel’s pocket after he’s tazed for throwing jars of old cum up the walls of a yoga studio. When Todd Phillips said woke culture was killing comedy, this is the gold he meant.

Boobs was filmed in 1999, four years after Sinderella, which sadly wasn’t enough time for Charlie Drake to sleep off the amount of booze he put away. So who’s in this one? Finally accepting the general public’s desire to toss handfuls of human shit at him, Jim embraces his birthright as the baddie, and stars as the Sheriff of Nottingham, ‘Big’ Dick Dangling. His make-up’s very 1960’s Star Trek Klingon; all swarthy, with Nike-shaped sideburns, and a ginger goatee which looks like he’s been scoffing a big bag of Tesco-brand Wotsits, while the leather tunic and studded collar gives the impression he’s rushed to the theatre last minute, after a bruising session at a local S&M dungeon — “Stamp on as many balls as you can!”

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Leather Daddy Jim’s joined by a couple of celebrities this time — Victor Spinetti, off films, as Friar Tuck/Try-a-Fuck, and the actual R2-D2, Kenny Baker; while the role of Fairy Dildo’s played by a woman who’d go on to marry Shane Richie. Most of the cast is made up of performers for whom Boobs is either their only credited work, or, in the case of Maid Marion Fitz-Tightly and Robin Hood, ‘The Sherwood Shagger,’ something that’s been strangely left off their extensive stage resumes on Spotlight. Probably a clerical error.

You may have noticed the character names are of a type, and the show begins with Kenny Baker telling the audience to “fuck off!” as Fairy Dildo introduces herself by miming a blowie. All this nicely sets the tone for almost two hours of dicks, tits, and assertions that all busty women need a ruddy good seeing to. After a very up-to-date reference about sending “a fairy fax,” and Dildo cupping herself to ask “are these tits real?” for a frighteningly aggressive “YES!” from the audience, we’re straight into a musical number. A Humping We Will Go is the first of many songs, marking Boobs‘ production values as way higher than Sinderella‘s, but its content — in something that truly didn’t seem possible — as even grottier.

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A humping we will go, a humping we will go; bend me over, tickle me tits and kiss me down below!” Set against a grim visual tableau of sex-obsessed Nottingham — a city full of “poofters and pervs” — its cast of energetic young dancers give it the earnest straight-out-of-stage-school projection, with choreography where women are always on their knees, singing into men’s crotches, or bent double with skirts hitched above their knickers, while the lads pump away in time to the beat. In the background, a man 69s a blow-up doll, while I note the presence of a black dancer, and wonder what he’s in store for. The more ‘professional’ production means most of the hilarious lyrics are lost, sung properly and moving too fast for an audience of men for whom finding out the work experience lad once saw a musical is reason enough to spunk in his tea for a joke, for being such a wild bummer.

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We’re next into Maid Marion’s song about her “chas-titty belt.” Her boobs are mentioned in every scene, with the cast of lechers constantly staring, groping, or asking if she wouldn’t mind them “fingering you and feeling your bristols?” In scenes where she runs across the stage, Jim will improvise an excited cry of “wibbly wibbly wibbly!” or a “bob, bob, bobbling along!” accompanied by cartoon boinging noises. A virgin who’s “never even seen a bloke’s winkle,” Marion’s got the Jonathan Ross speech impediment, lusting after “Wobin Hood.” Just like Prince Charming in Sinderella, Robin’s got a massive cock that he keeps mentioning, and if Jim’s not got a crippling cuckold fetish, he certainly writes pantos like he has. Robin and Marion fall in love at first sight, with Robin feeling “all hot and sweaty and out of breath, as if Vanessa Feltz was sitting on my face.” Also, Marion’s affected bimbo voice is so shrill, when she calls to Robin, the dog I’m looking after suddenly lurches awake and turns its head to the screen like a squirrel’s gotten in.

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When Jim struts on for his big entrance, he’s aiming for the classic panto baddie, but accompanied by a half-dressed woman young enough to be his daughter, feels more like Wayne Lineker with his fist hovering over an unwatched drink. The many scenes of Jim being touched by lingerie-clad twentysomethings are never not uncomfortable, as fantasy fulfilment where he’s got a “pussy patrol” of 17 young prostitutes — “one more and I’d have a golf course.” At no point do you forget this ‘panto’ is just the cobbled-together views and hang-ups of Jim Davidson, like when going into his fantasy of “two women together, right lads?!” which gets a horrible cheer. “One doing the ironing, one doing the washing up,” he says, grimly muttering “fucking things they are,” as the laughter dies down.

Though there’s less audience interaction this time, we still get some classic crowd work, like Jim asking a lady in the front row “have you got any knickers on, or is that a crack in the chair?” He accuses the audience of being pikeys, and singles out an old woman — “look at the fucking state of Joyce.” While gags often fail to land, there’s always a big reaction to his comments on the opposite sex, with blokes hooting in their seats at Jim’s ideal woman having “two tits and a pulse,” and braying when the concubines exit, at the charming observation, “look at that arse, children, it’s a shame to shit through that, isn’t it?” It feels like a political rally for men whose Page-3-stiffened dicks steadfastly refuse to deflate, in a world where half the population’s cruelly taunting them by owning a fanny. Most confusing heckle is a lone female voice from the balcony, with a yell of “I love your willy!

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There are a couple of returnees from Sinders. The Ugly Sister’s playing Jim’s manservant, Piles, and we’re reunited with the big, black dildo Charlie Drake gave to his daughter. In a scene that simply goes on forever, Marion naively confuses it for “a stick of wock… shall I lick it, boys and girls?!” The bloody thing’s wobbling about for ages as they run through endless jokes, like boys who found it in a ditch on the way home from school, and chased each other round the newsagents with it. The dildo returns later for Jim to suggest giving it to a “rug-muncher,” and identifying it as “a genuine Linford,” holding it to his crotch as he breaks into the Chalkie voice.

Barring the ‘black cocks are massive’ stuff, and a single word spoken as Chalkie, Boobs is surprisingly light on racism. But don’t worry, Jim’s not gone all Politically Correct; his targets are simply more keenly honed this time; more… completely fixated, in a way that’s so utterly relentless, it seems like a cry for help from a man with a life-long identity crisis, and riddled by self-loathing. First warning sign is when the supporting cast start riverdancing, and he announces “and here comes Flatley, the f*ggot,” sucking in his cheeks and mincing across the stage. Then we meet the Merry Men — “come on in, you big, tough, lusty lads!

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And so, of course, they mince on doing a ‘gay’ walk, one hand on their wiggling hips, the other swinging and snapping, each with a flower in their hair, to launch into, what turns out to be, Boobs in the Wood‘s anthem, The Shirtlifter’s Song. Performed in a lisping hate-crime of a voice, it’s likely Jim likely considers this his magnum opus, cramming an astonishing amount of homophobia into its 2 ½ minutes, with lines about “bending over backwards,” and “gaily chasing little dears.” Nobody’s put as much thought into how the gays spend their time as Jim — they “like games upon the green, playing pass the Vaseline,” and “if you call round tonight for a snack, Jack, put some Preparation H in your knapsack!” He’s got more homophobic slurs than he has ex-wives who divorced him for domestic violence, packing the lyrics with words like bent, nancy, f*ggot, Mary, and in something that’s not been said since the 1930s by a blustering colonel, “woolly-woofters.

The Merry Men, promising to behave lest Robin confiscates their Judy Garland albums, introduce themselves as Scarlett Willy, Little John Thomas; who’s black, and consequently got a big nob — “It’s about 2 inches… off the floor!” — and Alan A’Dale, “the menstrual minstrel.” As Jim considers gay men to be women, I guess he thinks they menstruate too? You know that cliché about pulling the pigtails of a girl you fancy? I’m not saying Jim’s projecting, but he devotes an awful lot of time to slagging off the gays, for all their effete waddling about the place, calling out “hello, sailor!” and going into the bushes. There’s so much of it, you forget this is supposed to be a Christmas pantomime, and it’s almost impossible to excavate the shreds of plot buried underneath the avalanche of lines about arse-sex, stiffies, and lovely big wobbly knockers.

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As far as I can make out, Jim’s plotting to kill his niece and nephew, to inherent their fortune, except the children have already been killed and replaced by Kenny Baker and his mate; another little person, and sadly not Anthony Daniels. Consequently the pair are pretending to be, and dressed like children; foul-mouthed, sex-crazed children. Tee hee. There’s something very late 90’s about seeing a blue Baker, bang in that period old kids show celebs would milk their now-grown audiences by doing ‘adult’ shows for university freshers, to guffaw at Cuddles the Monkey saying fuck, or Timmy Mallett getting his perineum out. Kenny makes a beeline to Marion, lifting her skirt straight up in the air. “I’m just checkin’ out the old Jack and Danny,” says R2-D2. Kenny’s “the big time bopper with the two-inch chopper,” and as Marion leads the ‘children’ offstage, hand in hand, he remarks “what a pair of tits!

It makes you glad they never subtitled R2’s childlike beeps and boops, when a bog-mouthed Kenny Baker’s prattling on about jugs and spunk, and the sight of him struggling to run offstage “for a bit of oral sex,” all excited about getting his nob sucked, is the most depressing exit behind a curtain since my child’s cremation. As we’ve seen with this year’s Christmas content, there’s nothing comics find funnier in December than little people, especially when they’re swearing, smoking, or being horny. Because they’re basically kids, aren’t they? If they were adults, surely they’d be taller! As a result, their role is very much “ha ha, he’s smoking and said fuck,” with Baker’s cohort, Moose, dragging a blow-up doll behind him, which Jim turns upside down, shaking all the cum out of its mouth. Merry Christmas! And if you wanted to see an elderly Kenny Baker pretending to have a tommy tank, your wish is granted, when Jim reads him a mucky bedtime story. Incidentally, it’s about a flea who lands on a naked lady who’s asleep with her legs wide open, falling down a big hole and finding a dark cave with a funny smell, in another example of Jim Davidson being both obsessed with and disgusted by women’s bodies.

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Like Jim Davidson’s badly-bruised penis when he was writing it, the musical numbers keep coming. Marion gets a love ballad where drops the screeching thicko voice to showcase her actual vocal training, though it’s about being “wogered by hundreds of men.” This is later reprised by Jim, doing an Elvis and using the dildo as a mic. Robin has a country music solo about what’ll happen if he doesn’t shag Marion; “I’ll have to start wanking again.” The lyrics are straight out of my school jotter, with such Ivor Novello contenders as “each time I miss her, I just pull my pisser,” “all your problems will mend, when you shine your bell-end,” and the emotive climax “it really feels great, when you ee-jac-u-laaaate!” followed by the sound of loads of sticky spunk gushing out the end of his great big prick and flooding his tunic. Robin and Marion get a duet at the close of act one, which finishes with both of them loudly farting before they kiss, kicking off an interval where the queue to angrily wank off straight into the urinals must’ve been a mile long.

Jim often finds a way to crowbar his politics in, and things get well Brexity when he comes out waving a sword and yelling “I’ll die before I surrender to Europe!” I’ve gotten so used to the last few years of Farage-poisoned political discourse, I was surprised at the lack of response. If he did that bit now, moaning about Brussels and “these bloody stupid laws coming out that’s got nothing to do with England whatsoever,” his audience of salmon-coloured Joris Bohnson fanboys would carry him around the theatre on their shoulders. Although, it was all leading to a joke about Piles “sucking off a swan” and coughing up a fistful of feathers. There’s also a dig at the “bloody NHS,” and later, he suggests a bit of mime, “so the fucking leftie Labour leftie fucking Arts Council will give us £75,000 a year grant!” Go on, Jim lad, stick it to… the arts?

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With no Charlie Drake about to keel over from alcohol poisoning, Boobs contains precious few bloopers. The only notable fuck-up is when Jim tests Piles’ aptitude by asking how many D’s are in Match of the Day. Piles proceeds to “dee dee-dee-dee” the theme, only, it’s nothing like the tune at all, earning a confused silence from the audience. “Imagine how much funnier if he’d got the fucking tune right,” says Jim, who’s earlier dig at Piles only turning up to two rehearsals in the last fortnight may have been true, unless this is brave Jim’s way of avoiding the commie BBC’s copyright Stasi. In another moment, Kenny Baker has trouble locating the nozzle of a piss-prop, muttering “hang on, I can’t find it,” though maybe this was a small penis joke. But he definitely fucks up a line when Jim accuses him of being a convict called (for fuck’s sake) Bruce Foreskin. “Bruce Foreskin? I’ve never heard of me!

Boobs in the Wood‘s big set piece involves all of the characters disguising themselves as children for a classroom skit, in an obvious excuse for everyone to be dressed in school uniforms and pigtails. Incidentally, at what point did the once-ubiquitous St. Trinians schoolgirl fancy dress get dropped? Was it Savile? Yewtree? Even those School Disco club nights, so wildly popular in the early 2000s, have vanished, once everyone started to notice it all seemed a bit paedy. Anyway, regular teacher, Miss Spankem, has been replaced by Piles as ‘Mr. Shagnasty,’ who tells Kenny Baker to stand up, in a reprise of a joke last seen in the Les Dennis Christmas Laughter Show. Then Jim comes out, dressed like a schoolgirl, holding his crotch and doing a child-voice that makes me feel sick. “I’ve only been a girl five minutes, and already I’ve got thrush!

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The whole existence of this scene is for a running bit where one of the ‘children’ gets caned on the arse by Shagnasty, who gets her to bend right over, grossly pulling her skirt up over her underwear, to wolf whistles from the audience. On one caning, girl-voiced Jim says “moisten my gusset,” for anyone who needs help never masturbating ever again. At caning #4, he calls out “get the gusset to one side, teacher,” but in his real voice, which makes it so much worse, adding “so that’s where they’re starting the Channel Tunnel.” As the canings continue, the male characters are literally cumming with excitement. “So am I,” moans one of the girls, to a loud “eurgh!” from all the blokes, as there’s nothing more disgusting (and most likely, a fictional invention by those hairy feminists) as the female orgasm, right lads? “Fuckin’ rug-muncher,” spits Jim, to one of the biggest laughs of the night, with everyone losing it in a way that suggests it was unscripted.

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But I have to confess, the classroom scene contained the one moment to evoke as much as a wry smile in me, with a blackboard in the background scrawled with the words NEIL’S NOB STINKS. I previously used almost the exact same graffiti in my own Wakehaven and love me a smelly dick joke, but tragically, like being caught smoking by your dad and made to puff the entire packet, as a much-noted enjoyer and purveyor of jokes about nobs and jizz, the sheer unending flood in Boobs in the Wood started to turn me off them altogether. And it’s not just the scale, but the quality.

How big is your nob?

Four inches.

Four inches?!

Thick!

If that’s not value enough, Jim improvises an extra punchline; “no wonder your girlfriends have got stretch marks round their mouths!” Piles talks endlessly about sex with animals, and walks offstage to the sound of farts, while every line, every gesture, gets dragged back to talk of a bubbling phallus. Fairy Dildo: “I hear things are afoot!” Jim: “Actually, it’s about eight inches.” Jim had been a working comic for 25 years by this point, and behold, the master: “He went to a premature ejaculation clinic last week.” “How is he?” “Touch and go!” The true nadir of cock-based wordplay comes (haha, ‘cums’) with a kidnapped Marion screaming “I’m undone!” and Jim responding “you fucking will be undone in a minute” while feverishly trying to get his trousers off for a bit of the old rape. But as we learned with The Generation Game, he can work clean, with classic gags like “at school I was the teacher’s pet.. she used to keep me in a cage at the back of the class.” I must make special mention of the most bafflingly awful joke of the entire show, when the dwarves are tired from running through the woods.

My breath’s coming in short pants.

And mine’s got turn-ups on.

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Perhaps Boobs‘ ‘greatest’ scene is when Jim hides inside a log to spy on the other characters. Marion and Robin’s talk of trying each other’s lollipops — “can I have a lick of your thingy?” — sets Jim furiously cranking his hog, if you’ve ever wondered what kind of moany noises he makes when he’s having sex. His cock pops out of a knothole, where it’s smashed with a hammer, and shoots a fountain of cum into the air. It’s then that a succession of characters march on to piss on the log — and him. “Where shall I have a wee wee, children?” they all ask; Friar Tuck, Piles, Kenny Baker and his mate; each dousing Jim in urine, with Piles spraying it into his own face, and shambling offstage licking it off his fingers. But it’s not just piss, as the Merry Men rush on to puke the bull-semen they drank in an earlier scene, before the latest in a long line of degradation fantasies ends with a cut to black, as Robin empties an arse-full of hot diarrhea over a cum, sick, and piss-soaked Jim Davidson.

The story draws to a close with Jim kidnapping Marion — “my boobied little bosomy wench” — and tying her to a throne of skulls in his dungeon. He sticks a dagger in her boob and orders Friar Tuck to marry them; but wouldn’t you know it, perpetually-stoned old Tuck accidentally marries Jim to Robin instead. Oh, what a gay old lark! Marion, realising “now I’ll never get shagged” drags Tuck offstage for a fuck, while Robin has a sudden moment of self-realisation, camply announcing “open the doors, dears, I’m comin’ out the closet!” Then it’s Piles’ turn — “So am I!” — and all the gays prance offstage, “a humping we will go, to a cottage we all know!

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In a stark future-vision of the turnout for his gigs in the coming millennium, our final moments see Jim left all alone. “Everyone’s gone off, namby-pamby, shirt-lifting.” He cuts the lights. “I have to face the facts that nobody loves me...” Cue Fairy Dildo — “oh yes, they do!” Until now, her presence was a mystery; with about two lines through the whole show, but then she strips down into lingerie. Most distressingly, Jim does too; stockings, bustier; the full Rocky Horror, and the pair have an extended and full-on kiss, as a disco ball shaped like a big cock and bollocks lowers from the ceiling, gets hard, then jizzes sparks. Again, I’m not suggesting this is wish fulfilment, but the big ending is Jim properly getting off with a scantily-clad girl half his age for a really long time.

Our curtain call features wildly extravagant costumes we never saw during the actual show, which feels like a tax dodge, including Spinetti dressed like Hell’s Pope, for one last run-through of the Shirtlifter’s Song. Everyone; Jim, Kenny Baker, Piles; they’re all doing the limp-wristed dance moves, as the audience claps along, joyously belting out lines about “joining the nancy clan” and getting bummed. As with Sinderella, the sheer bleakness of knowing real families definitely sat down to watch this after Christmas dinner has almost done me in. Queen’s Speech, Wallace and Gromit, then a wizened R2-D2 pretending to pull on his penis. Odds are, there’s someone out there who’d decided to use the yearly visit to their parents to come out to them. But then dad pulled out a video — “here, son, you’ll bloody love this!” — and they had to watch their old man bobbing up and down on the sofa, face red with laughter, doing all the movements to the Shirtlifter’s Song.

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And about that. It’s not in the least bit catchy, but by sheer repetition alone, here in the woke future of 2020, the Shirtlifter’s Song has gotten stuck in the tubes of my brain like a poison, and I often catch myself humming it. I’ll be out dog-walking, minding my own business, and before you know it, my footsteps have formed a beat, and from under my breath, “a million woolly-woofters can’t be wrong!” Eventually, someone will overhear, and twenty years after his wretched, laughter-free, carpark flasher’s propaganda, poorly delivered by performers who’ll scrub it from their resumes, to an audience of Sun-readers straining wet-nobbed against their chinos, as I lay bleeding from the beating I’ll sorely deserve, Jim Davidson will have had the last laugh.

…put your hand upon your hips, flap your wrist and purse your lips…

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Les Dennis and Russ Abbot at Christmas

•January 13, 2020 • 1 Comment

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The Christmas edition of The Les Dennis Laughter Show aired on 22nd December 1990, between Challenge Anneka‘s restoration of a Romanian Orphanage and the TV premiere of Innerspace. Originally titled simply The Laughter Show, and featuring the double act of Dennis and Dustin Gee, the series was renamed for its titular performer, now working solo after Gee’s death in 1986. On evidence of this half-hour, it’s like giving Emu his own show after Rod’s fingers had curled away from the guttering. And I do take particular issue with use of the word ‘laughter’. It could be more accurately called The Les Dennis Reference Show, as there are no jokes, just plenty of references to things the audience has probably heard of.

All English comedy back then had very a strong policy of “fuck the Scottish!” and festivities begin with a fake continuity advert for upcoming programs; The Jock MacSporran Hogmanay Show — illustrated with a picture of Saddam Hussein on the bagpipes — and the Loch Ness Teenage Mutant Hero Monsters, showing the TMNT in tartan gear swigging from cans. Along with its funny ‘Scotch’ names like Hamish McWhiskeybreath, this is bang in that era of reducing an entire nation to red hair, tartan, and crippling alcoholism for cheap weekly laffs. But never mind, Scots, we’ll soon be done with Les, then it’s on to Russ Abbot. Oh.

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An opening musical number has extras in Victorian dress and the requisite sinister snowman lurking in the background. I wish it’d stoved my fucking head in with a shovel and replaced my eyes with coal, on the sinking realisation Les Dennis is about to do a comedy song. I say ‘comedy’, but it’s just him in a Val Doonican jumper singing Winter Wonderland, while falling over and getting his scarf snagged on the set. At one point, he actually steps on a rake. The sleeves are comically long, hanging down to the floor, and as he staggers through the fake snow, you feel you’re witnessing some horrible half-finished melting Les-Beast from Carpenter’s The Thing.

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He continues the trope of the be-jumpered Christmas host, cosied by a log fire, in a running gag where Brian Glover bursts in to repossess various items because of BBC cutbacks, eventually leaving him stood in his underwear in an empty room. It’s one of a series of digs at television’s poor budget and lack of creativity, which is a bit rum considering how utterly woeful this is; like marching into someone’s living room to announce “pee-yew, it stinks in here!” while covered in dogshit. In a sketch in a TV executive’s office, an elderly commissioner blows dust off the scheduling book they’ve been using since 1954, and takes a pop at Jeremy Beadle, who’s the BBC’s secret weapon. “But he works for ITV?” “I rest my case!” Again, this is Les Dennis taking a crack at someone for being bad at telly.

Because it’s 1990, there’s a Gazza impression, though thankfully one of his balls isn’t hanging out of his shorts like when Bobby Davro did it. Like Davro, there’s such contempt for the audience, even doing a Geordie accent in a full England strip, he still has to introduce himself so they know who he is. If you guessed the whole sketch is just Les going “why-aye, man!” and sticking his tongue out, then you are correct. And course he cries — in two of the three Gazza skits — because it’s a thing you remember, isn’t it?

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This shortcut of referring to a thing to incite a chuckle of recognition in lieu of structuring an actual joke, where the punchline is just a reference to the Spice Girls or Sellafield or the Cones Hotline or Myspace, or whatever was in the tabloid headlines six months ago, is absolutely rampant here. When Les plays a scouse department store Santa, it’s a roll-call of the year’s talking points; last Christmas was ruined by “that mad elf from Iraq,” Paddy Ashdown looks stupid, Tinkerbell’s off “writing fairy stories for The Sun,” and Donner and Blitzen have caught “mad reindeer disease.” In another skit when they’re on the pavement in sleeping bags waiting for the Boxing Day sales, “I’ve been here so long they started charging me poll tax,” while an unseen figure beneath a cardboard box is identified as Salman Rushdie.

Even when Les steps aside to give Lisa Maxwell a monologue as a haughty actress slumming it in panto, it’s just a barrage of references. Julian Clary, Nina Miskow, Bucks Fizz, Janet Street Porter and BSB Squarials; George Best likes a drink and Jason Donovan might be gay. They even do the era’s single most overused reference, as there’s a “halfwit from Blue Peter” in the cast, Cinders’ coach is made from “two toilet rolls and a reel of sticky-back plastic.” Perhaps interesting only to me as a writer is forcing the glaringly incorrect description of sticky-back plastic coming on a ‘reel’, because they’d already used ‘rolls’ in the same sentence; rather than just writing something different or good.

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Perhaps it’s best to keep them from attempting proper gags, with class material like telling a pair of dwarves to stand up when he comes in the room — “oh, you are standing up” — and announcing the death of store elf Harry Little with “such a short life… about 3ft 6.” In an office party scene where he’s doing the Mr. Bean nerd voice, leering at an attractive co-worker, you have to remind yourself Les is getting paid actual money to be on actual television and say everyone’s grandad at Christmas dinner’s annual joke about “pulling a cracker!

In the most confusing moment, we’re back on the Victorian street, in what first appears to be the start of a sketch where a man in a leotard with a bowl cut and Wolverine sideburns starts playing with a yo-yo, until gradually it dawns that, no, this is an actual yo-yo demonstration; all 2 ½ minutes of it. With the poor visual quality and tiny screens of 1990, I doubt anyone could even see the yo-yos against the snowy background, performed against a tableaux of extras who’ve been told to stand completely still, their faces wearing the rictus grins of freshly made-up corpses looking all pretty for an open casket, adding a further nightmarish David Lynch quality. There’s more variety, with a violin performance in front of people who’re supposed to be waiting for the sales, but it looks like a homeless Les Dennis, laying on a freezing pavement on Christmas Day with his fellow tramps, as a tragic backdrop to an upbeat jazz medley of Yuletide hits.

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But nothing’s as baffling as the big closer, which begins with a pan across the empty stands of unseen dolls — JANET JACKSON DOLL, MADONNA DOLL, NINJA TURTLES — under 1950’s American doo-wop music. Les is one of many unsold Rock n’ Roll dolls, dressed like Bill Haley era rockers, and coming to life for a 3 ½ minute musical number. It’s played almost completely straight; not quite Mike Yarwood going “and this is me,” but still an obvious attempt by Les to demonstrate his skills as an all-round entertainer; a song-and-dance man as well as virtuoso comedian. What’s the obsession with 50’s diners-and-hot-rods Americana for this generation of comics? 1993 had Bobby Davro’s Rock With Laughter, while Russ Abbot was doing his Teddy Boy character decades too late.

The whole thing’s excruciating, and when they mime air guitar, saxophone, bass, and piano, I was gnawing on the desk like a big rat. The most notable bit happens beneath a sign marked “M.C. HAMMER DOLL,” when a drumbeat kicks in for Les to (very slowly) start rapping. “What an awesome dude is that MC Hammer, it’s hard to rap when you got a st-st-st-st-st-stammer.” This is a frankly unbelievable piece of thievery from Morris Minor & Majors’ Stutter Rap, which was a decent-sized hit two years earlier (“but it’s hard to rap when you’re born with a st-st-st-st-st-stutter!”). This is what our Christmases were in the 90s; watching Les Dennis, dressed like a stag-do Elvis on Blackpool high street, as he spits mad rhymes about M.C Hammer in a shite American accent — “he shakes his grove thing and he just can’t miss, with his baggy pants you know… you can’t touch this.” Remember that? U Can’t Touch This? It was a thing, wasn’t it? You know things. You like things. Laugh at the reminder of a thing.

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The closing credits do at least get to add another to our growing collection of continuity panto announcements, giving us a few second’s much-needed respite from Les’s earnest cover of Winter Wonderland, with the news that “Lisa Maxwell is currently appearing at the London Palladium in Russ Abbot’s Palladium Madhouse.” Speaking of old Russ, let’s skip back to Christmas Day 1987, for one of six Russ Abbot Christmas Shows that aired during his BBC run. I’ve previously covered Russ in a Past Laugh Regression, so my expectations are way down the u-bend, especially when it opens on C.U. Jimmy, weirdly sitting down to watch the show he’s in, saying what we’re all thinking, “I just hope he disnae do that Scotchman!” At least they’ve dubbed sleigh bells over the opening theme.

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When I was eight, me and my mates had a playground joke where we’d pull the head off a daisy and stick it on the stalk of another daisy, forming a kind of tiny daisy dumbbell. “This is He-Man,” we’d say, making strained noises, struggling to lift it off the grass, before announcing “and this is Weed-Man,” and blasting out easy reps. This, in a nutshell, is the comic mind of Russ Abbot. Regard, the opening Batman skit, where Abbot’s sumo-suited ‘Fatman’ struggles to squeeze through a window to rescue Les Dennis’ Robin from the Penguin. The Riddler repeatedly grabs his crotch and runs to the toilet for a piss (Riddler/Jimmy Riddle/Piddle), while — of course — Bella Emberg plays Fatwoman. Showcasing the almost-admirable lack of effort, Fatman’s still got the bat symbol on his chest, and not a pie or something, yet still the audience shriek with laughter as he waddles about the set, getting chairs stuck to his arse. There’s a strong contender in the battle for the night’s worst joke, when Penguin threatens them with an ultron bomb. “Don’t you mean a neutron bomb?” “No, I couldn’t afford a new one — wack, wack, wack!

It’s clear that Abbot’s entire shtick is making a pun on a pre-existing character and turning it into a sketch. Fatman, Basildon Bond, Cooperman and Blunderwoman, and now, Idiot Ness and the Untouchables. In this black and white noir parody, Idiot’s got two brothers, Happy and Loch, and Les Dennis runs about doing a rubbish 1920’s radio announcer’s voice. The most Christmassy thing is more jokes about little people, with a killer midget — “how tall is he?” “3ft 6.” “Well, if he’s guilty, he’ll get a long stretch!” That’s the second 3ft 6 of this post. Is that considered the optimum height for humour? In another familiar-feeling bit, Abbot does his own ‘backstage at a panto’, where Cooperman and Blunderwoman replace a pair of actors who’ve come down with salmonella, giving us another powerful gag. “I like them.” “Like who?” “Sam and Ella.” Fucking save me.

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Perhaps my brain blocked out the previous trauma, but I’d forgotten how much of Abbot’s work consists of dreary musical numbers. There’s one where he’s dressed like a dad in post-war Britain, singing about his family Christmas, with the distressing choice to have the dog played by a full-grown adult in a costume. I can’t lie, there’s a line here that I did like for its weirdness, where he and the wife catch his daughter and the neighbour in bed together, but as it’s the parents’ bedroom, he hand-waves it with a relieved “oh, of course, it must be us!” Another number parodies Freddy Mercury’s Barcelona duet with Montserrat Caballé, titled Macaroni, with loads of jokes about Bella being fat. She’s great value as always, even with the absolute toilet material, growing bigger as the song goes on and eventually exploding. Just as Freddie was in the original, Abbot’s clean shaven, not even bothering with a big set of comedy gnashers, and singing in his normal voice, with none of Freddie’s mannerisms, so if you don’t get the reference, who he’s meant to be is anyone’s guess. Macaroni, it turns out, was written by Bobby Crush, of Opportunity Knocks and Orville’s Song (I Wish I Could Fly). What a fucking resume.

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Other sketches go backstage at a circus and on holiday, with Abbot in a wig that makes him look like Jeffrey Epstein. The latter’s another Russ Abbot staple, of spouting lines made up of complex-sounding words which rhyme, like the Two Ronnies after a bad fall. Following a breakdown where he got fixated on the phrase “Dr. Hector Dexter Proctor of 25 Henty Drive, St. Ives,” another holidaymaker introduces herself as “Phoebe McCreaby Beebee.” Unbearably naff as it is, this somehow induces the single strangest, most hysterical reaction I’ve ever heard, from one audience member.

Is that pleasure or pain? Is she sitting on a Sybian? We desperate jokers and mirth-makers (and sex-havers) could only dream of someday causing a human being to emit to such a noise.

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After the final of multiple visits back to C.U. Jimmy and his red-headed family knocking back the booze, it’s mercifully time for the closing number, where Abbot’s Santa has a rooftop party with other fairytale characters. Like Les Dennis’ rock n’ roll, it’s played pretty straight, with Abbot’s desire to be a serious singer once again trumping the urge to be funny, though there’s time for one last little person joke — “the Mad Hatter’s drinking tea, and all the dwarves are drinking shorts.” A Jingle Bells dance-break is the most festive thing that happens all night, before Les Dennis dressed as Mary Poppins flies in on an umbrella, demolishing a chimney stack. Russ signs off as himself in a lovely jumper, wishing us a Merry Christmas and — in his Scottish accent — “a happy, happy Hogmanay,” which, considering, is like when Trump’s secretary grabs his phone to tweet out warmest greetings for Eid al-Fitr. But we do get another continuity announcement, and it’s a double! “Russ Abbot is currently appearing at the Lyric Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue in One For The Road, and Les Dennis the Theatre Royal Nottingham in Babes in the Wood.” No wonder suicide rates spike at this time of year.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Noel’s Live, Live Christmas Breakfast Show

•January 3, 2020 • 1 Comment

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[more Noel Edmonds: House PartyNoel’s HQCracking America]

For a good while, Noel Edmonds was Christmas television manifest. More than just his seasonal first name, Noel’s Christmas Presents became as much an annual tradition as World’s Strongest Man, premieres of the big American film from five years ago, and your grandad ruining dinner by saying something awful when Lenny Henry came onscreen. It all started here, on Christmas morning, 1985, with The Live, Live Christmas Breakfast Show. It’s a weirdly unfestive intro sequence, with the usual Late, Late Breakfast stunts, where people jump through fire and stick their heads in killer whales’ mouths, without so much as a dubbed-on sleigh bell. But the opening shot perfectly sets the scene, with Noel in a crowd of people, everyone in party hats, and a man in a gorilla costume by his side. “…these idiots!” he playfully tuts.

I absolutely remember watching this as a six-year-old, and revisiting it 30+ years later still gets those nostalgia-neurons firing, with vivid sense-memories of Christmas mornings sat watching TV in my pyjamas, with the smell of dinner already in the oven. The gimmick here is that Noel’s hosting from atop the British Telecom Tower, 620 feet above London. The studio’s absolutely plastered in gaudy decorations, with an enormous bank of phones manned by tinsel-draped volunteers, who’ll be taking the viewer dedications that whizz across the screen for the whole show, at too dizzying a speed to be legible. Pretty much every second of the following two hours is plagued by a background noise of ringing phones, which is appropriate for a show that’s haunted, Marley-like, by the looming presence of British Telecom. A “percentage” (wonderfully vague) of money from the calls will be given by BT to charity; “a charity called Comic Relief,” which as it turns out, is being launched on the show.

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As we know, Noel’s big on television ‘firsts’, and just in doing a show from up the tower, he’s staking a flag into virgin soil. Spitting off technobabble like Geordi La Forge, he brags about BT’s “micro radio network,” and “a computer with 50,000 names in it,” for the world’s first ever computer prize draw. They’ve also moved a satellite dish 4,000 miles, and in another first, will be broadcasting live, and in-flight, from a commercial airline. All this, he nonsensically promises, will be “a Christmas show you’re not gonna be able to put down;” television that “really is international,” because it’s going all round the country. I’m… not sure that’s how that works.

For these international links, we cut to various local DJs on outside broadcast, in places we will revisit again and again over the next two hours. Manchester, Norwich, Bristol, Plymouth, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast — on and on it goes; over to Cardiff to a man who looks like Bobby Ball; to Newcastle for a wet DJ waving in an empty, rain-sodden carpark; to Leeds, for a team of presenters stood with the police, “and a rather charming lady as well.” In an effort to lure the public to these locations, he throws out none-more-Noel challenges, with prizes for those who arrive wearing another country’s national costume, carrying a fried egg, or accompanied by an actual door. What a great way to spend Christmas day; “sling that turkey in the bin, love, and bring me the screwdriver, we’ve gotta bomb down the high street in a kilt with the bathroom door to win a toaster off Noel Edmonds!”

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Another of those television firsts is the jumbo jet, with its take-off cued by a lucky viewer; “a lady with an amazing name,” called Mary Christmas. “Off you go, boys!” says Mary, launching 400 tons of plane, filled with 200 kids, Radio 1’s Gary Davies, and the Krankies. Noel tells viewers to look out for it, as it flies over the country — “it’ll be going over Norwich” — though this was the point I had to pause to write an alternative history novel about naughty Wee Jimmy hijacking that sucker and flying it straight into the Telecom Tower. The jet’s the scene for what became an infamous blooper, in another television first, as Feargal Sharkey and his 11-piece band are to perform/mime their latest single while 30,000 feet in the air. But when the vocals kick in, Sharkey’s left shrugging, and mouthing the words “I can’t hear it!” Already too-cool-for-this in his shades, he stands awkwardly running his fingers through his hair, while Jimmy Krankie energetically jigs at his side. Noted lover of cock-ups Noel must’ve been a very good boy that year.

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Later, we rejoin the jet for take two, where a dancing Sharkey serenades rows of children with the lovely festive lyrics “you little beauty, you little whore,” until the plane gets out of range and the feed starts breaking up. Final visit to the skies sees the Krankies playing a quiz with pony-tailed musician Paul King, which involves stunts where King pushes his face in treacle and wears an enormous stag’s head. When he dons an owl mask filled with custard, which oozes yellow gunk from its eye holes, it’s clear this is all just admitted-swingers the Krankies filling TV time with the pagan sex magick ritual that’s kept Wee Jimmy so youthful all these years.

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Noel’s helicopter buddy Mike ‘Smitty’ Smith is airborne too, touring the country in a chopper, with first stop at the posh Sussex village of Rusper. It’s likely during this section that Noel scribbled the words ‘Crinkly Bottom?‘ onto a post-it, as Smitty runs some Great British Eccentrics through a series of summer fete style games, in truly bottom-of-the-bin television. There’s races between villagers dressed as jesters and ‘Chinamen’, who’ve spun round until they’re dizzy, or wear welly boots filled with mud; a man called ‘Ice-Bo’ melting blocks of ice with a blowtorch; and a pretend-drunk who burns his hands on roast chestnuts, and puts them out in the punchbowl. It’s an Alan Partridge Comic Relief sketch made real, and we return for more dizzy-racing, and an egg-throwing contest between teams dressed as chickens, chefs, and Hawaiian dancers. Interviews are conducted at screaming level, as Smitty’s whirring helicopter blades thunder in the background.

The helicopter obsession leads to a bunch of location stuff filmed from above, where you might as well be leaning out of the bedroom window watching ants on the patio while someone runs a chainsaw next to your ear. There’s a chilly Christmas swim with Cheam Water Polo Club’s ‘Big Charlie’ (dressed as Snow White) and his mates diving in a lake — “what a load of wallies!” — then the Plum Forest Oglers doing a ‘traditional’ dance around a haddock while a man plays an accordion, and finally, a London street party, where Noel thinks he can see “a gentleman juggling.” “That’s a girl, actually,” says a resident on the phone, “she’s just very butch.” Noel plays up the size of the crowd; “they’re all drunk,” she says, “it’s disgusting.”

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You may have noted there’s been a lot of fancy dress. I can’t stress enough how 80’s wacky it all is; the embodiment of a decade where you didn’t have to be mad to work there, but it helped!! This was a time when office blokes on pub crawls dressed like St. Trinians girls, and bowties span so fast, one could simply fly to the shops to purchase their inflatable banana; the earnest years, before the internet made everyone ironic and detached; too self-aware to smile in a photo unless it’s the angle that makes our cheekbones really pop. There’s no such insecurities on Live, Live Christmas, and whatever’s going on, in the back of every shot there’ll be someone in a hat with big rubber ears attached, or dressed like a clown, with everyone leaning in to wave “hello, mum!” as being captured on camera was still a giddy thrill, before we were all livestreaming our morning dumps. The hosts are no different, with Smitty in a white jumpsuit covered in baubles and holly, a tinsel belt, and plastic Santa atop his hat, while Noel’s jumper’s got the tower knitted into it, with woollen helicopters and a procession of stick-men running up stairs.

Exemplary of this mood are Noel’s challenges, with a good 50% of the two-hour running time taken up with checking on every location, upon where Noel’s absolutely destroyed by the hilarity of it all. “In Norwich, we have a Scotsman!” he cackles, dead at a kilted man whose legs are on show. He’s rolling on the sofa at the first fried egg in Bristol, and ready for the grave with each new person that’s brought a door with them, which seems only to become funnier, with shrieks of “did you unscrew it? Will you get in trouble?!” yet always to be told, disappointingly, no, it was just laying around. On it goes, thoroughly done in by another fried egg in London; by a Scottish girl dressed all Welsh; by a garage door in Belfast, which between the man’s drunkenness and strong Norn Iron accent, and Noel’s mania, makes for a confused interaction. In Birmingham, he asks a middle-aged man in a sheik costume “why are you dressed as an Arab?” You asked for national dress? “Yes, I just wondered why you were inspired by an Arab?” The sheik keeps plugging his business, so Noel cuts him off. Most of note here is one incredible background goth, giving it the full Morpheus from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

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Maybe he’s just slap-happy at Christmas. The stair-marathon, with people racing up the tower’s 816 steps, ends as Noel cuts another segment off with a cry of “the first idiot’s arrived up the tower now!” and wheezing with laughter as the runner collapses to the floor with exhaustion. Hysteria aside, the show’s conspicuously absent of pranks, with a more restrained Noel behaving himself, thanks to the breakneck pace, where there’s no more than half a second between links, and he can’t have even had time for a piss. You can tell he’s busy, as he doesn’t mention when his mic pack falls out, and spends the next link dragging behind like Satan’s tail, loudly banging against the floor. On House Party, he’d have been doubled over for about twenty minutes. There’s always something happening, from cutting to the royals emerging from a church service, to segments which really highlight this as a 2-hour commercial for British Telecom, showcasing futuristic new “video conferencing” tech (CCTV on two massive old tellies), and a handover to Scotland, where a man from BT will connect their 21,000,000th landline to a school for the deaf.

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Technology’s the spectre behind the ‘first’ of a computerised prize draw, with Noel at the helm of a brilliantly low-tech set-up; green font on a huge square monitor, and keys like segments of a Yorkie bar. It’s funny, watching from a time where everybody casually uses technology all day long, to see a grown man baffled by a keyboard, typing very, very slowly with a single finger — “where’s K?” — and having to redo it three times, because he keeps fucking it up. He eventually gets a winner; a 12-year-old girl, who gets a goody bag containing a phone and some champagne. Live, Live Christmas‘s biggest technological gambit is the launch of Comic Relief, which involves the shipping of a satellite dish on a cargo plane, and to a Sudanese aid camp, along a road “which really does deteriorate like mad,” for a video link-up. Interestingly, the aid worker in charge is Helen Fielding, who went onto write the Bridget Jones books.

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As part of the launch, there’s a bunch of sketches from comics like Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot, and Tracey Ullman, the highlight of which — and of the entire show — is an appearance by Rik and Ade, though Ade does appear to pull one of his eyes into a slit with his finger during a Chinese reference, which seems to be a legal requirement in the ’80s. For anyone scanning through for all the ‘problematic’ bits, when Noel’s handing out medals to the runners, he compares himself to Jimmy Savile, though I’ve come to realise it’s pretty impossible to watch something from this era and not spot a Savile reference, which demonstrates how impossibly enormous a cultural figure he was.

While 40-something white males bang on about freedom of speech, they’re probably just pissed that the cutting down on ableist language stops all that lazy banter from the ’80s and ’90s, which is entirely based around accusing people of being clinically insane. Anyone taking a drink each time Noel or Smitty describes someone as mad or a nutter won’t live to see Boxing Day. Members of the public are frequently introduced as “here’s the manic,” or “an exclusive team of loonies,” and even though “Smitty’s got a fair few nutters,” Noel’s “never met such a mad bunch of people!” To be fair, the sprint up the stairs is crammed with textbook office-jokers, in a flapping seagull hat or full suit of armour. A woman runner’s in regular t-shirt and shorts — “a nice, pretty ankle,” says Noel, as the camera pans up, “and the rest ain’t bad either.”

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After taking a moment to moan about the winners’ foreign-sounding names — “have we got any English people taking part?” — it’s off to the viewer stunts, which were Noel’s TV trademark, until, you know. But despite the opening credits, which showed daredevils jumping out of planes and setting themselves on fire, the thrilling Christmas day caper they’ve been training all week for is… balancing stacks of drinking glasses and trays. Ungodly amounts of airtime gets wasted on cycling through the many locations, multiple times, to watch volunteers looking at a big stack of trays; sometimes carrying it, sometimes dropping it. Belfast’s contestant appears to be the Babadook, while in over Leeds, Noel tells a woman who can’t hear playback, “you pick’ em up, dear, I’ll do the talking!” The winner balances a stack that’s 40 trays high, before it topples, sending 160 drinking glasses careening towards a woman holding a baby where they shatter over the pavement at her feet.

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For the last half-hour, Smitty joins Noel in the studio, which is like when Finchy shows up at Wernham Hogg, sat there in his kee-razee outfit, creasing up at the wackiness and technical blips, and spraying Noel with silly string, as the pair laugh themselves Babybel-red; kindred spirits in being mad bloody British nutters. They do a purported ‘live-link’ to Rowan Atkinson’s home, where Rowan introduces his dinner guest, Mike Smith, in a variation of a gag Noel would use on his American pilot. Incidentally, did I imagine a tabloid newspaper posting lurid pictures of Mike Smith and Sarah Greene’s 1988 helicopter crash, showing the pair of them all fucked up and bloody on hospital beds, with tubes coming out? I had nightmares about that for months as a kid, but can find no evidence.

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Speaking of horrible sights that leave witnesses with crippling PTSD from which they’ll never recover, after 125 life-sapping minutes, the Live, Live Christmas Breakfast Show finally draws to a close. We get goodbyes from all the locations — which takes fucking ages, because there’s hundreds of them — with Noel almost unable to speak at how funny it is someone brought a car door to Newcastle; and from the jumbo jet, where 200 lucky children eat airline sprouts off lap trays with the Krankies. We go off air with Smitty in fits of giggles as he lets off a party popper that’s sewn to his jumper, Noel wishing everyone a very merry Christmas, and me hunting around for an application form to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Emu and Orville at Christmas

•December 23, 2019 • 1 Comment

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This tale of two birds begins with Emu at Christmas, a festive episode of Emu’s All Live Pink Windmill Show from Christmas Day, 1984. I’ve a vivid memory of receiving a Pink Windmill filled with sweets that year, so I’m certain I was watching at the time. As a brief explanation for those who didn’t live through it, Emu was a violent, mute puppet, who despite the best efforts of his handler, Rod Hull, would use his beak to savagely grab people by the throat or arse, at which point you remembered there’s a hand in there. Emu’s psychotic tendencies led to some classic TV moments, including humourless pen-salesman Michael Parkinson getting the hump, and a chaotic visit to a supermarket. As is clear from these clips, though Rod Hull only had one joke, he was an absolute master at it, and a brilliant physical comedian. Famously, though the act made him a household name for decades, Hull grew resentful of Emu, as the one doing all the work, but viewed as the side-kick to a boggle-eyed pile of rags. Incidentally, do you think he ever… you know? Like when you sit on your hand?

Most people know Pink Windmill from the meme of the show’s stage school kids introducing themselves, but they’re nowhere to be seen here, as Rod and Emu are spending Christmas alone in the Pink Windmill. The kids are on “a hotel holiday in Scotland,” which suggests 1) they don’t have families to go home to, and live with/work for Rod full-time, and 2) they don’t care enough about him to invite him along. Hull was a unique looking chap, and here in his pink suit, resembles Willy Wonka as a Victorian undertaker, with his false arm hanging limp, and shivering from the cold. The water’s turned to ice, last year’s leftover cracker’s got no bang, and there’s but one stale sandwich left in the cupboard. “Never mind, Emu,” he says, putting on a brave face for the bird, “it’s Christmas!

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Trying to hang up some decorations demonstrates Hull’s lovely physical business, as Emu drops the hammer on his foot, and it’s remarkable how instantly you forget you’re watching a bloke get beaten up by his own arm. For a creature which doesn’t even speak, it’s imbued with a real personality. As we’ll later discover, this is markedly not the case with Orville. When Hull finds a Christmas card from the kids — “thinking of you two spending Christmas on your own” — it cuts to an intricately choreographed performance of Kool and the Gang’s Celebration. Though it’s Christmas Day in Scotland, the kids are outside having a BBQ, dancing with such exuberant, wild-eyed glee, it feels like newsreel footage from the last days of a death cult, and you half expect to blink and catch a flash-frame of them splashing around in entrails.

Then we check in on Rod and Emu’s mortal enemy, over at Castle Grotbags. Grotbags’ home is my MTV Cribs dream, covered in cobwebs and skulls, with the sounds of bubbling cauldrons and cawing ravens. For a goth, she’s surprisingly into a Christian festival, with her witch hat wrapped in tinsel, presents under the tree, and excited because evil wizard The Magnificent Fred’s coming over for dinner. At this point, my usual remit of ‘taking the piss out of old telly’ is out of the window, as Carol Lee Scott’s performance is an utter joy. She’s clearly having a blast, as are her sidekicks; robot Redford — a pun on Robert — who’s a catty C-3PO type, mincing around and calling people ducky; and Croc, a rubber crocodile suit with fixed eyes and a flopping jaw that looks like its been broken by Steve Irwin. Its deflated tail is stapled to its back, and as its mouth doesn’t move, its voice just is, coming from everywhere like the voice of God.

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The supercilious Redford hates Croc, in a classic class struggle double-act, and with the three of them bickering away, I was thrilled at the prospect of more robot insults. ‘Bags calls Redford an “animated dustbin,” and Croc “a walking handbag,” while Hull’s “a streaky bonehead!” and when Croc tries to kiss her under the mistletoe, Grotbags does her catchphrase of “that’s very personal!” which I make a note to use in my own life, should anyone ever show me a moment’s physical affection. Within one scene, it’s easy to see why Grotbags was such a strongly embedded icon for my generation, although as a sidenote, my childhood best friend once had a dream he found out his mum was Grotbags, and it fucked him up for years. Also of note is Grotbags’ ever-present cane/wand/hitting device, which is an umbrella crook with a hand on the end. Presumably this is where Richard Ayoade got the idea for the virtually identical one he carries in the Crystal Maze reboot.

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Back at Rod Hull’s Pink Windmill (which sounds like a euphemism he must’ve used when inviting groupies backstage), Hull’s wondering what his “great, great ancestor” King Boggle is up to in Boggle’s Kingdom. This is clearly a way for Hull to showcase his own performing skills, without that fucking bird, with him playing a bumbling medieval king. But Boggle’s Kingdom is “locked away in the timezone,” surrounded by a magic screen that drops once a year on Christmas day, inviting many confusing questions; like why does the barrier disappear at Christmas? Is it Jesus who’s trapping them there? Also, as Hull’s his (eventual) ancestor, and the currently-heirless Boggle’s stuck in the past, with his own sister the only female, this seems to confirm that, eventually, there’ll be some Lannister shenanigans between them.

After some textbook ‘carrying a plank’ slapstick with a big log, there’s another musical number, with We Need a Little Christmas, where the tension between Princess Hortensia and manservant, Odd-Job John suggests under-stairs Lady Chatterley business going on behind Boggle’s back. Like all musical sequences in old TV, it feels really long, going the full duration, including a key change, but seeing Hull bumble about as an old man, joyfully doing that arm-linking dance, makes me yearn for a Christmas Carol with him as Scrooge, and every ghost played by Emu in various outfits. Tired of being stuck behind the bubble, the Princess decides to venture into the outside world, and the three of them head out into woods.

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Meanwhile, Grotbags and co. take off on the Hover-Grot to procure a roast Emu for Fred the Magnificent, leading into another song, with a greenscreened, mid-air cover of the Jackson 5’s Goin’ Places. When they crash-land, there’s a cracking reference-for-the-sake-of-it, as Redford breaks the fourth wall to complain “it’s like Star Trek gone mad!” Back at the Windmill, Hull gets a solo number, with an emotive Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which – to me, a broken man – is shockingly moving, as he strolls about their sorry home; deflated balloons, a withered tree, bare shelves; with the usually-violent, now-sad Emu cradled against his shoulder, tenderly stroking its head. Even Grotbags, watching through the window in the snow, is reduced to tears, but she’s gotta get that bird, so bursts in with “this is a raid! It’s coi-tens for you!

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Poor Rod Hull’s just so happy to have company, he wishes her a Merry Christmas, but Grotbags’ henchman stuff a thrashing Emu into a sack, which weirdly bulges in the shape of a very small person crouched inside. But then, Boggle’s gang, Fred the Magnificent, and the kids all show up, leading to a mass brawl, akin to a Youtube video titled RUSSIA’S WILDEST FOOTBALL HOOLIGANS. Truly, it’s chaos, with Fred trampled underfoot, and Emu biting Grotbags right on the arse. Oh, right — there’s a hand in there. Finally, the smallest child shames them with a speech about it being Christmas, and with a “three cheers for Good King Boggle,” everyone’s friends again, for a riotous final number, It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. It’s everything one could hope for, with Grotbags getting down, a flawless mid-song tango break for her and Fred, and Hull’s terrible soft-shoe shuffle getting him booed off. Even the post-credits continuity announcement is great — “Carol Lee Scott is now appearing in the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury” — for what one can only assume was the best goddamn panto villain the world had ever seen.

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Unfortunately, from a shining highlight of children’s TV past, we must venture into the bin; into the toilet; down into the bowels of the dying Earth. Emu and Orville the Duck, while both birds made of felt, couldn’t have been more different. When Emu was invited onto shows, it was to inject some anarchy, pulling down the set and grabbing celebrities by the dicks, as a flailing Rod Hull screeched his apologies. In contrast, Orville wasn’t merely safe, but sickly, with huge, babyish eyes, and still wearing a nappy, suggesting he was yet to be toilet-trained by cloying companion, Keith Harris, perhaps as a deliberate decision to keep him infantilised to be more commercially appealing. The worst of that queasy soppiness is in full display with The Keith Harris Christmas Party, which aired on BBC1 on Boxing Day afternoon of 1983, sandwiched between Bridge on the River Kwai and David Icke reading out the football scores.

If Pink Windmill was a great British pantomime, then this is the repressed memory of being dragged to Father Christmas’s grotto at the back of a church hall; the smells of bleached floorboards; an alcoholic civic councillor wearing a cotton wool beard that hooks over the ears. Notably, this is the Keith Harris Christmas Party, not Orville’s, with Harris another performer having grown resentful of his far more famous puppet, unable to go anywhere without being asked “where’s Orville?” Harris always felt he had more to share with the world than singing gnashed falsetto through an incontinent duck, but having sat through this, I beg to differ. However low your expectations, dig a little further, as Christmas Party shares a writer with Reg Varney’s sketch show, Little and Large, 3-2-1, and The Jim Davidson Show.

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This is very much a distressed nephew of Knowing Me, Knowing Yule, with Keith bidding us hello in a green jumper on the way to Orville’s house. Wait, Orville has his own house?! He can’t even sit on the bog, but he’s living by himself? And shouldn’t his home be a nest? It’s with the first appearance of Keith’s other puppet — Cuddles the Orville-hating monkey — that things take a turn for the sinister. When he’s behind a desk or on Keith’s arm, he’s fine, but it’s the ‘walking’ version that emerges through the front door; a hunched, bipedal Cuddles with unsettling, lolloping movements, long, slack arms dragging in the snow, and his usual gurning face now an immobile plastic mask.

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We cut to inside, where scary Cuddles is ‘dancing’ with Keith and Orville, and a giant buck-toothed yellow dinosaur wearing a jacket but no trousers. Dippy the Dinosaur was an attempt to branch out with a third character, which didn’t take off like the other two, as a basic ‘big, stupid oaf’ whose dialogue mostly consists of gormless “hur-hur-hur” laughter. Like a child grasping for acceptance by playing along with the bullies (“Fatty Millard, that’s me haha!”), when Cuddles later calls him “the original dumb-waiter,” Dippy will chirpily respond “that’s right, cos I’m stupid!

As with Pink Windmill, this is a heavily musical show, and Orville kicks off with a performance of Come To My Party, which was released as a single that year, peaking at 44 in the charts, and not reaching the heights of January 1983’s Orville’s Song (I Wish I Could Fly) which got to #4. Orville grossly pronounces it as “Kissmas,” which he’ll do for the entire show, forcing me to hold back sicks with the back of my hand. Encapsulating his entire career, for the duration of the song, Keith’s role requires him to hold Orville while making simpering, teeth-clenched “ahh, isn’t that nice?” faces, like those future history book pictures of Mike Pence stood lovingly behind Trump when he’s doing something awful.

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Aside from the lurching Cuddles, everything about this is discordant and frightening. There’s a snowman with huge, black staring eyes, like its actual eyes have been plucked out by crows, who seems like it’ll come to life and dance, but just stands there, lurking, until suddenly falling to its knees. Cuddles — always a puppet in close-up — gets a ‘snowball’ of shaving roam to the mush, and is blown up, black-faced, by a cracker, before holding up some mistletoe and getting off with his own reflection. “Ooh,” sings Orville, “he does smell!” With modern hindsight, a couple of things really stand out. Keith is so much worse of a ventriloquist when doing Cuddles’ voice, which is the full ‘gottle of gear!’ It’s also amazing how much of the act is him repeating what his puppets have just said, perhaps not trusting the audience to understand their strangled little voices.

But it wouldn’t be Christmas without special guests, and a ring of the doorbell brings Shakin’ Stevens, the Welsh Elvis. Dressed in a scarf, he brushes fake snow from his quiff, and seems amused by the situation, chuckling to himself as he follows a waddling dinosaur across the set, before shaking Cuddles’ stiff, plastic hand. “I wonder who’s gonna drop in next?” asks Keith, cuing the scream of a soot-covered Stu Francis falling down the chimney. “I could wrestle a reindeer!” says Stu. “Ooh, ‘eck,” replies Keith. Stu tells a joke about Santa being Irish, because he parked his sleigh over the chimney, and the heat from the fire melted all his Easter Eggs. “Ooh, I could frighten a fairy!

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That Irish joke is a good indication of the quality of gags, which seem to be locked in a vicious battle for dead-worst. Regard, Orville’s claim of a family member who was a Christmas tree — “the Christmas tree’s evergreen, my ancestor was feather-green” — or the skit where an Orville-less Keith gets to demonstrate his solo skills with Stu Francis in a haunted bedroom, where Stu feels a presence; “Not a Christmas presents, I ‘ope!” says Keith. Perhaps the true nadir comes in a moment with Cuddles, where Keith needles him about “inviting all your mates over from that tea advert. There was tea all over the place, wasn’t there?” Keith’s chuckles fail to fill a now-silent studio, with a dreadful desperation in his eyes. This is the look of a man who knows exactly how bad it is, morphing for one terrible moment into Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey.

The one moment of relief is during a Keith/Cuddles bit involving a Chinese Guillotine, where he’s only got one free hand, so won’t be able to make his eyes go slitty. Although Cuddles does do a Jimmy Savile impression, and we get our second Peking/peeking gag of the Christmas season. Most distressing here is when Keith picks up Cuddles to move him, revealing him as flat and limp with no stuffing. Cuddles keeps chattering away, while hanging loose like an empty suit, in contrast to the care Keith takes when carrying Orville. Couldn’t he have fattened him up with a pillow? “Yeah kids, it’s just a skin-sack with no innards. Fuck yourselves.”

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The onscreen dynamic of Keith’s favouritism to “little Orville” over Cuddles seems to play out even in the puppeteering. While Orville’s lovingly cradled in a natural pose, with Cuddles, he’s just stood behind with his hand stuffed in the back of its head. Orville’s constant low self-esteem is a real time-filler, with proceedings constantly stopping for Keith to console him because “people don’t like ducks, do they?” or as when he’s reassured that everyone loves him, asking with a sniffle “even though… even though I’m ugly?” These saccharine attempts to garner sympathy are particularly repellent, as at no point does it ever feel like anything but grown a man talking to himself in a baby-voice. Contrast the moon-eyed little fucker with Emu, who doesn’t even speak, yet feels like a fully realised character, and not just Rod Hull’s arm.

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Closing sketch sees Orville in a Scrooge hat as Keith tucks him into bed. Why, asks Orville, did they have a Christmas party, when you only have parties for birthdays? “But it is a birthday!” says Keith. The story of the nativity has never made less sense than when described by a man pretending to be a duck. There’s another reference to Jimmy Savile, a joke about hotels being booked on Christmas Eve which they use twice, and Orville getting upset because Jesus has two daddies (“Joseph and The Lord”) while “I haven’t even got one daddy!” All this is leading to a performance of Orville’s latest single, which is such a wretched milksop dirge, I spent three minutes vomiting blood straight into my lap. Just look at these lyrics.

“…thank you, for telling me ’bout Kissmas… a lickle baby boy was born, who would be very good; he never would be naughty, as often babies could…

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The triumphant final verse is laden with heavenly trumpets, as Keith lifts Orville over to the window where it’s snowing outside, before laying him back in bed for a gentle kiss goodnight. Now alone downstairs, Keith pours himself a glass of wine, where the new single they just performed is conspicuously propped up against a stereo beside him, which he puts on and plays. The doorbell goes, and I hope it’s Tony Hayers bringing stern warnings against product placement, but instead, it’s Stu Francis, accompanied by an incredible assortment of whoever was at BBC Television Centre when this was being filmed. The room floods with a who’s who of early-80’s British celebrity, including John Craven, DJ and rapper Mike Read, the Green Goddess, Fern Britton, Janet Ellis (who trips down the steps when giving Keith a kiss), Simon Bates, Floella Benjamin, and Sir Patrick Moore, who all dance up to Orville’s room in a raucous conga line as we go off air.

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It’s worth sticking around after the credits to hear the rather stern and posh BBC announcer having to advertise Orville’s new single in his clipped accent, “…it’s coupled with another song, ‘Thank You For Telling Me ‘Bout Christmas’. And Keith Harris is now appearing in Humpty Dumpty at the New Theatre in Cardiff.” No doubt, for many audiences of children, panto was ruined forever, when Keith Harris kept pausing the show for five minutes to change Orville’s poo-and-piss-filled nappy.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

The Krankies at Christmas

•December 13, 2019 • 2 Comments

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For non-Brits or millennials unaware of the Krankies, how best to describe them without seeming like I finally ran out of material and made up the sickest thing imaginable? A wildly popular double-act throughout the 1980s, the Krankies were a real-life married couple from Scotland, Ian and Janette Tough, with Ian playing ‘himself’, and his wife as naughty schoolboy, Wee Jimmy Krankie. Jimmy was a genuine icon to their demographic of children, with the pair headlining a number of TV series, including The Krankies Club, K.T.V., and in a title that can only be read in a staccato robot voice while moving your arms stiffly up and down, The Krankies Elektronik Komik. Jimmy’s catchphrase was a double-thumbs-up cry of “Fan-dabi-dozi!” which — of course — resulted in a surprisingly rockin’ 7-inch; one of many Krankie musical releases, among 9 singles and 3 albums, making them more hard-working, and one might argue, better, than lazy artists like the Sex Pistols or Lauren Hill, who only bothered with the one.

The Krankies at Christmas went out over Christmas 1983, though it was shot in the first week of October, adding another disconcerting nightmare element to those trapped in the audience, draped in tinsel and party hats, but still some weeks from Halloween. As a show which shares its writer with Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, Copy Cats, The Les Dennis Laughter Show, and Little and Large, I’m expecting some big things. And boy, do Ian Krankie and his small wife disguised as a child deliver.

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After an opening disco theme, Ian emerges from behind a cheap-looking Christmas tree, in a lovely Pringle jumper, falling over his first line as he promises “a super show tonight, we’ve got some super g-rests! (sic)” The Krankies are yet another double-act predicated on that struggle between the parental one, with frustrated pretensions of singing or acting, and the flighty, child-like one, who keeps interrupting. Here, it’s Ian’s serious rendition of White Christmas that’s ruined by Wee Jimmy — supposedly locked backstage for misbehaving — being lowered from the ceiling on a rope, and tossing handfuls of snow out of sack literally labelled SNOW. Ian looks like a slightly pixelated Kevin Keegan, while Janette’s only 36 here, and not quite at the frightening wizened-schoolboy stage of their later years, which always seemed like a visual tribute to the ending of Don’t Look Now. And yet, there’s still a hint of that scene in The Passion where Satan was doing the school run.

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Even in the 1980s, this feels like a gimmick out of its time, and more fitting with the postwar Britain of Billy Bunter or The Clitheroe Kid. What school uniforms had a little red cap in the ’80s? Does that imply Wee Jimmy goes to public school? Any why’s he always in his uniform when it’s not school hours? It’s the Christmas holidays, but he’s still wearing his school clothes. Has he not got any gear of his own? Is that how Ian pays for the tuition fees? Scrimping on basics like trousers and heating, just to give the poor lad a better start? And what is the manner of their relationship? They’ve got the same surname, but Wee Jimmy doesn’t call him dad. Are they siblings? Was he a ‘surprise’ baby of older parents, with Ian taking guardianship after they died? Or did Ian, as a single man, adopt Jimmy, who took his new pappy’s name? In the closing song, they hang on the line “I’m so sorry for this laddie, he hasn’t got a daddy,” confirming they aren’t father and son.

Following a brilliantly shonky reference-for-the-sake-of-it — “beam me down, Mr. Spock!” — the show kicks off with a barrage of jokes, all of them fucking rancid. Wee Jimmy’s school dinners are so bad, “even the dustbins have got ulcers,” and on whether he’d kiss his teacher under the mistletoe, “I wouldnae kiss her under chloroform!” When Jimmy says he wants a new dog to replace the old one, which is “ready to snuff it,” a horrifyingly dessicated mutt rolls across the floor on wheels, covered in bloody bandages, with one eye hanging on a spring. The stuff that doesn’t just seem weird for an audience of 8-year-olds is merely clunkily worded, with ungainly set-ups like “D’you know what Cinderella sang when the chemist mislaid her photographs?” and “What pantomime was staged in a chemist’s shop?” If you’re keeping count, that’s three chemical-based gags in the opening sketch. Very festive! But the kids are lapping it up, shrieking with glee at Wee Jimmy’s every line or cheeky gesture. That sound, which is very prevalent here, of high-pitched children’s laughter in a live TV audience, feels very retro now. Maybe it’s still a thing on CBBC, but it feels like once we hit the 90s, that was the end of playing to kid-only rooms.

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Sadly, this isn’t a pure Krankies show, as they’re mostly just bookending a series of variety acts. Barbara Dickson does Stop in the Name Of Love, in what must’ve been an excruciating 3 ½ minutes for a crowd of fidgeting children, while a young David Grant, two decades before he was a judge on Fame Academy, mimes to his pop single, with hair like nuclear fallout. These Krankies-less segments take on a different undercurrent following revelations in their autobiography of being swingers, and taking their sexual adventures into various dressing rooms (which perhaps explains the time I was perusing their official website, and spotted a picture of them on the beach, where a smiling Janette’s exposed breast could be seen hanging out of her bikini top). Armed with this knowledge, as the audience squeals through a performance by the band Modern Romance, current day viewers will be horribly aware Wee Jimmy was likely getting nobbed by his ‘father’ up against the back of the set; little shorts pulled to one side; Dennis the Menace fan-club badge rhythmically clinking, faster and faster.

As it’s Christmas, we’re gifted a bunch of celebrity cameos including Jimmy Cricket, who’s been singing carols with Jimmy — “disgusting, like begging!” derides Ian — and made £1.10 ½p. Who gave them the half-pence? “They all did!” — which is a clean rewrite of a joke that’s usually about sucking dicks. They change the words to well-loved songs, with outrageous stuff about Good King Wenceslas’ central heating, and in Deck the Halls, “there’s tears in the eyes of a girl named Molly… I filled her knickers with jagged holly!” A Youtube commenter notes that these disgusting ‘blue’ carols ruined the show for them, but in the most incredible nugget of trivia, it was Jimmy Cricket himself that uploaded this show, though he left 40 minutes of blank screen at the end, which is testament to his commitment of the dunce character. “C’mere, there’s more… empty runtime!”

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How do the Salvation Army save souls?” asks Wee Jimmy. “They walk about on their heels!” I hope you laughed at that, because it’s the last smile you’ll ever do after what comes next. Inside a shimmering Santa’s grotto, the Krankies open a big present, revealing a horrible puppet with a swollen head and a pair of gigantic swivelling eyes. Inexplicably, the audience does a loud “aww!” rather than run for the exits. We cut to a stage shrouded in the kind of all-devouring blackness familiar from the room in Under the Skin where Scarlett Johansson pulls those horny lads inside out through their boners. There, a boggle-eyed mouse marionette hammers away on a piano, in a raucous cover of the Rolling Stones’ I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. A squirrel shambles on with unnatural bucking movements; its dead, musty body jerking as it performs a cursed solo, where the sounds of guitar come from the end of its saxophone.

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Again, the camera cuts to blackness, but penetrated by two spotlights. Beneath the first, are three giant birds dressed like Vegas showgirls, each in feathered headdresses the same colour as their plumage, like wearing a hat made from your own skin. They kick and wave their wings in time to the beat. To their left, our eyes are drawn to the hypnotic sway of a blue, sequinned robe. With its back turned, we do not see what vile creature lurks beneath. Until we do. A big chicken wearing a yellow bra but no knickers; its black eyes all iris, like it’s fucked out of its mind on ayahuasca; deadly beak emitting shrill vocals of River Deep Mountain High; lizard feet mashed into a pair of stilettos. Wee Jimmy runs onstage to kneel beside it, perhaps to pay reverence; to beg for a quick death. They’re joined by another string-lurching fowl, with a face I recognise. It’s Dooby Duck, six years before breaking out into his own show with the Disco Bus. Dooby wears a rain mac, and the most warped part of my brain goes right to “gonna flash us that corkscrew duck-dick, you dirty old shit?” Then he does. Kind of. There’s no dick, and he’s got an old-timey striped swimsuit underneath, but Jimmy covers the chicken’s eyes as Dooby gleefully open and closes the mac like a carpark masturbator.

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This horror show is credited as Pepe & The Gang, which in 2019 sounds like the roll-call of incel weirdos at a Straight Pride march. The Krankies try to steer us back from Hell with some gags, and as always, they want to make real sure that you get the joke. Jimmy has come out dressed as a pirate.

          Ian: “What are you dressed like that for?

          Jimmy: “I’m just going round to my pals to watch a video.

          Ian: “And why are you dressed like that?

          Jimmy: “Well, he told me it was a pirate video!

There’s more variety with The Flying Rollers; a pair of French male/female roller-skaters, whose act involves spinning round and round on a platform really fast while he swings her by the ankles. For a kids variety show, she’s shockingly underdressed, in a borderline pornographic see-thru bodystocking, with her boobs and junk barely covered by a splash of sparkly sequins. In the many side-on shots, she’s effectively naked, and one can sense an uncomfortable shifting in the seats of the audience dads, especially when she’s bent inside out, with every rotation giving a drive-by look right up her. “Oh, there’s her fanny. And there it is again. Good day once more, madam!” It’s almost certain the Rollers were specially selected by the Krankies, so they might be invited back to the dressing room for post-show ‘drinks’.

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After Wee Jimmy gets the bloke to spin him round, Jimmy Cricket comes out for some stand-up, reading aloud a Christmas card from his mammy, for more homespun gags about how fucking thick his fellow countrymen are. The big finale is a panto, with a classic double-act set-up, where Ian’s written the script, and begs Wee Jimmy not to muck about and ruin it. As a musical sketch, between each scene, the characters perform a ditty — “pantomime, pantomime, magic words, songs sublime…” It’s exactly as you’d expect, with Jimmy Cricket as the Fairy Godmother, Melvin Hayes as either Cinderella or Mother Goose (it’s unclear), and now-dated pop culture references to Dallas. And then a young woman in knickers comes on as Aladdin, who “in China spied a sweet princess, to be her boyfriend he was seeking…

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Naughty little Chinaman, no Peking!” Oh, Jimmy; cancelled for Christmas. Things get even worse with Bernie Winters in a Mystic Meg wig, skipping around in a cape as Baron Hardup. I know appearance-shaming’s not on, especially from someone who resembles a homeless Yorkshire Ripper, but Christ alive, Bernie Winters looks like some bog-hag granted a troll’s wish to be human for a day. Jimmy almost gets off a joke about beans making you fart, but Ian covers his mouth, and finally, it’s over.

Ian closes the show by wishing the audience a Merry Christmas, but hold on — where’s Wee Jimmy’s present?! Krankie Sr breaks the news that he’s not got the boy anything, and the audience heckle him with abuse. Jimmy starts crying in a piece of acting which is far too good for the show, brewing up actual tears. It’s unbelievably jarring amid the silliness, like if you saluted a colleague with finger-guns from across the office, only to blow the skull clean off their fucking neck.

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I suppose I’m just the wee boy that Santa Claus forgot,” sobs a devastated Jimmy, as — terribly inappropriately — Ian bursts into song, with The Little Boy That Santa Clause Forgot. A tear-streaked Jimmy gazes down at the floor, weeping, before Santa shows up to save the day. I say Santa, but it’s Bernie Winters in the red and white, accompanied by Schnorbitz, who’s pulling a sleigh crammed with presents for an elated Jimmy. It should be noted, Ian still didn’t get him anything. We go off air full of the joys of Christmas; even me, old Ebenezer Millard, the 21st Century Grinch, jigging round the bedpost in relief, as the sight of Bernie Winters’ face is safely shielded behind a beard. Fan-dabi-dozi!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

 
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