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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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.

CHUCK ME SOME MONEY ON PAYPAL.

Cheers.

Satanic Panic: Geraldo vs. the Devil

•November 16, 2022 • Leave a Comment

(this one’s on Vimeo as it was deemed too spicy for YouTube)

This video first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could watch 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, early access to my podcast and videos, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s over 647,000 words 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 or some PayPal cash.

The Devil is Real (Sometimes)

•November 8, 2022 • Leave a Comment

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[Previously in this series: Heartbeat’s Alien AbductionThe Waltons PoltergeistBaywatch Monsters & MermaidsAliens in Dukes of Hazzard and CHiPsVampires Are Real (Sometimes)]

Though October means a return to our annual tradition, Highway to Heaven doesn’t strictly adhere to the rule of ‘paranormal stuff in otherwise-grounded shows’, being its conceit is a probationary angel earning his wings with good deeds down here. The ultimate in Sunday afternoon dread, it was an hour of God’s Day spent with every mum’s choice, Little House on the Prairie‘s Michael Landon; DILFy beef stashed inside a brown leather jacket, with a lovely thick head of hair. Just imagine how firm he’d be with the manager if she got overcharged at Tesco.

I think the pilot’s worth digging into at some point, so I won’t get too deep into lore, but opening titles explain what you need to know, as Landon’s Jonathan Smith is picked up along an empty highway by a shabby guy in a trucker hat; his earthy sidekick, Mark (Victor French), a scruff-bag who looks like he stinks. It’s the classic Littlest Hobo/Incredible Hulk/Quantum Leap set-up, episodically moving from town to town, solving a problem for that week’s guest star. The Devil and Jonathan Smith is a Halloween episode from October 30th of 1985, and directed by Landon himself, the same way he’d direct a traffic warden to “lower your tone around a lady, sir” if your mum got a ticket.

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It’s a jarring switch from Highway‘s rousing theme to ominous slasher music on a thundery night, where a jack o’lantern glares at us from a window. While driving, Mark talks up how much he loves Halloween, so Jonathan offers to show him something really scary, ducking into the footwell and shape-shifting his face into Mark’s. Jonathan’s ill-defined angel powers would be worth keeping a checklist on if you’re considering a binge. Though they’re leaning into the Christian audience base, the show’s careful in rarely name-checking God, and when Jonathan hops out to start his assignment, it’s with a nudging allusion to “the boss” — which incidentally, is how Savile referred to the Almighty too. With dogsbody — and dog’s odour — Mark left to sort out accommodation, Jonathan warns him to be careful, as he’s got a bad feeling. Mark immediately ploughs into a child on a bike (played by a dummy of stuffed clothes propped up on a BMX).

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Although witnesses clear him of wrongdoing, he paces the hospital distraught, and as a doctor tells him the kid’s in “very critical condition,” Mark offers to give the boy some blood, which should probably be run through a sieve first. “He’s gonna need more than blood,” says the doc, “he’s gonna need a miracle!” At this point, the entire plot is spoiled by onscreen credits, which as a ghoulish child, I was very excited by, but I’ll save that for later. You can start figuring it out at the stroke of midnight anyway, when Mark’s approached by Dr. Stone, a specialist “in certain kinds of transplants,” who raises an eyebrow at Mark’s offer to give anything of his to the kid — “anything?

Mere moments later, the original doc says the boy’s gonna be fine, “I told you we’d need a miracle, and we got one!” which an elated Mark assumes was Jonathan’s doing. But back at his motel, ‘Doctor’ Jabez Stone’s waiting, explaining, rather unnecessarily, what with his red tie and permanently-arched brows, that his “boss” will take possession of Mark’s soul at midnight on Halloween. Uh-oh, Spaghetti-O’s! Refusing to sign a contract, Mark threatens to put his foot in Stone’s “keeshter,” but ends a phone-call to the hospital ashen-faced; the lad’s at death’s door again. He tracks Stone down to a red-lit ‘rare books and manuscripts’ store (actually the historic Cherokee Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard, as seen in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood), and with no option, signs away his stinky soul.

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Stone is tremendous value, black cat Beelzebub in his arms — his former human supervisor, trans-moggified as Satan’s punishment — and camping it up to all the fun little references to his nature. He flinches at words like Christmas and Holy, plays off his sulphuric pong as a new aftershave, and puts a Devilish twist on idioms, like “thank Hell you’re here!

Meanwhile, in Big Ed’s Cocktail Bar, a confidence trickster in a white Southern gentleman suit hustles slack-jawed boozers with the ‘find the pea in the shell’ game, in a joyous performance by Conrad Janis from Mork and Mindy, as the rather on-the-nose biblical reference, C.J. Barabbas. Jonathan offers to stake CJ’s victim another go, so long as he never gambles again, and fixes it by magicking a pea under every shell. CJ’s Jonathan’s assignment; “I was sent to tell you you’re getting a second chance… to change your ways,” and asked who he is, Jonathan enigmatically replies “a friend… of a friend.”

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Mark wasn’t fussed signing over his soul, figuring Jonathan’s “connected” and could fix it, but by the rules of Heaven and Hell, he’s not allowed to interfere, leaving Mark with “a one-way ticket south… I can’t even take it when the air conditioner breaks in the car!” So, Jonathan enlists CJ to help win back the contract, pitching it as a chance to go down in history as the man who conned the Devil. The pair scope out the bookstore by pretending to be brothers selling a rare old bible, which Stone recoils from, and when he and Jonathan shake hands, the angel/demon connection sparks drawn-on lightning and a hand-buzzer noise.

Their plan is incredibly convoluted, utilising CJ’s grifter friends, and involving Jonathan faking a heart attack in the vault, replacing the contract with a forgery, a 911 call that’s intercepted by a lineman up a telegraph pole, and being whisked to safety by a fake ambulance. “It’s still stealing,” but it’s that, or condemn Mark to an eternity of massaging Thatcher’s back while sat in a paddling pool of cold diarrhea. To throw in more confusion, CJ decides to double-cross, talking Stone into giving him a cushy spot in Hell, if he can serve up the soul of an angel. As a stoolie, CJ brings in a cop buddy to catch Jonathan in the act of grand larceny, knowing God’s too “square” to rescue a criminal, and hoping it leaves Jonathan no choice but to offer up his soul for his friend’s.

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In the episode’s best trivia, the officer would go onto portray another character later in the series, by the name of Fatso Kessler. But to catch one guy stealing a piece of paper, the cops act like they’re stopping the next 9/11, with plain clothes officers, unmarked cars parked outside, and armed units waiting round the corner. Presumably Stone never went into specifics, as the police sure aren’t acting like the document is actual proof of the biblical God and Devil. In a last minute panic for Jonathan’s soul, Mark tries to stop the heist, but gets grabbed by the undercover boys, as Jonathan collapses in a chair clutching his chest — “my heart, my heart!

Everything’s seemingly going to plan, swiping the contract, and wheeled out by the fake paramedics; and did Only Fools and Horses nick this idea for their own fake-heart-attack/ambulance scam episode four years later? But thanks to CJ, Jonathan’s cuffed outside, while Stone bribes Officer Fatso into giving him the real contract, as “my employer can be more severe than yours.” And speaking of his boss — at midnight no less — smoke pours through Stone’s floorboards, peeling open to reveal red light and the sound of howling wolves. Then, in a tuxedo and red cape, it’s the big lad himself, in that sensational piece of casting I alluded to earlier.

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As an eight-year-old, a horned Michael Berryman was an incredibly frightening yet spellbinding sight on a Sunday afternoon, with audible moans of torture heard through the floor during their chat, in which Stone plays the Renfield role, all “oh master, my master!” Satan demands a cab to Mark’s, as he likes to look at the city on Halloween; “after all, it is my night,” and we cut to a flat-capped cabbie complimenting him on his costume. Even the Devil gets a “What’s dat smell? Smells like Smoke…” “It’s my cologne” gag, and the cab’s filled with smoke when it pulls up, like Cheech and Chong.

Jonathan interrupts the big confrontation between Mark and Satan, offering — as they’d guessed — his soul instead, but as Stone reads Mark’s contract, all it says is “trick or treat!” Yes, not a double-cross, but a triple, and when CJ bribed the cop, that’s when the switch was made — “sweetest con I ever worked!” As there’s no contract, there’s no crime (not how the legal system works; Jonathan and co broke a ton of laws), so Jonathan didn’t do any sinning. Plus the cop isn’t remotely weirded out to be in a room with the actual King of Hell, now confirmed as a real place exactly as described in the bible; Fatso just stood all schlubby with his hands in his pockets. Mark’s contract bursts into flames when the Devil touches it, beholden to Earth legal loopholes, and he storms off in a huff. “We did it,” laughs CJ, “we beat the Devil!

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The Devil’s so pissed, smoke comes out of his mouth when he admonishes Stone for his failure, turning him into a mouse (which sits on a piece of paper wishing us ‘trick or treat’), and we go out on a freeze frame of Beelzebub the cat licking his lips. What’s great is there’s no cute Louis Cypher or Del V’ile winking; just a proper horned Satan played by a horror movie icon, ascending directly into the plot from a flaming Hell. But for a less literal interpretation, we must turn to the Father Dowling Mysteries. What better choice of lead than Tom Bosley off Happy Days, whose jowly mug was made for discovering corpses? Dowling was based not on the Father Brown novels, but some entirely different books about a different crime-solving busybody of the cloth, for 43 episodes and a TV movie, mostly centering on Chicago-mob related murders. Dowling did occasionally veer into fantasy which turned out to have a rational explanation; a mummy’s curse at a museum, a parishioner seemingly haunted by the ghost of her dead father, and an episode where “a black man (very specific?) visits Father Dowling’s church claiming to be an angel.” They also did the Captain Mainwaring deal, where Dowling was framed for various crimes by his crooked identical twin, played by Bosley in split-screen.

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My prevailing childhood memory of the show is the suicidal urges from having to sit through it, and of thinking Steve was a funny name for a nun — Sister “Steve” Stephanie Ozkowski; played by George Costanza’s girlfriend who looked just like Jerry. Steve’s the focus in an episode from October 4th of 1990, clunkily entitled The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery. A title sequence Photoshop-filters the pair into stained glass windows, in a highlight reel of guns being pulled, Dowling unknowingly ducking out the way of a bullet, and Steve pointedly doing un-nun-like activities, such as flying a plane, pool hustling, and hiding inside a barrel. But for all its rote ecclesiastical silliness, one senses the opening scene is so off-tone that it must’ve really put the shits up its elderly audience.

In a club that’s just closed for the night, a man who looks like Andy Bell off Erasure wearing a red flower in his buttonhole tunelessly noodles on a piano, before disconcertingly turning right to camera; meeting our eye, to monologue directly to us. “You know what I love about the Catholic church? The candles, costumes, the music, the mass; they give you a miracle before breakfast every morning, they’ve got communions, confessions, processions, holidays, holy days, feast days. The smell of incense, and the roar of the crowd, now that’s entertainment!” With a click of his fingers, the screen goes black. The Devil are you, mate?

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Sister Steve’s brother, Eddie, then gets followed down a dark street by a couple of mob guys before a car runs him over. Alive, but arm in a cast like out of The Beano, he informs her this was no accident — “I’m in trouble with a hood named Harry Deal.” A classic Satan pseudonym, Deal is of course our mystery pianist, and gave a young Eddie an alibi when he was caught robbing a supermarket, even paying to put him through electronics school, but now wants him to do a job; “I told him no, he’s gonna kill me.” The goons show up to the hospital, screwing on silencers outside Eddie’s room — twins called Roland and Ronald, like the cousins from Breaking Bad, but in Dapper Laughs’ black turtle-neck of contrition. Sister Steve stands them down, demanding they take her to Harry Deal.

There’s a fusty quality to the show, like visiting a great-aunt, sat through an awkward silence on furniture soaked in old perfume in a room where the curtains haven’t been opened since the eighties. And they taking no chance with their audience, literally signposting Deal’s nightclub, Six-Sixty-Six, with a neon Devil brandishing a red fork. He somehow knows Steve’s name, wondering aloud why “a knockout like you would wanna wear an outfit like that. Put on a red dress, baby!” Not especially menacing, he’s more of a generically smug, slightly handsy, close-talking mob creep, and doesn’t stink of sulphur or owt.

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Steve offers to take Eddie’s role, suggesting nuns can get in places he can’t, and as a sign of faith, Deal has her hand over the cross she’s never taken off since completing her vows, which is removed to dramatic music. “You’ve got a deal,” he tells her, “me!” Definitely the Devil’s worst quality; his love of puns. Weirdly, there’s no subterfuge; no double cross or sting operation; she’s just a nun casually working with the mob, casing the security system of a rich guy so Deal can nick a valuable painting of Christ. Dowling’s suspicious, with Steve not sleeping at the convent last night, and there’s comic relief with a younger, balding priest bending Dowling’s ear over jealousy of another priest who’s better at theology, which plays like an unfunny Father Ted, and could do with, say, a Monkey-Priest, swinging off the light-fitting to liven it up.

Dowling meets with Deal, begging he leave Steve alone, where Deal’s true nature becomes apparent, telling Dowling “our paths have crossed, but we’ve never met,” in a spooky echoing voice. Dowling’s enraged when Deal scoffs the Eucharist — “That’s blasphemy! Deliberate blasphemy!” — and he refuses to let Sister Steve go. It leads to a kerfuffle at the robbery, with Steve and Dowling almost getting shot multiple times, and the assassin twins arrested after causing Steve to crash her car. Dowling wakes in hospital with a concussion, which the doctor (possibly Chris Benoit’s physician) describes as “nothing a good night’s rest won’t cure!” while Steve’s in a mysterious coma. Asked if she’ll ever wake up, all the doctor can do is look at his shoes.

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Comatose in bed with just a pulse monitor on her finger, Dowling places a rosary in Steve’s hand while keeping bedside vigil, but as he starts to nod off, he notices a figure in the corner. “Come on now, father, you know me. Listen to my voice, you’ve heard it many times, whispering to you in the night…” For slow viewers, Dowling points out that Deal is the Scottish name for the Devil, and he’s here to collect Steve, whose soul is his after breaking her bargain. “Every American has the right to a fair trial!” says Dowling, as Satan whips back the bed curtain with an actual-genuine “showtime, father!” revealing they’re now in Club 666. It’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, albeit crammed into the last ten minutes, and if Satan wins, he gets Dowling’s soul too.

Having insisted on a jury of peers for the ex-juvenile delinquent nun, Dowling does an open-mouthed roll-call as an eclectic twelve shamble in; slow-walking, pale-faced ghosts of Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Babyface Nelson, Lizzie Borden, serial killer Charles Starkweather, Frank and Jessie James, Leopold and Loeb, and Barbara Graham; all presided over by stern Old West ‘hanging judge’ Roy Bean. In the show’s historical lore, each of these crims are in Hell as they too cut deals with the Devil, which Dowling’s impassioned testimony plays on — “this is your chance to do for someone what no-one ever did for you!” – and that Steve would help and pray for each of them, if she could.

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As the jury announces their decision, sleepy Dowling starts to fade, waking up in hospital and pulling back the curtains to reveal an empty bed — that’s it, she’s dead. No, of course not. “Sleepin’ in late this morning, huh, Frank?” She was just off for a piss, and despite recently awaking from a potentially-fatal coma, is walking round all chipper, apart from “just a little headache… I had a couple of really weird dreams.” Frank tells her he took care of Harry Deal; “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” confirming he thinks it all really happened, while the police tell him Harry skipped down. But when Balding Priest comes out of the lift, a voice calls to him, “hiya, Phil!” It’s old Deal, perhaps about to offer some luscious hair if he whacks Tom Bosley. Almost. “I’m a facilitator. I make things happen, for a price. If you have a young priest trying to edge you out, gimme a call.” His business card magics into Baldy’s pocket, and we end on Deal’s sinister, plotting gaze, before — always startling — breaking the forth wall and turning to us with an evil laugh. But these are just two examples of the many appearances Old Scratch has made on television over the years, including a run hosting every single episode of Strike It Lucky.

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, early access to my videos, my podcast, 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 or some PayPal cash.

VHS:WTF – Party at Timmy and Theo’s

•October 29, 2022 • Leave a Comment

This video first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could watch 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, early access to my podcast and videos, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s over 647,000 words 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 or some PayPal cash.

You Are Haunted – Interludes: Langley’s Witches

•October 22, 2022 • Leave a Comment

A little bonus video for this glorious Halloween season, where I unearth some lost media.

This video first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could watch 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, early access to my podcast and videos, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s over 647,000 words 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 or some PayPal cash.

Royal Variety: Part III

•October 17, 2022 • Leave a Comment

This video first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could watch 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, early access to my podcast and videos, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s over 647,000 words 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 or some PayPal cash.

Owt Good On, Mam? – Forgotten Sketch Shows

•October 8, 2022 • 1 Comment

[previous OGOM: The Three L’sBear SpecialWhen Game Shows Had The HornCelebrity HelpersSu Pollard]

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We know through our shared traumatic experience that all sketch shows have the standard set-ups; travel agent, restaurant first date, train carriage. Most prolific of these is the doctor’s surgery. But what if there was a whole show just of doctor gags? Nay, a whole series?! Airing Friday nights on LWT, 1978’s The Pink Medicine Show was devised, written and performed by a pair of practising GPs; the double-act of Beetles and Buckman. Humourist Rob Buckman was a regular scientific voice on radio and TV panel shows through the 70s and 80s, and famous enough to get This Is Your Lifed, and along with Beetles, he was joined on the series by Nickolas Grace, a mere actor who’d be left helplessly reciting Shakespeare into your navel should your spleen rupture on a flight. The world of comedy’s full of ex-doctors — Graham Chapman, Harry Hill, Ken Jeong, Mike Wozniak — but none who ever embraced their backgrounds so fully as here.

Medicine‘s opening credits are a sketch unto themselves, laughter track roaring over animated doctors and diseases singing the names of medical conditions; “urethritis, uveitis, retinitis, salpingitis, dermatitis and mumps!” There’s nothing about well-bad nob-ache, but it’s possibly history’s only theme to tackle inflamed urethras, and animated by Ted Rockley who did the toon on Cannon and Ball’s first series. There’s dread portent from the first sketch, a farce of confusion between a sore-throated patient, hard-of-hearing elderly doctor, junior doctors tasked with repeating everything back to him, and a patient who’s hard of hearing; all with that notion we’ve come across before, that if a character is confused, it’s funny. It’s very much not, with the unedited rhythms of a student comedy team handing out flyers in Edinburgh.

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At least in Chris Beetles they’ve a performer with such a delightfully striking appearance, you genuinely can’t turn away. A Victorian Wolverine, bald on top but long at the back like the Safestyle windows guy, and with huge mutton chops, he’s a man who came out of life’s wig box with the most extreme look possible, and every sketch is utterly dominated by his wildman visual. One where he’s forced to wordlessly mime the cause for his mouth being stuck wide open is otherwise very poor, yet completely hypnotic.

The genesis of many skits is evident, with doctoring clearly a profession to rack up the comical incidents, like treating vicars who accidentally tripped and fell anus-first onto a potato for the third time this week. But things which worked as staff room anecdotes don’t as a televised performance, and numerous, lengthy bits centre around needless confusion; interminable back and forths where a stupid patient can’t grasp the very simple things their learned doctor is saying.

   “How many tablets shall I take?

   “The lot.

   “Is that safe?

   “No, no, I mean take the full course, all the tablets.”

   “Ah yes, that’s bally clear, I take this to the chemist, and he’ll tell me.”

   “Yes.”

   “And how will you know?

   “Know what?

   “Which chemist to ring?

And on and on it goes. In real life, such exasperation might raise a chuckle of recognition between friends, but battered with medical jargon, it belongs at the NHS Christmas party and not TV, everything feeling like a joke that we’re not in on. Some ideas are so ludicrous, they could only have been taken from real-life, as nobody would’ve decided to write them; as with a patient faking a 3am heart attack to con a doctor into looking at what came out when he blew his nose, worrying it was brains — “This is normal. I mean, it’s a bogey.” Disappointingly with the biographical stuff, there’s just one sketch with something jammed up an arse; a man behind a curtain who stuck a pipe up himself for a bet. To nobody’s surprise, here came my one laugh, as a young doc sneaks a guilty glance up the pipe, but it’s ruined with an actual use of “he’ll never play the violin again,” before Vaseline-slathered nurse Linda Bellingham yanks out the pipe offscreen, to a cacophony of farts.

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The world of injuries and disease affords plenty of visual gags; men with broken legs trying to ride bikes; a skeleton in a sling waiting for hospital transport; and in a bad Mr. Bean, a doctor attempting to cover a fresh cadaver with a sheet that’s juuust too small. Blood pressure pumps make raspberry sounds; a psychiatrist batters patients over the head with a club; someone does the gag about bowels regularly opening at 8am on the dot, “but I don’t wake up til 9!” A German accented surgeon unveils the first full body transplant, where “we take Patient A out of the bed and put Patient B into the bed.” But when Medicine bogs the viewer down with leaden dialogue it’s at its worst, hitting a terrible trough with a “Who’s on first base” featuring a Dr. Nurse, Sister Nurse, Mr. Doctor, Nurse Doctor, Mr. Patient, and Anthea (A) Porter, which after Mr. Patient collapses, gives endless micro-variations of:

   “Mister Doctor, get A. Doctor!

   “But you’re a doctor, Dr. Nurse!

   “No, not a doctor, A. Doctor!” (note: this is indeed how we humans address each other, using the first initial and surname)

   “Sister Nurse, will you get Nurse Doctor for Dr. Nurse?!

If anyone wants me, I’ll be checking into A&E for suicidal ideation, as minute after turgid minute devolves into misunderstandings about Abraham, Anthea and Anne Porter, and a furious shriek of “It. Is. A. Wonder. Any. Doctor. Ing. Gets. Done?!” leading to the appearance of a Chinese lady in a gown — “I’m Dr. Ing, I just got done!

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It’s not all rock-bottom wretched, and there are some — well, not good but — less-stinky parts. Sketches flow into each other with interesting transitions; a still of the previous sketch being rolled out of the way on a blind; a discarded tissue swept into frame with a broom, straight into the next set-up. There are a number of parody ads which feel pleasantly removed from the rinkydink wobbly sets; artfully shot and genuinely resembling pretentious 70’s commercials. This at least elevates the material, in adverts for medical trusses, pants which leave no visible line under a surgical gowns — “the surgeon’s most loyal support, next to a nurse” — and syrup of figs with actors who take a spoonful then immediately need to do a honking great shite.

Some stuff’s patently culled from the original double act, like a man forced to audition potential sickness onstage while trying to register with a new doctor, or when all three lads come out in white suits to high kick their way through a cheery music hall number about “the night they invented sinusitis,” which has a real League of Gentlemen “Gordon Brown, taxes the poor, Gordon Brown, he’s such a bore” vibe. But the performance is truly deranged, Beetles already with the look of something unfrozen from a glacier, and everyone stomping and kicking so frenetically, they’re almost kneeing themselves in the head. Sinusitis though. At the end of each 22 minutes, the unabated pounding of medical terminology leaves you pig-sick of hospitals and doctors, and vowing to just let your next broken leg fall off.

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Surgery’s presented like Match of the Day with pre-match pep talks — “you come up on the gallbladder” — and a victory interview in the bath, crowing about bile juice, and how they’ll be celebrating by “slipping down to the royal collage of surgeons and flipping though a few back numbers of The Lancet.” There’s a dance routine with the Russian thoracic surgical team, demonstrating a pulmonary left upper lobectomy, and in an arts program with Bellingham as Joan Cheesecake, a cardio-thoracic surgeon in a glue-on beard chats about Rudyard Kipling’s tonsils and adenoids, and God, just stop talking about bodies! While writing this I accidentally impaled myself on an 18 inch Chewbacca — as I said, by accident — but I’m leaving it up there, as if I hear one more thing about subdural haematomas, I’m off marching with Piers Corbyn to get the whole NHS put to the gallows.

Sketch shows work precisely because they flit between sets and costumes, and though one idea might not tickle you, there’s always the next one. Pink Medicine‘s single-minded focus is maddening, with the vibe of a noisy neighbour who owns a single CD. That said, the show’s main problem is it’s fucking appalling. Aired in 2022, it’d be a snarky reviewer’s dream; zingers about being incurably riddled with terminal shit-ness; but bafflingly, a Python-like album of audio from the sketches was released on vinyl the year after transmission. Buckman died suddenly in 2011, while Beetles would retire in 1984 to open an art gallery, and is now considered the world’s leading authority on Louis Wain, sadly having had a haircut and shave in the intervening years.

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In that same year aired a Thames sketch show most notable for the inclusion in its cast of a mister J. Davidson ESQ. What’s On Next was one of the series produced to pad out The Benny Hill Show in American syndication, under the banner “After Benny, Thames Presents.” Jimbo was hot off a win on New Faces, and would land his solo show right after, with top billing here, slim and red headed, all teeth and cheekbones, looking like a talking Nik Nak. Through the opening credits, there’s a one-liner for each of the cast; human Minnie Mouse Sandra Dickinson, Pam Ayres, Anna Dawson, Barry Cryer — the spoonful of sugar to Jim’s televisual rat poison — and Bob Todd; “I had an accident this morning while trying out my new cut-throat razor. It bounced off the wife’s neck and hit me straight in the face!

The show’s anchored by Bill Franklin, with a very Kenneth ‘Round The’ Horne feel, in both delivery and lacklustre presence of authority, self-effacing about the quality of what we’re watching. But with Cryer, John Junkin, and Andrew Marshall among the writers, it’s a proper gag-fest. Franklin opens with “good evening, but don’t bet on it” before running through the newspapers, giving us a Cowes Weekly News editor in a big cow head, and an image which inadvertently sums up everything about modern-day Britain.

06

Jim’s first sketch is exquisitely on-brand, as the Irish Mr. O’Hooligan, neckerchief and begorrah accent, confused by the optician’s request to put his right hand over his left eye. It’s strange to witness him doing other people’s material, and indeed, doing comedy altogether, rather than a YouTube video on a yacht, crying angry tears over the success of Lenny Henry. The real highlight, other than some always-welcome front-of-camera Cryer, is surprisingly Bob Todd. With the gait and physicality of a giant baby, Todd will be the man of 1000 costumes in this, and as it turns out, Bob Todd in any outfit is inherently funny. This may be the kick I need to finally get into my dissection of Benny Hill.

Shirtless Bob Todd’s Tarzan, taught English by Cryer in a rip-off of Carry On up the Jungle; he’s got a bandana and ring though his nose as a Gypsy fortune teller; but the finest hour is a Mr. Magoo type, clumsily destroying an office like Eric Andre — “Bird Up, it’s the Bob Todd Show!” There’s a charming ineptness to his physical comedy, almost falling over for real when just pretending to, or supposedly fainting sideways out of frame, but clearly just leaning and stepping out. With Sandra Dickinson’s beauty queen Miss Plastic Cruets 1977, Thelma Digger — “whose hobbies are breathing and sandpapering pygmies” — her parents a lumbering Bob Todd in a pink dress and Barry Cryer in boiler suit and tam o’shanter, all the miseries of the world just fade away.

07

They use the yukster’s version of the old impressionist system, going round a party filled with celebrities, but with the camera mingling through everyone’s jokes, from guests to bow-tied barman Jim, shaking a cocktail. Bob Todd asks Cryer if he’s a regular — Cryer (exiting to the toilet): “yes, I think it’s something in the bitter!” — and Todd’s elbow slips off the bar as he leans on it. It’s all good gags and good fun… [singing] but then Jim goes and spoils it all by doing something stupid like his Chalkyyyy! So, Jim met a man who told him (in his ‘black voice’) “I work for Jesus!” What, lord Jesus? “No, craft Jesus (cheeses).” We get the same deal with a medieval ball; Bob Todd as a hooded executioner, Dawson with big cleavage, jester Jim peering right down it.

   Cryer: “Truly, madam, this is an evening of bunting and frolic.”

   Dickinson: “You can say that again.”

   Cryer: “No, I can’t.”

Lovely stuff. Plus there’s the classic execution gag “stop, I have a letter for him!” “drop it in the basket, he can read it in a minute.” For something with so much Jim, What’s On Next is shockingly watchable, an odd mix of Barry Cryer’s expertly crafted silliness, plus the era-standard jokes about big tits, and I could definitely take a full series. We end on Barry and Jim together on a bench (there are two wolves inside you), writing a love song together — “the days go by so quick, so quick,” “oh kiss me darling, kiss me quick!” — overheard by passing policeman Bob Todd, who promptly arrests them for being gay.

We’re ending with a jump forwards ten years to TVS’s 1988 series, Five Alive, which I’ve a recollection of watching at the time. Like What’s On Next, its main point of interest today is a cast member who’d go onto massive solo fame. Our five living human beings are Brian Conley, Peter Piper, Doon Mackichan, Joanna Brookes, and Phil Nice — a man who possibly has a no-good brother named Phil Cunt. There’s a strict one-in, one-out policy, with no more and no less than five, and other players over its 2-year, 14 episode run include Harry Secombe’s son, Andrew, and Eve Ferret.

08

This is real bottom barrel late 80’s comedy, and a damning showcase of the era’s style, with its nerd voices in coke-bottle glasses and “I’m a black belt in origami! Keep taking the tablets!” energy. Regard, a wedding sketch where the groom’s been left at the altar, pretending she’s stood at the back of the church cos of hayfever, and saying “I do” from the side of his mouth in a high voice.

   Vicar: “She’s jilted you, hasn’t she, Mr. Kelly?

   Mr. Kelly: (aghast) “Jilted me? No! Absolutely not. Not on your life, no way, no chance!

   Vicar: “Mr. Kelly…

   Mr. Kelly: (crying hysterically) “YES, YES, SHE’S JILTED ME!

He shoots down the inflatable doll he’d tried to pass off as the bride, with a “you’ve not got a puncture repair kit you can lend me have yer?” It’s at least a fast moving show, burning through set-ups and outfits at a dizzying rate, which if it’s attempting to distract from the very poor quality of the material, fails massively. In a Western saloon, a cowboy orders a barman to go for his gun — “where you goin’?” “I’m going for my gun!”; Conley wins a salesman of the year award, immediately flogging the trophy to its presenter; Conley and Brookes are in a pram, doing disturbing baby voices. It’s pure stinking turd, through and through.

09

The lone saving grace is Doon’s newsreader, with a couple of decent Two Ronnie lines; one about a family that didn’t pay the priest who exorcised their home, which was repossessed, and another about a legalised brothel — “building will go ahead once they get the red light.” Not so much, a joke about Neil Kinnock having a talk with his back bench, “tomorrow he plans to have an informal chat with his sofa.” Every sketch is in a pitched, brutal battle for the worst joke, with a new contender every twenty seconds. Is it this: “last time I was in hospital, I fancied the sister,” “you’re not supposed to do that, are you? It’s incest!” or in a travel agents, asking how long it takes Concorde to get from London to NY? “Just a minute,” he replies, turning to a reference book. “It’s even quicker than I thought!” exclaims the customer.

10

There are 21 credited writers, averaging almost one for every wretched minute of screentime, and each with CVs of the damned — “additional material for The News Huddlines and Little and Large.” Most confusing is when all five comics come out in garish Hawaiian shirts as a doo wop band, for a slightly tuneless, acapella Under The Boardwalk. It goes on for a while before you realise; it is, it’s a Yarwood, intended as sincere. There’s no audience laughter, even over brief inserts of Brookes pulling faces or Conley getting fish chucked at him, and it feels weird them spending 24 minutes taking the piss out of stuff only to go so unapologetically Butlins, complete with disconcertingly earnest round of applause at the end. Truly baffling, the whole thing was choreographed by Ken Warwick of Miss Great Britain fame.

With Conley, there’s no particular sense you’re watching a star on the rise, as he runs through a parade of gormless thickos; a biker who went to the doctor with blurred vision (“he cleaned my goggles”); a bovver boy taking a frozen chicken to the vet; one of two German geeks named Heinz and Beans (“What do you call Jack the Ripper’s doggy? Jack the Russell!”); and most Conley of all, doing an ‘accent’ as a Ninja who requires dynamite to karate chop through a piece of wood, leaving him in the standard shredded clothes and black face. It really takes something to be the worst out of one show that’s all about peritonitis and respiratory distress, and another involving a near-lethal dose of Jim Davidson, and yet, here we are.

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