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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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

VHS:WTF – The Blobby Tapes

•September 27, 2022 • 1 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 639,000 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.

Listen and Learn: English For Beginners

•September 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 639,000 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.

Keith, Orville & Cuddles – The DVD

•September 8, 2022 • Leave a Comment

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“Why this?” you might ask. “Why Keith, Orville & Cuddles — It’s a Quacker?” And yes, we have encountered Harris before, on his own Christmas special, and guesting on Royal Varieties, but this is a light entertainment objet worth holding up to the light. Quacker is a DVD, self-produced for Keith to sell from the merch table at his live shows — although Amazon does list a signed copy (out of stock). What’s notable is its production; credited to Fabalus Films, a Scarborough-based audio-visual company. The catalogue of Fabalus Films is a small one, with just two other titles. The first is a visual tour of the UK’s roller coasters, shot with a budget of £500, for the members of the Roller Coaster Club; while the other’s entitled The Grumbleweeds Forever? A documentary, this follows the Grumbleweeds, now down from a five-some to a double-act, as a new ‘Weed takes his place alongside sole surviving original member, Robin Colvill, aka the one who did Jimmy Savile. Plus, according to the box, “featuring impressions of Cher, Tina Turner, Lily Savage etc.

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Fabalus Films is a two-man operation, consisting of a hypnotist named Ken, and his friend — Robin. As it ‘appens. Consequently, in a thrilling creative collaboration between Britain’s best known duck dad, and a man who recently performed the voice of the beast Savile in reconstructed police interviews for Netflix, It’s a Quacker is edited by Robin Colvill. When I say ‘edited’, I mean ‘hunched over his laptop, squinting at Windows Movie Maker’. As we press play, a simple title in Powerpoint font bids us “welcome to the show and here are your hosts ORVILLE and CUDDLES,” and the further we get, one suspects the more formal “here are” was used instead of “here’s,” because he couldn’t be certain where the apostrophe was meant to go.

Orville’s framed centre of screen against a black cloth, and unusually alone; not on a lap. “Hi everygoggy, it’s me, Orville!” His voice echoes noticeably. Are we in a spare bedroom? Garage? Abandoned warehouse with dried blood congealed around the drain? It’s shot by a camcorder fixed on a tripod, with no zooms or pans, evoking the suicide tape of Bjork’s stalker. Everything feels wrong; slid under the counter, or downloaded off the dark web through a layer of VPNs. Is Orville about to be snuffed? Forced at gunpoint to bring Keith off with his beak? “Eeee, my kidnappers are treating me just smashing, changing me nappy and everyfing!” Cuddles is there too, but never in the same shot, and Orville calls him a silly monkey — “Ooh, he does smell. Stinky poo!” I suppose it’s testament to Keith’s ventriloquist code that they shot the awful quality sound live, with him crouching out of frame, rather than just dubbing Orville’s voice on later.

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These haunting interludes are the only new footage, specially filmed as links for what’s essentially a clip show, running through bits and pieces from Harris’s illustrious career. The highlights are clearly digitised VHS rips from his personal collection, and vary in visual quality from very bad to completely unwatchable; in fact, so scuzzy, that I was forced into a written piece, as they wouldn’t stand up to the rigours of a video essay. A 2001-quality clipart clapperboard transitions into our first scene; a Robin Hood parody, presumably taken — as is most of the DVD — from the 1980’s Keith Harris Show, due to the presence of Stu Francis, pushing out a big fake belly as Friar Tuck the Fish Fryer. Harris swings onstage on a vine, with a little goatee like his own evil twin, while Orville’s dressed in Lincoln green and a feathered hat (which is a bit ‘cow in a leather jacket’). Last seen in the Christmas special, Dippy the Dinosaur’s Little John, to which Orville remarks “Little John?! He’s a big’un for a little’un, ent he?

The prevailing sound here is children’s laughter at jokes they often don’t understand, all written around Keith Harris (born 1947)’s frame of reference, like a pair of rabbit ears in a tankard (“jugged hare!”). I’d forgotten what a thoroughly exhausting performer he is, and every line of dialogue is either the set-up or punchline to a pitiful gag. It’s very much the comedy of mistaking one word for another; of “that’s not what I meant, you daft apeth!”; of someone repeating themselves after being told “you can say that again!” Orville wants to fire an arrow? Tuck gives him a bow tie — “not that sort of bow!” Sheriff Cuddles cries seize him? A reply of “sneeze him?” with an achoo. Now thrown into sketch comedy after years of solo ventriloquism routines, the script retains Keith’s repetitious I-say-I-say cadence. “They’re only baby snakes!” “How’d you know they’re baby snakes?” “They’ve got rattles.”

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With a massive yellow dinosaur taking up half the tiny stage, Keith barely has room to pull back his arm for the climactic arrow firing. And then I soil myself, as Cuddles jumps from his throne to run around; always a horrible sight, of which there’s loads on this tape. Skinny, bipedal Cuddles, moving too fast, as though he could make a sudden run at the lens, his orange arms reaching through the screen to clasp around your face. The upright version nods along to its dialogue as the fixed plastic mouth stays completely still, until cutaways to the ‘real’ Cuddles in close-up. At the close, Robin Hood celebrates his victory in a medieval tavern, with more comedic confusing of words (coffers/coughers), and a song proclaiming “Robin Hood’s become a legend, he’s a friend to you and me!

It’s important to keep in mind that Harris compiled this DVD himself, and out of the available material, considered every sketch the best way to represent a life in showbiz. Particularly think about this during the jokes which bridge each section, presenting viewers an all-or-nothing choice between ‘very dumb lollystick gags for small children’ and ‘a reference they don’t know’.

     “What musical instrument does a skeleton play? A trombone!

     “D’you know where there aren’t any fat people? Finland!

     “What’d you do if you lock yourself out of the house? Keep singing until you find the key!

Back at the warehouse, I notice Cuddles has a hand; a disgusting wrinkly pink rubber glove Harris squeezed his mitt into, which has drawn-on fingernails and knuckle-joints, flapping and gesticulating like a corpse’s as he cackles through another intro. Next it’s the 1991 cartoon, Orville and Cuddles, inelegantly cutting in midway through the title song, the full version of which explains all you need — “Orville is green, Cuddles is mean, Orville and Cuddles, here on your screen.” We get a couple of episodes, with one titled Midnight Cowboy, which sadly doesn’t end with Orville dying from TB on a bus. But there’s no animated Keith, and it’s dialogue free, with him voicing all the non-verbal grunts and “ooh!” noises.

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The animation is appallingly lazy, with visible felt-tip strokes, and never less than three frames messily piled on top of each other at all times, as characters lurch halfway across the screen in a single step. Each short episode consists of the pair spinning round, falling over, and hitting their heads, and one sees Orville win money at the funfair and stash it in his nappy, where it must get covered in shit and piss. Though this used to air on CBBC, there’s zero online footprint, other than a comment suggesting it was cheaply produced by a Bulgarian animation studio.

But honestly, the live-action clips are no better, where Keith bloody loves a film parody. Raiders of the Lost Feather must be practically a full episode, with twenty-odd minutes of sand-coloured papier mache tombs, as Indiana Duck (in full Indy outfit, little whip included) and sidekick Digger Bone take on a two-handed Cuddles as evil Nazi, Herr Grip. Notable here is how The Keith Harris Show, barring guests like Stu Francis, fills every other role with child actors; terrible child actors lumbered with accents they can’t do, and wading their lines into the laughter of previous jokes. The plot is Herr Grip’s stolen a magic feather which allows its holder to rule the world come the next full moon, giving a rather relaxed deadline of 15 days to stop him. In Turkey, they meet their contact, a child in a fez named Mustafa Hotdog.

     Mustafa: “It is I!

     Keith: “Ah, eye contact!

     He arms them with a flying carpet.

     Keith: “I bet he got that from the cosh and carry!

     Audience: “

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There’s greenscreened flying and riding down rapids, and a mummy’s arm with some “have you pinched my butty/botty” confusion, before Cuddles is defeated. The next clip is so deeply repressed by the national psyche, it manages to achieve no Google hits, meaning it wasn’t released as a single. Yet, here’s my most favoured of content genres, the surprise rap. Or to be specific, The Nappy Rap. Between the disco lights, smoky dance floor, and Keith’s wobbly VHS, Orville’s hardly visible in his sideways baseball cap and sunglasses, but you can still pick out his opening couplet.

     “Listen everybody cos this is true, I’m Orville the duck and I’m talking to you,

     Now it’s all very well being cute and sweet, I wanna sing a song with a funky beat…”

While I’m beside myself with fury something titled The Nappy Rap isn’t about plops ‘n’ widdles, I’m assuaged by its double-function as both rap and ‘do the x’ dance instructional, with MC Orv and accompanying flotilla of children rapping at us to “come and do the nappy rap; you do a little wriggle, then you clap!” Regrettably, Keith and the kids struggle to keep pace with the beat, leaving the words garbled and incomprehensible, and me spending a good chunk of my prime years running it back again and again, ear cupped like Hulk Hogan, trying to piece everything together. I shall have to assume the verse preceding “we’ll all get together and we’ll do the nappy rap” was about squeezing out a great big turd for Keith Harris to deal with. I could pick out the occasional line, like “give your dummy to your mummy cos you won’t need that!

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More outdated parodies; more I say! Oliver Tweet (Cuddles: “more like Oliver Twit!”), with Harris in a rubber nose as Fagin, proper going for it, like he’s finally got the opportunity to show what he can really do — “West End here I come!” They don’t do numbers from the real show, but kinda-soundalikes, so instead of Pick a Picket, it’s “my name is Fagin, and cheating is my game, I rob and steal and thief and lie, that is my claim to fame!” Dippy the Dinosaur even gets his own song, one-upping Harry Secombe from the film — “I am Mr. Bumble, fumble dumble me” — before Oliver’s rescued by his grandfather (Harris in split screen) and everyone celebrates with another ditty.

     Fagin: “Oliver is happy, he’s found his long-lost friend.

     The Artful Dodger (Cuddles): “He won’t need to steal for me.

     Bumble: “Or work for me in misery.”

What a tragedy we don’t get to see Bill Sikes as interpreted by Stu Francis. Next is a musical number which plays in the wrong aspect ratio, with early 2000’s widescreen forced to fit the tape’s 80’s pan and scan, because Robin off the Grumbleweeds didn’t know how to fix it. After the previous 45-minutes, it’s like being rocketed into the future, with sudden high-tempo techno rhythms, as a woman in a red dress, recognisable from the Louis Theroux as Keith’s wife, lip-syncs aggressive sampled cries of “come on!” This is the video for 2002’s club remix of I Wish I Could Fly, leaning into the ironic late-90’s market for nostalgia bants, along with Keith’s toilet-mouthed uni tours. A string of rave remixes added a banging tempo to samples of beloved childhood originals, like Rainbow Rave Up, Sesame’s Treet, and Here Comes Bod; songs for uni students whose main ice-breaker was “remember Mr. Benn?!” to drop Es and have tawdry turn of the millennium sex to, regretfully ejaculating right at the moment a man in his fifties using a high-pitched duckling voice dejectedly squeaked “I wish I had a mam and dad, but I don’t.”

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It’s a particularly weird addition to a tape otherwise filled with content for toddlers, as the song ends with Cuddles’ knowing demand of “shut the duck up!” And then, more parodies. Quackman and Bobbin is everything you’d expect; Cuddles as the Joker with bright red lips; QUACK action bubbles in fights; holy-this and holy-that; Keith answering the Quackphone with a “you don’t say, you don’t say, you don’t say?” Who was it? They didn’t say. Joker’s henchmen of Riddler, Catwoman and Penguin are played by children, delivering every line with a noticeable pause which asks “oh, it’s my turn now?”

     “Put the telly on, Bobbin.”

     “Why would Bobbin want the television on him?

The next numbers return to Keith’s sickly roots, with Orville on his lap in a fairground set, the pair of them carneys, for a haunting lament where a rubber duck has wandered off from his game — “he waddled off and went away, we’ve got to find him before morning, maybe he’s just gone off to play.” Children in duck costumes jig to synthesised quacks, while others search the fair with torches. “And he’ll be cold and frightened, sitting in the dark, Orville do you really think, that he did it for a lark?” A saxophone kicks in, as lyrics opine of tears, and “broken hearts that will never mend,” but with a final plea from Orville of “come on home,” there’s a thumbs up from Keith as he turns to see his row of ducks complete again.

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Final sketch is Robinson Crusoe, with Keith stuck alone on a desert island where there’s no access to YouTube or Patreon, the lucky bastard. He’s got a Michael Eavis beard and holes in his trousers, including one right where his nob is, and knocks an LP off a gramophone with a trendy “I think I just invented the first scratch record!” Orville’s up a tree, for a song about being friends, before problematic Cuddles pops up with a bone through his nose, and they find Dippy inside a big cannibal’s cooking pot. “The savages did it,” says Keith, “they eat men, you know.” Then a posh chap with big ears and stiff arms comes on, offering a ride on “mummy’s yacht” just in time for everyone to make the Royal Wedding, meaning that of Andrew and Fergie. Everyone cheers as Rule Britannia plays, a little union jack waving from the cardboard boat which is probably on its way back from Epstein island, and that’s it, with just the closing links from Orville and Cuddles. A final “Ooh, I ‘ate that monkey!” leads us into slim credits, under the original I Wish I Could Fly — credits in which Keith Harris’s name is misspelled both times as Kieth. Well done, Robin.

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.

Saturday Morning Archaeology: Going Live

•August 28, 2022 • 2 Comments

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 622,000 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.

Nuking the Fourth Wall – Byker Grove’s Wild Finale

•August 18, 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 622,000 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.

Masterspy

•August 8, 2022 • Leave a Comment

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I grew up in an era where pseudo-spying was a popular trend for kids, with Usborne’s handbooks giving parents a brief respite from our whines of being bored, to instead write invisible ink letters with lemon juice, disguise ourselves as an old man, or bone up on how to follow someone without being seen. These days, if you’re sneaking around in a big trenchcoat, local Facebook send up the warning flare that there’s a paed about. Despite preceding this fad by a good decade, the espionage of ATV game show Masterspy had a greatly similar vibe.

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We’ll begin on Saturday evening of April 17th 1979. Animated titles have an extremely Usborne secret agent in coat and hat firing a gun at the lens, under an absolute banger of a funk soundtrack and blocky calculator font. The set design’s gorgeously analogue spy-tech; wall maps and radar; sliding panels revealing a mounted television screen; a grey console of buttons and switches, which is labelled, 60’s Batman style, as MASTERSPY COMPUTER. There’s a live audience, though they’re only heard and not seen, perhaps for their own safety against KGB assassins.

Our host is the Spymaster, William Franklyn, likely off the rep of previous role as Peter Dallas in sixties series Top Secret. Phenomenally posh, he’s got the dry quips and self-effacing “yes this show is good but also shit” manner of all men on 70’s telly, and is superb value. His secretary, lazily named Miss Moneypacker, is comedy veteran and former Hill’s Angel, Jenny Lee-Wright; falling over her dialogue with admirable consistency. This week, she’s got one arm in a sling, and the episode begins with an unseen hand shooting a photo of her which is pinned to a tree.

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A little sketch with celebrity guests — more of whom later — introduces our players, whom I thought were all actors, until one awkward, stilted gentleman is repeatedly manhandled onto his mark. Their credit cards are fed into a beeping console, identifying the first as SPECIAL AGENT – BOND, which seems a bit copyrighty, but his name’s legitimately David Bond; a connection they incredibly make zero reference to. Agent two is PENFOLD (“Penfold, Jim Penfold)” while the final player is simply Trevor Wilkinson, with a haughty voice even Jacob Rees-Mogg would take the piss out of.

Agents are sent to Franklyn for ‘screening’, aka pre-game bants — “you have an unusual pastime which is sail-surfing?” Agent Bond hitch-hiked round the world at 17 (pre-Instagram, ergo pointless), while Penfold’s a wheelwright, “building wheels what goes on our caravans and our trollies… with old secrets, family secrets.” Penfold’s the episode’s most fascinating figure, fingers laden with gold signet rings, with a neckerchief and boot-polish coloured hair swept around a bald spot. “I see from your dossier you’re a Romany traveller?” says Franklyn, whom Penfold will only ever address as ‘Major’, never breaking Masterspy kayfabe.

First round is a riddle, having to ascertain where the commas should be in the sentence “Fritz where Franz had had had had had had had had had had been correct.” Nobody gets it, or even understands what they’re meant to do, but it’s just a fun warm-up. In-show storyline has Moneypacker fending off an assassination attempt, having her steering tampered with, and a hollowed-out book with a bomb inside delivered to her house. The agents’ mission is to find out who’s after her, and why. Franklyn’s desk and chair roll away on wheels by themselves, while three handguns wait disquietingly on a table.

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Sadly not televised Russian roulette, we’re told the agents took an offscreen refresher course on weaponry, on which they’ll now be tested; i.e. gun Mastermind. Each are handed a different weapon to answer trivia on — its weight to the nearest oz; its calibre; does the chamber revolve clockwise or anti-clockwise? There’s something grimly humorous about these dour men casually handling lethal firearms during a tea-time quiz.

     Franklyn: “That is a Browning high power semi-automatic. Does it have double action?

     Agent Jim Penfold: “No, Sir.

A marksman section tests their capability to defend Moneypacker in a shoot-out, using an innovative early take on the light-gun, involving two revolving targets on a turntable, wired to a trigger which will ideally stop them at the point of overlap. Trevor Wilkinson accidentally fires the tiny gun too early, while like his namesake, Bond’s far more relaxed, one arm lazily extended like he’s seen Reservoir Dogs too many times. But it’s Penfold; who seems like he’s shot loads of people for real; that gets closest to the bull with a two-handed FBI approach. Big drama going into the break, as the sliding panels reveal the silhouette of a gun-toting assassin, Franklyn screaming “MONEYPACKER!” and bundling her out of frame as a shot rings out.

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It’s revealed the assassin’s gun was nicked from the drawer of Lt. Collins, head of base security, of which only three man have access, including David Jason and Tony Adams from Crossroads. CCTV footage is prelude to an observation round — “was his security tag on the right or left lapel?” — and with the lowest score, Bond’s eliminated. For his troubles, he wins a “rather superb” four-band radio, and Moneypacker goes to shake his hand, but as her right arm’s in a sling, they just awkwardly clasp each other like someone consoling the widow at a funeral. Intrigue builds, with links to brainwashing in Albania, escape tunnels for terrorists, and Del Boy’s mysterious holiday to Yugoslavia, set up by Dr. Tony Adams from Crossroads. In a frenetic build to the final act, Franklyn tells remaining contestants to follow him, in an attempt at one of those energetic modern transitions, walking into the camera, and filling the lens with his tie.

05b

Like Whodunnit, contestants interrogate in-character suspects, while filling out LA Noire style ‘truthful/lying/evasive’ multiple choice cards. Adams improvises about a travel agents called “would you believe it, Travel-a-Lot?” while Del spends the time showing off holiday snaps, but can’t account for a suspicious couple of minutes “when I went to the loo.” When Franklyn’s marking the cards, Agent Penfold takes the opportunity to pull an enormous handkerchief out of his pocket, first wiping his nose/mouth, and then very thoroughly his entire hands.

Trevor Wilkinson’s eyebrows go right up when he’s judged to be the Masterspy, having correctly pegged Del was brainwashed by the Doctor after photographing something he shouldn’t have in Yugoslavia, and Lt Collins (Norman Bowler off Emmerdale and Wizbit) presents Penfold the runner up quartz watch. For his victory, Trevor takes home all sixteen inches of “this rather beautiful colour television set.” An episode entitled The Dastardly Double Agent appears to be from a later series, now with four contestants, from which the winner “will have fulfilled his mission to become Masterspy.” Note that despite the pronoun, one of them’s a woman, and this seventies notion of gender roles will become a huge theme.

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Players aiming to root out a double agent are David Flynn (“32, single”), the mutton-chopped, phenomenally-named Graham Fitness, Keith Miller (“33, electrical engineer”) and Jean Huddleston (“20, married”). David’s bleeped when describing Manchester’s weather as “bloody awful,” and when asked where such an unusual name comes from, Graham Fitness replies “my father, sir.” They’re each given a hypothetical mission, to explain how they’d prepare for six months undercover as, say, a monk or librarian, or in Jean’s case, a football manager’s secretary.

     Jean: “First I’d buy myself a football outfit… have a couple of runs round the pitch.”

     Franklyn: “And she has a football bath with the boys?

     Jean: “Oh yes, definitely.”

Game proper begins with a clock-face riddle, and taking coded messages over the phone while pretending to idly chat with their bank manager, babysitter, or mechanic — “I see, yes, ball joints” — and it’s great fun watching an accountant’s assistant suddenly forced into nervous improv. “It’s such a pity you can’t make it, I was looking forwards to a night out with the wife, we’ve not been out for three years. [to strict-sounding German man on the other end] Goodnight, Judy.

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As Franklyn tells Moneypacker she’s looking “very appetising, if I may say so,” our contestants must root out a sleeper agent, and as practise, one’s secretly briefed, in perhaps competitive television’s first usage of a mole. But there’s often trouble formulating games around these concepts, and they simply swivel their chairs to examine each other’s faces for signs of duplicity. “Eyes can tell lies,” says Moneypacker, although each contestant gets a single nomination. In a confusing code section, the mole’s meant to be bluffing, but nobody understands what’s happening — not viewers, not players — reducing the game to guesswork, until mole Keith is eliminated. A memory game involving a locked briefcase leaves three people silently fiddling with metal rods while exciting spy music plays, before it’s bye-bye to a visibly disappointed Jean Huddleston. Franklyn commiserates with “well, I think it’s bad luck that a gal should get a mechanical device so early on in her mission,” and she wins a radio and cassette recorder — “and we hope it brings you much luck.” Thankfully, she’s got a husband to show her how to switch it on.

After adverts for banks and hot custard, an undercover agent who looks like Richard Stilgoe’s interrogated in a What’s My Line? section. It takes ten seconds of yes/no questions to peg him as motorcycle racer John Surtees in a false beard, doling advice on how to drive a bike really fast. After the light-gun, it’s now a full-on racing sim, with an actual motorbike mounted in front of a huge screen, back-projecting POV footage of a road, which speeds up accordingly when the accelerator’s twisted. As it’s pre-taped, there’s no way to crash or veer off course, but still the audience gasp and shriek with giddy thrill as the bikes pick up speed, with perilous lane changes and swerves around oncoming traffic, riders leaning into corners, and a strong Benny Hill feel from the obviously sped-up footage.

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Essentially, it’s that viral clip of a dad putting his toddler inside a linen basket and waving it about in front of a rollercoaster video. Though it seems like some mad game show invention, this was an adaptation of a driver training system in use at the time — the IDT Link Simulator — which acquainted nervous learners with cars before letting them behind the wheel for real, viewed through the windscreen like a grounded flight simulator. Thank God Jean never had a go; she’d have ploughed straight into the audience! Final task has them searching for stolen documents in a cheap police station set which wobbles any time it’s breathed on, where once again, nobody’s got the foggiest.

     “Would you like to talk to us, tell us what you’re doing?

     “I’m trying to locate the security room.

     “You’re actually in it.”

     “I’m in the security room, am I?

After apologising for being dyslexic, Fitness eventually finds a briefcase as a Bond-ish action soundtrack plays over a man with mutton chops dressed as a policeman slowly unscrewing some metal rods. By various means, the double agent is caught, with runner up Fitness getting “a home entertainment set” — a blocky box with radio receiver and two-inch television — how ludicrous! [glances back to Dune which I’m watching on my phone] Winner Flynn gets the same, except with a cassette player built in too, and looks heavier than a skipful of dark matter.

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My final episode is The Nautical Novelties Rangefinder Run-In, which sounds like a Round The Horne, and opens with film footage of “a typically English high-street filled with typically English people… or was it?” We freeze-frame on the pair of Frank and Laura Cookson, believed to be two of the most dangerous spies on the payroll of Anarchy International. Trying to stop them are David Jones (“although he was born in Wales, he now lives in Leamington Spa”), George Philpott, Julie Wassmer (a female lady, former girl, and now woman), and Rabi Martins. Julie comes out with hands in pockets, and the audience piss themselves at the reveal of her home-brewing beer and lifting weights.

But the star here is the Goanese Rabi, a tiny man in a chequered jacket who greets Franklyn with a hands-clasped prayer gesture, and corrects the description of him as “a Goanese.” “Firstly, it’s Goan,” he admonishes, in a surprisingly high voice, before a tremendously weird origin story of being the smallest boy in school and deciding he’d thus have to choose his friends carefully. As the only way to judge someone’s character is to study their handwriting, he became a graphologist. Whenever he’s onscreen, it feels like Kayvan Novak doing a bit.

In the opening warm-up, David thinks ‘Eastern Bloc’ means Japan, Julia offers an anecdote about living next to a jazz musician, and if caught with a foreign agent in the boot of his car, Rabi would explain “that’s my wife, she gets travel sickness.” A game where they have to use a typewriter showcases people from the 70’s unfamiliarity with keyboard layouts, everyone typing about one word a minute, which is highlighted again when a contestant fails to recognise the significance of the code QWERTY.

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The anarchist Cooksons from the opening are suspected of running a spy-ring under the cover of a navel antiquities firm in East Finchley. Tasked with catching them in the act, agents are given cover stories as naval historians, plus the previous three weeks to memorise sea battles and shit, for a quiz. There’s a smutty laugh from the audience at boat-related answer “she had armour plating, 5 inches thick, around her vital parts,” and Jones is eliminated, taking home a pocket calculator. Flickering surveillance footage shot from across the street zooms into the Cooksons’ living room window — or as they’re actually known, Frank and Lotta Gordinski. A mysterious exchange, poisoned sherry, a microdot containing a secret formula on its way to Anarchy International; it’s all going on.

The stuff that’s not straight quizzing has the whiff of Crystal Maze about it, like having to disarm a security system, which confuses everyone with a long-winded explanation, but simply requires an embarrassed man in a suit to bend right over and poke a floppy balloon through a slot, so he can inflate it and lift the lid clear. Too befuddled to participate, Rabi’s gone, winning a pair of binoculars, and “they really are quite magnificent,” and I am delighted to inform you, these days, he’s a elected Lib Dem councillor for Watford Borough.

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For the finale, they’re off to Laura Cookson’s office to poke around her desk. “A very formidable woman,” says Franklyn, “let’s hope our operatives have their wits about them.” What ‘formidable woman’ means in 1970’s speak is she’s wearing glasses and is over thirty. “Good afternoon, we’re naval historians…” After she leaves, they’ve three minutes to search for the microdot, which is hidden in Nelson’s eye. Agent Philpott is judged the Masterspy, earning a multi-wave global radio receiver — “it will put you within earshot of the four corners of the earth” — while runner-up Julia wins a binoculars/camera hybrid, i.e. the tree-dwelling pervert’s choice. The show gives it its damned, dashed best at fitting tasks around the theme, but never really succeeds, however Masterspy is well worth watching, for the abundance of brilliant-looking 70’s men (and the occasional woman), all looking very perplexed.

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