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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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

 

The Upper Hand

•August 5, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[This is Part 10 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart EightPart Nine]

If you’ve been reading my work regularly over the last few years, you’ll recall I’ve a specific bar for things which ran a really long time while simultaneously leaving no cultural mark. Remember 90’s ITV sitcom The Upper Hand? You should, having racked up 94 episodes. Go on, quote a line. A scene. Give me anything beyond humming a few bars of the dreadful theme tune. You absolutely can’t. Nobody can. There are other examples — the similarly unquotable Birds of a Feather with an astonishing 128 episodes — but The Upper Hand is the benchmark for racking up copious airtime yet leaving millions of viewers with absolutely no specific memories whatsoever.

Try and picture it; 94 episodes. 94 times a script was written, rehearsed, and performed in front of hundreds of people who got specially dressed, piled into their cars or the train, for a specific journey to a TV studio to spend an evening watching it being recorded. 94 times a continuity announcer said “and coming up after the break…” And in its wake, not a goddamn bean. It’s truly remarkable. To put 94 episodes in perspective for a British sitcom, Fawlty Towers is always held up as the perfect ‘two and done’, with a pair of 6-episode series, while longer-running shows fully ingrained in the national psyche barely compare. At the lower end, there’s The Vicar of Dibley (20 episodes), Porridge (21), Open All Hours (26), and The Good Life (30) — all at less than a third of our tally. Even distance runners like One Foot in the Grave (42), Only Fools and Horses (64), and Dad’s Army, topping off with 80 episodes, trail by some distance. But each of these are highly quotable, with scenes that most Brits of a certain age can repeat verbatim.

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Clearly, The Upper Hand‘s wonk-ass ratio of airtime to cultural impact is extraordinary, but surely the sheer amount is suggestive of massive success? Not so much. A big part of the prolific output comes from its status as an American import. As a remake of ABC’s Who’s The Boss?, which began six years earlier, ITV had a stack of pre-existing scripts at their disposal, with most of the episodes straight adaptations, allowing them to be pumped out at a much faster rate. As a result, they could bypass the British system, usually stuck on blocks of 6, and air the show in yearly batches of anywhere between 7-19 half-hours, cramming all 94 shows into just 7 series.

Now, when I say nobody remembers The Upper Hand, I’m talking about specifics. Most who lived through it can recall its existence, but all will draw a blank when asked to call upon a line or a moment. This is a world where social vernacular is comprised of pop-culture references, and people communicate almost entirely in gifs or quotes from The Simpsons, Father Ted and Alan Partridge. Did this show truly leave nothing behind? I recently tweeted about the Upper Hand cultural vacuum, and got replies with vague memories of having watched, but nothing anyone could nail down, with repressed images coming in flashes, like alien abductees wincing at the sight of a speculum.

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One viewer recalled a joke about recognising a belt-buckle through a letterbox; another repeated a gag about a purse, but with no further information online, it’s impossible to verify. Someone remembered nothing beyond a single line from the theme tune. Sadly, I had to inform them The Upper Hand‘s theme was instrumental, and the quoted lyrics actually came from Dennis Waterman sitcom On The Up. I was sent a link to an Upper Hand fan account. Registered five years ago, it has yet to make a single tweet. Everyone seemed to agree that Honor Blackman’s granny character liked sex.

Part of the reason I’ve been so fascinated with the 47 hours of ‘scene missing’ is that I’m in the exact same boat. I’d have been ten when The Upper Hand began, which was right in that period when televised comedy mostly consisted of MOR sitcoms about middle-aged tribulations, which, back in four-channel analogue Hell, us late-80’s/early-90’s kids were weirdly entertained by. As a boy, along with the shows we’d be quoting in the playground the next day, like ‘Allo ‘Allo or the stuff in my Past Laugh Regression series, I spent my evenings watching weekly instalments of Fresh Fields, After Henry, Up The Garden Path, and Surgical Spirit — the slow romancing of a ‘feisty’ surgeon and her shy anaesthetist. I’ve a vivid memory of my cousin coming over to play and both of us excitedly sitting down in front of May to December, where widowed solicitor Anton Rogers had taken up a relationship with a younger woman. There’s 39 episodes of that, by the way. The Upper Hand is the epitome of these sitcoms that solely existed within their own time, and like all the other trash on here, the only way to understand it is to watch.

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Episode one, Just the Job, opens with a piano rendition of the theme that’s so slow and sickly, i’m half-expecting a child’s coffin to be wheeled past my desk. But our tragedy is merely that sad-sack Charlie Burrows is moving house. Charlie’s played by one of the McGanns (specifically Joe); a kind of British Baldwins, as four distressingly similar-looking scouse brothers who all act and sing. One went onto be Doctor Who. Googling the lads, I came upon a DeviantArt account filled with images of them lovingly rendered as individual Ken dolls, including a delightful picture of the four wrapped in each other’s skinny plastic arms, titled ‘McGann brothers cuddle puddle.’ As the father to — future wife of Danny Dyer in Eastenders — Kellie Bright’s Joanna, Charlie’s an ITV DILF; something for the mams in his brown leather jacket and bum-chin. He’s packing up the van to leave the rough streets of London; as evidenced by Joanna’s black eye; taking them off to a fresh start in the country where a new job awaits.

Into the opening credits, Charlie’s grotty green van with a TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR decal on the windscreen drives out of the city and into the sticks, all under the appalling theme, mild variations of which are the sole musical score for the series. With the dreary melancholic of early-90’s sitcom woodwind, it’s a tune to perfectly soundtrack the watching of a distant plume of smoke rising from your uninsured family business, or opening a letter from the hospital and seeing the word ‘malignant’. Charlie arrives at the massive country home of Diana Weston’s Caroline and her young son, Tom, and the split-second she opens the door, in hair-rollers and a bathrobe, it’s clear this is your ‘posho falls for dirty-boy bit of rough’ opposites attract deal; six seasons of will-they/won’t-they? erotic bickering followed by a wedding.

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The gag here, and the premise for the whole show, is that he’s the new housekeeper. A man! Keeping house! Caroline cannot believe her ears; “you’re the wrong sex!” She’s right, men can’t cook or clean. He’ll probably try to roast a football for Sunday dinner, won’t he?! Hoovering the poos out of the toilet and whatnot. Horny nan Honor Blackman tries to sell him to Caroline, giving the tragic backstory; he’s an ex-first-division footballer who got injured, and then his wife died; plus the kids he coaches at the youth centre worship him. “Mother, on Christmas Island, they worship coconuts!” [citation needed] Of course, she relents, as little Tom (not for the last time) can be seen looking straight down the camera.

The main plot is Caroline’s affair with her boss and upcoming mucky weekend, right when there’s a promotion in the offing. Charlie advises against going, as she’ll never know if she got the job through merit or for being a good ride. In the end, she passes on it, and gets the job anyway, but not before various mix-ups, including Charlie coming at the boss with a cricket bat when confusing him for a burglar/rapist, and the pair getting off with each other on the kitchen floor so roughly, it elicits genuine gasps of excited shock from the audience. In the midst of this, I’m finally able to give the world an actual confirmed joke from The Upper Hand, which we can all quote with our friends tomorrow. Picture the scene; she’s offering her boss some food from the fridge. Are you ready?

     Caroline: “How about a green salad?

     Boss: “This is potato salad?

     Caroline “True, but it is green!

Truly worth the wait. That’ll be a Steamed Hams by next week, mark my words. In a couple of quick notes, a scene where Charlie’s flirting with Caroline’s secretary over the phone gets no laughs, presumably pissing off an audience who already want to see C&C together; and each week’s closing credits show the four main characters playing football in the garden, in a way that makes it clear none have ever even seen a football before, or been on grass, or worn shoes. From here, we skip forwards, past episode two, which is the old ‘whoops, Charlie accidentally saw Caroline’s boobs’ story, all the way to episode five; Caroline’s First Fight.

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This is a straight adaptation of a Who’s The Boss? episode — Angela’s First Fight — with a find/replace for any Anglo-centric references. The American writers do a bang-up job with Charlie’s realistic ‘watching footie on TV’ dialogue, with shouts of “come on, ref, he was offside!” and the like. The kids (and Honor Blackman) have gotten in a fistfight with a neighbourhood boy, and the resulting argument sees Joanne run back home to London, with Tom in tow, having been enamoured by her tales of rats and people sleeping on the streets — “you can put spiders on them and they won’t even wake up!

The London scenes really establish this isn’t just a sitcom aimed at the middle classes, but produced by them too, with the capital portrayed as a Mad Max warzone. As Charlie and Caroline pull up outside his old flat, she’s in fear for her life. There’s boarded up windows and a trio of actual skinheads bouncing up and down on a car bonnet, running off to shove each other into an old shopping trolley as they spray graffiti on some corrugated iron nailed over the front of a house. “Alright, Charlie?” says one, all matey. Note that Charlie himself is really well-spoken, and not even a Jim Davidson ‘stone the bleedin’ crows!’ type cockney, but everyone here is straight out of a 70’s pulp novel where people have been eating their own nans to survive, or just for a laugh.

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A load of kids come bombing out of an alley and one turns out to be Tom; face dirty, clothes ripped. “Mummy, my cockroach won the race!” he says, excitedly holding it aloft. Did they run all the way back to Victorian times?! Joanna also looks like she’s been up a chimney, and to complete the cliché, their old Jamaican neighbour invites them to stay for a tea of chicken and rice. Charlie takes Caroline to his old local, a graffiti strewn piss-pit called The Windsor Castle, where the regulars mock him for being a poofy housekeeper — “whatcha gonna do, plump my pillows?” — culminating in Caroline pouring a pint over a brassy barmaid (and Charlie’s former lover), and getting into one of those sitcom fights where they just push and pull each other’s shoulders. Of course, the kids show up just in time to see it, and when they get home, where she’s somehow got a black eye, everyone hugs and bonds across the class divide over their shared inability to not throw dem hands at the first opportunity.

Just a couple of episodes in, it’s clear up why nobody remembers any jokes. It’s because there aren’t any. It’s one of those shows where everyone talks in ‘humorous’ repartee, with every character that annoying prick you know who’d shrug and say “I knew that!” when corrected on something. To quote any actual gags, I’d have to transcribe entire conversations, but as an example, at one point Caroline storms out of the room with “inflexible? I have never been inflexible. If there’s one thing I cannot tolerate, it’s inflexibility!” and God, the 11-year-old me must’ve been rolling on the floor at that one. By now, on Covid lockdown in a little flat on my actual birthday, I’m finding the expansive country house hugely depressing, but must soldier on for one final episode.

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Against my better judgement, I randomly skip all the way past a two-parter with the synopsis “Caroline’s estranged husband (played by Nicky Henson) returns from his jungle explorations” to episode 13, the final in the first series, entitled Requiem. Compounding the sickly feeling, it’s a Christmas special, which I’m watching in May. They don’t even garnish that fucking theme tune with sleigh bells, as we open on Honor Blackman sat at a typewriter surrounded by scrunched up paper, having decided to be a writer, and spending the whole episode speaking only in trashy opening paragraphs. Charlie’s acting weird; rushed off his feet, forgetful, acting all nervy, and unable to stay for dinner. “The mysterious housekeeper disappears into the night,” says Blackman; “oh, why would anyone want to be a writer?” I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

It turns out he’s been moonlighting at a pizza place, and they speculate he’s in debt to the mob, so Blackman tails him, in full detective mode, dressed like when The Thing or the Ninja Turtles disguise themselves out in public. The flashbacks are in black and white with noir sax and Blackman doing a surprisingly awful 1940’s American detective accent. Sorry, I can’t keep saying Blackman; it sounds like I’m talking about a black man. Honor follows him to a block of flats where a woman invites him inside, and a fuming Caroline’s response is that classic bad sitcom mistake of believing something’s funny just because it’s alliterative — “so you can sneak down some back alley to a torrid tryst with a Neapolitan nymphet!” Eff right off.

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Shock of shocks, it’s not what it looks like, and he’s merely paying the rent on his dead dad’s flat, because he can’t face clearing it out. What a joyous Christmas special, watching Charlie mope about the dismal living room, as him and Caroline connect over his dad’s old tat; Glenn Miller LPs and a football signed by the ’66 World Cup squad. Charlie regales her with the story of his first division debut, in another clearly American-penned monologue — “I beat the full back, I passed the keeper…” The episode ends on Christmas morning and the disgusting opulence of the rich, surrounded by torn wrapping paper and capitalist merchandise. “Gosh,” says Joanna, “how did Father Christmas know I wanted the new Madonna Album?” Charlie replies “well, Santa’s a pretty funky guy!” There you go, another joke. Merry Christmas. Then they all dance around to Glenn Miller, as I celebrate leaving the other 91 episodes unwatched.

In scanning through the rest of the synopses, more often than not, they curiously take the titles of other TV shows or films. A selection from series 6 includes Home Improvement, Quantum Leap, Second Thoughts, and Moonlighting. One year, there’s a load of game shows; Wheel of Fortune, Full House and The Price is Right, but also Misery and Cheers. If they’d gotten another few series out of it, they’d have been stuck writing plots that thematically tied in with Cannibal Holocaust or Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Presumably an in-joke to keep the crew sane, it’s dropped by series 7, barring a single episode entitled Friends, which had been airing for two years by that point, in one of those weird historical crossovers, like finding out Rasputin lived at the same time as Darren Day.

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In hindsight, it’s obvious why The Upper Hand ran so long while leaving no comedic trace. While it’s technically a sitcom, that’s not why people were tuning in, and like To The Manor Born — a similarly unquotable comedy, but with an unbelievable ratings peak of 24m — it was sold on its slow-burn love story. As predicted, it built towards a wedding episode, which I planned on watching before realising it was an hour-long special, so the synopsis will have to do — “It’s Charlie and Caroline’s wedding day and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.” Standard.

While it’s been utterly forgotten in all but the most general sense, it does have its fanbase, as evidenced by a popular Youtube account filled with loving tribute montages of the two leads falling for each other, cut together with the full, three-minute version of the theme, should you ever need musical accompaniment to thumbing at tattered pictures of your kids that no longer speak to you while teetering on the edge of a motorway bridge. Critically, it’s been forgotten too, though when McGann joined Hollyoaks, he was described in the press as “sitcom legend.” But now, let this document lay proof that The Upper Hand did exist, it had scenes and lines, and (repeats not included) appeared on millions of televisions 94 times. It just wasn’t funny.

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 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.

Naked Jungle

•July 26, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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Without question, Channel 5’s nude gameshow, Naked Jungle, is one of the most infamous programs ever broadcast. You’ll find it cited at or near the top of every article or clip show about Britain’s Worst Television, but like a lot of things on those lists, outside of brief snippets, few have actually seen it, especially since its initial broadcast. At this point, it almost exists as pure folklore, with the mere knowledge that Keith Chegwin got his cock out enough to condemn it to cultural Hell. As such, it’s long been on my list of Holy Grails to cover, and I’m both happy and distressed to report that I’ve finally acquired a full copy.

The rip I’m watching is taken from the commercial VHS — certificate 15 — which existed, and somebody paid actual money for, stood holding it in the queue at Woolworths; “Would you like a bag, sir, for this video whose cover features a naked Keith Chegwin and the quote ‘IT’S A GREAT CRACK!‘?” If you want a damning indictment of the new millennium, it reached number 4 in the best seller chart, and likely ruined many a Christmas. For something which earned such a lurid reputation, Naked Jungle was (unlike all the penises) surprisingly tucked away, airing on Tuesday the 6th of June 2000, at 11pm, as part of Channel 5’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of naturism. I guess nobody took their clothes off until 1950? Also part of this thoughtful and definitely-not-exploitive series was a program titled Showgirls 2000; a contest to find the year’s best table dancer.

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We open with pounding jungle drums, and a pan up the entirely unclothed body of Keith Chegwin, welcoming us to “a gameshow with a difference,” as he runs from camera with a trademark “wahey!” clicking his heels mid-air, and giving us a nice long freeze frame of his arse. On the day of shooting, Cheggers was given the option of wearing a pair of shorts, but figured he’d just go for it. The vibe is very much that ‘cheeky’ British attitude to nudity that we’re supposed to have — nothing sexual, just a bit of fun; haha willies! — though the opening titles have arty pans and zooms on athletic model types, bending themselves into letters spelling the word NAKED. These peak specimens are decidedly not the bodies we’ll be seeing.

The set is absolutely enormous; a huge map of bamboo structures, rock faces and bubbling pools, housed in an aircraft hanger, and on loan from ITV’s children’s gameshow, Jungle Run. I hope they hosed it down after. The studio was kept at a temperature of over 30 degrees throughout filming, leaving the clothed camera crew sweating profusely, but the ten contestants feeling nice and cosy. Keith informs us they’ve got people “from all walks of life and all age groups,” but it’s a collection of the exact people who’d pop in your head when hearing the word ‘naturist’. I’m not about to start body-shaming; God knows, some months into lockdown, I’m starting to resemble a melted candle, but it’s an interesting document of evolving standards over the last couple of decades.

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I’ve talked about this before, the way that gym culture has really changed the types of people we see onscreen. Someone who looked like Die Hard‘s John McClane — a guy in good shape — would never be allowed to be an action hero now, when even comedians like Kumail Nanjiani are having to get outrageously ripped to play in the genre. Having recently survived Y2K, the men of Naked Jungle have moustaches and pot bellies, with not a single ab or bicep between them. They’ve skipped every leg day — plus chest, shoulders and back day — and think a squat is where a trustafarian lives. None of these very regular chaps would get on a dating show in 2020; even one where the clothes stay on. Weirdly, it’s less jarring with the women’s bodies, but maybe that’s just me being a basic hetero and not being able to see past the fannies and boobs. On all contestants, the lack of tattoos really stands out today.

The group of players are less varied than Keith promised, as the oldest contestant, his elderly status really played up throughout, “looks good on it at 48,” and everyone’s white. Though they’ve entered as five couples, the show’s split into two, with the men going first, whittling down to one winner in a series of games, before the women’s turn in the second half. The surviving pair will team up for the final game, where there’s £5,000 to be won in The Temple of the Body, so it’s like Fun House, if Pat Sharp had got his bell-end out.

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I’m fascinated by this choice to have the men play first, leaving the women literally watching from the sidelines for twenty-five minutes. Are they holding the ladies back until later, as the ‘main event’ for viewers turning in for a grotty wank? Or did they not want men and women running around, bumping into each other in such close proximity, in case any of the lads got some blood in it? It’s weird to finally get the full picture, after two decades of seeing nothing but that solitary screencap that gets used for every Top 10 Shit Telly post, and as it turns out, Naked Jungle is a hybrid of It’s a Knockout, Crystal Maze, and coming home a day early to find your parents hosting a horrible swingers party. The Crystal Maze vibe is the strongest, everyone running off to each game as a bouncing pink caterpillar, with a nude Keith Chegwin at the head. “C’mon, keep up with Cheggers!” he yells, with his genitals out.

It’s here that it really hits you what you’re dealing with, all the men stood in a line, their flaccid dicks hanging. Chegwin’s is sat above his balls like a strawberry, and everyone’s acting like this is perfectly fine. Beholden to the layout of Jungle Run‘s set, which resembles a papier mache Willy Wonka factory, the games themselves are excruciatingly childish. In Pool of Death, they flail about on lily pads across a bubbling pool, grabbing fig leaves from a washing line; Cave of Lost Souls is an assault course; Chasm of Doom has them collecting more fig leaves from a rope swing. Visualise how you’d swing across a rope, then imagine it’s two ropes shared between four naked men. There’s a very European feel about it all, the kind of thing Eurotrash or Clive James would show as an example of what those crazy Germans class as entertainment.

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Remember that episode of Seinfeld, where Jerry’s hot girlfriend is naked all the time, which is fun until he catches all the ‘bad nudity’ from unflattering angles? There is no dignity in Naked Jungle; no perfect lighting, no good angles. Nothing emphasises the gracelessness of the human form as naked men scrambling up and down polystyrene boulders, their cocks ‘n sacks bobbling, before falling onto a climbing net. With all the gross wet arses shining under the studio lights, amplifying the whole ordeal is the way Cheggers carries on like it’s normal, maintaining eye contact at all times, and using his regular presenter’s body language, throwing a matey arm around nude contestants.

One of the worst moments is a post-game interview, Keith asking “what went wrong?” and leaning down from the pool edge with his mic, one knee up, his balls poking out from the back. Even as a viewer, trying to keep your eyeline above Keith’s shoulders, you’re aware of a constant jiggling in the bottom third of frame, his chewing gum foreskin flapping about like an old plaster. It’s never not weird, cutting back to him watching and laughing, with a massive boob right next to his head. The camera struggles to find contestants as they run and jump about the set, with fleeting close-ups of bare bodies; a pit of dark pubes, an anus, a prick hanging like a mouldy banana, slapping against thighs as its owner pelts down a flight of steps. Everyone’s bent right over, all the time. Consequently, it’s been almost impossible to illustrate this piece with stills, as every split-second of screen time’s filled with dongers, muffs, and great gaping rickers winking at the lens.

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As we move into the ladies section, I wonder if Keith’s demeanour will change, but no, he’s right there, mic in hand, squatting dick-level with their faces. While gesticulating, he accidentally hits and squishes a bare breast, though it’s not acknowledged, and when one of them slips and falls, he rushes to interview, leaning down into her space as she sits splayed on the floor. The ladies games are slightly amended, having to root around in cauldrons of slime, in what I must presume was an attempt to capture the gunge-fetish audience, while the rope swinging’s changed to a spear-throwing contest. At first I figured “yes, it would be too undignified having nude women swinging on ropes, you are correct,” but it’s just that patronising gameshow thing of the big, strong men’s physical tasks being changed to something a delicate female could manage.

Instead of a game where the fellas were knocking opponents off a cliff-face by shooting a hose right up each other’s holes, the women compete in an abseiling and swimming race, but descending from above in a harness, it’s a stark reminder of internet 1.0, when everyone was sending each other that Goatse.cx picture for a laugh. However, it’s not all fun, as the slip of a wobbly prop ladder leaves one naked woman suddenly disappearing offscreen in a brutal fall. “Oh dear, is she alright?” asks Cheggers, as it cuts to a shot of her crouched alone in the green-lit cavern, looking incredibly vulnerable, before being casually eliminated by default. Somehow naked people look even more naked with elbow and knee pads, and the relentless footage of wildly bouncing tits and nobs is all under the sound of Um Bongo style jungle music, and Keith giving live commentary while pissing himself like Stuart Hall.

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Chegwin is a huge proponent of that ‘contrived chaos’ presenting style we see so often on here, as perfected by Noel Edmonds, where he can barely hold it together because it’s all so hilarious. His usual (ironically?) awful banter is further soiled by his clotheslessness, like when he looks down the lens with a Brucie impression — “good game, good game!” — or calls a Danish contestant “Mr. Bacon,” before immediately having to explain the joke. These would be bad on The Big Breakfast, but at least there he didn’t have his bell and bollocks on display. With no voiceover, we’re left with Keith’s observations, shrieking with excitement, but making little-to-no reference to the fact that everyone is fucking naked.

Most peculiar of all is that, for this show only, he’s adopted a new catchphrase, with frequent cries of “Yo!” said in the tone of a middle-aged white man putting on a baseball cap sideways, right before folding their arms like a 1980’s breakdancer. He just keeps saying it, sometimes celebratory, sometimes drawn out with concern during a tricky juncture — “Yooooo!” — occasionally like Tarzan passing by on a vine; but rarely with any relevance to what’s happening. By the last twenty minutes, he’s become addicted, letting fly a constant stream of proud and confident yo‘s; at every point scored, every clock stopped; “Yo!

When it gets down to the final two, it’s the most Crystal Maze thing of all, racing through the entire set to collect yet more fig leaves, each worth a second in the Crystal Do– sorry, Temple of the Body. They start by scaling down a wall adorned with the Cerne Abbas Giant, and for all their grandstanding, C5 demonstrate their prudishness, by redrawing his massive stonker into a sad little softy. It’s important to note that, while the contestants are made up of couples, the winning pair aren’t a couple, gifting us the awkwardness of having to physically help each other clamber up ledges without giving a supportive push on the bare arse. They end up winning £3,000, and as Keith wishes us goodbye “and happy sunbathing,” that’s it. I’ve survived. It’s over. But is it? No, because we then cut to this.

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TOO HOT FOR TV! The VHS cover, of course, had a fig leaf boasting INCLUDES PREVIOUSLY UNSEEN FOOTAGE!, which suggests your man in Woolworths figured “cor, if that’s what they did show, imagine what they couldn’t… probably a great big stiffy with all spunk coming out!” Sorry pal, the first thing we hear is Keith Chegwin saying “Yo! Let’s meet our contestants. Yo!” It’s just stuff that was cut for time, with little pre-game interviews, which they already used in the intros that did air. He asks insightful questions like “how long have you been, sort of like, whipping your kit off?” and if their wives are bad at cooking, while one bloke forgets how many kids he has. As a reminder, because I can’t reiterate this enough, everyone, including Keith Chegwin off the telly, is extremely naked. Fittingly, the final word as Cheggers waves goodbye is another hearty “Yo!” followed by credits that reveal Naked Jungle shared a game designer with Gladiators, and a producer with The Krypton Factor and ITV’s adaptation of Cluedo.

Despite (or perhaps, because of) how penisy it was, Naked Jungle set then-record viewing figures for Channel 5, with two million tuning in on the night, which is pretty incredible for its timeslot. While only garnering a single complaint to the ITC, headlines followed like “CHEGGERS PLAYS FLOP,” the brilliant “IT’S A KNOBOUT” and a Daily Mail front page decrying it as “the moment TV plumbed new depths of degradation.” The culture secretary even raised questions about it in the House of Commons, noting “considerable concern” about the content of television.

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Cheggers himself looked back on his involvement with regret, calling it the worst career move he ever made, and it was certainly the most infamous, getting a mention in virtually every obituary when he died, 17 years later. So, is this deserving of its Worst Ever label? Christ, absolutely. Scan through at random, and you’ll always land on one of the most terrible things you’ve ever seen; a man traversing a ledge as the camera gives a double-feature of anus and the underside of his bag; Keith Chegwin chirpily telling an eliminated contestant, stood there with his wanger out, to wave goodbye to his kids; and countless shots of exhausted naturists struggling to heave themselves out of a rock pool; all of which made me seal my own (beautiful) penis in a block of cement, and vow to never, ever be naked again.

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 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.

GamesMaster II: The Wrestling

•July 15, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[Part One]

Growing up a wrestling fan in early 90’s Britain, you had to take what you could get. Nowadays, you’d have to retire to free up enough hours for the endless dreck they’re pumping out, but back then, everyone had to wait their turn for the VHS tape off the one kid in their class who had Sky. But while we didn’t have the matches, what we did have were plenty of promotional appearances, which were so weird, awkward and wild, the resulting footage was usually 18 carat TV gold.

The WWF lads regularly showed up on Saturday morning kids shows; often in character; often hungover; and always confused. There are myriad incidents that those who witnessed shall never forget; Scott Hall the drunkest anyone’s ever been on Live and Kicking; IRS — an evil taxman — taking questions, in character, from a bunch of nine-year-olds; Bret Hart really, really enjoying an early morning wrestle with Zoe Ball in her tiny PVC shorts. Hulk Hogan was a frequent guest on the circuit, cheerily telling Richard and Judy wrestling was fake (an unthinkable crime back then), or demonstrating transatlantic language differences when promoting his latest movie, by informing Terry Wogan “Mr. Nanny’s looking for fanny!

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One regular stop for these most concussed of all celebrities was Channel 4’s GamesMaster; so much so that (depending on how this goes down), I may have to examine their appearances in two parts. We begin with episode seven of the first series, airing on February 18th, 1992. These inaugural shows were held in an old church with an impressive gothic spire, and opened with choral monk chanting, and Dominik Diamond sat at a giant organ, which in later series, he’d definitely have turned into a gag about having an enormous nob. There’s more of that spooky green light from Uri Geller’s appearance, while smoke’s pumping into the cavernous space of St. Paul’s Church in London, which was laid in 1846, and since converted into a private nursery.

Here at the dawn of GamesMaster, Diamond is at his most boyish, with the happy-go-lucky affability of a legitimate children’s presenter. His voice is notably an octave or two up from the gruffer tone he’ll eventually adopt, like the unexpectedly high-pitched “hiya” one emits when bumping into an acquaintance in the street. So too, the links are lacking in trademark cynicism, as with his earnest introduction of “the man who put the M in Microchip, the GamesMaster!” Having flashed back from our visits to the later shows, it makes you wonder how it might’ve gone for other hosts, had they taken up the mantle. Would Andi Peters or old ‘Pip’ Schofield, after a couple of years watching kids in big shirts play through the first level of Ecco the Dolphin, have grown out evil-twin goatees and formed every link around allusions to blasting hot spunk out of their cockholes? However, even in his early form, Diamond’s still dressed like Dracula’s butler, and does include the phrase “soft and moist” in his intro.

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As it’s the first series, the titular GamesMaster’s in his generic phase, with a warped, flickering Moore wearing an 8-bit helmet connected to a metal tube, against a background of flames. His first challenge is to attain 5,000 points on Robocod.Don’t forget to use the hydraulic stretch-body!” warns Sir Patrick Moore CBE HonFRS FRAS. Diamond picks three challengers out of the audience; a pair of girls and a boy with a ponytail, having to hunch with one hand on his thigh to speak to the smallest, in perhaps the most child-friendly tableau of the series. So’s not to get hints while the others are playing, the kids are made to stand facing the wall like the end of Blair Witch, and noticeably, the boy hurriedly tucks the back of his shirt into his jeans, lest he get told off by his nan for being a scruff on telly. Up in the pulpit, co-commentator Dave Perry’s yet to establish his persona, sans bandana, and as all three children die (in the game), no golden joystick is issued.

On this week’s reviews, the droning journalists set a fine historical example of how human beings behaved before everyone was trying to get themselves noticed all of the time. A man who looks like a 1960’s occultist sells us on Monkey Island 2 with “there is a lot of amusing text in there,” while Alien 3’s reviewer appears in a little picture-in-picture box, with the dead emotional tone and camera angle of someone filming a goodbye message on the toilet while waiting for an overdose to kick in. “There are 15 levels like this,” he says, “all with different graphics, um… and… there is a big monster in each one.” Meanwhile, a convivial Diamond lists the top five “funky soundtracks,” including Betty Boo’s Magic Pockets theme. I tell you what, whenever Betty was on TOTP, there was certainly some magic going on in my own pock–[a striped crook emerges from the wings and pulls me offstage by the neck]

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But the celebrity challenge is why we’re here, with WWF Wrestlemania Challenge on the NES as the battleground between a small boy and World of Sport legend, Kendo Nagasaki. Kendo marches in like Darth Vader, in full samurai regalia, and responds to Diamond’s questions — “can I call you Ken?” — with complete silence, like a massive prick. A white guy from Shropshire called Peter pretending to be a mystical, mute, Japanese Samurai, you might think he and Dom had been larking about in the green room before the show. Nope. Fastidious about never breaking character, Kendo was notoriously a right barrel of laughs working sporadic guest appearances on small wrestling shows over the last couple of decades. He’s lightened up of late though, taking off the mask to shatter kayfabe in his autobiography, and in news stories where he’s evicting the parents of murdered fusilier, Lee Rigby.

Anyway, Kendo’s ‘manager’ Lloyd Ryan shoves his way on as a mouthpiece, and the game can begin. Wrestlemania Challenge is known for its terrible controls, and both characters aimlessly wander about the ring, kicking and punching at the air, unable to even meet each other. Kendo has so little idea of what he’s doing, they might as well have given the controls to a cat, and at no point during the match does his character face the right direction. As the boy beats him, Kendo throws his controller down in rage, with Lloyd Ryan making a big show of losing — “I think we’ve been conned, and we’re not staying here!” — storming out to a chorus of boos. Good stuff. Conversely, when GamesMaster‘s hooded monk presents the winner with the Golden Joystick and a toy WWF replica belt, he responds with a polite “thank you” that’s so loud and firm, one can vividly picture his mother’s reminder as he left the house, so’s not to disgrace the family on television.

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Three episodes in to my GamesMaster recaps, I’ve just realised the tips section is a pun; the Consoletation Zone. Every kid on here, wanting to know how to find the whistle on Zelda or some shit, is as comfortable on camera as the Joris Bohnson guy. Final challenge is Megadrive side-shooter, Thunderforce 3 on ‘mania mode’, which is what I go into when I’ve got to write 5,000 words in two days about Noel’s Telly Addicts. The game really showcases Diamond’s series one restraint, bypassing dirty comments on a section with “a very tight passage,” and a boss with a great big helmet. His co-commentator wears a red baseball cap, which is jarring in a current timeline where it’s the equivalent of rocking up in a Klan hood. They play up the impossible nature of the challenge, which the kid does indeed fail, so well done, I guess? Post credits, there’s a phone number for the GamesMaster club, at 48p per minute (in 1992 money, too). If I’m paying that much on a call, I want Thatcher’s screams piped in live from a direct line to Hell.

Next, we’re into series 3, in an episode airing on the 1st of February 1994. Series 3 is notable for the absence of Dominik Diamond — in storyline, having burned to death when series 2’s oil rig exploded — only to return the following year, after a unanimously negative reaction to his replacement; future Rocketman director, Dexter Fletcher. Fletcher was criticised for being too loud and obnoxious, with over-the-top, laddish energy, forever yelling, jumping, and leering right into the camera like something that should be sat on the guttering of a church, sicking up rain water. My mate was at a taping for this series, and when we watched the tape back to try and spot him in the background, we found that whatever moment you freeze-framed, it would always land on a ludicrous rubbery-faced close-up of Dexter Fletcher. We made a game of it in the end, to see who could pause on the most grotesque and annoying still. I had another go while I was writing this.

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Five more points for Millard. The first part of series 3 was shot at Oxford Prison, which was re-opened halfway through shooting, causing a hasty move to Clarkenwell House of Detention. Clarkenwell went onto feature in an episode of Most Haunted, where one of the crew claimed to have been slashed by a ghostly razorblade, which luckily left no visible wound. Phew! The Fletcher series is marked by its egregious sponsorship deal with McDonald’s, with the famous logo opening its credits, where the McDonalds M morphs into the M from GamesMaster. It’s this partnership which Diamond, whose brother was a fervent anti-McDonald’s campaigner, cited as his reason for leaving.

Unlike the airy industrial spaces we’ve seen so far, everyone’s crammed together down in the dungeons; all brick archways and steel prison bars. Fletcher’s in a grey jumpsuit, and being cockney on a level that would make even Danny Dyer beg him to turn it in, you pilchard. “ALLO,” he yells, “AND WELCUM TO GAMESMASTAH TEEM CHAMP-YUNSHIP!” Not only with Diamond’s absence is this series the attic-chained cousin of the GamesMaster canon, but half its episodes are eaten up by a tournament, with 27 teams of gaming teens, competing — no, sorry; “SLOGGIN’ IT AHT… KEEP WATCHIN’, AWRIGHT?!” Even for the modern Dickens here, it’s genuinely hard to get across in print how colossally annoying Dexter Fletcher is. Imagine Craig Charles on Cyberzone, except instead of yelling “awooga!” every five seconds, he’s literally never not pumping his arms, geeing everyone up to cheer and clap, or pushing himself so close to the lens, it legally qualifies as a home invasion. He carries himself with the energy of a Muppet who got sacked by Jim Henson after getting caught up in football hooliganism.

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Fletcher lurches down the aisle, greeting audience members with “AWRIGHT, MATE?” before the first team come out. Fowey Force; a group of lads in red baseball caps, arms folded and all serious looking, like those viral pictures of Russian kids trying to look hard at underage disco nights. “WOSS YOUR NAME?!” he barks. They’ll be competing against Laser Force, in green caps, and forgoing the night’s Force-theme, the yellow-capped Questers. Challenge one is 45 seconds on a rollerblading game, as Fletcher introduces “ME OLD MATE,” Dave Perry, yelling “GET READY, MATE,” at player one, like a rival firm’s about to start rushing them with broke bottles.

Each kid has a CV of gaming achievements, which Perry cuts down like those office braggarts who definitely jumped their BMX over the river once, when they weren’t even trying, but don’t believe you’ve been to Spain. One reckons he can complete Turtles on the first go, “but he doesn’t tell us if he’s a nancy-boy easy level player or not!” Perry’s commentary is lost beneath the simian hooting of Dexter Fletcher — “THERE’S A CAR COMIN’!” and “S’GOOD TO HOLD ONTO THEM VEHICLES, INNIT?” With neither man deigning to stop fucking yelling and neither listening to the other, it’s like a bad satellite link, except they’re stood right next to each other. “HAW MUCH TIME’S GAWN? FIFTEEN SECONDS GAWN!” Does Fletcher even realise he’s wearing a mic? That he’s on TV? “SLOW DAHN, YOU NUTTAH!

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Next, Fletcher announces the winners of a ‘Room of the Future’ contest in a bad American accent like his one from Press Gang. For a room of the future, I’d imagined a cloning lab or a wooden Fleshlight, but the winners each get a console — Amiga 32, Philips CD-i, Atari Jaguar, 3DO – basically all the infamous tech failures the Angry Video Game Nerd makes skits of himself dropping wet diarrhea on. In this week’s reviews, there’s an all-time bad simile by one of the games journos, regarding a basketball game where “they stumble around like geriatric marvel superheroes.” So… like normal athletes?

Thank the maker for ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, of all people, who spins and twirls his way through the packed dungeon, in a glittering green tassled jacket, sunglasses and a cowboy hat. Randy had unbelievable charisma and was always amazing value on this things, like being called Randy Pandy the Puppet on Live and Kicking, and tipping Trevor and Simon right off their sofa. For a game of Rage in the Cage on the Mega CD, Savage picks an opponent out of the audience; a girl named Bertha, who Fletcher immediately refers to as “B.” Bandana-clad Dave Perry, who might best be described by Alan Partridge as “he likes American things,” cuts the old ‘wrestling is fake’ promo on Randy, who’s playing as himself, vs. Bertha as Crush, who Savage was feuding with on WWF TV at the time. Randy’s character doesn’t move for ages, and when they cut back, he’s looking down at his controller like someone waking from a 20-year coma to headlines about President Trump’s piss tape. Even if he did know what he was doing, in the darkness of an ill-lit dungeon, and wearing sunglasses, he can’t see, and — as all celebrities do — he gets annihilated by a child.

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It turns out Randy Savage is the one man capable of shouting down Dexter Fletcher, who’s left to stand holding his mic like floppy Pelé at an orgy, as Savage asks Bertha to be his real-life tag team partner and does his classic spiel; “together we’ll be the tower of power, too sweet to be sour, funky like a monkey, sky’s the limit, space is the place, Bertha and the Macho Man!” Randy raises Bertha’s hand; “I’m so happy, man” she says. Me too. The final heat of the team challenge sees Laser Force unveil a choreographed move of all folding their arms and saying “Laser Force!” which genuinely makes the other team too nervous to speak when Fletcher prods them with a “OOH, SERIOUS BUSINESS GUYS! WHAT’S GONNE’R ‘APPEN?” He squashes his nose with a finger to introduce the SNES boxing game, and closes the show by inexplicably going on about how the winning player wants to hit him for real. Dexter Fletcher, punchable? C’mon, let’s #bekind.

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Jeeves, fetch me my biffing gloves.

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O.T.T.

•July 5, 2020 • 2 Comments

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All the best Saturday morning children’s TV had elements which appealed to the adults lounging around on their days off, be it Trevor and Simon on Going Live, pretty much all of Dick ‘n Dom in Da Bungalow, or female presenters the dads fancied. ITV’s Tiswas straddled that generational line perfectly, with an anarchic unpredictability which marks it as one of the all-time greats, even four decades on. It must’ve seemed a natural fit for a grown-up spin-off, taking the leap in 1982 for a live 11:15pm slot on Saturday nights. The concept for O.T.T.Over The Top — was essentially a ‘rude’ Tiswas, where all the winking asides and innuendo could come out of the shadows, like a past-sundown Live and Kicking where Andi Peters swore and Emma Forbes wasn’t wearing a bra.

Lasting just thirteen shows, O.T.T.’s episodes aired some twelve hours after those from the final series of Tiswas, which had been left in the hands of Sally James and a new selection of hosts, after most of the cast abandoned the morning version for late-night. Hopping across to the other side of the watershed were Lenny Henry, Helen Atkinson-Wood, John Gorman, Bob Carolgees, and television’s most insincere man, Chris Tarrant. I watched a couple of episodes, beginning with January 30th, 1982, and from the get-go, it’s unconsciously smug about its self-mythologised anarchy, with the continuity announcer all “the decent respectable people are tucked up in bed, but for the rest of you…

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The animated opening credits show an inflatable woman with nipples like lemon juicers flying through O.T.T.‘s entranceway, represented by two downward-turned feet moving up and down betwixt two upward-turned feet, in that horribly twee British way of depicting sex, as seen on the covers of ‘funny’ stocking-filler books about relationships, aimed at people who describe the act as bonking or ‘a bit of the old how’s your father!’ The audience of grown-arse adults mime out the letters O.T.T like YMCA, in show-branded shirts or office-joker fancy dress; one bloke done up like an old woman; another in a policeman’s helmet, his face covered in bandages.

There’s a vibe of a prehistoric Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, including intrusive laughter from the camera crew, and lots of that ‘it’s live TV, anything can happen!’ deal of laughing at their own jokes and flubs — “I’m breaking these teeth in!” Behind the desk with Helen Atkinson Wood, Chris Tarrant makes the Chris Tarrant Noise, and it’s impossible to believe he’s only 35. He’s looked like he did during Millionaire since he was just cum. The first sketch is a joke about Barry Manilow finally finding a hotel he’s happy with, with the punchline reveal of a topless woman. Ah yes, infamous breast-liker, Barry Manilow. “Didn’t they both look nice?” says Tarrant… hold on a second; he’s not talking about Barry and the lady!

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This is O.T.T. in a single line; showing nudity, then guffawing like a schoolboy that’s cajoling you into that thing where you push your hands together and peer inside because it looks like a fanny. Every joke is capital-n Naughty; introducing a live band, but accidentally reading out the number for ‘Lolita from the massage parlour’ instead. It’s at least appropriate that an adult spin-off of a kids show is the exact type of thing you’d only consider to be adult if you were a child, like those pens with a stripper inside, or finding rude playing cards stashed in a ditch, where the Queen of Clubs has got her hedge out. But this is an adult cast, and consequently it feels a bit pathetic. At one point, Lenny Henry actually uses the phrase “bonking away like billy-o,” which is effectively an admission he’s yet to get his fingers ‘n tops.

Almost primarily, O.T.T. is a sketch show, which is super weird when one of the main players is Chris Tarrant. The notion of Tarrant with the word ‘comedian’ anywhere near his job description blows my mind. Imagine if he’d jacked in Millionaire for a comedy comeback — actually don’t, because he’s dreadful, with zero comic aptitude. He’s on the level of a driving instructor or youth worker being pulled onstage for their church’s end of year show, except all the material’s about breasts. In one skit, a women with no bra walks towards the camera, while Tarrant and Gorman — dressed as Beano-style punks — argue whether or not she’s wearing knickers. She snags her skirt on a bush, leaving her naked from the waist down, and they excitedly give chase as she runs away.

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Later, they do a knickers-on version. “Oh, she is (wearing underwear)” moans Gorman. “But I’m not!” yells Tarrant, yanking down his jeans and running after her for — presumably — some cheeky rape. His bare arse is hanging out, and for a few frames, I’m afraid to say, so are the back of his genitals. What comes next is somehow worse, with a quiz show parody where he’s in a wig that’s actually less awful than his real scarecrow-hair, and the contestants are all on “live satellite link-up.

Representing the UK is Carolgees as a Brummie in a bald wig; for France it’s Wood in a beret and stripy shirt; and playing for Africa, oh, just Lenny Henry in a leopard skin headband and Zulu warpaint. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Let’s not automatically assume the worst of all old telly. Lenny then asks if he can say hello to a few friends of his, and does this:

It’s all like that, waving a skull-topped witchdoctor stick, singing an Over the Rainbow parody — “Somewhere Kilimanjaro, Tsetse Fly…” — and bursting into more monkey noises with an apologetic “sorry about dat; jungle fever!” After sitting through Jim Davidson, the Grumbleweeds, and Russ Abbot’s Three Tops, I was not expecting the most racist thing ever to grace these pages to have come from Lenny Henry.

Aside from the regular cast, occasional guest acts break up the titty-tittering. This week, a double-act called Lumiere and Son do a Victorian strongman routine, where a guy in trunks eats a bar of soap and some hand cream, washing it down with a bottle of Dettol. Trump’s not been watching this has he? Alexi Sayle shows up to do five minutes, but doesn’t go down great. The first words out of his mouth are about Lenin and Marx, as he shouts his way through material about communism and the proletariat for an audience who just pissed themselves at Chris Tarrant’s anus, and are suddenly being presented with punchlines about Mussolini and “murals by colour-blind Mexicans on acid…

There’s also a live performance from Robert Palmer, during that incredible period when men who looked like middle-aged photocopier salesmen were allowed to perform music on TV, and with lyrics like “girl the way you squeal when you get it” and “I thought my luck had held until you fingered me,” before Bob Carolgees comes out with Charlie the Monkey. God, what a wealth of puppet sidekicks we had back then; Emu, Orville, Sooty, Roland Rat, Nookie Bear. Charlie’s the Cuddles to Bob’s far more famous Spit, and marvellously cheap-looking, like it’s straight off one of those market stalls that sells backflipping dogs, forcing me to make the umpteenth Joe Beazley reference on here. In the next episode, Charlie tries to gnaw Bob’s testicles off, as he scalds it with “stop it, you bad lad!” Carolgees will also amble through an an extended musical number about Spit, with so much smoke filling the stage, he looks like Jack the Ripper. For those who didn’t catch Bob Carolgees in his prime, Spit was a dog who kept gobbing everywhere, which saved him having to come up with a voice.

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Lenny does his “gwapple my gwapenuts!” David Bellamy, singling out a “dirty, filthy” audience member to tell him he stinks, before announcing it’s time for Beat Your Brains Out. It’s the playground equivalent of someone yelling ‘bundle!’ as balloons and confetti drop from the ceiling, and the audience attack each other with plastic clubs, pillows and inflatable hammers. Under squealing guitar, the studio fills with smoke and party poppers, and I dread to think how much groping’s going on under there. This sort of contrived chaos is acceptable on kids shows, when it’s actual children — like Dick ‘n Dom’s joyous creamy muck-muck finales — but with fully-grown adults, I find myself taking on the ‘grow up, you idiot’ disdain reserved for those morons who shout you awake at 4am by riding a shopping trolley down the street.

Everything’s covered in detritus, with audience members brawling behind the desk, as a custard-smeared Tarrant tries to get back on track for a caption contest. Every cartoon is a bedroom in the midst of some right proper rogering, with plenty of upturned/downturned feet. “Someone’s bonking in there!” exclaims 35-year-old Chris Tarrant. The address to write in is printed on the shirt of a busty black woman in bikini bottoms, as a gurning tramp character readies to squeeze her swaying boobs. She’ll show up again in a bikini, to pour custard over a man in a thong, where, most depressingly of all, it’s Jan 30th, and the custard-bucket is still decorated with a balding string of Christmas tinsel.

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O.T.T has a lot of padding, like an ancient three-minute clip of the young Rolling Stones. Perhaps it’s an attempt to fully emulate Saturday morning kids shows, as the other episode even has a cartoon, with a truncated edit of Bob Godfrey short, Dream Doll, which depicts a sad-sack who buys a sex doll. The audience might be laughing, but with its sickly synth music and maudlin images of a lonely old man tenderly motor-boating a pair of pointy plastic tits, desperate for any physical contact while she keeps floating out of his grasp, the beams in the attic roof begun to call my name. Then a gang made up of a Nazi, biker, and Native American kick the shit out of him, and one by one, their shadows fall over the sex doll, ala Last House on the Left. They burst her with the first thrust, leaving the aul fella sobbing over the remains, before all the world’s sex dolls fly him away to freedom. Still made more sense than The fucking Raccoons, mind.

There’s also the good old stand-by, the funny foreign advert, mostly the kind where women get their knockers out, but otherwise, like a Japanese ad for phones, which is neither funny nor subtitled, merely making you wonder how staid British ads were at the time, that these were notable enough to show. The ruddy mad bloody nutters in the audience get time to shine too, with Tarrant interviewing a bloke called Roy who can blow smoke out of his ears, though he forgets to put the mic under Roy’s mouth, so we don’t hear a word he says. The ‘silliest dressed’ person — a vicar’s outfit smeared with paint and feathers — gets the BPITA Award, which I’m going to assume stands for Biggest Plonker in the Audience.

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For the finale, Tarrant welcomes the ‘strongman’ back, this time in a fez for a mind-reading act, where a background barrage of popping balloons tread over his punchlines. The gag is he accidentally starts eating his own brain, losing his faculties and eventually becoming deaf and blind, but as it’s gone midnight in the studio, and there’s no willies or fannies in this bit, the audience tire of it really quickly. We close on the bosomy dancer doing a striptease, peeling herself out of a dress into undies and suspenders, with the camera zooming in as she unfastens the front of her bra, aaaaand — cut to black. In credit-spotting, O.T.T. shares a writer with Bullseye, plus there’s an additional material credit for a young Angus Deayton.

The March 20th episode opens on a skit where Tarrant’s an actual cuckold, asking his wife he if can watch when she sleeps with her lover, before cutting to Carolgees sat on a lady’s lap in the audience, where she can be seen rearing back as though getting a whiff of some terrible BO. Then it’s over to Lenny, again with the grass skirt and Zulu paint, as “Africa’s first disco comedian.” He says touring British discotheques has really opened his eyes, “mainly because (as a skirt-wearer) I get to change in the women’s toilets… woola-banga bazoomy!” — he mimes the big tits that he’s been lucky enough to see, and a red emergency phone begins ringing off the hook on Graham Linehan’s desk.

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His launching into a “Swahili disco number” spells problematic in letters the size of the fucking Hollywood sign, singing about running around the jungle and having 87 wives, with battle cries of “Wakanga! Umbutu-wanga! Katanga!” Particularly weird in 2020, after decades of despotic rule, is the image of Robert Mugabe solving issues with his political opponents by “running into the bush and start rappin’ in the nude.” The whole thing’s summed up by the tremendously out-of-time clapping by a couple of blokes in the front row, before Tarrant quips “that was a clip from Black Emmannuelle.”

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Lenny, still in his Zulu outfit, joins Tarrant at the desk, where they show a tabloid picture of Julian Lennon with his new girlfriend. Is this, posits a letter, the same girl who was “jumping up and down on your snooker table last week?” They play the clip of a topless woman running into an old man’s embrace, showing her wobbling boobs from various angles, just to be sure. Tarrant grabs Lenny by the ankle, yanking his bare feet onto the desk, with a laughing “get your big, black feet away from me!” Then there’s a sex scene with Bob Carolgees. Sure, he and Helen are both fully dressed, bouncing up and down sideways beneath a sheet as the audience cheers them on, but we hear him reach a loud climax, where it’s impossible not to picture — as with the titular puppet — the resulting muck spitting from the end of his penis with a hock-tooey.

The next showcase of Tarrant’s comedic skills is so unspeakably awful, that when it suddenly cuts to a close-up of Jimmy Savile, in an archive clip introducing a performance by the unfortunately-named-given-the-context Nashville Teens, it’s a huge relief. In an clear attempt to corner the market on British showbiz’s most notorious villains, Bernard Manning then comes on to do a set. Bernard’s hair has an extraordinary structure, like corrugated iron, and for all the talk of his ‘amazing timing’ he’s got the stage presence of someone whose job is scraping suicides off the train tracks and hasn’t felt an emotion for decades.

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The material is what you’d expect, with an opening gag about a bloke buying a blow-up doll from a sex shop, but they only had black ones, so “he took it home, blew it up, and it mugged him.” This gets a huge laugh, and note that the entire cast, including Lenny Henry, are all sat crammed at the desk six feet away, where Lenny can be seen throughout the routine with his head in his hands. At one point, Bernard castigates him for laughing; “it’s alright for you black people, you can walk home on your own at night.” Bernard then does his ‘be kind’ bit, about how lovely it is being a comic and making people smile, before quoting Hitler.

Now, remember my Barrymore piece, and all the Libyan stuff? Where I theorised it was his version of Bernard’s apocryphal Japanese man who happens to be sat in the audience every night? Well, he interjects with an aside, stopping to look accusingly at someone in the front row — though notably the camera doesn’t pan around to show them — “You Japanese never laugh, do yer? We’ve not forgot Pearl Harbour, don’t you worry, pal. Shithouse trick, that was. Sat there, can’t wait to go home and make another Datsun.” That’s it; that’s the routine! An urban legend confirmed before our very eyes, word for word, even with the capper of pointing at another audience member (who they do show), and instructing them “you look a nice young fella, go piss on that Jap.”

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On he goes, with jokes about cheap Jews, thick Irish, and big cavernous pussies, and a gag about Red Adair, which turns out to be the exact same joke told by the contestant in Brucie’s Big Night, four years earlier. After a music video, we cut back to Tarrant at the desk, where he’s been joined by Bernard. It’s wild to see the big man so out of his element, sat like a proper TV presenter; but then he announces Beat Your Brains Out. Clearly unaware of what’s about to happen, he throws his arms up in genuine panic as a row of pyro sparks along the desk, in what will be Bernard Manning’s personal, confetti-soaked Pearl Harbour.

When we return from the civil disorder in the seats, Bernard’s become one of those ads for PTSD, where a soldier’s underneath the dining room table on bonfire night, as he brushes packing peanuts off his head and flinches from unseen screams and the bangs of bursting balloons. He seems afraid to lower his arms, in case something hits him, and is clearly trying to get his breathing under control. As Tarrant witters on, Bernard makes not a sound, shifting in his seat and squinting uncomfortably at the battlefield behind the cameras. When it finally cuts to a VT, he spits confetti into his palm.

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Onto a caption competition for LPs, including Motorhead and the soundtrack to Death Wish 3, Tarrant picks up on Bernard’s wariness — “It’s alright. You’re not frightened, are you?” “No, no,” says Bernard, before Tarrant reaches for a cuddly lion, and Bernard ducks out of the way like when a school bully lifts a hand to brush through his hair and you think he’s going to punch you. Even aside from the chaos, he’s utterly lost. As demonstrated by his appearance on The Mrs. Merton Show, Bernard’s unable to think on his feet, relying on heavily-rehearsed routines that are so rigid, his nightly act is now confirmed to have a scripted bit where he pretends to spot a Japanese man in the crowd.

Then we’re in a courtroom, with Lenny’s lawyer prosecuting a teacher who threatened to smack her pupil with a ruler. This “poor, unfortunate child” is played by Bernard Manning, wearing the same rainbow punk wig from the skirt-ripping sketch. Feel free to correct me, but is this the only sketch Manning’s played in during his entire career? It’s surreal to see him as part of ensemble, like when they bring athletes or politicians onto SNL, but more than that, such unfamiliar footing further exposes his legendary ‘talents’. It’s some achievement, being this noticeably awful with so little to do, in a way that brings to mind Frank Bruno’s cameo as a doorman in hooligan movie, Cass, where he somehow managed to overact while standing silently in the background with his arms folded.

The child’s said to have a twitch, so… lots of potential for a comedy tic? Nah, he doesn’t bother. Also, master of his craft, Bernard ‘he might’ve been racist, but his timing was world class‘ Manning fumbles over his one line, which has clearly been written down in front of him, with Gorman’s policeman literally nudging him on his cue and pointing to it. The end of the sketch sees the teacher physically attacking him, but as she whales away, he completely no-sells, breaking character, with a smile on his face like “if you lot think I’m gonna let a split-arse rough me up, you’ve got another thing coming…”

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This week’s BPITA award goes to a surly bloke in a red crash helmet and woman’s dress, while the lady next to him came in a negligee, and is made by Tarrant to stand up, so we can all see her nice body. He hands over to live band, Rocky Sharpe and the Replays; 50’s diner Americana doo-wop from Englishmen in 1982. Christ, can you not put that nice Mr. Manning on instead for some of his jokes? In a real Monkey’s Paw, after the final note, there he is, back on his home turf, stood with a mic in his hand, and calling the band “dirty, filthy bastards.” He tells a joke about “one of those skippies,” which barely gets a laugh, because I think he means ‘hippies,’ then it’s straight into the Irish thicko material, and “d’ya ever notice how there’s not many Pakistanis knockin’ about since the Chinese realised they taste like chicken?

Incidentally, I’ve seen comparatively little footage of Bernard Manning’s actual performances. I’m too young for his run on The Comedians, never went to his club, and in my lifetime, he made scant few TV appearances, outside of being a scowling talking head on docs where he was moaning about Alternative Comedy. And yet, I’ve definitely heard him tell every joke he did on OT.T., multiple times. It’s a wonder he kept hold of that trademark girth, after dining out on the same five-minute set of pub jokes for fifty years.

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Anyway, at this point during his closing routine, Bernard’s raised into the air on a (sturdy) harness like a racist Peter Pan, as the crew wheels in a big tub of suds for him to be dumped into, which from the look of him, is the first bath he’s had since man landed on the moon. It’s a prank by the barest of definitions, but all done with this jubilant air like ‘we gave loads of airtime to his bile, but look at him now, slightly uncomfortable in some bubbles!’ When they hoist him back out, he looks like a full-scale Mr. Stay Puft.

With barely any surviving episodes of TISWAS, I can’t rightly say whether its rep on the upper echelons of kids TV is earned, however, even on the basis of two hour’s worth, O.T.T.‘s place among television’s absolute worst is thoroughly deserved. There’s an overwhelming irony in how childish its notion of what constitutes ‘adult’ is; phrases like “dangly bits” and the constant depictions of sex through feet — ‘haha, look at this naughty old missionary! They’re having it off!!’ I’d suggest saving yourself the trouble of watching it, and instead just type BOOBIES into an upside down calculator while listening to your dad complain about Diane Abbott.

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 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.

A Prince Among Men

•June 26, 2020 • 1 Comment

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[This is Part 9 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart Eight]

The latest Shitcom to fall under my gaze has a lot in common with the previous entry, Captain Butler. It too hails from the 1990s as a star vehicle for a Red Dwarf actor, and just like Butler, is an absolute clogged toilet of a show. Like Faith in the Future, Not On Your Nellie, Life of Riley, and Nelson’s Column, A Prince Among Men follows that classic sitcom title convention of picking an idiom and naming the lead character after it; in ex-footballer, Gary Prince. Although a more fitting title would’ve been The Shitass Empire. Speaking of Britass, Prince Among Men was co-created by a pair who’d penned four episodes of Chris Barrie’s swimming centre disaster-farce, and written for Birds of a Feather; plus one them played Jacko’s mate on Brush Strokes, so imagine an episode of Comedy Connections where it’s just a close-up of me scratching all the skin off my face.

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The opening titles show clips from the series, but jazzed up to look exciting with that weird stabiliser effect you get when someone’s filming their dad fall down the stairs on a phone. As the show-proper will when it starts telling jokes, the theme has me tossing batteries at the screen and setting fire to the curtains, as it kicks in with hooligan-style chanting — “he’s a winner, he’s a star; he’s a prince, a prince among men!” Fahkin’ come on then, you slags! I’ll stripe ya! But then a gravelly-voiced Chris Rea type takes over, with lyrics that read like a five-year-old smeared in cake icing explaining all about their favourite superhero.

he’s always right, cos he knows what’s what,

winnin’ is his game, he’s always said,

cos the best is the Prince, and he’s got the lot,

and he hasn’t let it go to his head!

He goes onto tell us Gary’s “an all-time great, the finest football player of the day” and “patted on the back by the hand of fate, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” What do you care, mate? This interminable song carries on into the opening scene, which showcases Prince Among Men‘s comedic one-two punch; technology going wrong and Chris Barrie pulling a face, while also demonstrating how the audience; clearly packed with rabid Red Dwarf fans; will laugh their throats bloody at anything he does. Gary’s a big tech guy, and gets a laugh purely by using a remote control to close his patio doors. The first comedian to go back in time with an Amstrad em@iler is gonna sell out stadiums.

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Throughout the series, the live crowd are popping off like loose firecrackers, ready to fall out of their seats whenever Barrie opens his mouth, like someone overreacting to the lunch room quips of a colleague they fancy. In one episode, just the name Sophie Moffett, not even meant to be a joke, gets a lone “hurh!” of amusement, likely from someone who entered the studio doing the Red Dwarf shuffle. To be fair, he is using his Lister voice from the Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers audiobook, as Gary Prince is a proper comedy Scouser, complete with that perm all footballers had in [checks notes] 1998. In a testament to great research, Scouse Gary is seen casually reading The Sun.

Chris Barrie’s a gifted performer, but he’s truly dreadful in this, with a zero effort performance, like he’s confused the actual shoot for the first table read. There’s a shocking lack of preparedness, everything played flat and bare minimum, with no extra little moments of physicality or added comic garnishes on the lines he’s merely remembered and is reciting, other than sometimes pulling a face. It feels like that stage show which re-enacts the whole of the movie Point Break, where a random audience member’s pulled on to play Keanu’s part with no warning.

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Despite the football setting, any actual footie-talk is so generic, the writers had all the interest of your mum glancing up from her sudoku on cup final day to ask why the goalie doesn’t just pick it up and run down the other end. This is a workplace sitcom in disguise, with Gary’s ’empire’ of assorted businesses running out of an office complex at the end of his garden. His secretary Sonia is one of those naïve comedy thickos with a baby voice, always squeaking on about unseen fiancée, Kevin, who’s got eczema and erupting dermatitis, giving Barrie the chance to make grossed-out facial expressions when hearing about his flaky skin, just like you loved when he did it with Colin in The Brittas Empire, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?! Also working for him are Susie Blake, Minty off Eastenders, and posho accountant Mr. Fitzherbert, who makes frequent reference to boarding school chums called things like Pongo and Shagger.

Right from the whistle, it’s clear we’re following the rote construction of all sitcoms from that era, as used so ineffectively by Big Top a decade later, where, rather than having a funny scene play out in front of camera, two characters sit down and talk about what happened, so we can imagine it instead. At a supermarket opening, Minty will mention a “routine with a salami” that went down well with the housewives; “of course, you always get one that faints.” Yes, great idea, keep the interesting incidents offscreen, and have the sitcom be all the boring stuff. The series begins with Gary reminiscing about taking blind kids skydiving, as though that’s an inherently funny idea and not, like, a thing there are actual charities for. Anyway, one of them got caught in a wind sock; but you can’t see it. Neither could the kid!

We’re 1,000 words in, and I’ve yet to mention the plot. That’s because they don’t settle on one until five minutes from the end, so it’s all just random shit. A dog gets fatally hung (later revealed to be fine) by an automatic garage door; Gary goes to the pub he bought for the manager of his old schoolboy team; and there are loads of jokes about his high-tech gadgets. The universal remote’s obviously intended to be their ‘Arkwright’s Till’, with doors opening suddenly and violently, and a wine dispenser tipping a bottle of red all over the floor as the audience hoot. There’s a bit where he goes to use his mobile and accidentally dials on the remote instead, cutting to all the shutters and blinds going at Benny Hill speed.

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Gary’s wife is a German with a Herr Flick accent, switching all her Vs for Ws (“wegitarian food”), and he overhears her on the phone, erroneously thinking he’s getting the This is Your Life book during his speech at the policeman’s luncheon. Turns out, he’s wrong, though we do get a look at Gary’s patter. “I’ve always tried to do me bit for the boys in blue, but to be honest, I’d rather do it for the girls in blue! Ooh ooh!” At this, he salaciously thrusts his fist at 90 degrees, in the time-accepted mime for a big stiff willy going up a fanny. This is fully on a par with the rest of the jokes. Regard, this example of Prince‘s laff-getters.

     Fitzherbert: “I’m sorry if it offends you that I’ve got a pedigree.

     Gary: “I’ve got a pedigree, chum.

Ha, ha, just like the dog food! Then there’s this sparkling witticism, when Gary recalls a chat with his physio — “he says he’s never seen a knee like mine, he says another bloke would be hospitalised with my knee. Well, obviously not with my knee; he’d have his own, it’d be his knee…” Among all the talk of Gary’s side businesses, we learn there’s a tool designers; all to get to a line where Fitzherbert zings him by changing the company name to Gary Prince’s Toolworks — nothing more humiliating than having people know your penis can get hard and shoot cum out of its slit.

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But this is a rare case of the show understanding what a double-entendre is, incapable of pulling off (see, that’s how easy it is!) even the hoariest of comedy techniques. When Fitzherbert takes a phonecall with a woman, he suggests “why don’t we play around on Friday afternoon. I seem to remember you thrashed me last time,” Gary opens his gob in shock, eyebrows on the ceiling. But anyone — i.e. the whole audience — who’s laughing as though he isn’t clearly describing tennis or golf, but rather, a bout of violent S&M, must be sat in a fucking gimp mask and bollock-collar to make that connection. There’s another one in episode 3, where he tells Gary his wife’s mad because he “shot Nanny. She was old and passed it, and smelled dreadful, so I took her into the garden and shot her.” Maybe this would’ve been funny if he’d revealed he actually was talking about an old lady and not, as is patently obvious, a dog.

We’re supposed to be charmed by Gary’s cheeky Scouse jack-the-laddery, like in his banter with Susie Blake’s Bev, who tells him she prefers to be addressed as Beverly — “Well dat’s very ‘andy, Bev, cos dat’s your name!” Every line’s delivered with that “Accrington Stanley!?” cadence, and pushed from the side of his mouth, sometimes ending on a jaunty pose, like a medieval jester. For such a pedestrian show, the end credits are oddly allegorical, set against an ethereal cloudy sky with a tiny Gary ascending a ladder which stretches up the side of the screen, slowly sinking with each step, with him reaching the top just as it ends. Ah, yes; in that eternal and endless struggle for success, man’s true enemy is himself; a philosophy imparted through A Prince Among Men‘s tableaux of Chris Barrie flaring his nostrils as the patio doors refuse to open.

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Episode two follows the 1997 naming rule of making a pun on Changing Rooms, entitled ‘Changing Revs‘, and starts with the Princes trying to make breakfast with Gary’s new voice-activated microwave from Japan, giving us the hilarity of his wife shouting in her German accent like an SS officer. Later, she’ll yell at it in Japanese, causing the blinds to come down instead. It’s all laid on the same rails as episode one, with Gary doing the rounds of the supporting characters as they all do their bits; Sonia chatters about ugly, gross Kevin; Fitzherbert says some comical stocks-n-shares words, and namechecks a Johnny Nipple and Buttocks Bingham; and there’s a reference to an offscreen “papier mache incident.” Plot-wise, the church due to hold Sonia and Kevin’s wedding is being sold, so Gary decides he’ll buy it. As the warden tells him about dwindling attendance, Gary suggests they do a “transfer to the Catholics,” and then he pulls this face.

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There’s a brilliant example here of the way bad writers desperately scrabble around to find a joke — any joke — so they can pack up for the day, remembering how they once read that humour is born from confusion. Why, asks Gary, were there so many boxes of macaroons in the church? “Cameroons!” exclaims the warden, “they’re going to the Cameroons! We’re storing them for a charity.” “Oh, right.” That’s it. That’s a joke. And tellingly, it’s the first to barely raise a titter from the audience. The warden tells Gary the church is God’s house. “And does he know you’re selling it?” asks Gary. And then he pulls this face.

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Back at the office, a woman’s arrived from charity Tropic Aid — “I’m a Lucozade man meself!” says Gary, and yes, a face was made, but like everything else in this show, I’ll let you imagine it. However, Gary’s not buying the church to save Sonia’s wedding, and secretly plans to turn it into a go kart track called ‘God’s Hot Rods’ or ‘Onward Christian Go-Karts’ (the latter of which scores our first zero-laughs gag). Eventually, the church finds out, cancels the sale, and sends the go karts to Africa, mistaking them for a charitable donation (“so now the nomads can drive 15 miles to the nearest well”), but until then, Bev hates the idea of the church falling into secular hands.

     Sonia: “It can be a bit messy. Kevin’s got those, you know.” [oh Christ, don’t]

     Bev: “What?” [please…]

     Sonia: “Secular hands. He has to have them dressed twice a week by the health visitor.” [my office lays empty. The window beside the desk is wide open, curtain billowing, scattering loose papers about the room. In the street below, there is silence for a moment. And then, a scream]

It turns out Gary accidentally grassed himself up to the church on an answerphone tape, and there’s no mole, so t– “Kevin has moles, have you tried potassium manganate?” Sorry, I just blacked out for a second. Gary: “I mean in me organisation!” Sonia: “Kevin’s are in his armpits.” Look, let’s just MOVE ON. Episode 3, Where Were They Then? sees Gary’s old schoolboy team being reunited for an interview in the Independent. This week’s tech-yuks come from a little table that descends from the ceiling but keeps going out of reach, in a gag the show returns to about ten fucking times. Meanwhile, Gary’s wife is launching a range of cakes, and when told they’ll be puff pastry, Sonia lets out a big “Oh dear… Kevin won’t go near puff pasty, just in case.” Is this… a homophobic gag? Puffs? Fear of catching AIDS? What else could it be a reference to?

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Gary and his schoolboy manager discuss old teammates, including John the Murderer, who went onto kill both his parents in a mercy killing — sorry, “a Mersey killing. He pushed them both in the Mersey.” Christ, a man should be so lucky. Later, while wearing a huge 90’s smock-jacket like Pipes from Ghostwatch, he’s caught shit-talking John the Murderer, when he turns out to be Right Behind Him, covering himself with a brown-nosing “you were probably driven to it; you were pushed!” “No,” says John the Murderer, “I wasn’t pushed. But they were!” I cannot reiterate enough, I’d bloody love to have been murdered rather than sit through this. Nice head-stoving or charger cable round the neck; the edges of my vision going grey as Sonia talks about Kevin’s anal-fissure, and knowing, even if I’m due for the plague pits of Hell, things are looking up.

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At the team meet, old goalkeeper Derek’s now Deborah after a sex change — who craggy manager Vince immediately becomes besotted with — and there’s more offscreen antics when Bev berates Sonia for ruining her night at a posh society do, having had to resuscitate Kevin in a muddy lake after one of his ‘attacks’. “Yes, he chucked a banger at the orchestra and they attacked him!” The cartoonish nature of these anecdotes is tonally way off with the dreary stuff we do see, describing Kevin with his head stuck in a tuba, and a piccolo jammed up his arse.

When the newspaper comes in, it turns out to a piece about Gary’s wife. “I guess zat’s the vay the cookie crumbles!” she says, which gets a huge laugh, presumably because she’s quoting Prince Edward’s brilliant and timeless quip from It’s a Royal Knockout, and we end on the ceiling-table shattering over Gary’s head, leaving him grimacing and rubbing his perm. Inexplicably, A Prince Among Men wasn’t cancelled the moment its opening titles had finished, but renewed for a second series. This would be relegated to the Sunday afternoon death slot, along with other shows that felt like punishment, and which existed solely as Gabriel’s trumpet-blast, announcing the imminent, dread approach of school or work. And what a way to see off the final dregs of the weekend, by watching Chris Barrie make a face as he hears about the infected penile scabs of an unseen man.

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 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.

Gone To Pot

•June 16, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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Though ITV’s 2017 reality show, Gone To Pot — a series that sends celebrities to learn about marijuana — looks like classic Patreon material, I must admit, I’ve been putting it off. I usually cover things I’ve at least some cursory knowledge of, and as someone who doesn’t even drink, let alone smoke weed, I feel I don’t have the appropriate expertise. I’m not some reactionary weirdo; it’s just not for me, and consequently, I may be about shatter my image as the swaggering literary hedonist whose brilliant, prolific output could only be achieved by a diet of pharmaceutical-strength narcotics and pansexual swinging. Alas, this is such unfamiliar territory, I don’t even know what to call it. Weed? Pot? Cannabis? Gear? What’s the slang these days? “One packet of Lyndhurst’s please, my good dealer!” It’s like starting a new school and not knowing if you get beaten up for wearing your backpack with one strap or both.

The other reason for my hesitancy is a general dislike of weed culture. Anyone who makes a substance or foodstuff their entire personality is the worst kind of bore; craft beer drinkers, and people who made an active decision to walk this Earth as The Coffee-Liker, their daily Instagram stories flooded with boomerangs of brown liquid and stickers that say “WOW!” People whose ‘thing’ is weed seem to be suffering arrested development, forever the kids showing off in IT class by printing out clip-art of Bob Marley, and kicking around in Spliffy jackets. Growing up, I feel like every conversation anyone had between the ages of 16-20 consisted of positing “Mate, imagine if [relatively boring-seeming person] smoked weed! Imagine them with a spliff!

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Prior to writing this, I decided to do some extra research, and hit the streets to glean information from the local youths that hang around lampposts, spitting. Apparently, there’s a particularly virulent brand of skunk round here called Pence’s Piss, with other popular strains such as Reboot Cadfael, Dean Gaffney’s African Cleaner, and Just Fuck Off, You Paedo.

I needn’t have been concerned about my own lack of street knowledge, as Gone To Pot was obviously made by your mum, chatting away to your school chums about ‘the old wacky baccy’ and getting the munchies, while they wait for you to come down from the bathroom. There’s an unrelenting Summer of Love soundtrack, with every onscreen caption in that bubbly Woodstock font. All the travelling’s done in a tour bus decorated with psychedelic swirls, peace signs, and the word LOVE, and every inch of the interior’s adorned with colourful throws and giant flowers. Dreamcatchers hang from the ceiling; arriving celebrities are draped with leis. This is weed culture in a Poundland fancy dress outfit, its fingers held up in a peace sign, going “yeah man, peace man, I’m a hippie…

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The cast too, are endearingly innocent to the ways of marijuana, or as the Ric Flair of darts, Bobby George calls it, “happy baccy.” Riding with Bobby for the three-week tour of all things 420 are a group of aged minor celebrities with similarly shocking levels of drug inexperience, given that showbiz supposedly runs on wild coke parties. For Christopher Biggins, a human teddy bear locked in a permanent wheezing fit of raucous laughter, this is a comeback of sorts, recently shouldered from his perch as national treasure, after getting thrown off Big Brother for accusing bisexuals of spreading AIDS, and jokingly warning a Jewish contestant not to get gassed. Biggins aims to find out whether medicinal marijuana can help with his bad knee. Likewise, Pam St. Clement is riddled with arthritis, and a perfect fit for the show, considering EastEnders‘ love of the comedic ‘stuffy character takes drugs by accident’ plot. Connoisseurs of the trope may consider the genre peak Dot Cotton’s misadventures with some ‘herbal tea,’ but for me, no onscreen portrayal of drugs is as powerful as the time Martin Fowler was given LSD by Nick Cotton, in events portrayed via Martin’s POV of his brother making funny faces into a fish-eye lens. Finally, rounding off the group, there’s Linda Robson off Birds of a Feather, and Fash.

John ‘Fash’ Fashanu, Fash the Bash, is an extraordinarily weird man; a top-level oddball who carries himself with both the wide-eyed innocence and know-it all arrogance of a child, like he made a wish at a Zoltar machine, right before making another one, asking to be a massive prick. So otherworldly, like every day is his first on Earth, I suspect most will think it’s an act and he’s doing a ‘bit’. Not just a prude, but a wildly intolerant religious bigot, who once paid his now-dead gay brother £75,000 to stay in the closet and save his embarrassment, Fash is your classic target for “imagine him on the weed though, be mad wouldn’t it?!” Greeting the arrival of the bus with an “amen, brother,” he claims, like old muggins here, to have never taken drugs or been drunk, but has a dim view of those that have. With that old classic, “I don’t need drugs because I’m high on life,” And where does Fash stand on weed? “I classify marijuana with cocaine, heroin, any other of the a-listed drugs.”

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As such a zero tolerance hard-liner, the real story of the show is Fash’s struggle though an endless series of visits to weed dispensaries and grow farms, and how that affects his attitude towards “smoke heads” as despicable junkie scum. We begin, of course, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, birthplace of the counterculture, and where a fresh-out-of-jail Charles Manson picked up his first followers. “I can actually smell wacky baccy!” shrieks an overexcited Linda Robson, likely soon to be giggling off the fumes, like year 9 girls on a school trip, drunk on shandy. Even I’m beginning to feel pretty hip, as Bobby imagines what it might be like to smoke some, with a “yeah baby, alright man!” But not everyone’s so open to experimentation, as Fash confesses to camera that he’s nervous about admitting to the others he doesn’t want to smoke, because, well…

Before the first of many, many trips to a dispensary, the gang list their ailments to a Skype doctor, who signs each a medical note for just $100 apiece. Boy did they get rinsed! I got a thorough examination over webcam by a urologist I met on ChatRoulette, and it only cost me a tenner, though I did subsequently get blackmailed for £20,000 in bitcoin by Chechnyan mobsters. Now eligible for medicinal usage, the first-time buyers stock up on cannabis oils, brownies, and weed-infused sweets. All except for Fash, who refuses everything but a bro-handshake from the hipster behind the counter, coming off like a real Poo Poo Boy in the process.

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A permanent ingénue, forever shocked by the world around him, he’s aghast at the speed at which the others transform into filthy druggies, chucking a-list funny cigarettes into their baskets like a speed run on Supermarket Sweep. But then, we get to the crux of the matter, as Fash finally confesses his true reasons for staying away from that demon weed. Despite all the talk of morals and Christian faith, Fash’s opposition is actually a safety issue; the safety of others, concerned he may “take some weed,” and as a result “I may go completely out of control.” Fearing another Helter Skelter, Fash’s terror at endangering innocent victims increases at a grow commune operated by a group of nuns, the cartoonish Sisters of The Valley, who believe the plant to be a spiritual gift from Mother Goddess. With Pam and Bobby taking their first ever honks on an actual joint, a frightened Fash just says no, further explaining, with complete sincerity. “I might become extremely aggressive and start using martial arts… I’ve got 16 years, 4 black belts, so that would be horrible.”

Terrified he’ll take a single toke and snap out of a weed-madness fugue to find himself standing over a pile of dead nuns, Fash considers even medicinal use too much of a risk. But as an ex-footballer with bad knees, he’s seen the benefits from his new friends, with Biggins bragging of a very fast nightly piss, having rubbed cannabis oil all over his thighs. As a result, he seems to be considering it, and soon, a now-shirtless Fash is having CBD oil massaged into his skin by the stoned sisters. However, in that morning-after regret typical of overdoing it on a big sesh, second thoughts quickly follow. “What’s really disturbing me, is the connotation that for the next 3 or 4 days, everybody will be smelling marijuana, thinking I’m a junkie.

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To be fair, Fash’s Reefer Madness notion of an immediate psychotic break on ingesting marijuana was initially shared by the rest of the group. Putting droplets of cannabis oil under their tongues, each seemed to be expecting that hard cut to their pupils shrinking into pinpricks, and the real world peeling away to reveal a moving patchwork of cartoon rainbows, mandarin music and talking bunnies. But unlike Fash, once they’ve had their first puff, the others are quick to embrace it, immediately going full Cheech and Chong, and leaving him open mouthed, making noises like he’s at a firework display when watching them inhale. This hedonism hits its pinnacle when the group meet pink-haired 94-year-old edibles chef, Nonna Marijuana, giving us this phenomenal exchange, with Fash introducing himself to the very spritely old lady with a patronising decibel-level normally reserved for trying to rouse an actual corpse.

“FASH! FASH! I’M FASH!”

Flash?

“FASH!”

Flash?

“FASH!”

What knowledge I lack about drugs, I make up for in experience with memes. One thing I’ve learned from them is the behaviour of edibles, with those two-panel images of someone scoffing pot brownies and feeling fine, followed by a second frame depicting the moment ‘when that edible hits’, where they’re trapped in a Photoshop blur and clinging on for dear life. Nonna cooks a feast, with lashings of weed mixed into the butter, and though Fash eats the ‘clean’ alternative, Biggins and Bobby, a couple of big lads who never turned down a free dinner, gobble down about fifteen helpings. It’s now that Fash takes an enormous step. “To debate marijuana,” he says, “I must know what it’s like.” Know thy enemy, indeed, and with a deep breath, he succumbs to a few spoonfuls of marijuana ice cream, ensuring poor old Nonna’s imminent death from a flurry of demented karate chops. Like a man sitting on a ticking bomb, he holds his breath and waits. And… nothing happens.

06

Two hours later, the memes are all true, and when the edibles hit, it’s an ugly sight. Fash’s mouthful of ice cream leaves him unharmed — Awooga! — but Bobby and Biggins undergo what I’m informed is known as a well-bad whitey. Not laughing for the first time in his life, Biggins weakly begs for help, even sicker than he was when the driver inquired of little old England “do you you guys have bidets?” to the furious reply of “we invented them!” As a poor production assistant holds a plastic bag to catch the vomit of a sobbing Bobby George, a staggering, vacant Biggins, caked in sick, has to be helped into his deathbed. The morning after, with everyone shook, Bobby describes last light’s events as “100 sea-sicks at once.” It’s only lucky Fash didn’t overindulge too. Christ, they’d had to have rolled out the tanks to stop him.

07

But are there two hollower words than never again? Despite their near-death experiences, we follow the group through various hippie communes and grow factories, where everyone’s having a grand old time of it, with Bobby, Linda and Pam in particular puffing away like Cyprus Hill. Meanwhile. Fash is constantly fucking around on his phone, and in every scene of bus frivolity, can be seen in the corner, head down, fingers tapping away. Most likely, the sight of an ODing Biggins has him starting an online petition to make possession a hanging offence. But then he meets a little girl in a wheelchair, stricken by 1,000 seizures a day, until cannabis oil did what traditional medicine couldn’t, which opens his eyes to the benefits of medicinal marijuana, and leaves him in tears. Before we know what’s happening, they’re at a party in the Hollywood hills, and old Poo Poo Boy’s quaffing back a brownie. “What I don’t want,” he tells the chef, “is to take enough to put myself out of control.”

By morning, he’s shooting smack into the head of his penis with a dirty needle. No, don’t be silly. As the tour continues, we’re treated to more classic reality TV that’s so weird it sounds made up. Pat Butcher tags along to a SWAT raid on an illegal grow farm; Bobby George invites his mate Engelbert Humperdinck to a BBQ and mistakes ‘Bel Air’ for ‘bell-end’; Fash gets told off by a cop for picking up chemicals seized from a Mexican drug cartel. Then it’s off to the millionth weed farm, this time state-licensed, like moving up from Walt’s van to Gus’s underground lab.

08

Even on an industrial scale, it’s still run by a bloke with a massive ratty beard and man-bun of white-boy dreads. When they visit a farm foods superstore, it filled with edibles, bongs, pipes and t-shirts; a weed-bore paradise. The guy behind the counter wears a beanie and Spider-Man jacket, and every customer is a scruffy hipster with flesh-gauged ears and sleeve tattoos. I shouldn’t judge appearances, being that I resemble a back alley crack dealer from an episode of Diagnosis: Murder, but damn if everyone involved in the legal weed industry doesn’t look exactly like they’d be depicted by a conservative newspaper cartoonist.

The gang split into groups, with Fash, Linda and Bobby off to Denver’s International Church of Marijuana, an ornate building painted up like a Grateful Dead cover, where ‘services’ consists of a dozen unbearably tiresome stoners with Counting Crows hair and steampunk goggles on top hats, lazing on pews in camo getting blazed. By the time Pam and Biggins join a ‘mobile cannabis lounge’, filled with another background cast of gross unkempt beards, trucker hats, and flannel, huffing on custom bong rigs, I’m 18 again, listening to my friends go on and on and on about weed all the fucking time, and never wanting to do anything but hang out at creepy older men’s houses to smoke. This is when I realise. It’s me, isn’t it? It’s always been me. I’m the Poo Poo Boy.

09

There’s one final moment of television magic, when Fash gets a chance at clay pigeon shooting, excitedly decked out in hunting gear, but on realising it’s up a mountain, becomes too afraid to move within 20ft of the edge. Though his hands and feet may be deadly weapons, he cowers behind a production truck, literally clinging to it, while Linda merrily blasts away with a shotgun. Fash addresses one of the guides; “Brother, how can we fix this so I can have a go?” When told “you just gotta do like everybody else,” Fash replies, in classic nonsense-wisdom, “we’re not all born the same, brother.

10

The trip concludes with the celebrities taking a (not legally-binding) vote on whether weed should be legalised in the UK, with a unanimous yes for legalising on medical terms. Regarding recreational use, the only surprise on Bobby, Biggins and Linda raising their hands, is that they’re even able to, considering the Snoop Dogg amount of stuff they’ve been putting away the past few weeks. And for my vote? Having sat through hours of people in dirty hoodies smugly exhaling like they’ve just written the world’s greatest symphony, I’m all for bringing back full prohibition. If Christopher Biggins wants to use his I’m a Celebrity trophy as a bong, he can do it at an underground speakeasy like everyone else. “Millard, mate, that’s going a bit far,” you think. Is it? Soon after Gone To Pot finished shooting, Mr. Clean himself, John Fashanu ended up locked away in a Nigerian jail. Sure, it was for an alleged land sale scam, but I’ve seen the memes. ‘When the edible hits…‘ Think on, yeah?

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