One World Over – The Day that Davro Died

•June 24, 2018 • Leave a Comment

one world over

In this series of fictional pieces, we’ll look at the moments that almost happened, but didn’t. At least, not here. Take 30 seconds to familiarise yourself with how it went down in our reality, before we move one world over, on the day Bobby Davro was put in the stocks.

…comedian and entertainer Bobby Davro, who died today, at the age of 33.” Lionel Blair reached across to the remote and flicked off the TV. His wife had been watching from the door-frame, and padded across in her carpet slippers to sit beside him on the sofa.

“You can’t blame yourself, love,” she said.

“No, no… what a day though. Poor Bobby…”

“At least they weren’t specific. ‘An accident during the filming of a show,’ that’s all they said.” She gave him a loving pat on the thigh, while Lionel nodded. A small mercy indeed. That was the part of Bobby’s death that really hurt. Not that he was so young, or that he was a friend; it was the sheer… indignity of it all. As his showbiz career approached its fortieth year, Lionel found interviewers’ questions more frequently moving towards topics of retirement and mortality, and he was often asked how he’d like to go, if given the choice. “Dancing on the table during my hundredth birthday party” was his pat response. But Bobby, poor Bobby, he’d met his maker while trapped inside a BBC prop, falling face-first to a broken neck with his trousers down.

That had been Lionel’s doing; the trousers. It’s funny, isn’t it? The most British joke there is. A teacher or a priest, or a mayor cutting a ribbon, and then – a flash of falling cloth and a bare pair of legs, often accompanied by the sound of a slide-whistle. It’s funny because it robs the victim of their dignity. He’d done it on instinct, just leant over and gave them a tug, and down they came. Fifteen seconds later, Bobby was dead. Lionel had watched from a distance when the paramedics came in; though it was clear by then he was already gone; as they lifted him onto a stretcher and took him away. His trousers were still at half-mast, exposing a pair of white boxer shorts dotted with little red hearts. At that moment, Lionel had found himself picturing Elvis, old and fat, and keeling over while in the midst of a big shit.

“I’m going up to bed,” said Mrs. Blair, “you coming?”

“In a bit. I think I’ll just sit for a while.”

“Alright, love.”

When he was finally alone, Lionel put his head out into the hall and waited for the whir of the extractor fan on the landing, signalling his wife’s night-time bathroom routine. He quietly closed the living room door and moved into the centre of the room, opposite the large mirror that hung above the mantle, deliberately avoiding his own gaze. Lionel unbuckled his belt. He was still in good shape after all these years; a dancer’s legs, his wife would always say; which he accentuated with tight-fitting trousers. They didn’t start to come down until he unpopped the top three buttons of the fly, sliding past his knees and onto the floor. He held his arms out by his sides, crooked at the elbows, and hunching forwards slightly, as Bobby had. Then, he tried to move, just a little; a small rocking motion, like being bumped into on an escalator. Before he could stop himself from toppling, he was on the rug on his hands and knees.

“Bloody hell, Lionel,” he said, in a soft voice, “what have you done?”

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“We’re talking to Jim Bowen. Friend, colleague; Jim, what are your memories of Bobby?”

“He was such a great lad. Real family man. Could make anyone laugh, he really could. Drive you crazy sometimes when you were stuck in a dressing room with him pratting about, but that was magic in front of the lens, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything.”

That was the fifth interview Jim had done that morning. Or was it sixth? Some local radio stuff and a couple of the big papers. He’d said things about dead friends before; even about some who were still with us, for those obits they recorded years in advance for the stars who were really famous, or really old. Seemed daft to him, like an accident waiting to happen. Some poor bugger presses the wrong button and suddenly the whole world thinks the Queen Mother’s fallen off her perch. Jim remembered the time he reeled off a solemn anecdote about the sad passing of Frankie Howerd for Radio 4 while the very-much-alive Frankie was stood next to him at the bar, trying to put him off by miming a stiffy with a bottle of Cola. But he’d never done one that felt like this before. Poor Bobby.

The oldest cliché was true, and the show must go on, with Jim in the back of a taxi, on his way to another taping of Bullseye.

“Here,” asked the driver, meeting his passenger’s eyes in the mirror, “how’s old Cheggers taking it? Them two were mates weren’t they? Did he see it?”

“Oh, Keith? He’s alright. Yeah… he’s doing alright.” Keith wasn’t doing alright, not at all. Over a phone call they’d had last night, it was clear that Keith had taken it very hard, and was back on the bottle. He kept going on about that German footballer who broke his neck, but held it in place with his hands and finished the match. “You’re not supposed to move them, are you?” he’d said, then the line went quiet like he’d dropped the phone. Jim could hear him stumbling around in the background, and listened for a bit at Keith’s distant cries of distress, which were incoherent but for an alarmingly clear “why’d you have to touch him?!” followed by what sounded like an enormous bookcase crashing to the floor. He’d tried calling back later, to tell him he mustn’t blame himself. Things happen, and there’s no point dwelling on the whys. Laying awake at night won’t help you change the pa—

“Turn that shit off, will yer?!” yelled Jim, with a sudden volume that even made himself jump.

“Soz, mate,” said the driver, so startled that he didn’t just change channels from the Simon Mayo show playing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, but switched the radio off altogether. He drove in silence for a few minutes, before a voice came from the back seat.

“Sorry, son,” said Jim. His legs were shaking.

One World Jim small2

“Lovely speech by Les.”

“Beautiful, very moving, wouldn’t you say, Keith?” Keith was already looking unsteady, and scanning the room for a reason to excuse himself, as though he was worried anyone seeing the three of them stood in a group would piece it all together. They had this bond now; this unspoken connection, like survivors of a traumatic event. Except they weren’t survivors, thought Keith, they were perpetrators, as he pushed past Christopher Biggins towards the bar.

“Were you… with him when it happened?” asked Biggins.

“No,” said Jim, almost too quickly. “We were in the studio, but not with-him with him. Terrible business.”

“Quite,” said Biggins. “So young; such a loss. He was our Peter Sellers.” It’s then that their attention was grabbed by the sound of a glass smashing against the wooden floor at Chegwin’s feet, followed that automatic cheer that goes up in a pub whenever someone drops something — “Weeey!

“Yeah, yeah. Fuck off,” said Keith, altogether without humour, glaring down at the remains of a wasted pint. Jim exchanged a look with Biggins and made his way over, putting an arm around Keith.

“Keep it together, Cheggers, for God’s sake. Here are, look, it’s the entertainment.” Jim nodded towards the front of the room, where a TV was being wheeled in on a stand. Someone pressed play on the VCR, treating mourners to a selection of highlights from Bobby Davro’s career. Don’t mourn the death, they always say, but celebrate the life. And what a life. There he was, impersonating Freddie Starr’s impersonation of Hitler, and as Sean Connery running a car wash, and at the Children’s Royal Variety show, in a Thunderbirds sketch with Billy Pearce.

But Keith couldn’t take his eyes off Bobby’s widow, who was firing off machine-gun laughs between hysterical, anguished wails, which reminded him of the time he’d had a sneezing fit while vomiting.

“Poor lass. I don’t know how the pair of you have got the nerve to stand here and watch that.”

“You’re the one who moved him, Keith,” said Lionel. “Broken neck, and you just heaved him straight up off the floor.”

“Well, you pulled his fucking kecks down. How’s he supposed to balance with his trousers round his ankles?”

“At least I didn’t start can-canning,” said Lionel. “That’s what made the pedestal wobble. What a moment for Jim Bowen to audition for the Folies Bergère…”

Will you keep it down?” said an angry Russ Abbot, through a teeth-gnashed stage whisper, “this is a bloody wake. Take it outside if you can’t behave yourselves.”

“I can’t go on like this,” said Keith, with the three of them now sat on patio chairs in the beer garden, beneath a light drizzle. “Funerals are supposed to help you move on, but where’s the peace of mind after something like this?”

“You know I’m doing Run For Your Wife at the Chichester Festival?” said Lionel. “I heard the understudies talking about how Bobby had died.” He adopted a gutter voice, imaginary roll-up pinched between two fingers – “’I heard he slipped on dog muck and cracked his head open. What a way to go!‘ Not saying how it happened makes it even worse. People’s imaginations run wild.”

“Worse than what did happen?! And what might that be?” said Keith.

“Everyone thinking he died having a wank or summat.” said Jim. At this, Keith stood up and kicked over his chair, his face wet with tears.

“What do you want us to do, tell everyone we murdered him?”

“Steady on,” said Jim. “I’ve got an idea.”

keith

Even irregardless of what happened there, there was always something eerie about an empty studio. Robbed of their usual life and laughter and bustle, they revealed themselves as vast, brutalist spaces, with echoing footsteps and darkened edges, particularly when you’d snuck in at 1am after bribing a security guard with autographs.

“Have you got it?”

“What do you think this is,” said Jim, “box of bloody Coco Pops?” He reached into the carrier bag and pulled out a Ouija board. It was wooden and vintage, borrowed from a magician friend, with its surface wearing the scuff marks of many uses. “Bugger. Forgot to bring a glass.”

“Here,” said Keith, pulling a shot glass out of his pocket.

“Figures,” muttered Lionel.

“Alright,” said Jim, “this is the spot where he died, isn’t it? I think it were right here.” He looked out into the darkness, where row upon row of empty seats faced the trio like an audience of ghosts. “Let’s get on with it.” He turned the glass upside down and placed it on the board, touching the point of his finger on the bottom of the glass and motioning for the others to do the same. Keith’s finger was noticeably trembling.

“Is there anybody there?” Nothing. Just the silence of the studio. He asked again, this time louder, playing to the cheap seats. “Is there anybody there? Anyone who’d like to make contact?” Again, all was still. And then, the glass began to move, sliding slowly across the board to the word–

YES

“Can you give us a name?”

BO

The glass stopped for a moment.

“Maybe it’s a different ghost telling us we stink,” said Lionel.

BBY.

“It’s him,” said Keith, “it’s Bobby!”

“Aye,” said Jim.

“Oh, Bobby,” wailed Keith, “can you ever forgive me? I wasn’t thinking, I just wanted to help. It all happened so fast, and maybe if I’d let the St Johns deal with it, you’d still be with us. I’m so sorry. We’re all sorry, aren’t we, lads?”

“Very sorry,” said Lionel. “Sorry for pulling your trousers down. Jim? Do you want to apologise?”

“Of course. Bob, I’m really— ey up, fellas, he’s on the move again.” And it was; the glass moving faster now, sliding from letter to letter with precision, like it really had something to say.

NOTHING TO FOGRIVE

There was a collective sigh, like the lifting of a crushing weight that finally allowed them all to breathe.

“You have to close it down, or he’ll be stuck here,” said Keith, “I read it in a book. I don’t think he’d want to trapped as a poltergeist at Going Live for the rest of eternity.”

“We’ll say ta-ra now then, Bob. All the best. See you again someday, I hope.” The glass slid to GOODBYE, and then whatever life had been within it was gone.

“He’ll be getting off with Marilyn up there now, eh?” said Lionel, looking up at Keith, who was using his sleeves to dry his face.

“I need a fag. You guys coming?”

“Be with you in a bit, Cheggers.” They listened to the tap of his shoes across the floor of the empty studio towards the exit, until he was gone.

Fogrive. Bloody hell, Jim.”

“I’m a comedian, not an English teacher.” Suddenly, Jim shivered. “Cold breeze went right up my back. Come on, let’s be on our way.” As the two of them headed out of the studio, carrier bag swinging gently with each step, perhaps just to fill the silence, Jim found himself whistling.

Always Look on the Bright Side…

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Turd of Paradise – Hulk Hogan Does Indiana Jones on the Beach

•June 16, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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Imagine Knight Rider, but instead of David Hasselhoff, it’s Hulk Hogan, and instead of a car, it’s a boat. Cars drive on roads; boring concrete roads where there are hardly any boobs or butts; but boats live on the water, which is where you find women in bikinis. With boobs and butts. That’s clearly the entire thinking behind Thunder in Paradise, from the tit-obsessed minds behind Baywatch. Running for one full season and an interactive videogame, Thunder began as a feature-length pilot, released straight-to-video in September 93, and airing on TV the following March, which is what I’ll be dissecting here.

Should you doubt the relationship between Thunder in Paradise and Baywatch, the opening shot features a swimsuited woman with 90’s TV nipples rubbing herself between the breasts on a boat. The camera pans to another woman’s arse, and then a third lady’s legs and boobs. In a bit stolen from Jurassic Park, marking the approach of something big, their cocktails start vibrating, which I’m pretty sure is not how water works. More exciting than a T Rex, it’s the eponymous hi-tech boat, with its name written on the side in cool graffiti font, accompanied by the rock-wail of its entrance music — “Thunder!

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This introductory sequence demands to be broken down, second by exhilarating second. A black speedboat tears along the water. At the wheel; Hulk Hogan, in a SEAL TEAM baseball cap and eyepatch. A singer howls, undoubtedly with his eyes closed, fists clenched, and endless American flags emerging from his penis like a magician’s handkerchiefs. “Thunder in paradise. Lightning striking twice! Mess with Thunder, and you pay the price!” Hulk’s sidekick, Jack Lemmon’s son, checks that his revolver’s loaded. The word THUNDER slams onto the screen, explodes, and then is struck by lightning. It’s almost too much to bear. “Thunder in paradise. Some sacrifice. Mess with Thunder, paaaaay the price! Yeah!” Hogan’s weird curtain of white-blond doll-hair flaps hypnotically in the wind. “Never had a night like this. Been kissed by a hurricane!” It ends on such a crescendo of excitement, even the singer loses his senses, rhyming “paradise” with “sails blazing in the sun!” Speedboats don’t have sails, but who cares?! Thunder!

Such a thrilling opening leaves Thunder in Paradise a lot to live up to. First good sign, is that we have the classic ‘fighty lug/goofy sidekick’ buddy pairing. Hulk is again credited as Terry “Hulk” Hogan, and gifts us one of the all-time great character names in Randolph J. ‘Hurricane’ Spencer. Chris Lemmon’s character is called Bru, which is one letter away from Bro, but may also take itself from the name of Hulk’s real life bestie, Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake. Beefcake, incidentally, also features in this show. We know Hulk and Bru are bffs, because they have a special handshake. Where does this rank in the TV bro handshakes pantheon? Well, striking forearm to forearm, like a Nam Sgt telling his troops to halt, then raising a thumb of “okay!”, I’d put it above Will and Jazz’s “psssh!” from Fresh Prince, but below Zack Morris and A.C. Slater’s ‘handshake into broshake, out into finger-snap and pistol-point’.

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It’s in this first scene that we’re properly introduced to the boat. Thunder was Hulk’s design, built out of his own pocket so he could pitch it to the Navy. When they go below deck, it’s around twenty times bigger than the actual boat, literally just a huge square room, with that classic 90’s hi-tech computer lab design. There are banks of switches, dials, and buttons for tech-hacker Bru to prod; arrays of CRT screens with various readouts; compartments of guns and a retractable rocket launcher. Occasionally it speaks in a robot voice, and even has a hidden jet ski called Trigger, which rides around on its own looking for its master.

Like all good action films — which this is not — we begin with a mini pre-adventure, which is far from the last time the Indiana Jones films are… referenced by TiP. As in every scene, because it’s the nineties, squealing guitar signals Thunder’s approach to Cuba, where Bru and Hulk rescue some guy named Pong’s family from “angry, die-hard communists,” before Castro can snatch them up as prisoners. Cut to: PUERTO MANATI, CUBA; a real place, but represented here as every third-world South American movie setting ever, with loose chickens and goats running between people pushing wooden carts of fruit, while sleazy-looking militia loiter with rifles. Before setting out, Hulk gorges on a plate of plain, microwaved rice to get some “complex carbs,” and with good reason. He’s riding a jet-ski; he’s hitting five guys at once with a tree trunk; he’s destroying a jetty with his bare hands, sending bad guys flying into the water. And if you like people flipping into the water in slow motion, Thunder in Paradise is the show for you, taking its action beats from The A-Team, where baddies jump out of the way just as their vehicle explodes, so we know they didn’t die, and thousands of rounds of gunfire hit nothing but sandbags and walls. When they break out Thunder’s gatling gun, the enemies hold their hands over their ears, like its deadliest function is being really loud.

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But it’s not all bang-bang bullishness, as much of the Cuban minisode is a ludicrous stealth mission, where a 6’5” man with orange skin and an eyepatch scuttles around on rooftops, with “I’m sneaking!” movements like he’s looking for somewhere to empty his hot diarrhea. Eventually, he drops into the bad guys’ jeep, banging their heads together like a PE teacher, rescues Pong’s family, and Thunder makes its escape, with stock footage gunships on its tail. It’s here that Thunder in Paradise diverts from its action pretensions to become something else entirely. Something horrifying. But first, I want to talk to you about Hulk Hogan’s manky eye.

From the very first scene, Hulk’s character is wearing an eyepatch. An interesting character choice, you think, nicely alluding to some deeper piece of of backstory. Perhaps he lost it in a previous mission, gored out by a swordfish, or some kind of autofellatio incident during a big wave? But on returning from Cuba, he’s in sunglasses, and people are asking “how’s the eye?” There’s vague talk of a “Kowalski” being at fault, but then he’s back to the patch again, and we’ve still not seen what’s behind it. Now there’s a sense of mystery, like singer Gabrielle, whose TOTP appearances cued distracting thoughts of her eyepatch lifting to shoot laser beams, or reveal a nesting field-mouse. When Hulk meets with this Kowalski — played by Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart — and finally shows us his eye, I immediately recognise it as the black eye from Wrestlemania IX, as mentioned in my previous piece.

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In wrestling lore, this is a famous wound, worn by Hogan as he tagged with Brutus Beefcake — seen arm-wrestling Neidhart in this scene — and said variously to be the result of, in storyline, an attack by Ted DiBiase’s goons; in an official statement, a jet ski accident; and in gossip, the result of being punched by Randy Savage. Whatever the truth behind the Wrestlemania injury, Thunder in Paradise started shooting eight days later, forcing hilarious rewrites where Hulk spent most of movie in sunglasses or an eyepatch, and one of his wrestler buddies had to be drafted in for an extra scene to explain it away. A continuity nightmare, it switches between looking pretty normal and completely grotesque from scene to scene; sometimes in the same scene, where you forget all about it, then suddenly — yeech, he’s got a leaky red egg in his eyehole. But I guess that was better than, I dunno, taking two seconds to film him getting injured in the opening scene, and keeping it covered up until the very end?

Okay, I can’t put it off any longer, let’s return to the plot, beginning with a long establishing montage of the Paradise Beach hotel resort, as Patrick Macnee steps out of a white limo and takes it all in. It’s the basic stuff I see on any given day at Littlehampton seafront; women in bikinis running in slow-mo under stock Calypso music; open-mouthed surf dudes drooling over a barmaid tying a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue; Jimmy Hart presiding over an arm wrestling contest between Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake and Hercules Hernandez. What’s Macnee doing here? Well, the hotel/resort was built by “his step-brother’s family,” and having recently died, everything will be going to him, unless his niece, Megan, can fulfil a clause in the will. The clause that she gets married. Within the next 48 hours. And she’s got an antagonistic relationship with Hulk Hogan (though he gets on great with her little girl). Fucking hell. Though it’s not revealed for a while, just the word ‘clause’ had me writing “I hope she’s not got to marry Hulk to keep the hotel” in my notes. Spoilers, she does, and as Evil Uncle Patrick Macnee plans to sell off the hotel to a corporate chain, I’ve been bait-and-switched from action movie into yet another evil property developer plot. But worse, this whole thing is another attempt to sell Hogan as a romantic lead, dragging me down into romcom purgatory.

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As with the love story in No Holds Barred, the only way for an audience to buy romantic interest in such a freakish oaf is via the combative battle of the sexes trope, where intense irritation eventually turns to love. In the pair’s first scene together, Megan screeches at Hulk that he’s “the most reckless, irresponsible, juvenile delinquent of a man I have ever met in my entire life,” in a fine example of the opposites attract rule, where the more adjectives used in the insult, the harder she’ll eventually fall for him. Though in this specific case, those opposites are a gorgeous twenty-something model-type, and a haggered middle-aged maniac with a pus-filled eye, urine-coloured hairline that starts an inch from the back of his neck, and wearing snakeskin boots and a pair of tasselled leather chaps that read BAD TO THE BONE across the arse.

Despite the friction, it turns out Hulk’s in massive debt from building Thunder, which is about to be repossessed, so he agrees to a mutually beneficial marriage. Megan gets to keep the hotel, he gets to keep his magic boat. Plus, he’s great mates with her young daughter. In fact, the scenes with Hulk and the kid are his best acting performances by a mile. The wrestling character of Hulk Hogan is all about the little Hulkamaniacs, and the man himself is great with children. Somewhere out there in the multiverse, along with the world where Jeff Goldblum played Kramer, is a reality where Hogan was cast as the lead in Kindergarten Cop. Such friends are Spencer and the kid, that he gives her a necklace pulled from the guts of a shark and takes her parasailing; the latter giving us some fantastic Hulk Hogan ADR, with “whoooa!” and “ho hoo!” noises, in a scene which is shot entirely in close-up, clearly 6 inches off the ground. Though I imagine this was a rough watch for Brutus Beefcake at the première party, having genuinely had his face caved in via near-fatal parasailing accident a few years prior.

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After a scene where Hulk practises various intonations of “I love you” to make it sound believable — which is like a window into all of his line readings — the wedding day is upon us. The bride looks resplendent in her dress, as does the groom in his blue bandana. The ceremony appears to have been filmed in the middle of a tornado, with crazy Florida winds battering the shrubbery, wedding flowers, and all that big 90’s hair and clothes, while everyone acts like it’s not windy at all. Seriously, they can barely stay on their feet, with Megan almost taking off into the sky as she’s walking the aisle, and as the happy couple join hands, they have to pretend like her 4-feet veil’s not thrashing around like a wild snake, right into Hulk’s face. Though I’ll never marry, certain elements here are exactly what I’d hope to incorporate into my own big day; namely, the Monkey Island-sounding music, and the groomsmen of Brutus Beefcake and Jimmy Hart, in his classic pink jacket with piano key lapels. They bicker during the vows when Megan blackmails him into handing over 51% ownership of Thunder, and Patrick Macnee stands to declare the marriage “a deception and a fraud,” but seal the deal anyway. Then Brutus Beefcake cries and loudly blows his nose. Another one for my wedding dream board.

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After the knot-tying, Thunder in Paradise really hoists its flag as Chucklevision Indiana Jones. We’ve previously been introduced to a skeezy gang of gunrunners, each with that classic 80s/early 90s militia look; all headbands, vests and combat pants; a swarthy league of undefined third-world nations. Also, because Hogan’s WWF mates are all in this, 7’7” Giant Gonzalez is their head muscle. When the lead baddie recognises the necklace Hulk gave his new step-daughter — as once described to him by a convict! — as “the key to a fortune,” he shows up at the wedding to snatch it right off the little girl’s neck. Hulk runs them off, and spends his wedding night smoking cigars and piecing together the necklace into a treasure map of nearby islands. In exposition, we learn the necklace was made by a convict called Andrew ‘The Gimp’ Gilmore, perpetrator of a $3m heist — presumably the cum-soaked leather mask hid his face from the security cam — and the prime suspect in over a dozen unsolved robberies. They figure he stashed all his loot on the islands, which they now have the map to retrieve.

Okay, so a mere two days ago, a shirtless Hulk was pensively staring out at the water because he owed $100k to the bank and was about to lose everything, while Megan was fretting over her uncle selling off the hotel. That would have given the treasure hunt some dramatic tension. Instead, they got married, instantly solving both their problems, and leaving us to enjoy more pointless and excretable photocopies of far-better sequences from Temple of Doom. Where No Holds Barred gave us ‘Hulk Hogan at the Pankot Palace,’ Thunder in Paradise presents the full Willie Scott, as clumsy, scaredy-cat Megan gets wrapped in cobwebs, screams at snakes, and almost breaks a nail, until Hulk’s forced to carry her over his shoulder, like Richard Branson with a nineteen-year-old model whose smile doesn’t reach her eyes. It’s almost as if she wasn’t listening when he banned her from “backtalk.

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If you’re keeping score, we’ve got the opposites attract marriage plot, evil gunrunners, and a necklace leading to hidden treasure. There’s so much going on, and yet, nothing is happening. Really, I’m making this sound a thousand times more interesting than it actually is. During its 104 minute running time, I had to constantly rewind after getting distracted by more enjoyable pursuits, such as smashing my dick up with a hammer. After what seems like fifty years, they finally reach the treasure, when Hulk lifts a big polystyrene rock to reveal a Goonies-style underground grotto, and a hidden cache of gold coins. But of course, the gunrunners have followed them, and after kidnapping the little girl and the barmaid, they have Hulk and co send up the gold, before closing off the entrance with the rock and trapping them down there, you know, like the snake pit in Raiders.

There follows another example of Thunder’s childlike approach, down there in its plastic, glowing cavern covered in Halloween cobwebs. After the earlier ingestion of microwaved rice because it’s “rocket fuel for your body!”, Hulk, now in tiny speedos, makes a big deal of breathing in and out real deeply, with Bru informing us “he’s oxygenating his blood.” Perhaps that’s how he managed to hold his breath for about a decade while searching for an underwater exit. Once he sees it, after literally minutes down there, rather than surface and take a breath, he turns straight round and swims all the way back, almost drowning in the process. By the way, if you think his hair looks gross dry, it’s even more disgusting wet, like 3D-printed piss. The three of them swim out through the underground chamber, keeping some spare air in a bag that Megan sticks her head into occasionally, ending an interminable six minutes of slow, silent, underwater swim footage by surfacing inside Thunder, which is being towed behind the bad guy’s boat.

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Preparing for his first real action sequence since the opening ten minutes, and readying to rescue his new daughter from her murderous captors, Hulk takes the time to paint his face in an intricate warpaint design. He’s practically invisible, sneaking around the enemies’ big white boat, an orange giant in black shorts and jungle camouflage. He’s even tied his wet ‘hair’ into a vile little ponytail. The goons quickly succumb to more A-Team non-violence; sleeperholds, going overboard in slow motion; at one point, Hulk pulls out a massive Rambo knife, but it’s kicked out of his hand by some ninja guy before he can core out anyone’s anus with it. Said ninja does a flippy Kung Fu demonstration before Hulk wearily KOs him with a single punch, like, say, the sword guy in Raiders.

Hulk is captured, and ordered to be chained up and fed to the sharks, along with the little girl and the barmaid, leading to some of that great, cheek-wobbling Angry Wrestler acting. Earlier, Hulk told an anecdote about being locked inside a shark tank and literally tearing one in half with his bare hands, so it seemed like the set-up for some final act Lucio Fulci-style shark-wrestling. No. Even though this is happening way out to sea, they hit the bottom right away, in crystal-clear daylight waters, quite obviously laying on the bottom of a swimming pool, where you can see the reflection of the waves right above. Hulk breaks loose and rescues them, with zero sharks to be seen, though there are plenty of shots of Megan pacing thunder’s lab in a bikini, as though some brave viewer’s risking a wank, knowing at any moment they’ll cut back to Hulk Hogan, writhing around in speedos with a face like an old tyre. So, everyone gets free, Bru gets his kiss from the barmaid, and Thunder speeds away, chased by a huge missile. Hulk steers the missile back to the baddies’ boat, where each goon is shown individually leaping overboard to safety before it hits, so the little Hulkamaniacs can see nobody died. Little do they know, they’ve far, far worse in store before this is over. Also, it’s clear from the rockets firing out during the explosion that production beefed it up by putting actual fireworks in there. Unfortunately, the treasure got ‘sploded too. “There’s always another day in paradise,” says Hulk.

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But before paradise, comes Hell. While great lengths were taken to render its action as violent as your grandad tapping you on the shoulder to get your attention during Sunday lunch, Thunder‘s final scene proves they have no such qualms when it comes to sex. Nothing is more appalling than the sexualizing of the Hulkster, and an earlier scene showed Horny Hogan going off with a bikini woman who offered to go fuck him behind the dunes — “Lead the way!” — painting abhorrent mental pictures of how a man who emotes entirely through sweat-drenched, primal grunting behaves when he’s pumping away with his willy. But now we get to see it live, in a hard cut to a seemingly naked Hulk, laying in bed, surrounded by candles. He puts on some sex music, as Megan emerges from the bathroom in lingerie, causing him to accidentally pop a champagne cork like he’s just cum.

This begins what’s best described as the pair of them squirm-cuddling, in an alien’s idea of what sex entails. Hulk’s dubbing is truly sensational here, genuinely making that “mmmm” noise typed by Twitter sex pests when commenting on the “busty displays” of Scottish weather presenters. His erotic moans and pig-like grunts suggest the kind of sexual agonies depicted in Hellraiser; like he’s been in prison for 30 years and suddenly let loose on a fleshlight. Aside from scrawling “I’ll never become erect again,” my initial notes during this scene were “wonder if Macnee’s watching through the keyhole?” Before the biro was dry, we pan up to a hidden camera in an air-vent, and Patrick Macnee watching his niece have sex with Hulk Hogan on a monitor, in a spooky prediction of what ended up bringing down Gawker. Though unlike the real tape, at least this one doesn’t start with Hogan slapping his tummy and complaining of bellyache from eating too much Chinese food. But as it turns out, it’s all a ruse. If Macnee doesn’t buy that they’re in love, she’ll lose the hotel, so they’re trying to make it look real, knowing that he’s watching. Honestly, no television audience has ever believed Hulk Hogan’s felt an emotion besides ‘has just done cocaine’, so their chances aren’t good. We end this most PG of TV movies with Hogan vigorously thrusting under the sheets, before making a noise like he’s ejaculating so hard, his helmet’s shot off across the room like Boba Fett’s rocket.

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As thin and tedious as the actual plots within, Thunder in Paradise contains enough outright weirdness, combined with the cardboard sets and Hulk’s roundly awful acting — he has the emotional range of an old BMX at the bottom of a lake — to fit into the watchably shitty category. If nothing else, enjoy its take on Women in Love‘s scene by the fire, where a depressed Hulk gets snapped out of his funk thanks to a bro-fight with Bru, throwing karate poses and choking each other while laughing hysterically; made all the better by Chris Lemmon’s close physical resemblance to his legendary father. Unfortunately, there are enough elements to make me curious enough to return to the full series, which ran for another twenty episodes. Megan is only credited for the first episode, while Hulk’s character is described as “a widower,” meaning I’ll have to track it down for some great grieving scenes; while the show was such an artistic travesty, ‘Bru’ Lemmon blames it for the subsequent and immediate death of his acting career.

This is from my new Patreon, where subscribers could read this 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, including more in-depth looks at Hulk Hogan’s ‘acting’, like this piece about No Holds Barred and Zeus, or the time he joined his WCW chums on Baywatch.

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Past Laugh Regression: Part Three – Bobby Davro

•June 6, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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Part One is here. Part Two is here.

It was inevitable in writing this series that I’d end up covering Davro, king of the eighties; our Eddie Murphy. While many of the comedy faces from that era were double-acts, Bobby Davro walked alone, and those two words were more than just a name; they were a brand. In Bobby Davro On the Box, Bobby Davro’s TV Weekly, Davro’s Sketch Pad, the titular Davro, and finally, Bobby Davro’s Rock With Laughter, he was fronting solo series on ITV for seven years. Imagine the extraordinary combination of prodigious talent and prolific output that must have garnered such a consistent and long-running amount of prime television time. No seriously, you will have to imagine it.

Sadly, nothing from the height of his popularity, nor Rock With Laughter, has made its way online, so I devoted precious time I could have spent skipping through a meadow or searching Web MD for ‘phimosis’ to watching episodes from 1989’s Sketch Pad, and 1991’s Davro. They’re best discussed together, as they’re essentially the exact same format, even sharing their title music. Unless Bobby Davro has his own theme like a WWE wrestler, which plays every time he enters a room to do a shit Robin Williams. The opening credits of neither bode well, with Davro‘s depicting him dressing in the guises of other, funnier comedians; Dame Edna, Julian Clary, Harry Enfield’s Stavros, Ray Alan and Lord Charles; while the title sequence of Sketch Pad contains a still of Davro dressed as Hitler in the literal opening frame, setting a new “there’s Hitler!” record of 0 seconds.

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Almost immediately, two things become manifestly clear. Bobby Davro can’t do accents, and rather crucially for a comedy impressionist, Bobby Davro can’t do impressions. Possibly the biggest television comedy star of the period, a modern rewatch reveals the people of the eighties to be trapped beneath the glamour of a fairy’s spell, laughing at performances on the level of your dad, who’s forgotten his glasses, reading a Christmas cracker joke. There’s no point pretending I didn’t go into this expecting it to be a bit naff, because that’s where the writer’s comic mileage is, but I’m continually floored by how desperately unfunny it all is. When going back over what I scribbled as I’d been watching, halfway through I found a suicide note. Alright, let’s hold our noses and dive in.

Sketch Pad‘s linking device shows an animated Davro channel-surfing on the remote, which was a thing back then, with four glorious analogue channels of content, and sets out its format-stall as ‘quick-fire’ comedy, one of those phrases — like “sideways look at the news” — which turns my stomach. Consequently, we’re taken on a tour of all the perfunctory sketch show settings; a shop, a doctor’s surgery, a hospital, with a weak opening joke where Davro’s roadside assistance man uses a hammer to smash the window of a car with its keys locked inside. Davro meanwhile, opens with a monologue, like he’s Jay Leno. Also like Jay Leno, the jokes are atrocious, with winners like “our local cinema’s so small, the choc ice lady comes round on her hands and knees,” — jokes that make you want to drag the audience out in the street and beat them until they can explain why they were laughing. Not that they’re killing themselves, offering only slipshod chuckles, rather than the crazed reaction of his Copy Cats clowning only 3 years earlier. Did his star burn out in those intervening years? What clues could be found in the lost Davro On the Box episodes? Presumably it contains material so sensational we’d be sent mad if we saw it, leading him no choice but to tone it down here, for the safety of his audience.

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The first impersonation is Julian Clary, back in his glam PVC days, working in a shop, because of course he is, in a classic example of “here’s a funny thing you like, but less good,” before cutting to a sketch where John Cleese is a doctor. I genuinely didn’t realise who he was supposed to be until he began jumping around saying “Right! Right!”, and I could do a better Cleese while I was being kicked to death. Oddly, the whole sketch is a comment on rising doctors’ fees under the looming threat of NHS privatisation, with Dr. Cleese taking every bit of money the patient has, to upgrade him from “dead” to “in perfect health.” The last thing I expected was Woke Bae Bobby, but this is the Davro of Thatcher’s Britain, and there’s a later skit with doctors frantically rushing a bed through the corridor, eventually right through the exit, telling the patient not to come back until they can pay. Things take an even further agitprop bent in another sketch, when passers-by administer first aid to an unconscious woman in the street, before realising it’s much-loathed Tory health minister Edwina Currie, and immediately deciding to lynch her.

But it can’t all be kicking against the pigs, though we do kick against the hippo and the whatever the fuck Zippy is supposed to be, with a Rainbow parody, where Davro’s market-stall knock-off puppets trade rude nursery rhymes, like a Pontins Andrew Dice Clay. It’s all top stuff, such as “Mary had a little lamb…” “That must have been a surprise to the midwife!” Curiously, they also use this one: “Mary had a little lamb, she tied it to a pylon, 10,000 volts went up its bum and turned its wool to nylon!” Now, that was a regular around the playground when I was a lad. Did we get it from this, or was Davro using popular schoolboy jokes on TV? I suppose it’s nothing the cast of The Comedians didn’t do in the 70’s, appropriating well-worn pub gags, but if he starts harping on about his friend Billy getting hit with a rake, I’m suggesting a class-action lawsuit for lost royalties. The frightening Bungle who arrives to end the sketch has a gigantic head on top of a much smaller body, giving him the look of an emaciated prisoner, chained by Zippy inside the mysterious shed Rod, Jane and Freddy aren’t allowed to go near.

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Also baffling, also frightening, is the parody of TV show Beauty and the Beast, with Davro in the Ron Perlman role, which you’d think is a great excuse for some silly monster costuming. Not so. The make-up is genuinely decent and expensive looking, with a horrifying half-lion, half-Bobby Davro that looks like that weird little ginger gremlin in the Masters of the Universe film. Not worth the hours in the make-up chair, it’s an excuse for bad Tommy Coopers and jokes about other man/animal hybrids, like “Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid… Michael Fish,” before Davro comes crashing through the wall dressed as Eddie The Eagle.

As is the point of impressionism, much of the show is taken up with “what if X were to do Y?!” scenarios, that really highlight how absolutely god-awful Davro is at doing other people. There’s Claire Rayner, making innuendos about “big ones” in a monstrously oversized fat suit, and flashing her big knickers as she tries to cross her legs; there’s Barry Norman, unrecognisable but for his false-catchphrase of “and why not?” which also crops up with Michael Caine’s “not a lot of people know that.” Not that we don’t need these cues, as the dire quality of these impressions is legitimately shocking; each about 95% Davro and 5% whoever it’s supposed to be, and all so thin and lazy, after the first line, he ends up doing the rest of the joke in his own voice. Something which really stands out is that he clearly can’t do an American accent, at all, (or indeed, any accents) which is a problem when half his take-offs are American film stars, so the majority of the skits end up as a bloke saying stuff in a home counties voice. And of course, every character has to be introduced before they speak, or do the old “my name’s…”, or you’d never figure out who it was supposed to be.

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Even when it couldn’t be more clear who he’s being, as when wearing a Spurs kit and saying “why-aye” in a Geordie accent, at the absolute A-List height of Gazza’s fame, he has so little confidence in his own ability that he can’t refrain from the opener “Gazza’s the name and footie’s me game!” Sadly for me, the Gazza sketch went on for ages, with Davro in shorts so small that I’m pretty sure I spent five minutes staring at a little bit of bollock.

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Let me ask you something. What’s your nightmare of a shite impressionist? I’d wager it’s this: “Look over there, it’s Sean Connery — my namesh Bond, Jamesh Bond…” This actually happens. Go on, Bobby, throw in Frank Spencer while you’re at it. Honestly if you have to introduce your Sean Connery impression with “Hi, I’m Sean Connery” on the two separate times you do him in the same show, you should probably get a job on the bins. It’s Sean Connery, for fucks sake; people’s nans can do that. The skit, Sean Connery’s Guide to Acting, is based on Sean’s inability to do different accents, which is like if I’d written a piece mocking someone for spending years on a Charles Manson novel that sold really badly. Davro has him using the Connery voice, regardless of the nationality he’s playing (“The name’s Bond, Yuri Bond” as a Russian and so on), leading to a sharp intake of breath when Chinese comes up. Cut to Davro as Connery, with a lampshade hat on his head, plinky-plonky Oriental riff, eyes squinting and hands clasped together in an “ah-so!

A segment that really underpins his fundamental weakness has Davro dressed in army fatigues and headphones, and standing in front of an American flag to yell “Good Morning Vietnam!” Trying to do Robin Williams’ 100mph hurricane of jokes and voices is like doing an impression of Geoff Capes by attempting to lift a real 800lb barbell. With material like this — “What’s black and white and got three eyes?” “Sammy Davis Jr and his wife.” — an over-lifting Davro puts his metaphorical back out. Throughout both shows, he’s just dreadful, with terrible impressions, and material that’s the Simpsons Mr. T + ET = Mr. ET, “I pity the fool that don’t phone home” bad stand-up, but for real. It’s no exaggeration to say his Dustin Hoffman as Rainman wouldn’t get a laugh from your mates in the pub, and his act as a whole is on the level of the “let’s laugh at mentals” sections on Britain’s Got Talent. There’s nothing there. No merit. No skill. No laughs.

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Impressions aside, both shows are crammed with pre-taped sketches that don’t fit at all, other than they also aren’t funny. Isaac Newton gets a load of apples crashing on his head, which spell out ‘GRAVITY IDIOT’ when they land. There’s the funeral of a bobsledder who’s slalomed into the hole, complete with cameo from Ainsley Harriott, a regular Davro background player. Harriott appears again as Man Friday to Davro’s Robinson Crusoe, carrying Davro on his back with a questionable “yea mon!” accent. But the absolute nadir is a pub-set sketch, which clearly had pretensions of that great Two Ronnies wordplay. Just look at this absolute toilet of a script.

Davro’s Mate: “I’m browned off. Everything looks a bit black.

Davro: “It’s browning you off, is it? Everything looking black?

Davro’s mate: “Yeah, I s’pose so, if you wanna put it in black and white.

Davro: “S’pose that makes you blue, don’t it? You know, everything looking black and you being browned off?

And on and on it goes; “but last week, you were in the pink” — “I was in the pink. I was in a bit of a purple patch,” just naming colours for endless minutes as the audience laughs like they’re witnessing actual jokes. But this; all of this; is just the prelude to an extraordinary pair of set pieces, both as baffling and aberrant as the other. I’ve made no secret of how much of a struggle this has been to get through, but I need you to believe me that this segment isn’t a boredom induced autoerotic-asphyxiation death-vision, or wildly exaggerated for that sweet Patreon buck. This is real, and I saw it with my own eyes.

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We open on Victorian London, with Russell Brand-voiced prostitutes squawking that “these streets ain’t safe!” Bobby Davro suddenly rears up out of an alleyway, dressed like a magician, and breaks out into a rap. He’s Jack the Rapper, see? As we know when comedians do raps, the word ‘rap’ or ‘rapping’ will 100% make an appearance within the first two lines. What do we reckon, “I’m Jacky Rip, and I’m here to say, gonna rap about killin’, in a London way” — something like that? Let’s see…

Well you heard of me, well you must’ve done,

when it comes to rappin’, I’m the number one!

Ah yes. Yes, yes, yes. Clearly with his finger on the b-boy pulse — “gonna party down, gonna groove ya hot” — what follows by ITV’s great bard is a full-blown Jack the Ripper rap and dance number, with back-up dancers, location shoots, and lyrics such as:

I slay ’em here and I slay ’em there,

with a dance that makes even Fred a-stare!

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During an excruciatingly long dance sequence, one of the prostitutes gets a few verses in:

well I ‘eard of you, and it ain’t a lie,

when it comes to rap, you’re the only guy,

but you cut a throat when you cut a rug,

so I’m getting out cos I ain’t a mug!

It’s then that Davro appears as, well…

I’m Sherlock H, out of Baker Street,

and I’m getting down to the hip-hop beat!

Is this canon?! I never thought I’d see a body-popping Sherlock Holmes played by Bobby Davro pointing a gun at Jack the Ripper, also Davro, but here we are. For a sketch show, it’s quite admirable in scale, with a lot going on, especially in having to cut between the two Davro roles, when Jack pulls out a ghetto blaster for a big dance-off between the Davros, the prostitutes, and the rozzers. Even so, having to watch it was worse than what Jack’s real victims went through. There should be a tableaux in London Dungeon of me sat in front of it, with frightened tourists listening to the howls of unimaginable agony from my waxwork as they echo down the corridor. When I saw the final minute was just credits, I wept with relief.

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The other big finish takes us, via a Rapido parody of all things, to “the new video from New Whimps (sic) on the Block.” A NKOTB parody, it’s probably easiest if I just describe what I’m seeing. Davro sits next to a girl, serenading her. “I really like the older woman, and you’re nearly 17,” he sings, as she then sucks on her thumb. Then comes the chorus — “Got an eye for, eye for, adolescent love, and no other love could ever feel like this…” Oh, Bobby, is that why you ended up in the stocks? It was quite a ways in before I twigged that Davro and the New Whimps were supposed to be young too, and not out-and-proud paedos, dancing in playgrounds and hitting on a girl who’s sucking on a giant lollypop. Though the lyrics speak of bumfluff and braces, the band are all clearly played by and dressed like thirty-somethings, so the full-length pop song Adolescent Love just seems like an anthem for nonces. In case it wasn’t nightmarish enough, when Davro references his teddy bear, the scary Bungle costume from 2 years earlier makes a reappearance, likely freed from the shed to procure fresh victims.

As is probably clear by now, there were no legitimate laughs to be had in this reappraisal of Davro. Is this the work he spent the next 30 years trading off? I got more enjoyment out of the time he was on Celebrity Come Dine With Me and tucked his winkle between his legs to pretend he had a fanny. Should there be a time we’re forced to pick a side between the eighties’ Bobbies — Davro or Ball — though I may have struggled to choose thirty years ago, today there’s only one winner. Team Ball, all the way. And I don’t mean the one that was hanging out of Gazza’s shorts.

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

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Carry On Retching

•May 28, 2018 • Leave a Comment

 

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I’ve always unashamedly loved the Carry On films. Not in an ironic way that takes a jokey jab at my wokeness, but with the same purity I adore Chris Morris or the League of Gentlemen. Partly it’s nostalgia, as the comedy of my childhood, each film is a comfort blanket of familiar faces; but also, it’s a series that genuinely makes me laugh more than just about anything, even now. The Carry Ons are where I first learned what jokes were. Punchlines, funny faces, misunderstandings, reactions, double-takes; a slide-whistle when someone’s trousers fall down. It’s a series that effectively revolves around a single word — “it” — and characters confusing that for a reference to sexual intercourse. “Have you had it yet?” or “I’ll put it up” — such mileage out of two little letters.

Weaned on these films, their comedy formed the heavy artillery in my early joke armoury, which as regular readers will know, relies even today on the trusty big guns of double-entendre and smut. Perhaps my love for them was meant to be, having grown up on the British seaside, and the films in that Donald McGill saucy postcard tradition, of enormously-bottomed female bathers and sticks of rock waving around like boners.

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My early fandom extended beyond the films and into the oeuvre of my favourite cast member, Kenneth Williams. I was a huge fan of 60’s radio series Round the Horne, making excited trips into Worthing WHSmiths to buy double-packs of the BBC cassettes, with my young mind particularly obsessed with the fithy-sounding yokel-gibberish of Rambling Syd Rumpo. I got a diary as a stocking filler one Christmas when I was 6, and remember thinking Father Christmas must have known I was going to be famous, just like Kenneth, and that decades later, people would be reading about my daily hob-nobbing with the stars, and eventual lonely suicide.

Of course, the Carry Ons are incredibly of their time, which is to say, my problematic fave. Their visual trademark is horny old men leering at young dolly birds, and they’re filled with stereotypes that would never make it to screen nowadays, or, like the effete mummy’s boy, that don’t even exist any more. Though nearly as base and puerile as detractors would have you believe, each feature is packed with an ensemble of thoroughly one-off performers. Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor, Peter Butterworth, Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Babs, and countless others; just look at that talent. It was like getting a new Infinity War every nine months for two decades.

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An incredibly prolific series, with 30 films in 20 years, I will eventually write about my favourites. Carry On at Your Convenience deserves a place on the list of the greatest British films ever made, and Camping contains what I consider the best-constructed joke ever put to film, involving a sign reading ALL ASSES MUST BE SHOWN, and a ‘nudist’ campsite manager who’s “gone for a pee.” So, as should be clear by now, I love the Carry Ons, and I’ve seen them all countless times. All but one.

There’s a haunting picture near the end of Kenneth Williams’ Diaries, taken on the set of Carry On Emmannuelle, of the cast sat around a dining table. There’s no Sid, having died two years earlier, or Barbara, who blew off participation when filming clashed with her holiday, and those who remained for this final, rasping hurrah look so old and tired, I could never bring myself to watch it. Kenneth makes only a brief reference in his diaries, on his first impressions of the script, which is “monotonous and unfunny,” and that “the credibility is gone… all this seems to do is to attempt to shock,” leaving him feel he had no option but to turn it down. He was eventually tempted onboard by rewrites and an increased salary, though Sims did it for the pittance of £2,500, the same as her fee for Carry On Nurse, almost twenty years earlier. One suspects, like Kenneth, her involvement was mostly so she could spend time with her friends.

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Long-considered the worst in the series, at least until Columbus reared its head in the early 90s, Emmannuelle’s given short shrift by the many retrospective books and documentaries. But watching for the first time, this is my equivalent of finding an unreleased demo from John Lennon, or formerly ‘lost’ episodes of Doctor Who; a whole new, unseen film in a beloved franchise. Unfortunately, the critics were right. This is every cliché about once-great groups reforming to hobble about the stage, wearily performing solos with a guitar resting on their gut. It’s Old Men in Little Pants: The Movie, with the elderly cast more sex-crazed than ever, upping the ante to compete with the popular, and far more explicit Confessions Of… series, like a retired banker trying to beat some life into his flaccid penis as a young escort looks at her watch.

From the opening, Emmannuelle doesn’t feel right, kicking off, not with a classically Carry On Eric Rogers score, but with its jaunty disco theme, the Kenny Lynch-voiced Love Crazy. While it’s not up there with my favourite; Convenience‘s chorus of aggressive cockney men bellowing “THREE OLD LADIES LOCKED IN THE LAVATORY!” it still has a double-entendre “it” lyric of “sometimes it gets so hard.” And that’s about the cleanest gag of the film. The bare-bones plot can be summed up in a single line: Emmannuelle Prevert, wife of the French ambassador (Kenneth Williams), has sex with every man she meets. That’s it. The title character’s played by Suzanne Danielle, in her first and only appearance in a Carry On, after being suggested to producers by then-boyfriend Patrick Mower, during the shooting of Carry on England. She was only 21 during filming, which further emphasises the aged cast, with every greying character thoroughly fixated on good old British how’s-your-father.

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Williams’ first appearance, lumbered with a cartoon “sacré bleu!” French accent that renders him borderline incomprehensible at points, has him lifting tiny dumbbells in gym gear that accentuates his frail appearance. Within seconds, his shorts fall to expose his bare arse, with another shot of him squatting down to pull them back up, which, like everything else, seems far too crass for a Carry On. Cleavage, yes, but no anuses please.

Emmannuelle — with an extra n to avoid lawsuits from the softcore porn series it was parodying — was an attempt to keep up with the sex comedies doing bumper business at the time; comedies which showed actual fannies. Consequently, we’re left with a very strange film. When the young, sex positive (or in 70’s terms, nymphomaniac) lead is transplanted into that Carry On world, it accidentally exposes the almost-charming naivety of the house-attitude to sex. There’s an early scene which sums up this attempt to appear laissez faire, while revealing its own repression, like children whispering to each other how babies are made by a man weeing in a lady’s bellybutton.

When the downstairs staff peep at the Preverts through the bedroom keyhole, Joan Sims describes the “pornographic orgy” going on; an ‘orgy’ where the pair of them lay on the bed fully clothed. Then, the sight of a still-dressed Emmannuelle in a hug with her shirtless husband is enough for Butterworth’s glasses to shatter. All the “sex” in this movie is of the literal rolling around on a bed variety, with the muffs that Robin Askwith was spying from up a ladder nowhere to be seen. Later, when trying to get one of the Queen’s beefeaters to break character, Emmannuelle flashes her boobs, then bum, finally waving her knickers in his face, before stomping off defeated, with nothing left to offer, as though vaginas don’t exist. Of course, then a flamboyant gay man minces over with a literal “hello ducky,” and the guard responds by winking and blowing a kiss.

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The aforementioned keyhole scene introduces another ill-fitting element; pop culture references. Mostly, the Carry Ons exist inside their own bubble — ironically, one part of them which hasn’t dated — so a line here about The Muppet Show fits about as well as Sid exclaiming “Blimey, look at the knockers on Britney Spears!” The bedroom peep-show also leads to the worst joke in the entire series. Marvel at the first-draft barrel-scraping of a line which will likely never be topped, no matter how much terrible comedy I get through on here.

Butterworth: “Is it Starsky and Hutch?

Sims: “If you ask me, it’s more like starkers and crutch!

Bless Joan, she gives it her best. But still, ghastly. Though I’d take a weak line over the charmless gags permeating the rest of the film, where the Carry On vehicle seems to have aged up from giggles about willies and bums, to horned-up pubescent references to tits, spunk, and wanking. We’re only two lines in before a man’s asked “are you coming?”, setting the scene for 90 minutes of that friend who always goes too far, sat in a quiet train carriage yelling about big sweaty cocks. Possibly my least-favourite line comes when Emmannuelle’s being driven around in a “…Daimier Pervertable. The roof doesn’t go down, but the chauffeur does.” Thanks for that mental image of 60-year-old Kenneth Connor performing oral sex. Evidential of the fast-shifting standards, there’s a joke about “getting hard” that had previously been cut from Carry On Regardless by censors 17 years earlier.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of nudity; far more than we’re used to, mostly consisting of Kenneth Williams and Suzanne Danielle’s arses. At one point, Kenneth’s impotence is instantly cured by a head-wobbling Indian doctor stereotype, who calls in a nurse and orders her to open her top, giving him, and us, a good look at her breasts. It had the highest ratings certificate of the series; higher even than then-recent Carry On England, which also had flagrant boob shots, and similarly never felt like a real Carry On. Filmed at Pinewood at the same time as Superman — which occasionally saw the cast lunching with Christopher Reeve — the shooting schedule, even for a Carry On, was an intensely rushed four weeks. Despite the hurried shoot, Emmannuelle had the biggest budget of the franchise (until Columbus), which shows during actual visual effects shots and unsettling excursions to real locations, like Trafalgar Square, rather than the obvious sets we were used to. That said, the Beefeater scene, filmed in Pinewood’s carpark, features a back projection so unconvincing, they might as well have built a street out of Lego.

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More a series of sketches than an actual movie, the premise of ‘Emmannuelle likes to fuck’ is explored in a handful of lengthy scenes. First, we see the Preverts hosting a dinner for VIPs; all fusty old white men and their wives, plus an Arabian ambassador in a fez drinking soup straight out of the bowl, because he’s foreign. Emmannuelle, under the pretext of looking for hidden weapons, crawls around under the table, feeling their legs, and like the butler’s exploding glasses, these old men react to a strange hand grabbing at their ankles like it’s the most erotic moment of their lives. “Everything’s going up these days,” says the wife of a guest. “You’re so right,” he says, and dear reader, HE MEANS HIS DICK! HIS ERECTENING DICK! These are men who’ve never known a loving touch, violently jizzing a decade’s worth of stale cum at the passing feel of a sock. And it’s not just the men, with the entire table politely thanking each other for Emmannuelle’s undertable gropes. The chap next to Kenny gets turned on like mad when he thinks he’s caressing his wooden leg, and when the flinching fake limb briefly lifts a woman’s skirt — complete with slide-whistle — she mouths a passionate “thank you,” as though this half-second of contact has roused a dormant passion after a lifetime of loveless, lights-off missionary. At this point, Kenneth Williams disappears from the film for ages. It’s a wise move.

Soon, in a scene which feels as long as all 29 previous films put together, Emmannuelle grills the below stairs staff on their most unusual sexual experience, and another Carry On oddity sees these tales play out as narrated flashbacks. Kenneth Connor’s at least gives me a sentence I never thought I’d type, as a wizened old man in his underpants has sex inside a wardrobe with the six-titted dancer from Jabba’s Palace. At a rainy, abandoned London Zoo, Jack Douglas rolls around the floor of a gorilla cage with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, while Joan Sims seduces a man at the laundrette by putting a bra on her head. The Preverts, in footage I’d love to see edited into Point Break, go naked skydiving, before Kenneth lands on a church spire so directly, it goes right up his hole, explaining his aversion to sex.

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But the oddest is Butterworth’s, showing him in his army days during WW2, as a 60-year-old playing a young soldier. He meets, and has immediate sex with a French villager, shown via the shaking of the bushes they disappear into, before accidentally redressing in each others’ clothes. She’s then taken away by Nazis as a POW, and due to the comedic rule of dragging up, Butterworth’s “fräulein” is taken into the bushes by a smitten Nazi, who gets a few thrusts in before realising it’s a fella with a cry of “Gott im Himmel!” Still dressed as a French girl, Butterworth takes refuge in a nearby church, where the Vicar lets him stay, even though he’ll have to share a bed with his attractive young niece. Incidentally, the three random dollybird roles were the parts Barbara Windsor was set to play, before she decided to go on holiday instead. While there is an obvious grossness to seeing a bunch of old men get off with willing girls half their age, it’s no different from, like, every Hollywood film, starring fifty-something Tom Cruise and his succession of twenty-something love interests, or whichever middle-aged man is toplining opposite an onscreen daughter-wife.

Proceedings start their crawl towards a conclusion during a football match, filmed during a real game at QPR, where players feign injury or deliberately get sent off, so they can sneak to the dressing room and have their turn inside Emmannuelle. When it comes time for Kenneth Williams to award the cup, the entire team’s gone, and so has the ref, politely lining up for their go, and rubbing their hands with excitement. Then, she’s kidnapped at gunpoint by an obsessive former conquest, a mummy’s boy to an overprotective Beryl Reid, whose stalking functions as the b-plot, but he messes it up, so grasses her up to the tabloids instead. Emmannuelle’s sexual antics with everyone from the Prime Minister down are a sensation, leading to a televised interview with Harold Hump (Henry McGee from The Benny Hill Show), where she regrets nothing, undresses Hump and climbs on his lap for more sex. Still, it was less perverse than that time Parky leched over a young Helen Mirren.

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Unfortunately for those begging for the end credits, this thing’s got more endings than Return of the King. First, Beryl Reid knocks on her sons door, to check that he’s “not doing anything naughty to yourself… like that disgusting boy in that novel,” which is a reference I wish I understood. Perhaps she means the book Emmannuelle’s seen reading in the nip, entitled FU-KUNG SEX? Anyway, he’s so heartbroken that he pulls out a gun to shoot himself, lifting it to his head — in a Carry On film — and from the other side of the door, we hear a gunshot. He soon emerges unharmed, revealing that he’s such a failure, he missed.

Finally, it’s Emmannuelle’s turn to talk to the Indian doctor, who informs her she’s pregnant, despite being on the pill. When Dr. Stereotype suggests they celebrate by going behind the screen for a quick fuck, she leaves, so he calls in the boob-flashing nurse, adding ‘sex with my boss whenever he’s got a rock-on’ to her job description, on top of getting them out for random patients. Williams, now able to get an erection with his wife after being flashed by the nurse, reveals that he switched out her contraceptive pill for fertility drugs. Cut to a delivery room, where Emmannuelle, and pretty much everyone she’s slept with, including a full football team, celebrate the birth of about a dozen babies.

So, is there any joy to be had in this grim reminder of our disgusting human lust and frail mortality? There was one genuine belly laugh, during the scene Emmannuelle visits her police chief lover at Scotland Yard, purely at the thought process behind it. Like the shaking bushes, when the pair are having sex, it cuts away to terrible quality footage of the famous revolving New Scotland Yard sign, edited so that it’s jerking back and forth, with comedy boingboing noises. What’s the thinking here? Is the sign controlled by his dick? Are they humping atop some kind of control lever? A film that’s obsessed with sex, but doesn’t have the balls to actually show it, Carry On Emmannuelle‘s true strength lies in the creative lengths taken to let the audience know that dicks are getting hard, going in and out, or shooting their muck. If you’re a fan of visual metaphors where a train goes through a tunnel to suggest sex, this is the film for you! From simplistic visual cues of a whistling kettle, to full-on cell animation of an eagle statue flying away, it’s packed with suggestive, dick-like imagery. At the dinner scene, the Arab’s string of prayer beads gets a boner, while an old colonel gets stock footage of a cannon firing its ball all of two yards. At one point, the Old Bailey’s Lady Justice frantically shakes her scales up and down, while her sword wilts with shrinkage, like a Terry Gilliam skit. Even Concorde’s nose gets a stiffy.

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If only they’d put as much effort into the rest of the script. Unlike the previous films, there’s nothing quotable here. They even reuse that great joke from Carry On Doctor that I referenced in my Copy Cats piece. “I dreamt about her last night.” “Did you?” “No, she wouldn’t let me.” Even worse, it ruined a favourite joke from another show, with an allusion to the actual F-word, “you for coffee?” which sounds like “you fuck off, eh?” A joke me and my mum loved from Alan Cumming’s 90’s sitcom The High Life, we still quote it to this day, but alas, it appears to be stolen from this terrible film.

What a dreadful way to end the original run, with a cast, and format that feels tired to the point of collapse. The well wasn’t so much dry, as bricked over, with the corpses of its cast and crew left rotting at the bottom. Even the names are lazy. Camping has that great line, where Sid introduces himself and Bernie, “I’m Boggle, this is Mr. Lugg.” Here we’ve got the Preverts, Joan Sims as Mrs Dangle, and Jack Douglas as Loins the butler. Speaking of Douglas, what an insane choice to cast him, not as the twitching Alf Ippititimus character, but as himself. Chuck in a few “phwaay”s, with a cup of tea going up the wall whenever he sees a breast, and you’re guaranteed an extra smile or two. Audiences agreed with the critics, and Emmannuelle was a gigantic flop, which signalled the end for the franchise until 92’s Columbus. Thankfully, this put paid to plans for a further instalment, Carry On Again Nurse, which was to go all the way in an effort to compete with 70’s softcore, and aim for an X certificate. As much as I love Kenneth Williams, I wouldn’t want to see his perineum.

This piece is from my new Patreon, where subscribers could read this 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 me provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, including regular looks at the horrors of old British comedy in the Past Laugh Regression series.

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Baywatch does Hulkamania

•May 20, 2018 • 3 Comments

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The immediate realisation on revisiting Baywatch for the first time in 25 years, is that they might as well just be naked. I’m no prude, but with everyone slow-mo running in those high-cut, atom-thin swimsuits, I suddenly feel like I’m at Burning Man. You can practically see the lot, starting with the opening title sequence, which is essentially a two-minute soft-porn rock video, with slow, lingering sweeps up dripping bodies, with particular focus on the outlines of nipples and dicks. At one point, a guy in speedos heaves himself out of a pool, and virtually forces his nob straight through the screen. People talk about being able to ‘hear’ certain photos, well I could almost taste it. The whole show’s like that, and in hindsight, we should be thanking God for shitty 90’s standard definition TV. Pre-internet, smut was scarce, and if they’d shown this in 4k, we’d all have killed ourselves. An entire generation of men and teenage boys wiped out like the great war, drowned in our own muck, and still trying to bang another one out as they’re charging the defibrillator paddles.

As well as being poorly-disguised grot, Baywatch is the most classically 90s thing of all time, with its lion-haired hunks, beeping pagers, and a theme tune earnestly wailed by a man who sounds beholden to violent diarrhea. The most 90’s things of all are Pamela Anderson’s title credit as Pamela Lee, and in this episode, the guest appearance of Hulk Hogan. Baywatch came at a creatively fetid time in Hogan’s career, in the fallow period between leaving the WWF for WCW, and turning heel with the nWo. Though he’s since acquired legend status — and then soiled it by saying the n-word — in the mid 90s, general fan opinion of Hogan was of a spotlight hogging old bastard who’d outstayed his welcome; they were sick of his goody two-boots character, constant winning, show-closing posedowns, and his dreadful matches. Announcing his signing with a fake ticker-tape parade, complete with fan-signs all in the same handwriting, his WCW career had consisted mostly of bringing in old WWF mates to dress up as assorted cartoon weirdos for an enemy stable literally called the Dungeon of Doom. Only a handful of months after Baywatch‘s February ’96 airing, Hogan would undertake the summer heel turn that invigorated his stale character, and kickstarted a boom period for the entire industry.

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Baywatch shares much of its creative DNA with Hogan’s own series, Thunder in Paradise, in which he starred as Randolph J. “Hurricane” Spencer, an ex-Navy Seal with a hi-tech boat, and which ran for a single season in 1994. Created, written, and directed by the people behind Baywatch, including the writer and director of this episode, you’ll be thrilled to hear that I’ll be deep-diving into it for part two of this piece. He’s credited here — in an episode titled Bash at the Beach — as Terry “Hulk” Hogan, the half-real stage name he used in acting appearances at the time, which made us Brits picture a green Terry Wogan furiously rampaging through London.

All those discussions about great opening scenes; Jaws, Vertigo, Boogie Nights; be aware, cos there’s a new contender in town. Bash at the Beach opens with a jet ski race between Hulk Hogan and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. Hogan’s salvo “Hey, Macho, race you to the pier, brother!” is merely the first of many hilariously dubbed lines of dialogue, with the pair of them shit-talking all the way, casually chatting over roar of the jet skis. As we know from No Holds Barred, Hogan is insatiably horny, and quickly gets distracted by a sexy lady jet-skier — “Whoa, mercy!” — making weird cum-sounds as he circles her, before eventually flying off his vehicle and getting knocked in the head with it. Makes sense he couldn’t do the job clean. This is the cue for lifeguards to rush in and rescue, as he lays face-down in the water, which is the most he’s ever sold an injury. Incidentally, I wonder if it’s a reference to the legitimate black eye he wore at Wrestlemania IX, which Hogan put down to a jet ski accident, but rumour long claims is the result of Randy punching him for getting too close with Miss Elizabeth.

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Anyway, he’s fished out of the water by six female lifeguards, heaving him onto land, inch by inch, as though they’re dragging a bloated whale carcass onto shore, even though he’s many years from the classic Hogan Prime of No Holds Barred, and seems comparatively emaciated. They revive him with the kind of bad television CPR that would kill a person if you copied it in real life, with Yasmine Bleeth pushing on his chest like she’s trying to stroke a kitten without waking it. Only when he splutters back to life do they realise “Oh my God, it’s Hulk Hogan!” Yes, thrill of thrills, Hogan is playing himself! And of course he does the “have I died and gone to Heaven?” deal when he wakes up surrounded by swimsuit models. Then, Randy Savage shows up, takes one look at the women, and goes “Ooh, yea!” so this is going to be great. And by the way, the growling, in-character voices of Hogan and Savage as they walk about the beach are so much funnier when redubbed in an ADR booth.

Periodically, the wrestling story takes a back seat, forcing us to check in with the B Plot, aka actual regular Baywatch, but thankfully, I’ve joined the series at the beginning of a Very Special storyline. As lifeguard Stephanie picnics with her boyfriend, a hunky doctor, he interrupts their sexy sax make-out session to spot an angry-looking mole on her leg. It looks like an old cornflake, so he lectures about safe tanning and does a biopsy on it. You might think, like I did, that cancer’s a heavy topic for a show that’s basically a moving display case for boobs, but it’s so obviously a plot-by-committee, snapping from its normal soapy dialogue to shoehorned-in medical talk that’s clearly been written by the skin cancer people. Like Geordi La Forge’s techsposition in TNG, it’s all natural-sounding exchanges like:

I’m just so angry at myself, I mean there were so many ways I should have protected myself from the sun.

You just have to wear the right sunblock and apply it frequently.

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Rather than, say, taking the opportunity to educate its audience, things immediately slip into a 1940’s woman-on-the-edge melodrama, with Steph manically slathering herself in suncream, before patrolling the sands in trousers and a jacket, to berate beach-goers with shrieking PR soundbites like “the burns you get today will increase your risk of skin cancer!” The music cue becomes increasingly frenetic, to let us know she’s losing it, and possibly moments from tossing a beach-baby clear of the sun’s deadly rays, into the safety of a shark’s mouth. She’s an eyelash from going the full Jessie Spano, and is informed at the end that she definitely has skin cancer.

Back to the serious plot. When Hogan has a sitdown with Pamela’s CJ, the badness of their respective acting abilities combine to form something multitudes more horrifying, like the merging of two nasty diseases into a new epidemic that causes all your organs to force themselves out through your penis-hole. It makes you wonder about his claim of being up for a lead movie role as her love interest. I must also comment on Hogan’s wardrobe choice, rocking a look one might call ‘Gym Divorcee’, comprised of a sleeveless denim muscle shirt, jeans, a blue bandana, and blue cowboy boots. In such a blue ensemble, he could be mistaken for No Holds Barred‘s Rip, which would have improved the episode tenfold. Eventually, the pair mumble and stumble to the end of the scene, giving us our precious exposition. The lifeguards do a lot of voluntary work at the Venice Boys Youth Centre, the same gym a young Hogan used to frequent, resulting in this amazing line.

It’s my old stomping ground. If it wasn’t for Sonny and the athletic club, I probably would have been wild out on the streets.”

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Wild out on the streets! Of course, because this is the plot to fucking everything, the centre has been sold to a mysterious and evil property developer, and will doubtless need to be saved by our heroes. Hogan and Savage tag along with CJ to this ‘youth centre’, which turns out to be Santa Monica Muscle Beach; instantly recognisable from a million different movies and shows. You know that thing mildly famous men say to look dangerous, to infer they grew up in a rough area? That if they hadn’t made it out to become an actor, or a soccer player, they’d either be DEAD or IN JAIL? Firstly, same goes for me. If I didn’t have a Patreon, it’s the morgue or death row. Nothing inbetween. Secondly, Hulk Hogan gives that cliché its best ever take.

I had a choice. Drugs and street life, or working out, getting healthy and getting my act together, right here.

Turns out Randy was ‘saved’ by the gym too. Oh, he’d definitely have been in jail, for real. Just look at the guy. Life without parole, for fucking a church to pieces. It’s bizarre to see Randy Savage, usually so intense as to be permanently on the verge of a fatal stroke, dialled down and patiently waiting for his lines like a normal person. So what happens to these kids if the gym gets closed down? Drugs and street life, and going wild on the streets! It’s then that our Mysterious and Evil Property Developer steps out of a black stretch limo, revealing himself to be… Ric Flair, accompanied by Vader (wearing his mask) and Dungeon of Doom leader Kevin Sullivan (with three pairs of eyebrows drawn on his forehead), all playing themselves. While Hogan’s dialogue, robbed of his one-note shouting, is woodenly recited like a child learning to read, Flair delivers his lines like he’s cutting a promo, and clearly missed his calling as a rich prick villain in every great 80’s film.

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He mocks Hogan about his closing the gym to turn it into condos, backed by Vader’s growls and Sullivan’s cackling, and the hammy mid-90’s WCW acting is a perfect fit for Baywatch. You could totally see them taking place in the same universe. Sullivan’s stupid painted forehead and Vader crushing some kid’s basketball are at least as realistic as Steph’s response to possible cancer. Anyway, Hogan challenges Flair to a fight, one on one, “no holds barred,” for the deeds to the property, baiting him with a shot at the WCW Heavyweight Title as incentive, before offering the least threatening call-out of all time “Saturday! On the beach! And bring escrow papers, Flair.

Around this point, I started to worry. A storyline where Hulk Hogan has to beat an evil property developer, who’s Ric Flair, to save his childhood gym, is so my jam, there’s a good chance this is all a coma fantasy. With all the lifeguard skin, I just hope I’ve not made a mess of the sheets. Speaking of cum, Hogan gets his big hero sequence, when some kid gets trapped, 127 Hours style, under a weightless styrofoam rock, right as the tide starts coming in. Hogan rushes out with CJ to help, and as she holds onto the boy while Hogan lifts the rock, we’re given a flagrant reminder of Baywatch‘s MO. How to describe this without sounding like a megaperv? CJ’s boobs are pretty much just hanging all the way out, getting knocked about by the waves so egregiously, the cameraman could’ve been put on a register for the next ten years. I’d put a screengrab here, but I don’t want a reputation as a sex blogger. I can only imagine the teenage actor watching with his family, everyone gathered round the TV for his big break; buffet table of snacks, grandma in the most comfortable chair by the screen because she doesn’t see so good, and “look, it’s your big scene!” with a huge pair of wet tits hanging right by his ear. Ah, sod it.

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But let’s move from the trouserial onto more honest pursuits — a training montage! Set to the sound of Hogan’s WCW entrance music, American Made, we see Hogan and Savage lift weights in front of bikini babes, close-ups of the American flag, and Hogan jogging like an elderly man shuffling back from the shops, trailed by dozens of kids waving little flags. Though his knees are clearly not capable of running, we do get the Arnie/Carl Weathers handshake from Predator between he and Savage. Then it’s time for the big fight, with the deeds to the youth centre at stake, and Hogan finally coming alive when cutting a promo, brother. Likewise, Savage now allowed to be himself, he tells us he’s going to “ride the edge of a lightning bolt across the sky!

All of the match footage was taped at a WCW pay-per-view the previous summer, also titled Bash at the Beach, leading to frequent cutaway reaction shots, filmed much later, of the lifeguards pretending to cheer. Just like No Holds Barred, Baywatch exists in a universe where wrestling is real, though they hilariously add their own sound effects to the matches, like a movie fight, with punching noises, and dubbed cries of “argh!” every time the wrestlers hit each other. Clearly, these are not the voices of the actual wrestlers, making it doubly jarring, especially during a big not-Flair “whoooa!” as he’s tossed into the air. For some reason, Hogan’s wrestling Vader in a steel cage, after Savage defeats Flair, and they’re forced to messily edit around the typically WCW shenanigans of the real-life footage.

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There’s zero reference to the fact Hogan’s accompanied to the ring by Dennis Rodman, who was one of the most famous people on the planet at the time, and stood at ringside for the entire match. Was he saved by the youth centre too? Looking at the state of him now, I dread to think where he’d have ended up without it. They can’t show the actual finish of the match, because the real ending had other wrestlers running in to interfere, including Rodman, so after a bunch of repeated footage and squiffy continuity — Vader’s mask randomly on or off — they arbitrarily announce that Hogan’s won. Incidentally, I love me a good Hulk Hogan ADR, and his vocalisations feature some fantastic grunting, and a pained “Ooh Jimmy” to Jimmy Hart when Vader’s got him in trouble. Vader himself is dubbed with weird gurgling animal noises. I wonder if this shares continuity with Boy Meets World, where Vader — again, as himself — played Ethan Suplee’s dad.

Anyway, they save the gym, and the episode ends with Hogan raising the belt on the beach, surrounded by fans and lifeguards. Baywatch is so sincere in its dumbness, this was like the beach club episodes of Saved by the Bell all over again. Thankfully it’s not on Netflix, or I’d undoubtedly have tumbled down a Baywatch-recap rabbit-hole, especially when I looked up whether the cancer thing went anywhere, only to discover that character had a fear of helicopters after her dad died in one in ‘Nam, and was eventually killed by a lightning strike, only to came back as a doppelgänger, in a made for TV reunion movie where Hasselhoff has amnesia. The whole Saved by the Bell book started when I announced I’d write it if someone bought the box set off my wishlist, and though it’d be hard to turn down a new career of writing about the nineties’ finest wank-opera, the 79-disc set is almost £1,500 on Amazon, and honestly, I’d rather have the cash. But don’t let that stop you.

This is from my new Patreon, where subscribers could read this 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 me provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, including more in-depth looks at Hulk Hogan’s ‘acting’, like this piece about No Holds Barred and Zeus.

There’s a bunch of posts live already, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, like my new novella, Jangle. Feel free to give my existing books a look too.

Past Laugh Regression: Part Two – Cannon and Ball

•May 12, 2018 • 1 Comment

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Part One is here.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last couple of years about shifting notions of masculinity, with angry comments in The Sun from fathers worried their sons will grow up to be Danny La Rue because their John Lewis dinosaur pyjamas didn’t have ‘boys’ written on the label. This sparked a random memory in me, of the moment when I first became aware of macho ideals. Thanks to imdb, I can even pinpoint the exact date.

It’s November 3rd 1984, and the five-year-old Millard is entranced by something on TV. It’s the first time I’ve made the connection between acts of violence and what it is to be a man, and that weekend was spent imagining myself as part of a tough American street-gang, wearing my blue bodywarmer as if it were a hoodlum’s leather waistcoat, and menacingly snapping my fingers at my gran. Perhaps this was the seed that informed lifelong ideas of my own gender; that for me to be a man, I had to hold back tears, walk with a swagger, and lead with my fists. What was it I saw that day? It was this.

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Yes, that’s Cannon and Ball, parodying the Hollywood musical West Side Story. No wonder I grew up to be such an alpha bad-arse. Though, as becomes clear through this reappraisal of their work, Cannon and Ball’s entire act is predicated on the constant, simmering threat of violence. It’s easy to see why they appealed so much to me at a young age, with Bobby Ball as the relatable ‘child’, his cartoonish mop of curls and red braces, like a snappy little terrier, opposite Tommy Cannon’s exasperated father figure. And has anyone ever seemed less comedian-like than Tommy Cannon? Like someone’s aul fella took a wrong turn back from the toilets and ended up onstage, even as a straight man, he had the air of a bloke who’s just stubbed out a roll-up with his heel, ready to give you a good shoeing. In their prime, I’m sure I could’ve taken Ball in a fight without any trouble, but Cannon would have left me bleeding in the gutter with signet-ring mark in my cheek.

Perhaps tellingly, full episodes from their 75-episode run have yet to make their way online, so I’ve settled for a clip show, entitled The Best of Cannon and Ball; a compilation of highlights from their ITV series. Yes, yes, here’s where the “it’s a blank tape” dig goes, well done. From the opening banter, we’re immediately transported to the lands of 80’s variety, with the constant use of “ladies and gentlemen” but pronounced “le-ge-men…” before the first sketch drags us into the very worst styles of that era.

Set on an airplane, and weirdly dialogue-free, like they’re French clowns or shit Mr. Beans, it’s five minutes of gesticulating and bad slapstick, based around the comedic notion of seats pushing back so fast, they spill drinks over themselves, again and again and again. Like with Copy Cats, the audience reaction is noticeably unhinged, even during the lengthy section where they repeatedly get a stewardess to serve Bobby shots so they can look down her top when she bends over. Eventually, he makes her bend right to the floor, so Cannon can get a look up her skirt from the back, which is as excruciating as it sounds, but backed by a wild audience reaction reminding you there was a time, in living memory, when this was considered the height of comedy.

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Next are a series of bloopers — Ball smashed in the face by a prop door; Jimmy Tarbuck mucking about in a golf sketch, because he can never fucking shut up about it — but even if there’d been an outtake where Bobby Ball got scalped by a ceiling fan, it still wouldn’t have prepared us for what’s to come. It all seems normal at first, where Cannon’s on a stool with a mic, using his nondescript Northern comic crooner voice to do the ‘sincere song’ bit they all did in those days, back to their nightclub roots, with a rendition of Send in the Clowns. Then this happens.

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Christ alive, just look at it. This is clearly supposed to be a poignant moment to consider the sadness of the clown, giving joy to others, but always on that lonely road, leaving the highs of the stage to an empty hotel room, ala tortured comic geniuses like Hancock, Pryor, Robin Williams; and Bobby Ball. Reminds you of that joke, doesn’t it, about the suicidal man at the doctors?

The great clown Bobby Ball is in town tonight. Go see him.”

But doctor, I am Bobby Ball.

The giant, disembodied head of clown-Ball hangs behind Cannon like that bit from Stephen King’s It where Pennywise projects himself on the moon, before it cuts to him slumped solemnly in front of a dressing room mirror. Ball stares into the decay of his soul, pouring himself a big scotch, and wiping away an actual tear from his painted face, in a moment so ill-judged, they might as well have gone the whole hog and shown him hanging himself, and doing a fart as he died.

We’re next run through a number of skits that make you wonder what didn’t make the cut, if this truly was the best of their offerings. I’d take footage of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster over the barnyard sketch, featuring Tommy in spotty handkerchief singing Old McDonald while Bobby interrupts with animal noises. Bob and Tom as a barman and customer getting into a fight about the placement of ashtrays and peanuts? I’d rather see interviews with people on the street recoiling in horror from secretly-taped film of me on the toilet.

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Watching a bunch of their stuff in a row really underlines the structure of their act, which almost entirely consists of an infuriated Tommy constantly being interrupted by Bobby until he snaps, grabs him by the lapels and threatens him. Every sketch; every interaction between the two, quickly devolves into arguments and threats of physical harm, with the pair pulling each other around by the lapels while trying not to laugh. It’s the comedy of people being clipped round the ears, with Bobby Ball’s other catchphrase — after “rock on, Tommy!” — the act of holding his forehead and bursting into tears. But though their characters seem to hate each other, there’s at least a sense of warmth behind it, unlike Little and Large, who always gave the impression Eddie had been spitting in Syd’s tea and making him drink it.

Even a guest appearance by Status Quo, who eat up a good portion of the Best Of with a full mime-through of Margeurita Time, consists mostly of shoving and lapel-grabbing, with the rockers berated and threatened by Cannon, and yelled at by Ball, including calling them “drug takers!” But when it seems all hope is lost, then comes the West Side Story sketch, some thirty-plus years after that initial viewing. “This is West Side Story, the modern day!” says Tommy, in a parody of a movie released 23 years earlier. The whole skit’s backed by a beat and bassline, as Cannon corrals his Jets — a gang of high-kicking young toughies with mullets — to batter Ball’s Sharks, which consist of a single, gormless-looking elderly man who can barely walk.

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I must admit to smiling the whole way through, as there’s something quite charming about two middle-aged men playing at gangs, with the greying Cannon threatening “Get your sharks, cos we’re gonna beat you up!” None of the cast can keep a straight face, and the only extra with any dialogue gives the worst line-reading in history as he’s got Ball up by the lapels, but the sight of the old man nimbly dance-fighting Tommy’s Jets to defeat does raise an honest laugh. From these highs, we plumb familiar depths in a darts skit with a snickering Jocky Wilson, that once again ends with Tommy dragging Bobby out of frame by the jacket, followed by a sketch where Bobby tries to pickpocket Tommy, with suggestions people will think they’re gay because a man has touched another man. But then comes another treat.

In a strange convening of comedic generations, the old Northern club scene meets the new Alternative, when Rik Mayall shows up as an unhelpful tourist information manager. Rik’s at his anarchic peak here, fresh off The Young Ones, and on the surface, it’s a strange combination, like seeing Stewart Lee in ‘Allo ‘Allo. But it soon makes sense, particularly as Cannon and Ball’s constant antagonism plays somewhat like a pre-watershed Rik and Ade. In the Venn Diagram, violence is the point where the two acts meet, and if Bobby facing off with Rik is like those wrestling matches where the older veteran passes the torch, then a bit where Bobby repeatedly bounces his head off the desk is 80’s comedy’s Hulk Hogan vs The Rock. Seeing the two go at it is as strange as it is joyful, with Bobby having to elevate his level of violence to stay in the game, grabbing each other by the nostrils, and even doing that bit where you block an eye-poke with the palm of your hand. Rik brings his manic energy to the material, which is much more abstract, and dare I say, Pythonesque, than their usual sketches.

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It’s no surprise then, to find the name Paul Jackson in the credits, as director/producer of some later Cannon and Ball shows — including Rik’s appearance — as well as The Young Ones, Filthy Rich & Catflap, and Rik and Ade’s Dangerous Brothers video, among many others. The Best of Cannon and Ball concludes with some jazz scatting, where they argue about whether it’s better to “skibaddy bow” or “doobady doo doodoo,” and I don’t hate this either, especially when it turns into a freestyle scat-battle, effectively translating their regular end-of-sketch argument into jazz gibberish. But then the scatting segues into a hilariously earnest, intentionally-humour-free duet of To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before. They both gaze lovingly down the lens, with the lyrical dedication to all those girls “who’ve shared my life,” forcing you to picture all the groupies they’ve banged up against the dressing room sinks of northern clubs; Bobby Ball pinging his braces as his cums, his little afro wobbling up and down; Cannon’s workmanlike thrusts, trousers opened at the fly but never fully taken down. Even with a brilliant key change, your mind fills with grotesque images of all the girls “who’ve filled my nights with ecstasy,” with their beaming grins at the terribly specific “all the girls we’ve loved” painting some truly horrific pictures of an off-stage double act.

I’ve got my own Cannon and Ball encounter, though thankfully I wasn’t bent over a sink at the time. After they fell out of favour, the lads became born again Christians, patching up their relationship — which had gone a bit Newman and Baddiel after so many years living in each others’ pockets — and reinvented themselves for the evangelical Christian circuit. Syd Little similarly got a second wind during the nineties, via the quality-starved Christian market, although clearly such enormous talents as his could only be God-given. Sometime around the turn of the millennium, Tommy and Bobby put in an appearance at my family’s church, and obviously, I had to go. Less a comedy show, than an out of character talk about their faith, there wasn’t so much as a trademark “piggin’” from the now decidedly family-friendly Ball. Nobody’s lapels got grabbed, but there was a moment when Bobby Ball, giving his impassioned testimony, and perhaps sniffing out my atheism, caught my eye and held it for what felt like a week. It’s an odd thing, to feel as though Bobby Ball is trying to rescue your broken, Hell-bound spirit. But at least he wasn’t dressed like a clown.

As a quick addendum, I’ve just remembered, some years later, Ball did retweet my ‘charity plea’ to raise awareness of my condition, when informed I was “suffering from a chronic case of well-bad nob-ache…” Rock on, Bobby.

This piece is from my new Patreon, where subscribers could read this 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 me provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a bunch of posts live already, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, like my new novella, Jangle. Please give my existing books a look too.

Great Moments in Pop Culture – I’m Not a Real Witch

•May 5, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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Sometime in the late 80s, my mum found me loitering in the kitchen. The last she’d seen of me, I’d been happily sat in the living room, watching The Wizard of Oz.

“Are you hiding out here because you’re afraid of the witch?” she asked, with the giveaway sound of cackling coming from the other room. Of course, she was right. For many generations of children, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West was their very first monster. She’s every child’s idea of what a witch even is; green skin, a pointed hat and pointier nose, threatening to turn you into a frog, and filling the sky with cackles as she zooms around on a broomstick.

Of course, unlike movies where Nic Cage plays a saucer-eyed lunatic sniffing people’s faces and shrieking like he’s caught in a bear trap, followed by red carpet interviews where he behaves exactly the same, Margaret Hamilton wasn’t really a witch. In fact, the iconic role became something of a double-edged sword, with the real-life Hamilton a kindly, charitable woman who adored children, but found herself the object of their terror, being recognised from their nightmares, even many decades after the film was released.

The picture made a terrible impression of some kind on them,” she said, “sometimes a ghastly impression, but most of them got over it, I guess.”

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This is why, 36 years after Oz first hit theatres, Margaret Hamilton made an appearance, as herself, on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There are so many things to love about the meeting between one of cinema’s most frightening villains, and television’s purest soul. Any story about the kindness of Fred Rogers has me crying every cubic mm of fluid out of my body. There’s a famous tale of him receiving a letter from a little blind girl who worried about Rogers’ onscreen pet fish, unable see whether or not they were being fed. From then on, he made a point to always tell viewers that he was feeding the fish, so that the girl, and any similarly blind children, wouldn’t get upset (Note: I’m sobbing just typing that out, although as a disclaimer, I am deeply emotionally broken). That kind of inclusiveness was at the heart of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Rogers’ greatest strength was his ability to connect directly with the young audience. Guests would be personally introduced to the viewer, “my television friend,” straight into the lens with a hello, as was Margaret Hamilton for her 1975 appearance.

Hamilton cuts a grandmotherly figure, now aged 72, and wearing a colourful stripy dress and string of pearls, wishing the viewer a cheery “how do you do?” unfitting with the figure who had so many of us screaming ourselves awake. As was Rogers’ style, what’s great is the lack of just flatly saying “she’s not a real witch, so don’t be afraid,” rather, he credits the audience the intelligence to figure it out themselves, first, through a chat about the experience of playing a witch, and then in having Hamilton put on the costume.

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As they talk, Hamilton even allows children, for the first time, to empathise with the Witch, suggesting that, while the things she does are mean and bad, they may be born of her unhappiness and frustration. Bit by bit, they break down the steps between Hamilton and her alter-ego, as she discusses the problems of eating on-set lunch with green make-up on your hands, how she likes to play other parts, and the grandchildren that she loves very much. Even when confessing to her sadness over children being afraid of her, she demystifies this persona as “just pretend; everyone can do it, you can do it,” with Rogers remarking how fun it must be to talk in a witchy voice. “You can,” she says, “they can all do it too.” And that’s all it is; dress-up; nothing to hide in the kitchen from, and then, with that classic Fred Rogers inclusiveness, the pair make note of how girls and boys can both play at being witches.

In putting on the Witch’s outfit, it’s incredibly sweet to watch Rogers help the elderly Hamilton play dress-up, with the viewers seeing “a real lady, who got dressed up to play this part” transforming, piece by piece, from grandmother into the Wicked Witch. Rogers points out the zipper on the back of the dress, “just like the zipper on my sweater,” and she twirls with the cape like she’s glad, for once, to be back inside it. Metamorphosis complete with the famous hat, as Hamilton warmly remarks “there’s your old friend, the Wicked Witch of the West,” any watching child has surely gone from hating that scary Witch to wishing Margaret Hamilton was their grandma.

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It speaks to The Wizard of Oz‘s evergreen appeal, that this was even necessary some 36 years after release. To put it into context, imagine one of the Nazis from Raiders of the Lost Ark going on TV today, having to explain that his head didn’t really melt. There’s a funny parallel between Hamilton’s appearance and that of Sarah Greene in 1992, stopping by the CBBC broom cupboard the Monday after Ghostwatch, to pointedly refer to its special effects and show kids that she hadn’t really been killed by a paedo poltergeist.

Perhaps buoyed by the success of her Mister Rogers spot, and feeling she could once again interact with America’s kids without having them mess themselves, a few months later, Hamilton guest starred on that other great institution of children’s television, Sesame Street, this time reprising her role as the Wicked Witch. This did not go as well, and watching children were so frightened, the episode inspired a flood of complaints, and following its initial airing, it was permanently pulled from repeats, effectively banned. Though most letters were from angry parents, there was at least one from a Wiccan, unhappy with the portrayal of witches with a “negative stereotype.”

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Unseen since 1976, Episode 847 of Sesame Street has subsequently taken on a mythical status, putting it up there with other lost media, like Jerry Lewis’ concentration camp movie, The Day the Clown Cried, with swirling titbits of information and false-memories giving it the air of a Candle Cove-type Creepypasta. Here’s what we know. It starts with the Witch flying over Sesame Street on her broomstick, until she falls off and drops it. With Big Bird using the broom to sweep the street, she spends the episode trying to get it back through various means, from disguising herself as a harmless old lady, to threatening to turn Big Bird into a feather duster and to make it rain inside Mr. Hooper’s store. She gets on okay with Oscar the Grouch, who crushes on her a little, while Big Bird grows to like her too, and is sad when it’s time for her to leave. Various internet discussions suggest other scenes, like the Witch plucking out Big Bird’s tail feathers, electrocuting Maria, and in what appears to be the misremembering of another episode, cursing Oscar with a human nose. But until someone gets a tape, who can really say?

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Backstage at Sesame Street with Caroll ‘Big Bird’ Spinney

The Children’s Television Workshop held a bunch of test screenings the following month, to assess their decision, but results were clouded by the audience, used to their black and white home televisions, being overly fascinated with the Witch’s lurid green face. Even now, over forty years later, like the power of her scares to endless generations of children, the allure of this lost episode remains intact. Early in 2018, it was referenced in an episode of The Goldbergs, as a bootleg VHS with “Sesame Street episode 847” written on the spine. Likewise, the CTW are still unwilling to subject 21st century children to its potential horrors, allowing for paid, private viewings of their back catalogue for research purposes, but denying requests for that specific episode. At least Hamilton’s appearance made it to air. A 1992 episode, centring on Snuffy and his baby sister having to cope with their parents’ divorce, resulted in a horrific series of test screenings, with the distressed audience of 3-year-olds failing to grasp the intended message. Many interpreted the scenes as Snuffy’s parents — and accordingly, their parents — arguing because they didn’t love their children, and consequently, it never saw the light of day.

The Sesame Street incident wasn’t quite the Witch’s last hurrah, with Margaret Hamilton reprising the role onscreen once more, alongside H.R. Pufnstuf‘s Witchiepoo and KISS on Paul Lynde’s 1976 Halloween special. Still, there’s something a little sad about the sweet, kindly Hamilton, all those years after Oz, so successfully reassuring children she wasn’t scary that she ventured onto Sesame Street, only to be found so terrifying, what happened that day could never be seen again.

This piece is from my new Patreon, where subscribers could read this 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 me provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad, or great and forgotten pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of posts live already, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, like my new novella, Jangle. Please give my existing books a look too.

 
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